“Joseph, Adversity, and Autism” – new review of Was Yosef on the Spectrum

Adam Read ● ACEs Connection

Here’s an interesting book….

…Not because it has anything to do with what you’re doing today, but precisely because it doesn’t. Sometimes we have to take a trip to somewhere else… a detour… a backroad…. or an excursion to get our minds out of our daily COVID funk to give us a different perspective on life.

I don’t know about your upbringing, but I spent enough time in church to hear the story of Joseph’s coat of colors many times and how his brothers sold him into slavery. Never, though, have I seen this story through the lens that Joseph may have been Autistic until now. This exploration shows how disabilities and diversity can chemically react with the heat of adversity to create the powerful energy that saved two ancient adversarial cultures from starvation and famine.

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Importance of the Community Rabbi – new review

Daniel D. Stuhlman ● AJL News and Reviews

The title of this book suggests that the author is offering a simple book with practical advice for the community or shul rabbi. However, Sperber has put together an in-depth discussion that teaches the reader how to think more deeply about the methods used to issue a halachic ruling.

While there is a tendency toward greater stringency and conservatism, the author talks about sensitivity to the questions and questioner. When new situations occur, the rabbi has to weigh the legal codes of the past with the implications of the facts in front of him. What was once forbidden could now be permitted and what is forbidden to one may be permitted to another.

For example, Sperber considers how to deal with the issue of congregants with hearing problems and the use of hearing aids on Shabbat. Normally, electronic devices such as microphones, phones, screens, etc. are forbidden on Shabbat. However, someone who is hard of hearing would not be able to hear the Torah reading or respond to Shabbat greetings without a hearing aid. Thus, the author guides community rabbis to lead by considering that humanitarian needs may override the rabbinic limitations of mukhsah (items forbidden to touch on Shabbat)….

Was Yosef on the Spectrum? – new review

John Elder Robison

In this fascinating study, law professor and Hebrew scholar Samuel Levine looks at Joseph from the Bible with a fresh perspective. I found his arguments well-reasoned and fascinating, but I also understood some of the pushback the book received. Can any modern-day person bestow an autism diagnosis on someone who lived and died thousands of years ago?

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Fascinating and persuasive conjectures about one of the Bible’s most famous men

Kate Gladstone ● 100+ People with Autism to Know

The book fascinated me because I am autistic and Jewish, and because it’s interesting to think about how an autistic person might have appeared to others in the long centuries and millennia before the condition was medically recognized and named.
Although “presumed diagnosis of the dead” is inherently an uncertain endeavor, it is fascinating to see how the author (a Jewish scholar who is also familiar with autism and its sensory/neurological manifestations) finds many commonalities between the Biblical figure of Joseph (as depicted in Scripture and in Hebrew tradition) and modern-day people on the autism spectrum (in terms of shared traits, inclinations, sensitivities, aversions, and so on). Samuel Levine’s book makes me wish that we could go back in time, present the Biblical Joseph with a copy of the book (translated into Hebrew or Egyptian) and ask him if Levine got it right! (I suspect that the answer would be “Yes — is he, too, a dreamer of accurate dreams?” But of course we will never know for sure).
The book may be very encouraging to autistics who are Jews, and to their parents/teachers/fellow congregants/congregational leaders.

Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart

Michael A. Shmidman, Editor EmeritusTradition

Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky zt”l, was justly renowned for his brilliantly insightful, meticulously researched and felicitously formulated scholarly oeuvre, concentrating generally upon medieval Jewish intellectual history and with special attention to the Maimonidean corpus. But the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University also was the Talner Rebbe of Boston, as comfortable delivering divrei Torah at Shalosh Seudos in the Talner Beis Midrash as he was conducting doctoral seminars on medieval Jewish rabbinic literature in Room G of Widener Library in Harvard Yard.

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Love! The Golden Rule – new review of “Giving”

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“…and love your fellow as yourself…” [Lev. 19:18]
Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great general principle of the Torah.”
[Midrash Raba, Genesis Ch. 24]

“…God asks of us to love. This may sound simple, but it turns out that it doesn’t come naturally; and it takes time and effort to learn to do it. To love others, we must uncover hidden forms of our self-interested concerns. Only then can we direct our thoughts, feelings, and actions toward giving to others. In addition, we need to recognize the aspect of divinity in each human being we encounter. When we see the greatness of others, this awakens within us our love for them. In particular, the greatness in their aspect of divinity connects our love of them to a love of God.”*

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Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

David Greenberg ● Israel Journal of Psychiatry

Ever since the Bible was written there have been attempts to understand the characters and events of its narrative. Indeed, in The Ancient Commentary on the Bible (1993) Hananel Mack suggested that as long as there has been Bible, there has been commentary, whether Deuteronomy commenting on the preceding books of the Torah, or Psalms and Chronicles on earlier sections of the Bible. The Apocryphal books continued the tradition, as did Philo’s Bible commentary (first century Alexandria), Josephus, then the many forms of Midrash, and since Saadiah Gaon (10th century Babylon), a steady flow of authors, the most known among Jewish readers being Rashi (11th century France), Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) and Ramban (13th century Spain), and most recently Nehama Leibowitz, who have all published commentaries on the Bible text. While each commentator may ask some unique questions, many clearly duplicate each other. How is it that each commentator emerges with different answers, and that often they are distinctive to that author? The answer must lie not only in each new questioner emerging from a particular cultural background but also having different responses that are suitable for their readership: Rashi writing at the time of the Crusades and the destruction of Jewish communities, Ibn Ezra having travelled the world and seen many cultures, etc.

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Wash Your Hands! The Corona Commandment

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person” [Leviticus 21:1]

Wash your hands! That is the commandment of the Corona era.

In the Middle Ages a person could go half his or her life without ever washing hands. But Jews washed their hands each day after awakening and whenever they ate bread. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death in the 14th century. At that time, fewer Jews died than their Christian neighbors. This has been partly attributed to Jewish ritual hand-washing. (See https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-black-death.)

Of course, Jews in the Middle Ages washed their hands not because of sanitary reasons. They did so out of a commitment to halachic tradition. Was it “good luck” that this saved them from disease? Or is there some providential or mystical connection? I don’t know. But the Kabbalah does reveal a hidden meaning of ritual hand-washing. And our worldwide Corona condition could well benefit from the spiritual healing invoked by its esoteric intention.

The blessing for hand-washing is peculiar. We bless God for instructing us “on the lifting up of hands.” Why “lifting up”? The instruction is to wash our hands. What does it mean to “lift up hands”?

When do we lift up our hands? When we surrender. When we give a blessing. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb* explains that in the Kabbalah the hand is considered to be the archetypal vessel. Hands are used for taking and receiving. When we surrender, we promise not to take. When we place our hands on another’s head in blessing, we ask that he or she be the receiver.

So when we wash our hands, we “lift up” our desire to receive. We raise it spiritually. According to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam)*, this is the essential teaching of Judaism. All of the Torah and the mitzvot – every word and every detail – come to teach us to dedicate ourselves to giving. Our intention in receiving is only to pass it on somehow. With this intention, a Jew is instructed to start each day. And before we receive strength from eating bread, we bring to mind our intention to use that strength to give and not to take.

But wait. Doesn’t the ritual washing have something to do with tumah – spiritual uncleanliness? Yes, precisely. The Kabbalah views tumah as an expression of selfish desire to receive. This is the cause of all our pain. This is the spiritual state we want to avoid – both individually and societally.

Our pure soul is like a priest within us that wants only to serve God. It calls to us to imitate the divine character of giving selflessly. But this soul can be “dirtied” when we succumb to our selfish desire to receive. We must preserve its purity by refusing to make contact with selfishness. For selfishness is spiritual death. This is the inner meaning of the above verse from this week’s Torah portion: The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person.

So let’s wash our hands of hoarding and hate. Let’s wash our hands of divisiveness and cut-throat competition. The Corona commandment is to give a little more and take a lot less.

*Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam) is the greatest modern explicator of the Kabbalah. Some of his essays are translated to English in: “Giving – The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah”. This book also contains a new commentary by Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb, who is a disciple of the son of Baal Hasulam. His classes in Hebrew can be watched on the youtube channel ברכת שלום.

Was Yosef on the Spectrum

Professor Majia Nadesan ● Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

What is autism? Although autism is ultimately a diagnostic category, people who exhibit symptoms we now label as autistic are not restricted to the modern era (see e.g. Houston & Frith, 2000). Detailed historical analyses of the concept of autism have described a constellation of symptoms that were formally delineated and medicalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but pre-existed contemporary nosologies (e.g. Hacking, 2009; Nadesan, 2005; Waltz, 2013).

People experienced as “different” in their communication and social pragmatics have troubled normative expectations across recorded history. Samuel Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum: Understanding Joseph Through Tora, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources argues that Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel from the Book of Genesis, was possibly autistic. Diagnosing people retrospectively as autistic raises complex “hermeneutic” or interpretive questions, including the possibility that our selective readings and attributions of recorded histories reveal more about our current concerns than past realities. Yet, while acknowledging this post-modern possibility of non-retrievable origins, the hermeneutic tradition offers a dialogic framework for understanding the mingling of the past and the present using the idea of a textual fusions of horizons (Gadamer, 2011). Roughly, the hermeneutic tradition holds that each reading of a historical text links the past and present, with the potential for a better understanding of the (“intersubjective” or social) self and its project forward. It is in the spirit of this hermeneutics that Levine’s text finds contemporary relevance.

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