Doreen Wachmann ● Jewish Telegraph
Professor Samuel Levine’s CV runs to 22 pages, citing all his academic achievements in the field of Jewish and American law.
Yet his latest book, Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph through Torah, Midrash and Classical Jewish Sources (Urim Publications) deals with a more controversial topic. He suggests that the great biblical character Joseph may have been autistic.
Many charedim nowadays see red if anyone dares to criticise heroic biblical characters. Twenty years ago, there was a riot in Manchester with the visit of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who had written an article suggesting that Moses was not a politician — surely a compliment rather than an insult?
So why did Prof Levine choose to stray from his usual academic paths and write on such a controversial subject?
“It jumped at me,” he said. “Joseph picked me. This is a story, like many others, that I have studied and read for as long as I can remember since I was young. There are so many aspects of the story, so many questions that I wanted to address.
“I have heard so many answers over the years, but none of them were answers for me.”
He maintained that Midrashim and other commentators were “highly critical” of Joseph.
The commentators claimed that Joseph was vain because he was attending to his eyes and his hair and that he spoke lashon hora about his brothers to his father.
Prof Levine sees Joseph’s attention to eyes and hair as “self-stimulatory behaviour common among children on the spectrum”.
He continued: “Most commentators say that Joseph told his father that his brothers were doing terrible things, like tearing limbs from live animals. The question is whether it was appropriate for Joseph to speak that way about his brothers.
“If anything, my explanation understands Joseph in a more positive way than a lot of the criticism we find throughout the commentators who claim that Joseph did something wrong.”
He said: “In my reading Joseph told on his brothers because he had this compulsion to share his thoughts with his father because of his dedication to the truth, which is common among those on the spectrum.
“That is why when Joseph sees his brothers do something wrong, he feels he has to spread the word, he has to set it right. To me that is a more positive way of looking at Joseph than saying he was vain or speaking lashon hora.”
Prof Levine told me: “The answer first hit me when I was watching my children interacting with other kids in the playground.
“There was always one child on his own. He would try to get involved with other kids and would get into a fight with them. Instead of letting it go, he would come back and engage with the same type of behaviour.
“When my children were growing up there was not quite the awareness of autism that there is now. Most people thought autism was an extreme all-or-nothing condition. There was no concept of high-functioning autism, which is sometimes called Asperger’s.
“There are many adults now who are thinking back to their own youth when they were marginalised. They were good at school, but there was something about their social interaction with their peers which wasn’t right. Many of these individuals at the age of 50 are self-diagnosing.”
Prof Levine transferred his growing knowledge of autism to the story of Joseph.
He said: “When I was reading the story of Joseph and his brothers it struck me that Joseph knew that his brothers hated him. Why did he go to them again the second time? Why did he tell on them to his father? Why did Jacob send him back to his brothers who hated him?
“There were so many questions that it led me to the possibility that Joseph might have been on the spectrum. Particularly as I read the Midrashim, Rashi, Rambam and Abarbanel, it seemed to me that many of the commentators thought the same way, but used different terminology.
“They were observing a similar pattern of behaviour characteristic of Joseph’s interactions with his brothers and with adults.
“Piecing it all together through the story, one aspect or another of his behaviour seemed to fit that big puzzle.”
Prof Levine said that he had discovered a group of very prominent lawyers, who went to Yale law school, who, in their 60s after very successful careers, discovered that they were on the spectrum.
He said: “They had always felt a bit out of place. Self-diagnosing themselves as on the spectrum explained to them how it was that they had been so successful professionally, but at the same time had so many challenges in their social interactions.
“That made sense to me in the context of Joseph. A child with such difficulties with his brothers could also grow to be viceroy to Pharaoh to save the whole world with his skills.”
I interviewed Prof Levine before the revelation that 16-year-old environmental protest leader Greta Thunberg was herself autistic and that it was her very condition which had inspired her protests.
The professor insisted to me: “It is not a criticism to say someone has disability. The fact that Joseph could overcome a challenge is a compliment, a testament to his will.
“The Talmud refers to him as Joseph, the righteous, because he overcame his inclination with the wife of Potiphar.”
He concluded: “The title of my book poses a question. I am not reaching a conclusion. I don’t know the answer for sure.
“I want to start a conversation to help people gain an understanding of the story by thinking about this possibility. We weren’t there, but we spend time learning about biblical characters to learn lessons.”
He feels that, unlike his previous publications, his latest book will have a wide appeal beyond the academic. It can be understood by anyone who knows the Bible story or has even seen the Broadway show or film, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
He said: “Human nature does not change. A story from thousands of years ago can resonate with us to this day.”