Well, much to our dismay, racism was in the news again this week racism, this time from TV personality Roseanne Barr, who, via Twitter, attacked Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman who was a senior adviser to Barack Obama. In her tweet, Barr stated: “if muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” (meaning Valerie Jarrett). This kind of blatant racist attack targeted at a specific political party (in this case, Democrats), a specific religion (Muslims), and a specific race (African Americans) is, sadly, a growing part of American culture under our current government. These words by a national celebrity are, to quote ABC’s entertainment president, Channing Dungey, “abhorrent,” and “repugnant.” In response to Barr’s tweet, ABC swiftly cancelled what had become one of the most successful shows on television in recent years.
The cancellation of “Roseanne” was met with mixed reactions. While many applauded ABC for putting morality above currency, some insisted that Barr’s tweet was nothing more than a “joke” and that we should all be a little less sensitive. Well, as a Jew, I have a few things to say about “jokes,” and “sensitivity.” I’ve seen how so-called jokes about our noses and our capital quickly turn into conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds, controlling the stock market, and drinking the blood of Christian children. I understand that words like those Barr tweeted are to be taken seriously, whether they are meant as a joke or not. Her words, such as comparing African Americans to monkeys, or grouping all Muslims into a terrorist organization, can be, as history has proven over and over again, the first steps in the discrimination, the de-humanization of fellow humans. Steps that inevitably lead to institutionalized prejudice in governments and, as we’ve seen in our own history, genocide. To those who stand by Barr’s tweets as jokes, let me be clear. This is not a “slippery-slope” argument; it is an argument from the bottom of one slope, looking at the top of another, and knowing where comments like this have taken humanity.
What was equally disturbing in Barr’s open racism in a public forum such as Twitter was her inability to take accountability for her actions, a trend we see more and more often in American culture. Apologies are rare from public officials and celebrities and, if they are offered, are too often quickly followed, as they were Barr, by contradictory words and actions. While Barr did apologize, it was not long after that she began to shift accountability, suggesting that it was not she that was racist, but rather medication that made her do it. Her argument was so laughable that even Sanofi, the pharmaceutical company that makes the medication, Ambien, which Barr blamed, stepped into the fray announcing that “while all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
Barr’s lack of accountability and attempts to change the conversation to distract from her error had a striking resemblance to another act of racism that occurred right in our Torah this week, in our parsha b’haalot’cha. In the book of Numbers, chapter 12 begins with yet another moment of insurrection by the Israelites, within the genre of what we call the “complaint scenes.” This time, the complaint comes from Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Aaron, Moses’ brother. The complaint is abrupt, as chapter 12, verse 1 states, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’”
On the surface, one might not know what this means, or how it is racist. But, almost every commentator, old and new, takes a stab at what this is about. First of all, Moses’ wife is named Zipporah, and is said to be of Midianite origin. Zipporah, the daughter of the Midian priest, Jethro, is presented to us as Moses’ wife back in Exodus 21, two full books before this parsha. The Midians were, according to Genesis, descendants of the son of Abraham, thus ethnically similar to Israelites, who simply chose a different religion from Yahwehism. If this is the case, then Miriam and Aaron are referring to a different wife other than Zipporah, but one who is “Cushite,” which can mean “Nubian,” a dark skinned people from the north of Africa. While it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Moses would marry a second wife, we don’t know much about her; only that she is most likely Ethiopian or Sudanese. Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th century commentator, explained the situation through midrash, saying that when young Moses fled from Pharaoh after murdering the Egyptian slave-master, he allegedly “became the king of Cush,” also known as Ethiopia, and that “he married the queen of Cush but did not live with her.” Joseph Kaspi, another 13th century commentator, stated in his works that “after Moses married Zipporah, he took another wife, an Ethiopian woman, for reasons best known to himself and it was not our business to pry into his motives. He must certainly have known what he was about. We are not told when this event happened whether at the moment of its mention during their journey in the wilderness or before. Other events too are not recorded in the Torah.”
Other commentators struggle with Moses marrying a Cushite woman, meaning an idolater, of another tribe, and attempt to solve the problem through the language itself. Some believe that the Torah is referring to Zipporah and that the word Cushite comes from the word “cushit,” another word for “beautiful.” But, considering Miriam’s insurrection, it seems rather silly that she would care that Moses married a beautiful woman. More likely, this is an open complaint about the fact that Moses married a Cushite, dark-skinned, African woman. As the JPS commentary succinctly puts it, “regardless of whether Moses’ wife was Ethiopian or Midianite, the objection to her, it is implied, was ethnic.”
In other words, in our Torah, Moses’ siblings complain openly about Moses’ choice for a wife because of her ethnicity or the color of her skin. However, as the complaint rolls on in our parsha, we soon learn that this racist remark from Miriam is only the pretext for another complaint, one against the uniqueness of Moses’ leadership. In verse 2, Miriam and Aaron complain, “Has Yahweh spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” The parsha goes on to discuss Moses’ humility, God intervening upon his behalf and explaining that Moses is special and unlike any other prophet, one who speaks “mouth to mouth.”
Miriam is subsequently punished for this outburst with the plague of “snow-white scales,” and a banishment from the camp for 7 days. The whole episode is problematic, with too many commentators focusing on the second complaint, or the confusion of one wife or two, and not enough focusing on the fact that Miriam’s first outburst, a racist slur against her brother’s wife, was only the pretext for what she truly was upset about, that Moses was greater than her in status. In 21st century America, this feels all too familiar. Those close to a humble and powerful man attempt to disparage his name through racism, when in reality, what they feel is indeed jealousy and inadequacy. It is almost textbook in regards to racist and discriminatory outbursts by leaders of this century and the last, taking out their own self-esteem issues on those in the spotlight through the venue of ethnic attacks.
Though I would never presume to know Barr’s motivation for her attack against Valerie Jarrett, I can speculate that because of political divergence in this country, Jarrett’s status in the Obama administration, and Barr’s public support for President Trump, might have been an underlying factor in this attack. However, as our Torah and countless other examples throughout history have taught us, these attacks find a way to filter into ethnic, racist, antisemitic, Islamaphobic, or homophobic avenues. I’d like to believe that Miriam’s punishment of leprosy and a “time-out” is in response to the racial slur against Moses’ wife, more so than her complaint that she is not held in as high regard to God as her brother. It is this act that is so dangerous, so inappropriate, so repugnant that deserves punishment. We should remember that surface racist attacks, no matter the true motivation, merit consequences. Just as ABC had every right to cancel Roseanne, so did God have every right to punish Miriam for her words. As Jarrett recently stated on MSNBC in response to Barr’s Tweet, “We have to turn it into a teaching moment.” It is for this reason that I don’t give much attention to the tirades erupting from the Twitterverse invoking the First Amendment, hypocrisy along political lines, or the nature of jokes. The truth is, when we err, when we make inappropriate public comments of lashon hara, evil speech, or gossip, we are deserving of punishment, deserving of the consequences that accompany such actions.
In a world that increasingly blurs the lines between jokes and attacks, politics and religion, truth and lie, we Jews, we who have seen where these comments lead, must hold firm, by drawing a clear line in the sand, as taught by our Torah, that ethnic or racist comments are not to be tolerated and that they carry with them, sometimes dire, consequences. The rest, as our sage Hillel states, “is just commentary.”