Was Yosef on the Spectrum

Dr Liliya Wheatcraft

When I was asked to review “Was Yosef on the Autism Spectrum?” – the new book by @samuel Levine – I had no idea what to expect. 

Faith & religion (banned at that time) piqued my curiosity when I was 7. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the South East Asian cosmogony to the philosophical essays of C.S. Lewis (smuggled in, naturally), to Bible itself. But it was the knowledge developed by artists, scholars and faith leaders around the Holy Books that captivated my mind.

I understood that Torah includes extensive commentary by religious leaders – that knowledge I sought, the knowledge around the Scriptures! That knowledge placed the writings Christians recognise as the Old Testament into the relevant cultural, social and political context, making the original text more meaningful.

Alas! There’s no Jewish equivalent for Gideon Brothers (understandably), and there was no synagogue in my home town. When I applied to Cambridge to do medical research instead of reading comparative religion & philosophy, there was a sense of loss – by opening one door, I closed another, arguably the more fascinating one.

So, I was excited to receive the review request. The book’s author – Professor Samuel Levine – is a scholar and a recognised Ben Torah – i.e., “the man of Scriptures”. For me, this was a fantastic opportunity!

But…why Joseph? I couldn’t see where Levine was coming from.  I didn’t recall anything peculiar about Joseph or his story…

Alright, his story was a bit odd, but no more so than a story about one’s triumph over the whale that swallowed him whole, surely?! Joseph & his (mis)adventures didn’t seem that odd compared to a story about an old man who created a temporary dry passage through the vast body of water, after a private audience with Yehovah!  Or what about the tale of the apparently insane old man and his HUGE collection of animals on a giant ship in the middle of a desert? The man who turned out to be the only wise one on Earth, in the dramatic turn of the events?

I list these men to illustrate my point: while reading the Scriptures you expect the unexpected & suspend the disbelief. So, almost unconsciously, you would ignore details that – in any other context – would have stood out as inconsistent, logic-defying, inexplicable and weird (to say the least).

And Yosef’s tale has many details just like this.

I expect the story is widely known, at least in general outlines, but here it is (paraphrased) for those who would like a refresher:

“Joseph (Yosef) is 17 and works for his father, Jakob (Yaakov): one of a dozen of Yaakov’s younger sons. He keeps sharing dreams with his brothers & their father; the dreams are ambitious to say the least, presenting Yosef dominating the rest of the family in the future. Brothers hate Yosef. Father’s awkward attempts at bringing Yosef closer to his brothers and even more awkward attempt to improve Yosef’s social standing among his peers with rich clothes backfire, badly, so one day Yosef is sold into slavery by his own brothers. 

His master soon develops complete trust in him and puts Yosef in charge of the estate. Unfortunately, the master’s wife lusts after the young man and threatens him: “if you don’t sleep with me, I will tell my husband that you assaulted & raped me!” she insists. Yosef chooses to remain chaste, and his master hears the tale of the alleged rape from his wife. It seems he doesn’t really believe it, but he has to follow the law as if she’d been telling the truth.

Yosef is thrown into prison. After some time, he correctly interprets very similar dreams of two fellow prisoners, predicting death through execution to one of them and release from prison to another. He informs the prisoner who is about to be released that the Pharaoh should be told about Yosef and his unique ability to interpret dreams.

The execution of 1 prisoner and the release of the other go just as Yosef predicted. However, the freed prisoner is in no rush to get Yosef out. He remembers yourself only years later after Pharaoh has had his dream and everyone else in the Kingdom failed to interpreted it to pharaoh’s satisfaction

Pharaoh summons Yosef and Yosef’s of interprets his dream correctly. Pharaoh elevates YOseF to the second most powerful position in Egypt after himself. Pharaoh also gives Yosef his own daughter is a wife therefore making Yosef equal among the royal family. Later his brothers and then his parents come and bow before Yosef just as it was predicted in the boy’s earliest dreams. Yosef makes peace with his family and the rest of his life he lives out relatively undisturbed.

That’s Yosefcs story.

Now, let’s look at the Levine’s book. I was keen to know answers to 3 questions:

1)     General overview: How is the book written? What is the structure of the book? Language used? How long is it?

2)     What is the stated intention of the author? Was it successful?

Who is the intended reader? 

3)     Does the book contribute anything unique?

The book’s overview.

Structure

It’s a well-structured, thoughtful examination of Yosef’s story: warts and all. 

Chapter after chapter, Yosef’s complicated eventful life is laid out clearly in front of us.

Each chapter begins with a short quote from the Holy Book’s story of Joseph.  The rest of the chapter serves to inject the events and characters from that quote with colour & dimension.

 Levine transports us into the mind of each individual involved. We don’t read the book. We live the story through each character! Suddenly, Yosef becomes just a boy next door, and that is what makes the experience real for you & me. This intimacy and immediacy removes the “suspended disbelief”, bringing to light all the puzzling, contradictory, seemingly incomprehensible & irreconcilable parts:

Why did Yosef keep telling his siblings about his strange dreams? Why would his father reward him – then chastise him for the same behaviour? 

Why does Yosef get on fine with some people while others literally want to kill him?

Why did the courtier released from prison waited for several years before he “remembered” Yosef’s unusual gift? How can you just “forget” the man somehow linked with your release? Why did he waited until the Pharaoh run out of options, before he even mentioned Yosef’s name?

What’s up with the Pharaoh? Why does he seem to elevate Yosef on one hand, but at the same time he keeps reminding everyone that Yosef is a Jew – not exactly a compliment in Egypt at that time?!

Levine enlivened the cut & dried Bible tale, placing us there, in the story, to along with Yosef, and Yaakov, and Pharaoh, and others.

He showed us another part of the story – the one we previously missed, and didn’t notice it. But now we look at it again and wonder how could we possibly miss something so… obvious! 

Because it fits. It makes sense. It explains the inconsistencies we might not even have been aware of.

 But it doesn’t force the conclusion on to you.

It is balanced and doesn’t offer “the diagnosis” or insist on one

The book is internally consistent & intellectually honest. It examined the matter under debate thoroughly, covering each detail from every angle, describing possible points of contradictions and analysing a wide range of opinion referencing a diversity of sources. These may include, for example, words of The Scriptures omitted upon translations of the original texts, or a subtle variation in the original word’s meaning by authors of commentary. 

Whatever the origin, all the interpretations, suggestions & possibilities Levine included in the debate are realistically possible and plausible.

3. It accurately describes autistic thinking as an internally consistent system of rules, assumptions and beliefs

What makes this book really unique, however, is the earnest attempt to genuinely understand everyone and describe everyone as a real human person.

I’ve read too many autism books that kind-of-almost-nearly make sense while you are reading them, and you seem to “learn” a great deal – until you put the book away and realise you learned NOTHING. Because you still don’t understand WHOs & WHYs and WHENs of Neurodiversity. You haven’t mastered the core rules of engagement. It isn’t easy. It took me, a psychiatrist on autism spectrum and autistic family, several years of intense thinking and research to formulate these rules in such a way as to make them accessible to an average person without any prior knowledge of autism. Even now, I’m still refining it (A.U.T.I.S.T.I.C.!)

It appears Levine has. Every character’s actions & motives are fairly consistent with their understanding of the world; with their ambitions, their beliefs, their moral conviction, and the roles they believe they’ve been assigned to play – by God, by their family, or by society, at large. 

Every person has a unique constellation of traits that make up their personality. And reading this book you will find you are not only understanding Yosef, but also empathising with him.

And that is the greatest achievement of the book.

Conclusion

A Jewish clergyman, armed with nothing but genuine interest in autism and the Scriptures, has accomplished something previously limited to only the likes of @Tony Attwood & @Michelle Garnett. 

Professor Levine has made autism understandable to an average person. He made autistic thinking accessible to you – because it is perfectly straight forward and logical, as long as you know the rules. And the rules of engagement are outlined here, in this book.

I’m fed-up with being described as an “alien”. Even children’s books talk about Martians on playground. Seriously? I understand, the term was originally intended with best intentions, to make us appear less… “scary”, I guess?… to non-autistic folk. 

But why would anyone be scared by an autistic? Because we were considered “disturbed”. “Crazy”. The poor victims of “minimal brain damage” or “minimal brain dysfunction”. “Alien” was an upgrade from either “defective” or a “retard”. Still, “alien” ripped our humanity away. “Alien “ telegraphed that our differences made us fundamentally impossible to understand, so the only way to imagine an autistic as having any sense of agency, any individuality, any autonomy is by separating that person from the idea of humanity entirely, by literally equating autism to belonging to another species.

Please, get the book. Read it. It’s dense: take your time.

This is not a book aimed it any particular reader.

It is not a book aimed exclusively at those who practise Judaism.

Neither it is a book intended strictly for an academic, or for a clinical professional.

It is not meant to be limited to religious scholars & students of theology.

Anyone with interest in autism would benefit from reading the book.

If you are curious, intelligent and patient this is a book for you.

If you have any interest in autism, read it. You will thank me later.

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