Invisibility, Inclusivity & Fraternity: 'Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash and Classical Jewish Sources' (by Samuel J. Levine, Urim Publications (2019)).
14 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2020 Last revised: 18 Jan 2021
Date Written: April 20, 2020
Touro Law Professor Samuel Levine treats “on the spectrum” as a household term. Perhaps that says something about the level of contemporary disability consciousness, or at least the public’s familiarity with autism spectrum disorder. To date, no one has tried to explain the enigmatic behaviors of the Hebrew Bible’s Joseph, his interpersonal relationships and his personal journey through a disability lens. Levine, an ordained rabbi and Director of Touro’s Jewish Law Institute, delivers a studious reading of exegetical Jewish sources and a primer on autism and the behavioral traits of autism. The goal is both novel and ambitious: melding traditional Midrash and contemporary insights in order to understand Yosef. Perhaps Levine’s greatest contribution to the literature is in portraying an individual with a so-called invisible disability in normalized circumstances. The Biblical command to “be holy, live righteously” arguably includes a mandate against disability-based discrimination and a vigorous attempt to counteract ableism. Notwithstanding, the Bible is fraught with conflicting views of disability and the disabled body. A few disability themes stand out in Levine’s chronicles of Yosef that draw the reader to reflect on this autistic young man’s social or community inclusivity, fraternal relations and his sexuality.
The contemporary independent living movement is defined by concepts such as “most integrated setting” and “least restrictive environment.” Disabled individuals like Yosef ought to be living their lives in the most inclusive or integrated settings feasible, whether in the public square, at home or school, with family, in vocational training, the workplace, or even jail. Notions of inclusivity—and interdependence—are consistent wih Reform Judaism’s governing body resolutions and secular understanding and discourse. Yosef’s checkered history of brotherly relations stands in contrast to contemporary fraternal relationships in families that include a child with autism. A recent study by education specialists found that siblings of autistic adults reported spending “high quality” time with their brother or sister in a variety of activities.
While Yosef’s resistance to the advances of Potiphar’s seductive wife is portrayed as a triumph of morality or righteousness, this glosses over the question of whether he was struggling with his own sexuality. Some disability studies scholars refer to “sexual ableism” as the manifestation of lowered societal expectations for persons with disabilities in the realm of sexuality and intimate relationships, and suggest that this is at the root of a disproportionate incidence of sexual assault upon people with intellectual disability. Disabled young men have reported on barriers they face in negotiating sexual relationships, ranging from socio-sexual isolation in adolescent years and parents' negative or protective attitudes to social expectations of normative functioning and poor body image. Together, these barriers affect not only the attainment of sexual intimacy, but also the depiction of the disabled body as passive, pathologized, victimized or unattractive and the representation of people with disabilities as asexual.
Situating Yosef in normalized settings—albeit exceptional and Biblical—can also help the reader come to terms with the portrayal of a disability that “many commentators have opposed as a catastrophe or as a condition that is not fully human.” G_d’s invitation to inclusiveness applies to all peoples and embraces all their variations “with regard to understanding causes, responses, and communities” of those on or off the metaphoric spectrum.
Keywords: Autism, Bible, Judaism and Disability Invisible Disability, Sexuality and Disability
JEL Classification: K39, Y3
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation