Straight from the book – Was Yosef on the Spectrum

“The story of Yosef (Joseph) presents some of the most challenging questions of all biblical narratives. Yosef’s behavior, interpersonal relationships, and personal journey and development are often difficult to understand, and at times seem to defy explanation. Leading commentators are repeatedly puzzled both by Yosef’s actions and by the events that surround him: from Yosef’s bitter interchanges with his brothers, which his father Yaakov (Jacob) is apparently unable to mediate, to the events in the Land of Egypt, where Yosef finds both failure and remarkable success, to Yosef’s strange machinations, when his brothers travel to Egypt to purchase food and later settle in Egypt along with Yaakov.

Commentators have offered a variety of approaches in an effort to understand and explain many of these difficulties. Yet, these explanations tend to be incomplete, often responding to individual events and aspects of the story, without providing a cohesive understanding of the story as a whole and the puzzling ways Yosef interacts with others. Moreover, although commentators sometimes find common ground in their views of certain episodes, their approaches often contradict one another, and at times their interpretations of different events seem inherently inconsistent.

This book attempts to achieve a coherent and cohesive reading of the story that offers a plausible understanding of Yosef’s behaviors toward others and those of others toward him, while at the same time accounting for both his successes and his failures. Toward that goal, the book suggests that a close reading of the biblical text paints a portrait of Yosef consistent with an individual on the autism spectrum. 

Although individuals with autism spectrum disorders vary widely in their symptoms and their behaviors, common characteristics include many of the behaviors Yosef exhibits and the interactions he experiences, such as: 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; an obsessive and compulsive focus on a private way of perceiving the world; and a rigid and literal perspective on truth, ethics, and morality that sees virtue in extreme terms rather than allowing for nuance.

In addition to offering a way to understand Yosef’s behaviors and interactions, picturing Yosef as an individual on the autism spectrum, moving from childhood through his adult life and career, provides continuity to the remarkably varied experiences Yosef undergoes at different stages of the story. Viewed through this lens, Yosef emerges as a more familiar and less enigmatic individual, exhibiting both strengths and weaknesses commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder, facing concomitant and interconnected challenges and opportunities, and experiencing, often at once, both surprising success and unexpected failure.

Perhaps most importantly, understanding Yosef as an individual on the spectrum helps illuminate not only the text of the Torah on a p’shat level (plain reading), but also many comments and teachings about Yosef found in classical Jewish sources, including midrashim, rishonim, and acharonim. To be sure, none of these sources contains a comprehensive depiction of Yosef that would fully comport with contemporary understandings of autism spectrum disorder. However, a close reading of many of the classical sources suggests that for thousands of years, leading scholars have presented insights and explanations producing a portrait of Yosef consistent with a person who exhibits a number of characteristics and behaviors associated with contemporary views of the autism spectrum. Thus, applying contemporary psychological insights serves as a way to remain faithful to traditional interpretations while at the same time bringing together many of these different approaches to provide a more unified and complete picture of Yosef. 

Finally, although the primary goal of this project is focused on exploring a way to understand the character of Yosef and the events that surround him, with this understanding, the story may offer lessons for interactions with children and adults on the spectrum. If so, the fact that upon a close and careful reading the Torah contains such lessons, which are both current and timeless, is a further illustration of the principle: hafoch bah, v’hafoch bah, d’kula bah (“turn it and turn it, for everything is in it”).

-excerpted from the introduction to Was Yosef on the Spectrum

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