Challenging the Rabbi’s ‘Version’

By Baruch C. Cohen, Esq.

Several weeks ago, The Jewish Journal published a Torah Portion on Parasha Behaalotecha, authored by Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and titled “Striking the S-Word,” wherein he stated:

“Remember the scene in ‘Blazing Saddles’ when Mel Brooks played an Indian chief who, along with his warriors, encountered a black family making its way across the plains in a covered wagon? ‘Hmm, schvartzes, ‘ he said….”

“Some 3,000 ago, Miriam and Aaron ridiculed their brother, Moses, for marrying a ‘Cushite’ woman. A Cushite woman is another way of saying an Ethiopian or Sudanese woman, which is another way of saying a black woman, which is another way of saying schvartze, which, whether we want to admit it or not, is just another way of saying nigger.

“For this obvious racial slur against blackness, God ironically afflicts Miriam with leprous, scaly skin ‘as white as snow….’

“The Torah makes it clear that Jewish bigotry existed at the highest levels 3,000 years ago. It infuriated God and almost killed Miriam….”

Rabbi Leder’s version of the biblical account of Miriam’s treatment of her sister-in-law, Zipporah, is inaccurate and misguided.

The Torah makes it clear that since Moses had to be ready to hear God’s word at any moment, he had to be ritually pure at all times, which meant that he had to refrain from marital relations with his wife, Zipporah. According to Rashi, this intimate matter remained their private affair, until Miriam learned of it from a chance remark by Zipporah. Not realizing that God had instructed Moses to do so, and feeling that it was an unjustifiable affront to Zipporah, Miriam shared the news with Aaron, who agreed with her. They were critical of Moses, contending that, since the two of them were prophets but were not required to withdraw from normal life, neither was Moses. God, Himself, appeared to them, to chastise them, and to testify that Moses’ prophecy was of a higher order than anyone else and, therefore, had to remain pure at all times. God punished Miriam for instigating this criticism of Moses, even though she did it out of a sincere desire to correct what she was convinced was his error, and she spoke out only privately to Aaron, who shared her devotion to Moses.

According to the Ramban, Miriam’s own mistake became an internal teaching to the Jewish people of the gravity of the sin of slander.

Zipporah was from Midian, not from Ethiopia. According to Rashi, the description of her as a Cushite was a euphemistic reference to her great beauty — just as everyone admitted her beauty was to teach us that there are women who are becoming in their beauty but unbecoming in their deeds, and others who are becoming in their deeds but not in their beauty — but Zipporah was becoming in every respect.

It is a shame that The Jewish Journal chooses rabbis to report on the Torah who seem to know more about movies than about our heritage.

Baruch C. Cohen is an attorney in Beverly Hills.

Read Rabbi Leder’s original column on Parasha Behaalotecha

Illustration by Bethanne Anderson from “But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land.”

Rejecting Rambam and Rashi

By Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

When Mr. Cohen berates The Jewish Journal for choosing rabbis to report on the Torah who “seem to know more about movies than about our heritage,” he implies it is my ignorance, rather than my disagreement with his point of view, that is at issue. Firstly, I should point out — since he did not — that Mr. Cohen’s articulation of his point of view is in fact not his at all, but taken verbatim from the ArtScroll Series Stone Edition Torah Commentary.

It might interest Mr. Cohen to know that I read the Stone Commentary, and several others, before writing each of my articles and was therefore fully aware of the Rambam’s and Rashi’s commentaries on the verses in question. I simply disagree with them. Why? Because they are guilty of what people such as Mr. Cohen often accuse non-Orthodox Jews of — namely, ignoring the P’shat (simple, plain meaning) of the text.

Mr. Cohen writes that my “version of the biblical account of Miriam’s treatment of her sister-in-law Zipporah is inaccurate and misguided.” I gave no “version” of the text, but merely quoted it exactly as written in the Torah. It is Rambam and Rashi, whom Mr. Cohen quotes via the Stone Commentary, who are offering the imagined “version” of the text, inventing conversation, numerology and conjecture, which simply do not exist in the Torah itself. They are certainly free to do so, as are we all. But to claim that their interpretations are the only authentic ones, is to demonstrate tremendous ignorance of our Jewish tradition.

Had Mr. Cohen read and studied beyond the ArtScroll Commentary, he would have discovered that I am not alone in rejecting the Rambam and Rashi’s views on this parasha. The medieval commentator Joseph Kaspi asks, “If it had been the intention of the text (to imply that Cushite actually means beautiful rather than black), why did it not say so in so many words?” He then takes the Rambam and Rashi to task for interpreting the text in the “very reverse of its written meaning.” The biblical scholar Everett Fox, in his brilliant new Torah translation and commentary published by Schocken, notes that if Cushite refers to an Ethiopian woman, then it is “clearly a racial slur.” These two commentators and others opened the door for me to begin a Torah-based discussion about the problem of Jewish bigotry — a discussion long overdue in my opinion.

Is there room for disagreement about the precise meaning of the text in this case? Certainly. Sadly, however, rather than limiting the debate between us to the realm of ideas, Mr. Cohen mean-spiritedly and misguidedly chose to frame his critique as the literate Orthodox Jew vs. the foolish Reform rabbi. I hope that my response has elevated the discussion to a more appropriate and enriching level for us all.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.