This is Gottlieb's eighth "proof" in his book, The Inescapable Truth a Sound Approach to Genuine Religion. As with his Sabbatical Year proof discussed here, this can be classified as a "proof by way of a falsifiable miracle". It is also a proof that kiruv organizations like to use (here's an example from Aish). Much of my comments regarding the Shemittah proof apply here as well, so I will restrict my comments to those specific to the Law of Sotah (Numbers 5:11-31).
Gottlieb continues: "We really do not need any elaboration to show the clear Divine authority of this profoundly impressive and awe-inspiring test. For the result of this whole affair was wholly dependent on the supernatural and the purely miraculous. How then would a human religious leader dare to expose the whole system of this religion to the danger of being repudiated because of the failure of thousands of these tests to materialize?"
Well, I'll tell you, good Rabbi!
Firstly, where does Gottlieb come off making the claim that "thousands of these tests were performed"? Does he have any source that can demonstrate definitively that it was ever done, except for a vague statement by "Nehonia the welldigger" who claims to have seen a woman undergo the procedure twice (Sotah 18b; by the way, the claim is chronologically problematic according to the Soncino commentary). I would submit that the conditions under which it could be administered are so restrictive, that it is unlikely that it was rarely - if ever - fulfilled, much less undergone by "thousands"!
Sotah 23a ff. mentions a number of people that could not undergo the procedure including, but not limited to:
- a betrothed woman; a childless widow waiting for yibum/chalitzah; a mamzeress married to an Israelite; a divorcee married to priest
- a woman who had relations with her husband on the way to the trial (the two scholars accompanying them basically say to the man, "withdraw the warning and have fun in the sack")
- a woman who refused to drink and whose husband would not let her drink
- a woman whose husband died before the trial
- Rabbi Meir includes in this list women who were pregnant or nursing
- a woman who could not conceive or was too old to bear children
- a woman whose husband was in prison
No procedure? No miracle!
Secondly, the woman was strongly persuaded to confess her sins and thereby avoid the bitter waters. Certainly the mere threat of dying a painful death would be enough to extract a confession by a true believer in the efficacy of the bitter waters.
A confession? No miracle!
Thirdly, the woman could simply refuse to drink and not admit to adultery! I would also suspect that even many an innocent would do this merely to avoid the procedure. The downside of confessing was that the woman would be divorced and lose her divorce settlement. Actually, this may have been an upside for a woman who was unable to initiate a desired divorce from an abusive or jealous husband!
Refusal to drink? No miracle!
Now let us assume that the bitter waters didn't work, and that a guilty woman underwent the ordeal and survived along with her lover. Does Gottlieb think that the woman would then publicly "falsify the miracle" by bragging about her affair? Remember, after a successful "non-explosive" outcome the woman remained married and could not be divorced by her husband, so there was significant incentive to keep quiet!
No publicity about a failed miracle? No falsification!
But what if a guilty woman survived and later bragged about it, or if it were otherwise known that she did commit adultery? The Gemara in Sotah 20a explains that a woman's merit could suspend her punishment. Indeed, Ben Azzai says there that one has an obligation to teach one's daughter Torah, so that she merit a suspended punishment! (By the way, this is also where R. Eliezer's states that "whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity.") Although this is a big problem for R. Shimon in Sotah 22b who posits that a suspension of punishment both discredits the water for the guilty who drink and defames the innocent who drink, it is certainly an "out" for believers in a miracle that materialize. In addition, the Ramban, in his commentary, state additional opinions that the bitter waters were ineffective if the husband or any of his children ever committed adultery!
Personal merit? Adulterous husband or children? No miracle!
Finally, we cannot discount completely that death would occur after undergoing the Sotah procedure. But does this prove a miracle? Certainly not. There are documented cases of death by fear due to a nocebo reaction, such as is found in cultures that embrace voodoo, the evil eye, and tantrik magic. Indeed, similar "trials by ordeal that require a miracle" are very common among other religions and cultures. Somehow, I don't think that Gottlieb would assert that the drinking of the bitter red water trial by ordeal in Sierre Leone was proof that it was invented by God!
I would like to make one additional comment not specific to the focus of the post. Gottlieb states "the test and oath of purgation was not to humiliate the suspected woman but rather to help her and save her marriage from its threatened destruction due to her husband's unfounded jealously...". I find such a concept patronizing and offensive. It is true that the Sotah procedure could not be carried out willy-nilly, and a "jealous husband" needed legitimate justification to force his wife to undergo such an ordeal. But Gottlieb himself states that the jealousy was unfounded! And humiliating? As described in Sotah 7a ff., the woman was exhibited in front of anyone who care to watch, her clothes were ripped so that her breasts were exposed (R. Yehudah says that this wasn't done if her breasts were attractive!), she was then bound with a rope on her upper body, exhorted to confess her sins, and if no confession was forthcoming was forced to drink bitter waters. And this is deemed by Gottlieb as not humiliating??? This would save a troubled marriage???