Was Yosef on the Spectrum? – New Review

Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources

by Samuel J. Levine

Link to original article: https://doi.org/10.1080/23312521.2022.2142878

The story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50 is both a familiar and confusing narrative to many of us. In this book, Samuel J. Levine, a professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center, posits that Joseph (referred to as Yosef following the Hebrew spelling) may be on the spectrum, i.e. that he might have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This would provide another way to better understand and appreciate Yosef ’s character, while secondarily providing us with a chance to learn about how we can interact with children and adults on the spectrum.

Levine does this by putting together information from both the Biblical text and classical Jewish sources (including midrashim, rishonim, and acharonim). By so doing, he shows that his hypothesis is in line with Jewish interpretive authorities from ancient times up to modernity, and hence enhances rather than changes our basic understanding of the text. Levine reads the Yosef narrative through the lens of ASD, noting the similarity of Yosef ’s behaviors and experiences with those among ASD individuals, but is careful to note that he is not trying to make a clinical diagnosis of Yosef.

The book is arranged chronologically in eleven chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter covers one specific area of difficulty in the Yosef narrative. This makes it easy to read, and easy for us to relate the scenes to our own experiences with individuals on the spectrum. The points raised in chapters 1–2 about interpretations of ro’eh et echav (“shepherd with his brothers”), na’ar (“boy”), and ben zekunim (“son of his old age”) were particularly interesting. The continued prominence of na’ar as a description of Yosef and his actions and the possible links of Yosef’s wisdom to him being a ben zekunim were also repeatedly pointed out throughout the book, providing a coherent flow. Levine also makes it a point to demonstrate how what we know of ASD today may explain Yosef ’s behavior and thought processes, hence making sense of some of Yosef ’s more inexplicable decisions (e.g. declaring his dreams to his brothers who did not like him). Levine also gives a creditable attempt to glean lessons on interacting with ASD individuals, although much of it assumes unchanged social norms and philosophies from Yosef ’s time till today.

At the same time, much of the data that supports Levine’s hypothesis comes from the comments and elaborations given by rabbinic interpreters rather than from the biblical text itself. His case would be much stronger to non-Jewish readers if the reasons for those interpretations were also given, or if more of the discussion rested on the recorded text. An example is the discussion surrounding na’ar, which mostly rested on midrashic descriptions of Yosef ’s childish activities, examples of which were “fixing his hair and tending to his eyes” (p. 14) which are self-stimulatory and repetitive behaviors common in children with ASD. There is a tendency to read ASD characteristics into the text which could have simpler explanations. For example, Yosef ’s question of “Why are your faces disturbed today?” (Gen 40:6–7) is explained as either progress in social awareness, or a display of an ASD characteristic, the reluctance to make eye-contact “as a result of an ability to see too much in facial expressions” (p. 68). A simpler explanation would be that this was an idiom to say that they looked upset (see note 1), as Gen 40:6 observes. Pharaoh is also given extra credit for recognizing Yosef ’s social difficulties and helping Yosef “to regulate his condition, channel his talents and manage his deficits” (p. 96). This explanation is not the most likely explanation, and complicates a straightforward series of events. It would also be good if the discussion not only showed how Yosef being on the spectrum could fit the available data, but also was a better explanation than the others available.

What Levine adds to the conversation about disability and religion through this book is the possibility that characters in the Bible may have displayed other neurotypes (in this case, ASD), and that this may give a better explanation for some puzzling narratives. This possibility also helps those who present with other neurotypes to place themselves in the narrative of the Bible and understand that the God of the Bible speaks to them.

In summary, Levine presents an intriguing hypothesis and a possible reading of the story of Yosef, though his argument is heavily reliant on classical Jewish sources, and requires additional explanation of other characters’ behavior to support it. It is a good reminder to consider other neurotypes in our exegesis and interpretation of Biblical texts.

Note

  1. For an example, see K. A Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 Nashville, TN: Broadman
    & Holman, 2005, Kindle Loc 20073. Mathews explains that “A person’s visage is
    generally thought to reflect one’s attitude (e.g. Neh 2:1-3, Eccl 7:3, Mark 10:22).”

Tan Hui Ru
3 Orchard Road
Singapore 238825
hrtan@orpc.org.sg

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