Author Samuel J. Levine appeared as a guest speaker at the the Disability and Faith Forum.
The story of Joseph (the title of my book uses the Hebrew “Yosef”) presents a fascinating and memorable narrative, which has been both the focus of careful study for countless generations of readers and scholars of the Bible, as well the subject of a wide range of art and literature, from the visual arts to novels to Broadway. Much of this interest, among both religious adherents and broader culture, likely stems in large part from the challenging questions that arise in the course of the story.
Joseph’s behaviors, interpersonal relationships, and personal journey and development are often difficult to understand, and at times seem to defy explanation, as he faces concomitant and interconnected challenges and opportunities, and experiences, often at once, both surprising success and unexpected failure. Over the years, I have read the biblical story of Joseph numerous times, and I have studied the text through the prism of the works of classical Jewish commentators, spanning thousands of years and geographical locations across the world.
A number of years ago, as I read the opening verses of the story, it occurred to me that a number of Joseph’s characteristics and behaviors are consistent with those of an individual on the autism spectrum. As I continued to reread the story through the lens of contemporary understandings of autism, I observed that, throughout the story, many of Joseph’s behaviors and experiences closely resemble those common among individuals with forms of high-functioning autism – previously known as Asperger’s syndrome. Upon further examination, I realized that understanding Joseph as an individual on the autism spectrum helps to illuminate not only the text of the Torah but also many comments and teachings about Joseph found in the classical Jewish sources I had previously studied.
On this basis, through a close reading of both the biblical text and classical Jewish commentators, my book attempts to achieve a coherent and cohesive understanding of the story that offers a plausible account of Joseph’s behaviors toward others and those of others toward him, while at the same time accounting for both his successes and his failures. Although, of course, individuals with autism spectrum disorders vary widely in their symptoms and their behaviors, common characteristics include many of the behaviors Joseph exhibits and the interactions he experiences.
For Joseph, these include: social challenges, punctuated by an inability to read social cues, understand and anticipate the feelings and reactions of others, and navigate social settings; attachment to animals or to inanimate objects in place of interpersonal relationships; heightened intellectual capacity and creativity in narrow areas of interest; repetitive and inflexible behaviors and routines; an obsessive and compulsive focus on a personal vision and a private way of viewing the world; and a rigid and literal understanding of truth, ethics, and morality that sees virtue in extreme terms rather than allowing for nuance.
Viewed through this lens, Joseph emerges as a more familiar and less enigmatic individual, exhibiting both strengths and weaknesses commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder. In addition, with this understanding, the story may offer lessons for interactions with children and adults on the spectrum, lessons that are both current and timeless.