In Numbers: 12, the Torah tells of an incident where Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, spoke out against their brother, because he had married a ‘Cushite’ woman.
Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, was famously the daughter of Yitro, a Midianite priest. So what does it mean to call her ‘Cushite’?
The rabbis of the Talmud interpreted this phrase to refer not just to a geographical region, but rather to the colour of her skin.
The term Cushite is not just a reference to Cush – a region in modern-day Sudan – but more specifically an allusion to people’s dark skin colour.
So commentators have suggested that Miriam and Aaron’s objection was a racial one.
There are a number of ways to interpret ‘Cushite’ that avoid the question of race, but to do so is to ignore an important dimension of Torah.
Moses and Tzipporah’s experience is not just one told in the Torah, but rather is shared with many inter-racial couples.
Just like Moses, many of those couples have experienced this kind of judgement from within their families or community. Rather than accepting Miriam and Aaron’s complaints, God is firm in responding in defence of Moses, punishing particularly Miriam for her words.
In this moment, the Torah lays out God’s objection to discrimination in a very clear way. It also lays out a clear imperative to call out those who think it is acceptable to speak hateful and discriminatory words.
Our diverse Jewish community is not a modern phenomenon, but the fact that such experience of discrimination continues to affect so many generations on should trouble us greatly.
- Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College