Numbers Chapter 8-12:15 - Women and Race
by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Miriam and Aaron complained to Moshe about his wife, calling her Isha Cushit, a woman of Cush (Numbers Chapter 12).
The word Cushi in modern Hebrew usage refers to a person’s skin color as black. Cush is also used geographically to refer to Yemen in Arabia or Abyssinia in Africa. And it is used by the prophet Amos (9:7) to describe Israel as being special in the eyes of God. Cush can also mean beautiful and remarkable. But some ignorant or prejudiced people see the term as derogatory and an example of racial prejudice. Ibn Ezra (the great Spanish commentator c1089-1167) commenting on the Curse of Canaan (Genesis 9:25) used in some Christian Churches to justify racism, says explicitly that this cannot be read as a curse on Africans in general and only fools would say so.
Jewish Law has never made color a factor for prejudice or discrimination. Regardless of race or color a person can become a full Jew or Jewess and be valued and welcomed. There is no place for prejudice in Judaism, even if amongst some Jews, as amongst every other ethnic and social group in the world today, prejudice still survives.
This cannot be an example of prejudice on several counts. First of all, Moshe’s wife Zipporah came from Midian which was Semitic as opposed to African. She was the only wife of Moshe mentioned in the Torah. Although a Midrash suggested that Moshe had once been a prince of Cush in Southern Egypt and married a local woman there. But if her background had been a problem, why did they not complain much earlier, when they first met her?
After voicing their objection to Moshe’s wife, Miriam and Aaron go on to say that “God has spoken to us too.” So that the issue seems to have been one of power, not Zipporah. About who God speaks to, not race or a specific woman. In the case of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11.26) two elders prophesying outside the Tabernacle, Joshua thought they were undermining Moses. He wanted to punish them. Moses replied, “If only everyone would be a prophet and speak in God’s name.” So that when Miriam and Aaron say, “ But God has spoken to us too,” that cannot have been a problem since they were only echoing his words.
After the Ten Commandments were given on Sinai Moses reasoned, that if the children of Israel were told to keep away from their wives for three days to be spiritually prepared to receive God’s message, he who constantly received the word of God, ought to be permanently separated. So, he moved out and lived apart from his wife. Miriam saw this as a dereliction of leadership responsibility because his example might be followed by others. Yet there was no command to be celibate. Yet another is that she overheard Zipporah complain that Moses had neglected her.
In one way you might say this was the first complaint about the treatment of women in the Torah.
So why was Miriam punished for a legitimate and indeed Torah-based argument? One answer is that the very public nature of her protest, together with Aaron was the error, not the argument itself. That she as the initiator was guilty of a clear public challenge, not a private one. She was also guilty of spreading ill will or gossip. And as the instigator, she bore the brunt. Traditionally Miriam is blamed for LaShon Hara. Gossiping and revealing confidence she overheard. It is not always the argument that may be wrong but the way it is presented that causes the trouble.
Protest is legitimate. But it depends on motive, and on how and where you protest. Both Miriam and Aaron were close enough to Moses to raise issues personally. They did not need to make it public.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.