In his paper “Is There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism,” Rabbi Dr. David Shatz writes that “some distinguished scientists, for some reason mostly physicists, push for concordist readings. Other intellectuals, for example those immersed in the humanities, are as a rule wary of, or put off by, such interpretations.” Concordism is a system of textual interpretation that is meant to establish a fusion between biblical texts and scientific data.
In general, I am not drawn to Torah commentaries that seek to frame biblical personalities in the language of today, at the cost of understanding their words and actions as expressed by the language of the Torah. Given this, when I received a copy of Samuel J. Levine’s 141-page book titled ‘Was Yosef on the Spectrum?’, who is a Professor of Law and who also has rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, I have to say that I opened the book as a very cautious reader.
This sweet, tough, and charmingly amateurish memoir is the story of a tenacious woman. Sylvia Fishbaum grew up in Slovakia after World War II. Her parents braved anti-Semitism and maintained a traditional Jewish lifestyle in a country where Jews were nearly extinct.
After the rise of Communism, life became harder both materially and emotionally, but Fishbaum’s irrepressible confidence served her well. As a young woman, she sewed clothes and sold them on the black market in the Ukraine to finance her escape to the United States.
A chance meeting with a Jewish family on its way to Israel alerted Sylvia to the existence of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Rome. After careful, clandestine planning, Fishbaum left behind an apartment and a job,made her way to Rome, and eventually moved to New York. There she married a co-owner of an iconic kosher pizzeria in Manhattan, raised two sons, and lived the American dream.
After her husband’s early death from heart disease, Sylvia dedicated herself to reviving Jewish life in Slovakia. Fishbaum’s wellsprings of willpower and self-deprecating humor make for a compelling read.
Yosef’s behaviors, interpersonal relationships, and personal development are often difficult to understand, and at times seem to defy explanation. This book offers a coherent and cohesive reading of the well-known Bible story, presenting a portrait of Yosef as an individual on the autism spectrum. 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.
“Sam Levine was my student in yeshiva, and I have known him for decades….I enjoyed his book on Yosef, which presents a thoughtful and creative literary analysis of the story, based on a close reading of the Chumash, midrashim, and classical meforshim.” –Rav Menachem MendelBlachman, Senior Ra”m at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh
Samuel J. Levine is a Professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center. He has served as the Beznos Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University College of Law, and he has taught at the law schools of Bar-Ilan, Fordham, Pepperdine, and St. John’s Universities.
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