Tzaraat and Memory

Miriam's skin condition and the war with Amalek, Amnon, and Moab are all examples of memory.

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Memories of the deeds of the Ammonites and Moabites and the perfidy of Amalek become the foundation for opposite injunctions. those concerning exclusion and vengeance. Because the Ammonites and Moabites did not provide Israel with food in the wilderness, the descendants of these nations should be excluded from God's congregation, even ro the tenth generation (23:3-4). Because Amalek cut down stragglers in the line of malch when Israel left Egypt hungry and tired, the memory of the Amalekites should be entirely obliterated (25:17-19).

The memory of Miriam's skin condition (tzaraat) is still another kind of memory, a highly truncated one. Already in the book of Exodus when Miriam is introduced. it seems clear that she is not being remembered fully. She appears suddenly, leading the women in song at a central moment of the people Israel's history (Exodus 15:20-21) as if she materialized out of the desert sands. Later, her death and burial are recorded in one verse (Numbers 20:1). There is no account of her passing or of the community's response; she vanishes, disappearing, as it were, into the desert sands: In this parashah, her tzaraat is remembered (24:8-9), but not her leadership; her punishment is recalled, but not the challenge to Moses' authority that she mounts with Aaron (Numbers 12:1-2).

If memory is foundational to Jewish community, then perhaps this one-sided memory of a very important woman in the Torah is part of what creates the preconditions for some of the sexual legislation in the parashah. It makes sense that a community that cannot remember its central female figures in all their roundedness will also have difficulty imagining women as agents of their own sexuality-and thus will tzaraatrepeatedly subordinate their interests to those of fathers and husbands. We read that if a woman is found not to be a virgin when she marries, she is stoned to death on her father's doorstep (22:13-21); that a virgin who is raped is then forced to marry her rapist (22:28-29); that a wife who ceases to please her husband can be given a bill of divorce (24:1-4); and that a woman who is widowed before she has children must marry her husband's brother (25:5-10). The Torah in this section offers no store of memories of women's perspectives and experiences that could provide the basis for an alternative ethic.

What do we do, then, when the demands of memory seem to be at odds with each other--when, for example, the partial and distorted memory of Miriam in this parashah collides with the notion of remembering the marginalized, including the marginalized within the Israelite community?

The process of remembering brings with it an obligation to ethical discernment: which memories do we want to affirm and further develop and which do we want to repudiate or transform? We cannot forget the commandments to exclude the Ammonites or blot out the memory of Amalek because their presence in the Torah reminds us of how easy it is to respond to vengeance with more vengeance, or injustice with more injustice.

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Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.