The story of Joseph (the title of my book uses the Hebrew “Yosef”) presents a fascinating and memorable narrative, which has been both the focus of careful study for countless generations of readers and scholars of the Bible, as well as the subject of a wide range of art and literature, from the visual arts to novels to Broadway. Much of this interest, among both religious adherents and broader culture, likely stems in large part from the challenging questions that arise in the course of the story.
Joseph’s behaviors, interpersonal relationships, personal journey, and development are often difficult to understand. At times, they even seem to defy explanation as he faces concomitant and interconnected challenges, opportunities, and experiences, often at once, both surprising success and unexpected failure. Over the years, I have read the biblical story of Joseph numerous times, and I have studied the text through the prism of the works of classical Jewish commentators, spanning thousands of years and geographical locations across the world.
Most readers of Samuel J. Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources will likely focus their energies on the question in the book’s title. Is it appropriate to attribute autism to one of our biblical heroes? Are the author’s arguments for such a thesis persuasive? Yet it would be a shame if that issue exhausted discussion about a volume which deals with many significant interpretative questions regarding the Joseph narrative. Levine, a professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at the Touro Law Center, has done an impressive amount of research, combing the traditional commentaries and midrashim for relevant material, and reading the verses quite carefully. Following up on his footnotes provides ample reward, particularly since Levine addresses the later chapters in Genesis which many Humash students do not get to. After evaluating the central thesis, this review will then explore some important ideas in Levine’s work.
The story of Yosef can be a puzzling one. The cast is set of one of our Avos, Yaakov, and his 12 sons — all presumed to be tzadikim, before shifting to Mitzrayim where the greatest leaders in Egypt get mixed into the sibling rivalry madness. According to the literal interpretation, these tzadikim certainly seem like bad boys, in effect trying to kill their brother and deceive their father.
This volume contains eight sections: Principles of Open Orthodoxy, Inclusivity, Spirituality, Gender, Faith, Leadership, Conversion, and Mission. Mission is subdivided into three subdivisions, Spiritual Activism, Shoah, and Israel. The 73 pieces in this volume were mostly written in the last decade, and mostly constitute opinion pieces published in Jewish and general newspapers, but a few are “more scholarly in nature.” Thirteen articles were written specifically for this volume, three (out of ten) in “Inclusivity,” four (out of eight) in “Spirituality.” and three (out of seven) in “Faith.”
Professor Levine makes a cogent case for Yosef (Joseph) being on
the ASD spectrum, albeit, high functioning. His analysis of the biblical and
secondary sources makes a strong case (except in Chapters 9 and 10) for his
argument. According to this analysis, Yosef would be at the high
functioning end of the ASD spectrum (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome) and his
manifestation would change with maturity as noted in the book. Whatever
counterarguments might be made, it was fascinating to read about how many
traits and challenges Yosef shared with “high-functioning” persons on the
spectrum. I thought it was an insightful piece and I’ve recommended it to
Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey (Rav Gedaliah) Haber is the Director of the Department of Spiritual Care in Baycrest, Toronto. He holds a BA, BA, MA, DMin, DD (Hon.), is a Certified Supervisor-Educator, Clinical Pastoral Education (CASC), Board Certified Chaplain (NAJC), Certified Spiritual Care Practitioner (CASC), Registered Psychotherapist (CRPO), and Adjunct Lecturer at Knox College, University of Toronto (TST).
In his 2011 book, “Intergalactic Judaism” (Urim Publications), Rabbi David Lister of the United Kingdom presents a Jewish view of space travel.
Much of the theological discussion in this book is based on the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch whose “advocacy that one sublimate secular learning and culture into opportunities to serve G-d … “has had a major influence on my life and work,” according to Rabbi Lister.