WAS MIRIAM RACIST?
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken [into his household as his wife], he took a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1)
Miriam, the older sister of Aaron and Moses was one of the great heroines of the Torah. In fact, she is known as Miriam HaNeviah, Miriam the Prophetess. According to the Midrash, she convinced her parents to come back together, in spite of Pharaoh’s decree to kill the baby boys, leading to the birth of Moses. According to the Torah, she followed baby Moses down the river and convinced Pharaoh’s daughter to use his mother as a wet nurse. According to the Torah, she took the women with tambourines to sing the Song of the Sea, after the parting of the sea. According to the Midrash, she provided water to the people through a magical well during their years of wandering in the wilderness. How can one say something negative about this woman?
Nonetheless, she had a moment of weakness. At the end of this week’s portion, she makes comments to her b+rother Aaron about the black woman Moses had taken as a wife. For her words, she is punished for seven days. Her skin breaks out in the condition which was later called leprosy, and she was turned out of the camp for seven days. It is almost as if the Torah is saying, if you want to insult someone for being black, God will turn your skin totally white.
This is not the only time that racism raises its head in the Bible. In Song of Songs, the beautiful Shunamite woman in love with her shepherd boy speaks about her blackness. “Don’t stare at me because I am black, Because the sun has gazed upon me.” (Song of Songs 1:6). Racism seems to be built into human nature. To quote the song from the hit Broadway show Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”
Historically people have used the Bible to justify racism. After the flood story in Genesis, Noah curses his youngest son Ham, saying he will be a servant to his brothers. Ham was the progenitor of Cush, Hebrew for Ethiopian, the father of people of color. Shakespeare famously said in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” Supporters of slavery used the curse of Ham to justify slavery. Even in our day, people use the story to justify the oppression of people of color.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt of a color-blind society, where people were judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” One would hope that over fifty years after King’s assassination, racism would disappear. But reading the headlines shows that it is in the news more than ever. Often this racism takes the form of identity politics, where we are asked to treat different racial groups differently in order to achieve some kind of equity. As a rabbi who has converted and married people of all races and ethnicities, as a college professor who has taught students of all races and ethnicities. I would love to see a color-blind society. But that seems far away.
Here is part of a sermon on racism I gave on Yom Kippur a few years ago. “Why are there so many races? I believe it is part of the miracle of God, growing out of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Human life began in Africa. Because of the strong sunlight and threat of ultraviolet radiation, the humans who flourished in Africa had more melanin in their skin. Melanin causes dark skin. Since humans began there, dark skin should be the default position. But humans migrated throughout the world. As they migrated north, particularly to places like Scandinavia in Northern Europe, dark skin was a disadvantage. People need Vitamin D to survive, which comes from sunlight. Those with less melanin and lighter skin produced more Vitamin D and had a better chance of survival. So lighter skin evolved. Race is part of the miracle of evolution. A multitude of races ought to be celebrated.”
In truth, I think we all have moments of weakness like Miriam, where we judge someone based on such superficial qualities as race. It is something we each need to fight within ourselves. The Torah foresees a color-blind society, where every human being is a child of the one God.