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June 21, 2019

“Moses Married a Cushite Woman!” Recognizing the Many Colors of the Jewish Community

Angela W. Buchdahl

In our Torah narrative, we are now firmly in the wilderness and our portion begins with a dramatic story of sibling tension as Aaron and Miriam speak out against their brother Moses’s wife.  “He married a Cushite woman!” they exclaimed. Then Miriam is struck with leprosy as a punishment.

There are some startling and troubling things about this passage.  To begin—both Aaron AND Miriam speak out against Moses, but only Miriam, his sister, is harshly punished for it.  Aaron gets off leprosy-free. But that is for another sermon.

And it says that Moses married a Cushite woman, but actually, if you have been following our Torah, you would remember that Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest.  Does Moses have 2 wives? Or does he divorce Zipporah and marry this Cushite woman? Or is “Cushite” just a curious way to describe Zipporah? These are among the explanations the rabbis give to try to justify this discrepancy, too. But I’m not focusing on that either.

I want to talk about the simple fact that 
Moses is married to a Cushite woman.
Cush is a region south of Ethiopia, also known as Nubia 
or present day Sudan. 
I want you to take a moment and picture the prophet Moses and his long white beard, with staff in arm, 
and the other arm holding his dark skinned African wife.
Does that image surprise you?  
American Jews have been raised to believe that 
interfaith and interracial marriage is a new, modern phenomenon, 
and generally speaking, in America, 
until several decades ago, this was true.  
But here you have Moses, married to a Cushite woman, 
all the way back in ancient times.

And this intermingling was clearly a reality for most 
of our 2000 years of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  
We Jews have adopted and mixed with the foods, the languages, the music 
and even the people of the countries we inhabited over the centuries. 
Why do you think Jews from Ethiopia 
look so different from Jews from Poland, 
or Jews from India look different than Jews from Iran?  
We were never a single race, or even a single tribe.  
Since we left Egypt, we have been an erev rav, a mixed multitude.

And this has happened in America as well.  
A high intermarriage rate as well as other factors including adoption, 
conversion and immigration of non-Ashkenazi Jews
have contributed to a completely different ethnic and cultural make up 
of the American Jewish community—
perhaps more than you can imagine.

Just last month I was at the UJA Federation for the initial report
of a groundbreaking census on how many Jews of Color 
there are in the US 
and how many there will be in coming years.
(I talked about this a few weeks ago at Saturday services, but there is not a lot of overlap between our Friday and Saturday crowds and I felt this was important to share.)
Despite the Jewish community’s obsession with population studies,
we have never before intentionally counted Jews of Color.
This has been due, in large part
to the working assumption that American Jews are white.

But the newest analysis tells us otherwise.
The study was commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building initiative
and carried out by respected demographers Dr.’s Ari Kelman of Stanford
and Aaron Tapper of University of San Francisco,
Their detailed analysis shows by conservative estimates
that Jews of Color represent at least 12-15% of American Jews,
and growing.

That is a stunning statistic.  
It’s 1 in 7 Jews.
It means that of the approx 7.4 million Jews of America,
about a million are Jews of Color.
That is larger than the Orthodox population in America.
I’m guessing that many of you right now 
might feel pretty skeptical about those numbers.
Ilana Kaufman who presented the results of this study 
shared that she is often confronted by disbelief:
“A man came up to me and said, ‘I don’t believe the numbers.  
I went to Jewish day schools, to Jewish camps, to volunteer in Federation,
and I never saw Jews of color anywhere.’”

Perhaps there is a reason for that.

I thought back to our Torah portion and the fact that Aaron and Miriam are speaking out against this Cushite woman. 
Without explanation.  
Perhaps they were just upset that Moses didn’t marry an Israelite? You say.
But they did not speak out against his marriage to Zipporah, the Midianite.  
The Torah doesn’t tell us the words that Miriam and Aaron said 
against this woman of color in their midst, 
but I can tell you some of the words that I myself, and other Jews of Color 
have heard spoken of us in the Jewish community:
“She’s nice, but she’s not really one of us.” 
“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”  
And at pickup for Hebrew school in our lobby: “Excuse me, are you the nanny?”

Sometimes the words are not that explicitly offensive.  
They are the seemingly innocuous questions we’re asked in synagogue like:
So, what brings you here? 
Now where are you from
Where did you learn all that Hebrew?

Questions like these remind us we’re seen as outsiders. 
It is exhausting to always have to explain ourselves.

These are questions that most white Jews are never asked if you walk into shul.
Because the assumption is that you are Jewish.
Now that you know that 1 in 7 in our community are Jews of Color, 
when you walk into any minyan, or 10 Jews, 
you should be making the assumption 
that there is at least one Jew of color in that group.
And if you don’t see any, 
You should be asking yourself the question—
why are they not here?

If we don’t answer this question, there will be serious ramifications for our community.
The study shows that the next generation of the Jewish community
is rapidly changing. 
65% of the people living in multiracial Jewish households
are under the age of 45.
Jewish demographics are trending along the same lines as the US.
The implications for this is that in a few decades, the Jewish community,
just like the American population, will be a majority people of color.
This is already the case in Israel today,
where 47% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi,
and the majority are Jews of color from Arab, African or Asian lands. 

I imagine that this might make some Jews feel a little uncomfortable.
Are we losing or diluting our traditional culture?
But I want to remind our community,
that this IS our traditional culture, 
from Diaspora times to all the way back when Moses married a Cushite woman.
We were never some single race or ethnicity.
“Looking Jewish” is not what makes us a Jewish people. 
Instead of seeing this as a threat, we should see our mixed multitude
this mosaic of the tribes of Israel, as an opportunity and a blessing. 

Miriam and Aaron had trouble with this. 
They were alarmed by this Cushite woman
and spoke out against her, 
but God came down strong and admonished them for it.
Moses was the forgiving one.  
He prayed for his sister to be healed from her leprosy.
He understood that our community needed more forgiveness, and openness
more empathy and acceptance 
in order to get us to the promised land.  
This is why Moses is considered our greatest prophet, 
and still has so much to teach us today.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.

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