Book Review: Was Yosef On The Spectrum?

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer ● The New Normal ● The New York Jewish Week

The story of Joseph is among the Torah’s best-known and most intriguing tales.  In a new book, Was Yosef On The Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash and Classical Jewish SourcesSamuel J. Levine, a professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center, presents a thorough, compelling theory about why Yosef struggles with social understanding—not only in childhood but also throughout his adult life.

Levine, who also received rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, grounds his theories about Yosef in texts—his literary analysis delves into the Biblical story and also commentary from Rambam, Rashi and lesser known classical midrashim. His underlying theory is that in imagining Yosef as a person on the autism spectrum, we can better understand and appreciate his unique challenges and abilities. Levine paints a portrait of a person who struggles not only with social understanding when it comes to relating to his brothers—but all through his life, challenged to read social cues in interacting with Potiphar’s wife, with the servants whose dreams he interprets in prison and even as he engages with the all-powerful Pharoah. Levine illustrates, throughout the book, that Yosef has not only has challenges–but also possesses unique abilities and strengths.

In doing so, Levine provides us with a new way of thinking about Yosef and his story–and also more globally about the characteristics, strengths and challenges of people on the autism spectrum whom we may know. He emphasizes the way that with support, Yosef is ultimately able to use his unique abilities in a professional capacity. Levine writes, ‘It is not uncommon for individuals with disabilities, once they receive the appropriate services, structure, and supports, to be able to exercise the talents they possess and achieve the goals that would otherwise elude them. As Pharoah recognizes, like many who are on the spectrum, Yosef’s deficits are in areas relating to social expectations and interactions.”

Levine then goes on to describe the way that Pharoah, in fact, provides Yosef with supports—including dignified clothing, a wife and servants—to help him navigate his social world so that he is free to use his areas of strengths and talent in a professional capacity.

Levine’s thoughtful analysis may be eye-opening to people who are not personally familiar with autism and is affirming that our community has always been neurodiverse. Unlike Moshe, whose speech disability is physical in nature and clearly identifiable, Yosef’s disability is ‘invisible,’ making his behaviors hard for others close to him to understand. Yosef’s life is one of struggle from his early days with his father and brothers—but is ultimately a story of triumph and success. In his in-depth, nuanced, detailed examination of Yosef’s life, Samuel Levine provides us with a book that will raise awareness and hopefully change attitudes towards people with autism and other cognitive disabilities.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY. Her latest book The Little Gate-Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents. 

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