Friday, June 12, 2009

Was Miriam a heretic?

The Rambam counts as one of his 13 ikkarim the idea that Moshe Rabeinu was supreme among prophets; there can never be a prohpet equal to Moshe in stature.

At the end of Parshas Beha'alosecha the Torah relates that Miriam criticized Moshe Rabeinu's separation from his wife, equating Moshe with other prophets who did not take upon themselves such "chumros". Hashem punished Miriam with leprosy and told her that Moshe is in fact not like everyone else, hence her criticism was unjust.

The Rambam writes (Tumas Tzara'as 16:8) that we see learn from this episode the severity of lashon hara. Even though Miriam had watched over Moshe as an infant, had only the best intentions when speaking, she was nonetheless severely punished.

R' Elchanan Wasserman asks (Koveitz He'oros, Agados al Derech haPeshat 12:7) how this parsha can be the basis for a moral lesson about everyday lashon hara. Miriam's offense was unique in that aside from being damaging speech, it also undermined the cardinal belief in the supremacy of Moshe as a prophet. R' Elchanan goes a step further and notes that it seems in fact inconceivable that Miriam should have not accepted one of the ikkarim, the rules that form the very fabric of Jewish belief. Was Miriam a heretic (chas v'shalom)!?

R' Elchanan answers that Miriam was of course not a heretic because it is only through G-d's response to her offense that we learn that Moshe cannot be equated with all other prophets. Miriam had no way of knowing this basic tenet of belief before it was revealed in response to her offense.

I don't know if this is a question or an observation; take it however you like it. The Sefer haIkkarim (I:3) writes that the belief that no prophet can be greater than Moshe goes hand in hand with the belief in the eternity of Torah (he does so far as to ask III:20 why the Rambam counts them as 2 principles when they really are one in the same). Belief in the supremacy of Moshe excludes the possibility of another prophet arising and undermining Torah law. It follows that if Miriam was unaware of the supremacy of Moshe as a prophet, she was also unaware of the immutable nature of Torah; her "sevara" allowed for the theoretical possibility of new laws transmitted through other prophets. I don't know why, but I find this hard to digest.

Still more difficult, the Sefer haIkkarim (III:20) writes that the supremacy of Moshe as a prophet is established much earlier in the Torah. Moshe asks G-d while praying on Sinai "V'niflinu ani v'amcha" (Shmos 33:16), that both he and the Jewish people should be granted a special unique relationship with G-d. The pasuk is a double-request: a request that the Jewish nation be forever unique, and a request that he, Moshe, forever remain unique among prophets -- "ani v'amcha", I, Moshe, and the people, should each be unique. In defense of R' Elchanan, perhaps G-d's answer to this request was not publicly known until Miriam's offense, but that begs the question of why Moshe would keep to himself until this episode knowledge of a cardinal belief that establishes the eternity of Torah.


  1. Or, one could argue, the basis for the ikar is the pasuk at the end of Devarim ("v'lo kam navi od...") which may not have yet been written at the time that this episode occurred.

    The Wolf

  2. what, do you mean to say that it is possible to hold a position at one point in history, but that later in history, it becomes apikorsus?



  3. Nice one, Josh. But yes, it really can happen. Check out the Rambam's pshat on the word 'apikorus' in perek chelek.

    If your position is mevazeh a temid chochom that you are an apikorus.

    Regardless, this was time when the ikkarim were still being introduced.

  4. I'm glad to see the behind the scenes thinking did not escape your notice : )

  5. Of course this is the well known position of the Chasam Sofer in a teshuvah about Rav Hillel saying there will be no Moshiach.
    He essentially says we can surmise that the amoraim paskened against him and it can then become an ikkar of Yahadus based on the pesak.

  6. Mike S.8:58 AM

    We have sources for the eternity of Torah that are not connected to the supremacy of Moshe's prophecy: "Eleh hamitzvot ..."

    Further, the supremacy of Moshe's prophecy would not be sufficient to establish the immutability of Torah; that is why the latter must be an independent principle. otherwise one could easily imagine a lesser prophet, who happily concedes his lesser status, presenting divine revelations adding mitzvot that could not have been revealed to Moshe Rabbeinu because the context needed to understand them was lacking at that time --say adding some New World species to the list of prohibited birds, or special laws of Tumah and Taharah applicable or a special chag to be observed only in orbit, or a mitzvah to be m'chabed organ donors.

  7. >>>"Eleh hamitzvot ..."

    Great kashe. The Sefer haIkkarim I think is speaking of changing the Torah, not adding mitzvot to the original 613. Sounds like his polemic is aimed at Christianity.

  8. Anonymous4:18 AM

    I don't understand the question. One can think moshe's nevuah is superior to all other prophets' but still not appreciate that moshe has to behave differently wrt marriage for this reason. If it wasn't known to you would you have deduced that moshe had to separate from his wife? So why should miriam have deduced this except after the fact I presume the chet is that she should have realized that moshe had his reasons related to his superior status - this is not the same as knowing and believing that he had a superior status.

  9. It seems Miriam's critique was more than about the seperation, otherwise why the long response by Hashem emphasizing that he is different?

  10. The Gemara in Shabbos 87a, and it's safe to assume you are familiar with this Gemara, Chaim, says that the three things Moshe did "mida'ato" were ratified by Hashem; in the case of the prishus, because Hashem said, after matan torah, emor la'am shuvu lachem, only the ahm, not you. Tosfos asks, if so, what was Miriam's hava amina that Moshe was wrong? He answers that she thought that Hashem's ratification was in the way of "bederech she'adam rotzeh leileich," that Hashem only told Moshe to maintain his prishus pursuant to Moshe's choice of that particular path of Avodas Hashem from among many alternative options. Lehavdil elef havdalos, this sounds similar to Korach's ta'anah, except that Miriam only intended the criticism to Moshe's personal behaviors, while Korach said this was the case with many general mitzvos.