Masekhet Sotah primarily focuses on the parsha in the Torah regarding a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery (Bamidbar 5:11-31). It is fascinating to see how Chazal’s understanding of Sotah differs from the simple sense of the psukim. This issue has been explored by various scholars, in particular Moshe Halbertal and Judith Hauptman, who point out that in Chazal’s understanding the process is one which is more based on objective fact (observed seclusion following a warning) rather than on the husband’s capricious suspicions. An extreme example of this is the opening sugya in the gemara, where the dominant position is that this process of the husband warning his wife against seclusion with another man is not – as the tannaim would have it – a mitzvah or a permission, but is actually a forbidden act.
These two competing themes, or processes, appear in various sugyot in the mesekhet, one based on raglayim li’davar (the objective basis for suspicion), and one based on k’peida d’ba’al (the husband’s subjective jealousy and concerns). The aggadata in Sotah also shapes some of the themes, focusing as it does more on the husband (how is he perceived, what does this say about him?), and on what motivates men to commit adultery. Such aggadata is important for what it does not talk about – there is no diatribe against straying women or women who act – or whom their husbands think are acting – suspiciously. Clearly such situations are highly complex in real life, and responsibility often lies with both parties. However, the focus of the aggadata in the gemara serves as a counterbalance to the verse, “And the man shall be clean of iniquity, and that woman shall bear her sin” (Bamidbar 5:31). (It is also worth noting that a close read of the shows different degrees to which the Torah is endorsing the husband’s suspicions, or just tempering them and bringing under societal control).
The term “zera” (seed) is curiously used repeatedly in the parsha of Sotah and one of the psukim of adultery. Ramban already points out that this can reflect that one (or even “the”) underlying concern regarding adultery is the issue of paternity. When exploring this theme, we can see how it does not play out in halakha in the case of adultery (which takes place even when there is no, or can be no, zera), but may – very slightly – have some echo in the Sotah case. This question is at the heart of the debate between Rav Moshe and the Tzitz Eliezer regarding the permissibility of artificial insemination. In such a case, there is no forbidden sexual act, but the issue of paternity is still there. This raises interesting general questions about the use of a (presumed) Torah value (the concern for zera) when it is not embodied by halakha, as well as specific questions regarding whether zera is an issue here (maybe it becomes hefker, ownerless, or the like), and whether this is truly a Torah value at all.