Singing for Our Lives (Parashat Be’Ha’Alotekha)

The author explores the story of Miriam and Aaron challenging Moses’ authority as a prophet and speak “against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married.” For this, God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with tzaaras, a skin condition (often translated as leprosy) that turns her skin as white as snow. He asks what Miriam had against Moses’ wife and why did God punish Miriam for what she said.

June 16, 2019

By Gregg Drinkwater

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Parashat Be’Ha’alotekha
Singing for Our Lives
by Gregg Drinkwater on Friday June 16, 2006
20 Sivan 5766
Numbers 8:1-12:16, Shabbat

I’ve always harbored a suspicion that Moses’ sister, the feminist icon Miriam, was a lesbian. Or that at least if she lived today, she would have fit in swimmingly in certain lesbian circles. Don’t get me wrong, nothing in the Torah suggests an intimate relationship between Miriam and another woman. But what about that moment in parashat Beshalach right after Pharoah’s horsemen are swallowed up by the Red Sea? As the Torah tells us: “Miriam the prophetess…took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.” (Exodus 15:20) I imagine this as a scene right out of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, with Holly Near and Margie Adam, tambourines in hand, joining Miriam in leading a rousing sing-along.

My “gay-vague” image of Miriam is challenged, though, by an incident in this week’s parasha, one of only five references to Miriam in the Torah. In the closing chapter of parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16), Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’ authority as a prophet and speak “against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married.” For this, God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with tzaaras, a skin condition (often translated as leprosy) that turns her skin as white as snow (oddly, Aaron does not receive the same punishment). Tzaaras plays a central role in the Book of Leviticus (in parashat Tazria) in a context that led the sages to understand the condition not as leprosy, but as a divinely imposed punishment for the sin of slander, or lashon hara, an interpretation that seems to fit the context here in this week’s Torah portion.

What did Miriam have against Moses’ wife? And why did God punish Miriam for what she said? Torah commentators have devoted enormous amounts of energy debating this very point. Among the many competing interpretations, some suggest that “the Cushite woman” must have been black, or at least ethnically distinct from the Israelites. Scholars debate the exact meaning of the term “Cushite,” but in rabbinical literature “Cush” is commonly understood to refer to Ethiopia and “Cushite” then refers either to someone from Cush or someone with dark skin. Following this interpretation, Miriam is chastising Moses for intermarriage, or perhaps even miscegenation. God’s punishment is then symbolically fitting: The woman who has attacked Moses for marrying a black woman is turned into the inverse of her object of scorn. For her lack of tolerance of a woman with dark skin, Miriam is afflicted with skin so white she is a horror to all who see her.

Rashi offers a slightly different interpretation. He suggests that Moses’ wife was not actually a Cushite, but that calling her “the Cushite woman” was a sort of put-down (why Miriam would use such a negative phrase is slightly more complicated). Even in Rashi’s version, Miriam is “othering” Moses’ wife and marking her as a woman apart.

This still leaves us with the question: Why does God punish Miriam? The possibility that follows from an understanding of “Cushite” as black is that God chastises Miriam not just for lashon hara, but for failing to accept her brother’s choice of spouse. This is where Miriam’s honorary lesbian-ness seems to fall apart. How could this symbol of women’s empowerment, the very figure who inspires contemporary Jewish women to add a “Miriam’s Cup” to their Passover seders, criticize her brother for marrying someone outside the expected boundaries? Although I can easily imagine Miriam and Holly Near jamming together, I doubt many lesbian feminists would approve of Miriam’s narrow-mindedness (or of Holly Near’s current relationship with a man, but I digress…).

In light of the current debate over same-sex marriage, I wonder what lessons we can draw from Miriam’s action and God’s forceful response. Countless political commentators have noted the disturbing parallels between the current rhetoric around same-sex marriage and the arguments used only 40 years ago by opponents of marriage rights for interracial couples. In both cases, those who would uphold the sanctity of “traditional” marriage actively reject some people’s choices of life partners, dismissing them as misguided and not worthy of respect. Is Miriam guilty of the same intolerance that inspired America’s sad experience with anti-miscegenation laws? If so, could we imagine Miriam opening her mind and her heart to a woman who loves another woman? A man who loves another man? Can we understand God’s punishment of Miriam as a message from Hashem that we should not judge people who love individuals who don’t meet our expectations, or who don’t fit the “traditional” mold?

As we consider the attempts of national politicians to use same-sex marriage as a wedge issue, perhaps we could take inspiration from the lyrics of “Singing for Our Lives,” one of Holly Near’s most famous songs, written in response to the 1978 murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and openly-gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk (who was also Jewish). As the song says, “We are gay and straight together…Singing, singing for our lives.” Cue the tambourine.