To celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States this year, Rabbi Carole Balin, Ph.D., is sharing eight chapters of an "alternative Book of Numbers” designed to tell the stories of Jewish women who combined civic engagement with Jewish values in a 40-year struggle “in the wilderness” to pass the 19th Amendment. Learn more in her introductory essay, a commentary on Parashat B'midbar.
Chapter 3: Family Feuds with a Focus on Female Power
Miriam, Aaron, and Moses may have been among the first Jewish siblings to disagree in public, but they were certainly not the last.
Parashat B’haalot’cha recaps, with grandeur, the first leg of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Promised Land before homing in on the infamous family feud between Moses and his two older siblings. According to the text, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses” and then challenged his authority by asking whether their younger brother has a monopoly on prophecy. “Has God spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:1-2)
By focusing on the Bible’s use of the singular feminine form of the verb “spoke” (וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר), more than one Torah commentator concludes that it is Miriam who initiates the rebuke against her brother – so it is she who is punished with a skin disease. Aaron remains unscathed, but for speaking out, Miriam is not heard from again. She disappears from the Biblical narrative until her death is announced, and we learn that she is buried at Kadesh (Num. 20:1).
The warning to women is loud and clear: Don’t you dare speak out, and, for God’s sake, stop fighting with your siblings in public!
The two women decidedly did not keep their opinions to themselves, and, in fact, clashed openly over the question of women’s suffrage. The vote that is now taken for granted by women in the U.S. was once a battleground, pitting friend against friend and – in at least one family – sister against sister, according to Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote (2019).
The American suffrage movement spanned seven decades and three generations, and it included Jewish women on both sides of the issue: the “Suffs” who supported the amendment and the “Antis” who opposed it.
Maud Nathan, a Suff, was a prominent advocate for women’s enfranchisement; Annie Nathan Meyer was an Anti who founded Barnard College and did not believe women should be granted the vote. Can you imagine family seders?!
Maud and Annie were born into a notable New York Jewish family. They were eighth-generation American Jews, descended from Sephardim who settled in the New World in the pre-Colonial era. Among their distinguished ancestry is Gershom Mendes Seixas, spiritual leader of Shearith Israel, who participated in George Washington’s inauguration. Their family held seats on the Stock Exchange, and their distant cousins included the likes of poet Emma Lazarus and Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.
The two sisters did not speak to one another except when clashing publicly.
Maud lived two distinct lives. On the one hand, she married her 35-year old cousin, Frederick Nathan, when she was 17 and embarked on the life of a society wife. The couple lived in the city and summered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she was said to be the life of the party.
When her only child, Annette Florance Nathan, died in 1895, Maud threw herself into a (second) life brimming with social justice work and political activism. This Daughter of the American Revolution worked to expose the poor working conditions of women and children and served as president of the NY Consumers League (1987-1927). She also worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage alongside her husband, who led the Men’s League for Equal Suffrage. Newspaper accounts mentioned his presence by his wife’s side and occasionally referred to him as “Mr. Maud Nathan.”
Annie, for her part, took over the Nathan household once her sister Maud married in 1880. Within five years, she had organized a reading circle modeled after the public intellectual, Margaret Fuller, and enrolled at the newly-established Columbia College Collegiate Course for Women. She married Alfred Meyer, a pulmonologist 13 years her senior, who promised to support both her writing career and the use of Annie Nathan Meyer as her legal name.
She began a campaign for an affiliate women’s college at Columbia in January 1888 with a 2,500-word letter advocating for such in the pages of The Nation. The campaign met with swift success when Barnard College opened in October 1889 with seven full-time students, 29 part-time students, and three-years’ rent guaranteed by the Meyers. “I think Maudie will be pleased that I did so well,” wrote Annie after Barnard’s official opening.
Sisterly approval or not, the family rift over suffrage persisted for years. In the press and from the podium, Maud and Annie aired their differing opinions.
As with Miriam, Aaron and Moses, we have no way to ascertain where principles ended and sibling rivalry began. We do know that Moses interceded on his sister’s behalf with the elegantly succinct prayer “El nah refa na lah” (O God, pray heal her), and she recovered (Num.12:13). In the case of the Nathan sisters, their cousin Benjamin Cardozo wrote Maud that he supported the constitutional amendment – and when it finally passed, Annie came to work with the League of Women Voters.
Families persevere in spite of feuds.
The Book of Numbers is often characterized as Israel’s adolescence, a period of upheaval and insurgency, as well as growth and character development. Miriam is not exempt from her fellow Israelites’ rebellion, as we see in Parashat B’haalot’cha.
Rabbi Balin cites in her d’var Torah that Miriam and Aaron “spoke against Moses” (Numbers 12:1). The text that directly follows offers some additional perspective: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman.’” In the following verse, Moses’ siblings go on to question the exclusive nature of Moses’ connection with God.
Expressing frustration with a younger sibling’s presumed authority is human, even relatable, but Miriam and Aaron’s first comment appears to reveal something much uglier. Miriam and Aaron initially speak against Moses because of his spouse, Zipporah, who goes entirely unnamed in this passage. She is simply referred to as, “isha kushit,” “the Cushite woman.”
The Torah commentary, uncertain of the text’s meaning, offers some suggestions. One reading claims that Moses’ wife is a woman from Cush, which in the Bible is a region located in the south of Egypt, east of Sudan (per The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p 859). Another asserts that because her skin was dark, Miriam and Aaron are suggesting that she is “like” a woman from this region (Ibn Ezra on Numbers 12:1).
Their negative comment may have been based on their perception that Moses married an “outsider,” or it may have been a racist comment motivated by Tzipporah’s phenotype. Either way, it is clear that it is a hostile rebuke of Moses’ spouse made behind her back. Reading these hateful and potentially racist words spew from Miriam’s mouth, we cannot ignore this serious wrongdoing committed by the closest person we have to a female leader in the Torah. (Aaron is certainly complicit. Let’s not let him off the hook, the way God does in the Torah – but that’s for a different d’var Torah…)
I was struck by Rabbi Balin’s parallel of Miriam to Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard College, who passionately opposed women’s suffrage. Not only did Meyer’s opposition to suffrage put her at odds with her sister, Maud, but it places her squarely on the wrong side of history. Considering this through a contemporary lens, as voting rights are under attack around the country in the lead up to the upcoming election, it seems particularly unforgivable to stand in opposition to women participating in this sacred American rite.
In so many other aspects of her work, Meyer was a true visionary. She was fearless in her pursuit of quality education for women and savvy about the political maneuvering required to bring about the founding of Barnard College. She took a strong stance against racism, working closely with the NAACP as liaison to the Jewish community. She was an outspoken antilynching advocate and, Jewish Women’s Archive tells us, she even wrote a play drawing attention to the pervasive bigotry in the Deep South. And yet, when it comes to the fundamental right of women to vote, her vision was clouded.
Our Biblical heroes are often flawed, and we can learn as much from their missteps as we can from their positive example. This is also true of so many of our historic heroes, as no record is uncomplicated and without stains.
I imagine that Miriam’s belittling of her sister-in-law wounded her brother deeply, and it certainly revealed something quite problematic about her character. But Miriam also remained the protective sister who placed Moses in the water and watched over him until his safe rescue from the river. She was the bold musician who confidently led the people in song and dance when they safely crossed into freedom; she was the nourishing force that quenched their thirst in the desert.
Few leaders are without fault, but in our reading of the text, we acknowledge the messy truth of legacy. We can both confront the painful shortcomings of our heroes and make room to celebrate their virtues.