In praise of gossip

I have been writing about Miriam for more than 20 years and have identified with her in different ways, depending on who (and where) I am at the time. It is not strange for me to think of her in connection with current events. As we read the headlines, we see that there is a serious backlash against the gains made by feminism: specifically, the demise of Roe vs. Wade and the anger of so many white males against the #MeToo movement. It is not only in the West, in this weeks’ headlines we read about the Taliban’s attempt to “eliminate women” stop their education and make them wear burqas. These males do not like uppity woman. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, be-ha-alotcha, we read about Miriam and Aaron’s speaking up against Moses, who may be neglecting his wife.

At the beginning of Numbers 12 we read: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married…” The Rabbis wonder why the Hebrew word used for “spoke,” wattedabber, is in the singular form, rather than wayyedabberu, in the plural form, since the text says that Miriam and Aaron spoke. They also ask why Miriam, a woman, precedes Aaron, since “ladies first” was not a principle in ancient times. The chapter is problematic, and many questions can be raised upon studying this text, but I will focus only on two: Why was only Miriam punished and not Aaron? Did Miriam pose a real threat to Moses?

This text led our sages to focus on gossip and attribute it to women. But what is gossip anyway? Gossip is basically communication, a way of transmitting information. When men do it, we call it “networking”. Why did the sages object to it? Perhaps Miriam was punished with leprosy because women in the biblical world were not supposed to be leaders of men, and that women with initiative were reproved when they asserted themselves with the only weapon they had, their power of language: a power which could be used to hurt and was, therefore, called lashon ha-ra, literally, evil tongue. If a person was diagnosed with leprosy, they would have to go into enforced seclusion, thus effectively silencing them for at least a week.

Rabbinic midrashim look at Miriam’s silencing and say Miriam’s voice was lashon ha-ra, slanderous gossip. Though both she and Aaron claimed that God speaks through them as well as through Moses, the popular interpretation is that Miriam was behind it. God, the father figure, reprimands them both, but punishes only Miriam with a skin disease. The fact that Miriam is punished and Aaron is untouched is a discriminatory decision against her, and has the effect of ending Miriam’s “legitimate public aspirations.”

Several commentaries on gossip in midrash rabbah are as follows:

“R. Judah b. Levi’s says:  Anyone who is so arrogant as to speak against one greater than himself causes the plagues to attack him.  And if you do not believe this, look to the pious Miriam as a warning to all slanderers” (Deut. Rabbah 6.9).

“R. Isaac said: It is like the snake that bites everyone who passes by and it is surprising that anyone is willing to associate with it. So, Moses said: ‘Miriam spoke slander against me, that I can understand since women as a rule are talkative…. (Deut. Rabbah 6.11).

“R. Levi said: Women possess the four following characteristics: they are greedy, inquisitive, envious and indolent….The Rabbis add two more characteristics; they are querulous and gossips. Whence do we know that they are gossips?  For it is written, ‘And Miriam spoke’ (Deut. Rabbah 6.11).

In a very difficult midrash on Psalms 52:1 we read that because Miriam allowed her voice to speak against Moses, it canceled the merit of her timbrel-playing. In other words, whatever merit Miriam may have had from the past when she took part in the rescue of Moses, and in singing after the parting of the sea, is now lost because she spoke up against Moses.

To cement this point, let’s read this midrash on Deuteronomy:

REMEMBER (zachor). The Rabbis say: This can be compared to a king who returned [in triumph] from war, and a noble lady sang his praises, and the king decreed that she should be called the Mother of the Senate. Later, she began to cause disorder in the royal provisions. Said the king thereupon: ‘Is that what she does? Let her be sent away to the mines. So, when God waged war at the Red Sea, Miriam chanted a song, and she was named prophetess, as it is said, And Miriam the prophetess… took (Ex. XV, 20).  When, however, she slandered her brother, God commanded that she should be sent to the mines, as it is said, And Miriam was shut up.

In other words, if women act as they should, they will be praised, if not they will be castigated.

How did Miriam feel about her banishment? Did she ask questions? Did she learn from this experience? Did she ask why those who are diseased have to be in quarantine, separated from others similarly afflicted? Did she ask, why wasn’t Aaron similarly afflicted? Did she wonder whether she wasn’t chosen to lead because she was a woman? We will never know the answers to these questions.

However, it is clear that many rabbinic midrashim on Numbers 12 focused on the severity of lashon hara, and the association of gossip with women. Rather than being silenced today women are reclaiming our power of language to shape our contemporary understanding of Torah and the world.  In Numbers 12: 15 it is written: “And Miriam was shut up outside the camp seven days, and the people did not journey onward until Miriam was gathered back in.”  We can envision a strong Miriam whom the people loved—after all, the entire nation of Israelites waited for her to come out of seclusion before moving on.  It is important for us particularly when there is a backlash against all the gains women have made, to realize that we need strong women to lead us, to speak out and endorse the concept of gossip as a source of power and as a means of ending the silencing of women.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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