"Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: 'He married a Cushite woman!' ... As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! And Aaron said to Moses, 'O my lord, account not to us the sin that we committed in our folly...'" (Numbers 12:1, 10, 11)
This story rightly bothers us on a variety of levels. First, why were Aaron and Miriam, two people we hold in esteem, so prejudiced against Moses' wife because of her origins? In our own day, when we Americans are still working out the lessons of the civil rights era in the 1960s and when an ever greater portion of the Jewish people are Jews by choice, we especially find this behavior objectionable. A person's skin color or origins should not taint our impression of him or her; it is that simple and that imperative.
Second, given that both of them maligned Tziporah, why was Miriam afflicted and not Aaron? This seems to be a miscarriage of justice on God's part.
Finally, third, what exactly are the boundaries of acceptable speech? Is it not true that Tziporah was a Cushite? So what was their sin in the first place?
Yes, in response to the first question, it is indeed Aaron and Miriam who are involved in this sin, and yes, we nevertheless see them as two of our biblical leaders. Later on, Hillel will even suggest that one should "be from the disciples of Aaron, who loves peace and pursues peace, who loves people and brings them closer to Torah" (M. Avot 1:12). Miriam was, after all, the person who saved Moses from death early in his life, and she leads the women in dancing after the crossing of the Reed Sea. Here, though, as is often the case in the Bible, our sacred Scripture does not portray our leaders as if they were perfect, virtual demi-gods. On the contrary, one of the virtues of our sacred literature is that it describes people in their fullness, with their weaknesses as well as their strengths. That makes them much more real for us - "accessible models," as educators call them - for they demonstrate that one need not be perfect to be exemplary in some ways.
I honestly do not know how to answer the second question. Is there a lurking patriarchy behind the punishment of Miriam and not Aaron, a prejudice that women are more likely to engage in gossip than men are? After all, that too persists in Rabbinic literature, where men are warned not to engage in small talk with any woman, including one's wife, "for that harms himself: he will neglect the study of the Torah and in the end will inherit Gehenna" (M. Avot 1:6). Or did Miriam malign Tziporah more than Aaron did, or did Miriam malign Tziporah and Aaron just listened, even though the text does not say so?
This brings us to the third question: what exactly is the sin that Miram and Aaron committed? Are we not supposed to tell the truth?
Yes, and no. On the one hand, the Jewish tradition describes God's seal as truth (B. Shabbat 55a; B. Yoma 69b; B. Sanhedrin 64a), and the Torah itself demands "Stay far away from a lie" (Exodus 23:7). While saying false, negative things about a person (lies, slander) is obviously problematic, in most situations Jewish law also prohibits negative comments that are true (slurs). Maimonides defines these prohibitions this way:
There is a sin much greater than this [that is, greater than telling tales about someone else, rekhilut], and it is included in this negative prohibition, namely, slurs (literally, "talk about the bad," lashon ha-ra). That is someone who talks negatively about someone else, even if he speaks the truth. ...All these are people who slur others. It is forbidden to live in their neighborhood, and even more to sit with them and listen to them. "The decree against our ancestors in the wilderness [to wander in the wilderness for forty years] was sealed only because of the slur [of the Land of Israel by the ten spies described in Numbers 14]" (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b). (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ethics(De'ot) 7:2 -6)
Spreading false, negative comments about people - that is, slandering them -- clearly attacks their integrity and reputation, and that is, as Maimonides says, akin to murder. But even slurs - that is, true but negative comments about someone (lashon ha-ra) - can be harmful and, in some cases, nothing less than lethal. The prohibition of uttering negative speech applies all the more if everyone knows that what the person is saying is negative, for then there is a clear intention to defame a person, as Aaron and Miriam clearly knew in our case.
We may not defame a person, for we are required to respect each and every person as being created in the image of God:
Ben Azai said, "This is the record of Adam's line. [When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God; male and female He created them]" (Gen. 5:1-2). This is a great principle in the Torah. Rabbi Akiba said: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). This is a great principle of the Torah, for one should not say that since I have been shamed, let my fellow person be shamed with me, since I have been disgraced, let my fellow person be disgraced with me. Rabbi Tanhuma said: If you did so, know whom you are shaming, for "God made him [the human being] in the likeness of God" (Genesis 5:1). (Genesis Rabbah 24:7)
Rabbi Eliezer said: Cherish your fellow human's honor as your own (Mishnah, Avot 2:15 [2:10 in some editions]).
So great is human dignity that it supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah (B. Berakhot 19b).
The respect demanded by the Jewish tradition for each and every human being does not mean that we must accept everything that anyone does. After all, the Torah is filled with laws that categorize certain forms of human behavior as prohibited and others as required, and if Jews fail to abide by those laws, the Torah demands "Reprove your kinsman and bear no guilt because of him" (Lev. 19:17). But that reproof must be given in private so as not to disgrace the person in public and must be done constructively and with respect for the ultimate human dignity inherent in each of us. The Torah applies this even to someone who is to be flogged for violating a negative commandment: "He may be given forty lashes, but not more, lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes" (Deut. 25:3). Certainly, then, in everyday speech we must respect the dignity of each person by avoiding defamatory speech, even if the negative information is true and all the more if it is false.
When, though, may one say something negative about someone else? Indeed, when should one do so?
One may share negative information with someone else - and one should do so - when the hearer will be making practical decisions based on that information. If, for example, A has asked you to write a letter of recommendation for him or her to be sent to B, a potential employer, you have a duty to B to be honest about A's qualifications for the job as you see them. Presumably A would not ask you unless A thinks that you will be generally positive, but even if that is true, you should share with B whichever of A's weaknesses you anticipate will affect A's performance at that job. (You should also be sure to indicate where you have no grounds for assessment about how A would function in specific aspects of the job so that B will not think that by not mentioning those areas you want to indicate that you evaluate A negatively in those respects.) If you really do not think that A is qualified, you may want to tell A that and refuse to write the letter. The same would apply to letters of recommendation for schools. (Note that here the Jewish tradition demands more honesty than what currently happens under American law, where many employers are reticent to share negative information - and sometimes even positive information - about a former employee lest they be sued.) Jewish law requires people who have been asked about a person applying for a job or for acceptance to a school to be honest and forthcoming about both the positive and negative things they know because such information has practical implications for the potential employer or school. To refuse to do that, or to lie in favor of the person, ultimately harms the third party, and that we may not do.
Long before the Rabbis spelled out these rules about speech in detail, Aaron clearly knew that what he and Miriam had shared was a sin. In this story, and in the laws that articulate the norms involved, our tradition is instructing us that we must avoid slurs and slander and share negative information about someone only when the hearer has a practical need to know it. We do not have to like each person, let alone what each person does, but we must use our ability to speak in a way that respects the image of God in each person.
For more on Judaism's ethics of speech, see Elliot N. Dorff, The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World), Chapter Four.