Yael Unterman

The Kushite woman: Marrying otherness

When Miriam and Aaron slandered their brother, what were they saying? And what really set Moses apart from his siblings? (Behaalotcha)
From Jacob Jordaens' painting, Moses and His Ethiopian Wife Zipporah. 1650. (Wikipedia)
From Jacob Jordaens' painting, Moses and His Ethiopian Wife Zipporah. 1650. (Wikipedia)

At the end of Parshat Beha’alotcha, we find a mysterious and puzzling narrative, the first three verses of which do not seem to follow from each other at all:

1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. 2. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? has he not spoken also through us? And the Lord heard it. 3. And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.

I am intrigued by verses 1 and 2 and the disconnect between them. What precisely is the complaint here? Is it that Moses has married a Kushite woman, as verse 1 implies (and if so, why is that a problem?); or is it to do with God speaking through people, as in verse 2 ? These appear to be two entirely different issues.

In attempting to explain the problem with marrying the Kushite woman, plus the connection between the two seemingly unrelated complaints, the Midrash, Rashi, and others suggest a non-literal interpretation: the complaint was that Moses had separated from his wife Tzipporah, and his siblings felt that that this was unnecessary and inappropriate, for they too were prophets and yet had not separated themselves thus from their own spouses.

This approach adequately explains the connection between the two verses, but it deviates from the plain meaning of the first verse. It is hard to read into the complaint that “Moses had married a Kushite woman” that he had in fact “separated from his Midianite wife Tzipporah.” What gives, with these hermeneutical acrobatics?

Yet trying to follow the plain meaning raises further questions, such as: Who was this woman? Where did he meet her? Why did he marry her? Both Rashbam and the Daat Zekenim Tosafist compendium cite a work entitled, The Chronicles of Moses Our Teacher, to the effect that somewhere between age 40 and 80, Moses married an Ethiopian queen and ruled over Ethiopia for 40 years! The Daat Zekenim commentary goes on to connect this idea with the second verse by suggesting that Moses ruled Ethiopia for 40 years and became proud.

They protested: “Moses became so proud, because G-d spoke to him face to face, that he married out of the tribe! We (Miriam and Aaron) also had G-d speak to us, and we did not marry out of the tribe.”

(Daat Zekenim then has to deal with the fact that Tzipporah was similarly a non-Jewish woman, so why does the criticism not extend to this marriage? They did not criticize Moses for having married Tzipporah, as he had done so in circumstances when he was a refugee from Egyptian justice at the time.)

All of this is very odd, and we begin to understand why Rashi prefers to depart from the actual words of the text, rather than bark up this particular tree.

Rather than continue to survey how other commentators resolve this tension (and it is conceivable that a less farfetched pshat is at hand), I’d like to turn now to a meaning that is both confronting and redemptive, with profound modern resonances. For the question in my mind is — how does an Ethiopian Jew feel reading this story (if not focusing on the Moses marrying the Ethiopian queen sub-plot, which is admittedly very romantic)? Also: Does the story encourage racism?

The word Kushite, is used in Amos 9:7, where God declares, “Are you not like Kushites to Me?”

One possible meaning given for this phrase is that of standing out. The idea is that just as people originating in Africa would have visually stood out, being dark skinned, to the Israelites who were of Mediterranean-hued skin, so too the Israelites stand out for God in their specialness and distinctiveness. This is a positive meaning associated with the word “Kushites.”  And yet, undoubtedly, the metaphor only works because they “stand out,” meaning that they are “other” in some way. And this “otherness” is key here.

Unlike Miriam and Aaron, who grew up in amongst the Israelites in Egypt, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace as a non-Jew, disconnected from his own people. He then fled to Midian, lived once again among non-Jews, and married into the family of an idol-worshipping priest, Jethro.

In brief, Moses spent his life among those who were other to him. It was a mode familiar to him, for he had had long practice in doing so. Thus, when G-d chose him to receive prophecy on a level never before or since attained, and to give the Torah through him – making him the ultimate Other, a human being given an experience no other human had shared, impossible even to describe, setting him apart — he already had the inner psychological vessel prepared and available to contain such a role.

Miriam and Aaron, in all their greatness, lacked this vessel within them. They had grown up in the house of their parents, among their people. Their protest related to this very issue: they viewed Moses as breaking the rules in some way (separating from Tzipporah, or marrying out of the tribe), and attributed it to hubris following G-d speaking to or through him. They were mistaken however, as verse 3 clarifies for us: Moses was humble, not arrogant.

No, Moses was not arrogant; but he was outside the rules, in that he was quintessentially other.

Hence, speaking symbolically now, we can suggest that when Moses marries the Kushite woman, he is embracing (“marrying”) his own otherness to the full — perhaps accepting fully, finally, that he will never be like anyone else. The more God spoke through him, the less of a regular human he became. And perhaps Miriam and Aaron – to judge them a little more favorably — sensed this and could not bear to fully and finally accept the separation from him that this would entail, as their beloved younger brother whom Miriam saved from a watery death became not quite human. They did not wish him to “marry” his otherness; they wanted to keep him in this world, with them.

So they complained that they too had had God speak through them, and why could he not remain normal, not marry his “Kushite” otherness?

Miriam was then stricken by God with leprosy and had be confined outside the camp for seven days. She got to have a powerful educational experience of otherness for herself, and perhaps as she sat there, learned to embrace her own separation from the collective.

And what about the Ethiopian Jew reading this? And the racism? Well, I can’t speak for the experience of the Ethiopian Jew, but I imagine it might well be unpleasant to read oneself portrayed as a stereotypical representation of the quintessential other! Unless this is accompanied by a celebration and reinterpretation of what we do with otherness.

I would suggest that today, in the welcome move to respect all humans, people erroneously equate the fight against racism with ignoring and being blind to difference. Undoubtedly a divergence from the prevailing norm in terms of skin color, ability, or any other difference should not become the sum total of who someone is. We must train ourselves to see beyond such things to the image of God in us all, and never to discriminate against someone because of such differences.

Nonetheless — and without at all meaning to be naïve about the ills of racism — I ask: Can’t we celebrate and enjoy the diversity that makes life rich? Can’t we be open, relaxed, and genuine about the differences between us, rather than being afraid to make even the most innocent comment pointing out such differences – for fear of aggressive PC responses and crowdthink?

If the Kushites in Amos, standing out from the crowd, are used in such positive terms as a metaphor for how special the Israelites are to God, then each of us can celebrate whatever specialness or otherness we have within us that makes us a bit different from those around — and embrace it in other people too. Let’s not be as Miriam and Aaron, who, due to their own limitations, distanced their brother for becoming other. Let’s do the opposite and bring the other closer to be our brother.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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