Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Metzora‘at Kashaleg

Bemidbar/Numbers 12:
And then Miryam and Aharon spoke against Moshe, because of the Ethiopian woman he had married — for he had married an Ethiopian woman... and God's anger burned against them, and went away. When the cloud left from above the Tent [of Meeting], behold — Miryam was [white with] tzara‘at like snow...

Why was Miryam punished with tzara‘at (so-called "leprosy"), a skin condition that makes you taboo by turning your skin white?

Because she disrespected her sister-in-law for being black.


Blogger Drew_Kaplan said...

good call!

6/14/2006 12:12 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


6/14/2006 7:24 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Pretty cool insight.

Poetic justice.

Hashem's sense of irony.

6/14/2006 9:56 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I like it.

But . . .

As with the incident of the egel hazahav (golden calf), Aharon goes unpunished. (Were the rabbis sufficiently perturbed by either incident to come up with an interesting midrash or two of which Ms. Am Haaretz here is, as usual, unaware?)

Okay, since Miriam's name is mentioned first, one could make the case that she was the ringleader. On the other hand, since she's older than Aharon and Moshe, to the best of my recollection, it would make sense for her to show some leadership.

Except, of course, for the glaring "problem" that she's a she. And everybody knows what happens to an "uppity" woman who speaks her mind, even when it's to protest her own brother's intermarriage. Her other brother gets off easy, but she pays the price. As usual.

6/15/2006 2:18 AM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Er, sorry about the rant. I like your interpretation. I just don't like the original. Ah, well, gotta live with it anyway. We non-Ortho types may fiddle around with the siddur/prayerbook, but not even Reformim change the Torah text.

6/15/2006 2:35 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

not even Reformim change the Torah text

But they do, don't they? Both in terms of textual criticism and of hermeneutics. (Which is why Reformers are more fundamentalist.)

6/15/2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Lipman, they change the *interpretation.* No one's going into a sefer Torah (scroll) with a sofer's/scribe's razor blade (that's how corrections, when permissible, are made, I think) and a quill pen, scraping off the offending letters and writing in new ones. The words *in the scroll* remain the same, no matter who's reading them and how they're being read.

6/15/2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

The Back:

thanks for naming it "irony", now we can add it to the list of "God is a Trickster Deity" proofs!


or maaaayyyybeeeee, to flip your feminist hermeneutic on its head, maybe Miryam was specificly punished because as a female, marginalized by society (even though she was a prophet!), she should have empathized with the Other, instead of ganging up against her! ;-)


could you explain the 'fundamentalist' aspect a bit more? i'm not following.

6/15/2006 7:59 AM  
Anonymous big brother said...

I'm not following your new picture

6/15/2006 8:43 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


picky, picky.
how about this one? ;-)

6/15/2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger Knitter of shiny things said...

I like the interpretation where Miriam was actually dissing Moses for leaving Tzipporah... Though then I would say she had a valid complaint, and then it would make her punishment more unfair...So I guess your interpretation would be less problematic in that regard.

And Shira- true, Reform doesn't change the Hebrew text, but they do change the translations of many things, and for the average Reform Jew whose Hebrew is not so good, that would be the equivalent of changing the text, since how are they to know what the Hebrew means?

Then again, artscroll does the same thing. Inkeeper. Hah!

6/15/2006 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

Well yes, innkeeper. The idea is that "zonah" comes from the same root as "zan" and "mazon." As we say in the third paragraph of the Shema, "that [or lest, or whatever] you provide sustenance after them."

6/15/2006 2:31 PM  
Blogger Shifra said...

Hey - nice hat!
Good vort too!

6/15/2006 6:16 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

The words *in the scroll* remain the same

Physically yes, but Reformers don't have the same problems as traditional Jews with textual criticism, and saying this or that word, phrase or paragraph is a copier's mistake, or it is from a different source and doesn't belong here. The reason there are no reform seifetôres is probably simply that for Reform, the rôle and status of a seifertôre is different.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if some reformers with both enough enthusiasm and money would commission a traditionally looking parchment scroll that features a politically correct text which is also emendated according to the Documentary Hypothesis.

6/16/2006 6:46 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

explain the 'fundamentalist' aspect

Reform doesn't accept, or accepts much less, the meaning of the Tôre as traditionally understood by Jewish scholars.

Their theoretical approach seems to be: Let's leave alone how the Tannaites and even still later rabbanites distorted the fairytales and ethical suggestions, and look at the text and what is literally says.

This is fundamentalism. 'Fundamentalism' isn't just another word for 'extremism' or 'deviation from the majority culture'.

(Their practical approach is rather to look at an English translation, for a lack of skills.)

6/16/2006 7:13 AM  
Anonymous big brother said...

hm. at least you look more animated.
reference: the gabbai's comment about summer hats. ha!

6/16/2006 9:23 AM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

One of the things I do admire about the Reform prayerbook is that they have changed the Hebrew as well as the English. For example, they have changed the second blessing of the amidah to 'mechaiyeh hakol' and translated that as 'who gives life to all'. By contrast, the Conservative Sim Shalom prayerbook leaves the Hebrew as michayeh hamaytim, but translates it (IIRC) as 'master of life and death'.

6/16/2006 11:21 AM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>But they do, don't they? Both in terms of textual criticism and of hermeneutics. (Which is why Reformers are more fundamentalist.)

Certainly not. It is true that non-Orthodox and non-Jewish translations sometimes use textual emendations (nu, and Orthodox translations will use meforshim to render translations which doesn't represent the text accurately). But they do not change the Hebrew text. Open up a Biblica Hebraica, any edition--the text which all the notes and variations refer to is our text. The text is respected, even when there are good reasons for assuming another reading.

And to my knowledge there has never been a sepher Torah written that deliberately gives a different reading from our text.

6/16/2006 12:02 PM  
Blogger Knitter of shiny things said...

Larry- depends on the prayerbook. That is true for the new ones [gates of grey, mishkan tefila], but I grew up on gates of blue, which had traditionalish text, though definitely had things cut out [like anything mentioning temple worship, etc.] But that's not what I'm talking about. More like when gates of blue has a weird responsive reading instead of a translation. I always found it jarring.

6/16/2006 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow: from wonderful insight to denominational jousting. I learn something new every time I visit :-)
Seriously, though. Wonderful insight. Thanks.

6/16/2006 2:16 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

ezer k'negdo,

I concede the thread went off topic, and that this is unfair in repect to the insight, but I can't detect denominational jousting.

6/17/2006 4:41 PM  
Blogger blueenclave said...

Boo! Hiss!

6/17/2006 11:54 PM  
Blogger blueenclave said...

I thought this post was not a serious vort.

6/17/2006 11:56 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...




thanks for the explanation; so you're saying that academic bible study (or peshat in general?) is 'fundamentalistic', since it only cares about the text itself?


it's very serious. it's also very simple.

6/18/2006 12:37 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Pshat isn't understood the same way by all either.

Academic bible study can be done very differently: as literature, as a source for historiography or religious though etc. More importantly, it depends on the approach - tex-immanent or not.

Serious academic bible scholars won't accept the traditional rabbinical ("Orthodox") understanding as normative, but they will certainly take it into account. Reform might not.

6/18/2006 7:09 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...


Make that 'text-immanent'.

6/18/2006 7:10 AM  
Blogger Milhouse said...

Excuse me? The only wife we know Moshe had was Tziporah, and we know she wasn't black. For "Cushit" to be taken literally, we would have to postulate a second wife for Moshe, who is never mentioned anywhere else in the Torah; it's not impossible, but Ockham's razor says that we shouldn't go down that route if we have another way to explain the data. And we do – as Rashi says, Cushit is not literal.

Second, where on earth do you get the idea that Miriam disrespected her sister-in-law, for any reason, let alone for her skin colour? None of that is in the text. Even if we do assume a second sister-in-law who was literally a Cushit, Miriam's criticism was of Moshe, not of her. And the pasuk doesn't tell us what it was that she criticised, except that it had something to do with this wife. Without Chazal to guide us, this criticism could have been anything at all: perhaps Moshe spoiled her, or perhaps he was mean to her; perhaps she was much younger than him, or any of a million other things we could guess at.

What we do know is that whatever it was, had he not been Moshe the criticism would have been justified. Note that Hashem does not rebuke Miriam and Aharon for speaking lashon hara, but for daring to question Moshe. He tells them that no matter what Moshe's actions looked like to them, they had a duty to assume that if Moshe did it then it must be right. Further, they ought to have been afraid to say anything bad about Moshe, to suggest that he had done the slightest thing wrong. "For their bite is that of a fox..."

6/19/2006 6:21 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Poor Steg had a brilliant interpretation, and now, everyone's ganging up on him. How did we end up talking about non-Orthodox interpretations of the Torah in general?

Er, um, actually, I think it was me and my big mouth that started all the trouble. Sorry, Steg. I seem to have hijacked your post.

I actually *like* your first interpretation, that Miriam was punished with a disease that rendered her abnormally white because she dissed her sister-in-law for being black. And I like your *second* interpretation, too, that "maybe Miryam was specificly punished because as a female, marginalized by society (even though she was a prophet!), she should have empathized with the Other, instead of ganging up against her! ;-)"

Unfortunately, neither interpretation addresses my question: Do the rabbis, in the Talmud and/or their various midrashim and/or commentaries, ever explain why it is that Aharon doesn't seem to be held accountable for his actions, either in this instance or at the creation of the Golden Calf? Inquiring (and, in my case, not very learned) minds want to know. Any takers for this question?

6/20/2006 12:43 AM  
Blogger BZ said...

Lipman writes:
...there are no reform seifetôres...

Not true.

6/20/2006 1:52 PM  
Blogger Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

My own interpretation of why it's Miriam, and not Aharon, who becomes ill is that something happening to her will bring Moshe and Aharon back together. Which it does. Aharon immediately turns humbly to Moshe for help--while he might insist on his own dignity as a prophet in his own right about some things, when it comes to his sister's life, he won't risk it. Moshe, rather than being tempted to hold a grudge, immediately responds to his brother's request--and instead of trying any magic tricks on his own, turns immediately to God.

The boys get to keep their pride, and are united in their concern for their sister (who is the one person besides Yocheved they may have 'in common' from their upbringings). It is a very effective ploy on God's part, although it does, of course, require a woman to take the fall.

How do we know the Midianites weren't black?

6/20/2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

BZ writes…

Lipman writes:
...there are no reform seifetôres...

Not true.

Interesting! It seems, though, that he uses the same text, doesn't he, not one that is consistent with textual criticism (Documentary Hypothesis and other issues) as many, if not the majority, of Reform rabbis hold. It's in the same direction as the revival of covering one's head for services, kashres, tefillen etc.

6/21/2006 4:55 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

I think they were the same woman. I just think "Cushite" was a general term for black people, much as it is today. That doesn't entirely preclude Rashi's interpretation either.

6/21/2006 6:17 AM  
Blogger Milhouse said...

Midian was a son of Avraham. Cush was a son of Ham. Therefore, Tziporah was not literally a Cushit. What colour were the Midianim? Who knows, or cares? But if this is not some new wife, then "Isha Cushit" cannot be taken literally, and hence Rashi's interpretation. And once that's established, we have no grounds for speculation about colour or race.

6/22/2006 2:48 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

if this is not some new wife, then "Isha Cushit" cannot be taken literally, and hence Rashi's interpretation. And once that's established, we have no grounds for speculation about colour or race.

That doesn't follow. It makes sense that Cushi, while originally meaning "Ethiopian," became generalized as a term for black people, much like today how Mongolian became a general term for Asian people. This is a common process in language.

6/22/2006 7:58 AM  

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