The ultra orthodox establishment in Israel is reportedly losing sleep over women’s demands for equality. While the conflict has serious socio-political implications for national survival, I find myself haunted by one detail of the ultra-orthodox men’s recent and reprehensible behavior in Beit Shemesh. I am focused on the act of spitting as a particularly loaded expression of men’s disdain for non-compliant women.
We need look no further than the Book of Numbers, Chapter 12 to find a precedent for this unsavory form of daughter censure. When Miriam objects to her brother Moses’ exclusive leadership, God’s anger flares up against her. To show the uppity lady who’s who, God smites her with skin-corroding leprosy. Moses asks that his sister Miriam be healed of her disease and God responds, “ve’avee’ha yarok, yarak”…. “ if her father had spit,” continuing with “would she not be shamed for seven days?” Miriam speaks out in protest, her heavenly father metaphorically spits in her face. Despite Moses’ plea, (not to mention her brother Aaron’s consequence-free collusion) now Miriam has the corroded skin of a leper. Miriam the upstart must be excluded from the people of Israel for seven days before she can show her insubordinate face again.
When I first came across this almost casual reference to an apparently familiar custom of fathers spitting in their daughters’ faces, it sounded all my alarm buttons. With no discernable discomfort, our commentators agree that in the ancient Near East spitting is one of the most humiliating of disgraces, long considered a suitable response to reprehensible behavior. But there is no outrage about God’s invoking this paternal practice to justify his own treatment of Miriam. In this context, I must presume that spitting in a daughter’s face is relatively routine, something a man might well have seen his own father do to… say… his sister when they were both children. Very possibly, his mother endured the same at the whimsy of her father when she was a girl. When a man, or a father or a God with religious authority spits, cherchez la femme who provoked it.
And wherein lies the injustice? After all, a disenfranchised Miriam speaks out of turn. A provocative Miriam questions Moses’ choice. Moses is a great and humble man. Moses is chosen by God for exclusive leadership. Though it may be but metaphor, God spits in Miriam’s face much as an irate father would do and Miriam is clawing at her flaking skin.
Ve’avee’ha yarok, yarak…. The action is hypothetical (“if her father had spit”) but the text repeats the verb for spit twice –yarok, yarakor spit, he did spit – assuring us this was to be no accidental emission. If this kind of projectile is not launched impetuously, then it must be calmly premeditated: Let the saliva rise like sap, then ingather, savor, swoosh, ready, take aim and fire. What follows is a daughter’s shame; the ejaculating papa is aiming to demean.
2. The opening chapter of Exodus, read on Shabbat not long ago, brings us to a very different place. Pharoah’s plan to wipe out the Jewish people is thwarted by two courageous midwives who refuse to dispose of Jewish newborn boys according to decree. Atypically, these two heroines are identified by name – Shifrah and Puah. And it turns out, one Midrash tells us, that Puah is none other than a defiant young Miriam in disguise.
Puah means the confrontational face and we are reminded that Miriam is a young girl who has been defying male decrees ever since childhood. Earlier on she confronted her own father, a tribal leader named Amram, who decided that under the genocidal circumstances, no man should cohabitate with his wife and thus “beget children for nothing.” The girl-child Miriam lets her father know that his decree is even more dire than Pharoah’s, thereby convincing Amram to relent and remarry his wife. Amram does so, inspiring all the other Hebrew men to do the same.
Miriam’s activism assures that the Hebrew nation does not die out. Even so, Miriam’s repudiation of her dad is not fully welcome. The code-name Puah singles her out as an agitator, a non-compliant woman to be identified by her confrontational face. The uplifted face that challenges male leadership in Numbers is the very same face that her criticized father might have… could have … and possibly should have spat upon when she questioned his leadership in the past. Despite her assurance of national survival, hers is a face that risks disdain.
So then, the fringe behavior in Beit Shemesh is not without a cultural context, arguably, it can even claim a Biblical precedent. But Miriam’s story confirms that women’s confrontation of the ruling establishment is just as vital a part of our tradition. Moshe Halbertal is quoted in the New York Times as saying that in Israel today, feminism is the issue that most threatens the male religious authority, posing “an immense ideological and moral challenge that touches at the core of life.”
So then, spit, they will spit and Miriam-Puah will increasingly lift up her face in defiance, along with women both in Israel and around the world. The hope is that once we wipe off the adversary’s spittle, we can move beyond polarization to an inclusive strategy for shared survival.