We each face moments of being an insider or an outsider, though what's at stake in those moments differs depending on our gender and our race. A story from this week's Torah portion highlights these dynamics of power and privilege, which remind us that the issues of today have roots that are long and deep.
The Stakes of Inclusion: Miriam and the Kushite Woman
I’m a feminist. That’s why I changed my name when I got married. Jessica and I combined her last name (Kirzner) with mine (Crane) to create Kirzane. (Happy anniversary, by the way, Jessica!)
It’s also why, during my third year of rabbinical school, I chose to attend a presentation by the Women’s Rabbinic Network, whose mission is to support the professional and personal growth of women rabbis in the Reform movement.
That Tuesday morning, I made sure to arrive early—after all, I was a graduate student, and there was a free lunch. Shortly, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, the executive director of the WRN, began the program; and a few minutes in, she called special attention to my presence. She said it was good that a male colleague had come to show support – and that’s when I realized I was the only man in the room.
Instantly, I felt uncomfortable. Rabbi Ellenson had said it was okay for me to be there, but I got the impression that maybe it wasn’t. Indeed, I later learned that the conversation had been intended only for women; and in future years, the program would explicitly invite women only.
Which I completely support. I just wish I had known in advance. Where at first, I thought I was an insider, I was, in fact, an inadvertent outsider.
This kind of shift happens all the time. You think you’re on the inside and then realize that you’re not. Sometimes, this causes discomfort and forces us see ourselves in a different light. At other times, though, in other situations, the shift from insider to outsider can have serious, even dangerous consequences. As a white man, my experience of being an outsider has always only produced discomfort; I have never been unsafe on account of being an outsider. For people of color, the situation is quite different.
One illustrative example occurs in the recent documentary, America to Me, which explores issues of privilege and race at Oak Park River Forest High School. In one segment, OPRF student Grant Lee—whose mother is white and whose father is black—tells his class, “Overall in life, I’ve not been treated less favorably [on account of race].” However, Grant then recounts a visit to his grandmother’s house in what he describes as a “mainly all-white suburb.” He says, “It was my dad’s birthday, and when he went to go take his morning walk, apparently, some people called the cops on him, saying that he had a gun.”
Grant’s dad, Miles Lee, continues the story: "Five or six police cars converged on my position, and the officers jumped out of their vehicles with their guns … already drawn. They yelled at me, 'Where are the [expletive] guns?'"
Calmly, Lee explained, “My name is Miles Lee. I don’t have any guns. I’m visiting with my family, my mother-in-law, and she lives on Colepart.” Unconvinced, the officers “cocked their pistols” and “forced [Lee] to the ground.” Lee knew that a wrong move might trigger a reaction from the officers, and he genuinely feared that this birthday would be his last.
The officers did their duty, checking his ID, and as they helped him up, they explained that someone had reported a black person—presumably Lee himself—“running down the street with guns blazing.” Clearly, this report, like many others of its kind, was dangerously exaggerated – and Lee, simply out for a stroll in what he thought was his own family’s neighborhood, faced the terrifying reminder that he was a permanent outsider because of the color of his skin.
In America today, issues of gender and race dominate our national conversation about who’s in and who’s out. But these challenges aren’t new, as a scene from this week’s Torah portion demonstrates.
The story begins, “Miriam—and Aaron also—spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman he had married, for he had married a Kushite woman” (Num. 12:1). In the biblical world, Kush was a region in eastern Africa, roughly in today’s Ethiopia and Sudan. Kushites were known for their very black skin, so Moses’ wife would have stood out even among people from Egypt and the Middle East.
We don’t know precisely what Miriam and Aaron said about their sister-in-law, but there are two basic options: Either they rejected the Kushite woman, or they embraced her. The latter reading, in which Moses’ wife is accepted as an insider, depends upon assuming that this woman is Zipporah, the Midianite princess that Moses met by the well. They married in Exodus 2 and traveled to Egypt in Exodus 4, but by Exodus 18, it seems as though they’re separated with Zipporah living with her father instead of with Moses. In this week’s parashah, Moses’ father-in-law departs from the Hebrews’ company; so Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, teaches that Moses once again wanted to send Zipporah away. Miriam—and Aaron also—challenged Moses, advocating on Zipporah’s behalf that she should remain with her chosen family and not be sent back to her country of birth.
Alternatively, and perhaps more smoothly with the original text, we may understand Miriam and Aaron to be complaining about their foreign sister-in-law, not defending her. In this reading, Miriam and Aaron, for reasons that aren’t explained, want to push the Kushite woman out.
Either way, Miriam, as the instigator of the action, is punished by God, who stands up for Moses and afflicts his sister with leprosy. Aaron begs for mercy, and Moses, in turn, prays for Miriam to be healed. A compromise of sorts is reached as Miriam is exiled from the camp for seven days, after which she is restored.
So, to summarize: One woman speaks up, one remains silent, and the fate of the both of them hangs in the balance. On the one hand, Miriam may be defending her sister-in-law against Moses, but God steps in to support him. Or Miriam may be attacking her, meaning that God is on the Kushite woman’s side. In either case, one party wants the Kushite woman in, and one party wants her out. And also in either case, for right or wrong, Miriam faces a temporary exile, a moderate sentence reduced from her original punishment of permanent leprosy. The story is troubling from beginning to end, and like many of our greatest texts, we are left without a clear and simple interpretation, challenged to fill in the gaps for ourselves.
What is clear is that each of these women, Moses’ wife and his sister, faces marginality and isolation, in no small part because of their gender and national origin. For each of them, being on the inside or outside is a matter of life and death. Theirs is a story much closer to Miles Lee’s than to my own.
Each of us may, to one degree or another, can identify with one of the characters of this story. For some, it will be easiest to see ourselves in Miriam – speaking up, for better or for worse, and facing the consequences of making our opinion heard. Or perhaps we identify with the Kushite wife, whose silence and dispossession permeate the narrative. It’s likely that we’ve had experience in Aaron’s shoes as well, party to bad behavior but for some reason unpunished; and we may see ourselves in Moses, praying for healing on behalf of a loved one whose behavior has brought her low.
Just like each of us, these characters each have something different on the line. For Moses and Aaron, it’s their power and position; for Miriam and the Kushite woman, it’s safety and inclusion. An honest approach to this story demands that we recognize the difference between the situations of the men and the women and of the Hebrews and the foreigner. And as we affirm this distinction, we underscore as well the differences between the stakes of our own inclusion and those of friends and neighbors whose identity forces them to face such situations very differently.
Each of us has some degree of privilege; and many of us, myself included, are heirs to a considerable amount of advantage. To honor the traditions passed to us from the Torah—to learn and respect the authentic truths reaching out to us from the text—we must acknowledge how we draw lines around who’s in and who’s out within our community and in society at large.
Principles of justice should guide our choices in these matters, drawing us closer to building communities where diverse people can come together in common cause. Therefore, let us celebrate the communities that welcome us even as we commit to expanding them to include those who stand at the margins. Let us also realize our own power to seek justice through the tools of communal inclusion. And ultimately, despite the messiness of families and communities—including those in the Torah—may we strive to build communities of dynamic harmony and continual reinvention that hold a sacred place for every human being.
 I wrote about this experience in “Finding a Seat at the Right Table: Gender at HUC-JIR,” published in The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press 2016), p. 419-423.
 America to Me, Episode 6: Listen to the Poem! at 46:19ff.
 Cf. Jeremiah 13:23 and Rashi ad loc.
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