Touro Law Conference – Was Yosef on the Spectrum

Professor Randy Lee ● Widener Law School

Reflections on Jewish and American Disability Law and on the God Who Makes All Things Good

“Professor Sam Levine, Director of the Jewish Law Institute here at Touro, recently published a book, Was Yosef on the Spectrum.  Was Yosef, son of Jacob, son of Rachel, prophet, mystic, favorite of his father, selected savior of the civilized world, master businessman, and Broadway star, on the spectrum?

            When Professor Levine first mentioned that possibility to me and began to explain his reasoning, I felt what I thought were two different responses.  My first response was, “Isn’t that clever!  Isn’t that neat.  Isn’t it creative and lawyerly how Professor Levine has managed to find a way to connect all those events and all those conversations together to support his thesis.” 

            My second response was not quite so supportive.  My second, and of course unexpressed, response was, “What is Professor Levine thinking?  Joseph is one of the most important figures not only in Jewish history but in world history.  Joseph was a prophet and a mystic at the center of events essential to the Jewish story.  Joseph was an instrument chosen by God to save civilization.  Disabled?  Broken?  On the spectrum?  What’s Professor Levine going to say next: that Moses didn’t really look and sound like Charleton Heston?”

Of course, as much as I understood these as two responses, they were only one: what Sam is suggesting cannot be true.  But what if it is?  How beautiful might it be if God would choose to save His people through a child they all thought was broken?

And why not have a beautiful story of a broken child in the midst of a story of brokenness, because isn’t that what the story of Joseph and his family is: a story about brokenness, and love: Broken people, broken promises, broken romances, broken families.

Jacob, Joseph’s father, is a man who devises schemes so that he can get everything he wants, only to have those schemes cost him everything he gained and everyone he loves, and he lives with the recognition, “Because of my greed, because of my selfishness, because of my deceitfulness, I can never see my parents, my brother again.” 

Leah, Jacob’s wife, is a woman who deceives Jacob, the man she loves, so that for one night he will see her as the perfect woman and even marry her, only to realize that no matter how good a wife she is, or how many sons she gives him, Jacob will never see her that way again.  And she lives with the recognition, “My husband only loved me because he thought I was my sister, and I will never know that love again.”

Rachel, Joseph’s mother, is a woman who marries her sister’s husband, causes her sister to be rejected by her husband, and then is barren herself.  Rachel watches woman after woman after woman bear her husband sons, and then when finally her barrenness is broken, Professor Levine would have us believe that that barrenness is broken by a son who is broken, even though that son may be perfect in his father’s eyes. 

So much brokenness.

Ironically, in the midst of this broken story, Professor Levine directs us to look to, of all places, Pharaoh to see the hand of God. When Pharaoh encounters Joseph, Pharaoh does not recognize Joseph as disabled.  It is Pharaoh who recognizes Joseph as an instrument of God, and it is Pharaoh who seeks to help this instrument fulfill his divine purpose.

As Professor Levine puts it, only Pharaoh in the story “possesses the wherewithal to find the strengths in others and identify the value they may bring, while at the same time recognizing and, when necessary, accommodating their deficits and weaknesses.”[

Pharaoh, like God, comes into the brokenness, and brings fruitfulness and healing and abundance, such that the brokenness is forgotten, and only the perfection remains, because nothing was ever really broken, just unrevealed.

There are those who insist that the best way to teach autistic children is not to try to fix them but to try to meet them and help them uncover their perfection.  That’s what they want, what they hunger for, and that is how we know they are like us: because that’s all any of us want, all any of us need.

At the end of Joseph’s story, Professor Levine highlights for us Joseph’s two great revelations.  First, every step of Joseph’s journey, even the moments of brokenness, “God intended it for good.”[  If Joseph had been more politically discerning, less a candidate for being on the spectrum, he might never have made it to Egypt. What got Joseph to Egypt was a dad who played favorites, a less than discreet tongue, and eleven jealous brothers.  In the end, we learn God made Joseph perfect, and Joseph was never out of God’s care. 

Second, Joseph’s journey has not only saved civilization and healed a family, but it has also brought Joseph to the perfection for which God created him.  As Professor Levine points out, “Yosef has indeed learned to overcome his condition, let go of past insults and indignities, to understand others, including his peers, and talk to them in a manner that shows he relates to them.”  Joseph ends up not only great but good.”

Watch Professor Lee’s speech about Was Yosef on the Spectrum here.


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