By Samuel J. Levine
Book Review by Michele Justic
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.
Samuel Levine, Touro Law Professor and director of Touro’s Jewish Law Institute, takes another crack at the story in “Was Yosef on the Spectrum?: Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources,” mixing hundreds of insights from respected Biblical interpreters, with the psychological description and symptomology of autism spectrum disorder. This nuanced approach requires the understanding that
- a) autism isn’t necessarily a detriment — it is a psychological condition that can be advantageous given certain accommodations and
- b) this is an academic exercise. No one can diagnose a condition based on a few textual chapters.
This line of thinking can help understand the Chumash further while also offering some ideas for families with autism.
Often described as a “naar” or youth, even into his older years, Yosef always felt a disconnect from his family. He did not seem to enjoy relaxed conversation or recreation with them. Granted, the Chumash only reports on major actions, not the minute day-to-day details. Yet Professor Levine senses a pattern here that he searches the meforshim to acknowledge as well. Surprisingly, the meforshim relate even odder details such as Yosef twirling his hair and walking on his toes. The Torah often notes Yosef crying at times when a coherent response would make more sense. Of course G-d had a plan for Yosef though he suffered some misadventures along the way, being wrongfully accused by Potiphar’s wife and imprisoned. Throughout these travails, Yosef’s lack of social graces reveals itself time and again. Finally, Yosef is selected for the role of his dreams and afforded many advantages. Here, he somehow manages to turn the tables on his brothers, making them feel socially awkward, until everyone is rewarded with a happy reunion ending.
The book has received acclaim for its honest and thorough examination of these Biblical personalities.
“Prof. Levine is both a ben Torah and an accomplished scholar. His work is an act of both courage and love of Yosef. Courage — because some will criticize him for trying to diminish the stature of one of the shivah ro’im, when his intention was the very opposite. Love — because in order to address the difficulties many have raised with aspects of Yosef’s behavior, he worked thoroughly and painstakingly with traditional sources to advance his theory, rather than ignore them as so many others do. Whether the reader accepts Prof. Levine’s thesis or remains skeptical (as I do), we must imagine Yosef smiling at someone who labored so hard to defend him.” — Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein, author of Nesivos Shalom
“Levine’s interpretation of Yosef’s life through the lens of contemporary psychology is innovative and provides a way for readers to find personal and practical insights for how to approach neurodiversity in the Jewish community today. While the topic is potentially controversial, Levine treats it with scholarship and respect and comes up with a very strong reading of the narrative. It is an interesting take and a worthwhile read.” — Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow, director of biomedical ethics and humanities, NY Medical College
“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 Mendel Blachman, Senior Ra”m at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh
This book is worth reading for a thorough analysis of Yosef as well as a conversation starter about the role of mental health in Jewish tradition and current society.