Was the biblical Joseph autistic?

 

While the idea presented in Samuel J. Levine’s book Was Yosef on the Spectrum, that the biblical Joseph, son of Jacob, was autistic, having Asperger’s Syndrome, may bother some people who prefer to think that Israel’s ancient leaders had no imperfection,[1] they will still find much to learn and much to appreciate in this book. Readers will discover that Levine’s analysis explains numerous seemingly strange behaviors by Joseph, who is called by his Hebrew name in this book, behaviors that stymied many scholars for generations. We can now better understand his strengths and weaknesses.

Levine shows more than a dozen examples how Joseph closely resembles many behaviors common among individuals with forms of high-functioning autism called Asperger’s Syndrome.

Samuel J. Levine is a professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at Touro Law Center and has taught at four law schools. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He does not present his thesis in a legal manner, but supports it with easy to read logic, sources such as the Talmud, Midrashim, classical Bible commentaries, and psychological studies.

Both people with autism spectrum disorders and Joseph have “social challenges punctuated by an inability to read social clues, understand and anticipate the feelings and reactions of others, attachment to animals or inanimate objects in place of intellectual relationships, heightened intellectual capacity and creativity in narrow areas of interest, repetitive and inflexible behaviors, an obsessive and compulsive focus on a private way of perceiving the world, and a rigid and literal perspective on truth, ethics, and morality that sees virtue in extreme terms rather than allowing for nuance,” Levine stresses “that this way of analyzing the story of Yosef should not be seen as casting Yosef in a negative light.”

There are many clues that may lead readers of the Bible’s story of Joseph to conclude that he was autistic. It is not any single behavior that leads to this conclusion, but the accumulation of many of his acts. We are first introduced to Joseph when he is caring for animals. Children on the spectrum, as previously stated, often feel more comfortable with animals than with people.

The commentator Rashi, relying on Midrashim, states that although he was seventeen years old, the Bible calls him a naar, a youth, because he acted childishly. Rashi adds that Joseph had been ostracized and marginalized by his half-brothers the sons of Leah because of his behavior, leading him to seek companionship with his less prominent half-brothers, sons of other wives. But even there he has trouble piloting his social environment. This is understandable. It is common for autistic children to possess advanced cognitive abilities, but still appear childish, immature, and socially inappropriate, leading them to be ostracized. Despite having an advanced intelligence, children on the spectrum may, as in the case of Joseph, be unable to understand the feelings of others.

Like other children on the spectrum, Joseph engages in attention-seeking behavior by repeatedly relating his dreams about his future to his family, totally oblivious to the feeing of those he is addressing.

When children on the spectrum are treated with hostility, as Joseph is, they turn to an authority figure for help. Joseph turns to his father Jacob with the misguided hope that reporting on the misbehavior of his brothers will resolve the situation. But he is unable to anticipate the ramifications of his actions. He cannot understand that telling tales about his brothers will exacerbate his alienation from them. Like others on the spectrum his obsessive need to tell the truth leads him to express his views regardless of other considerations.

Like other autistic children, he is unable to read social clues and respond by adjusting his behavior in a socially appropriate manner, in a way that would benefit him and others. Joseph is absorbed in himself and in his dreams. He sees nothing wrong or harmful in trying to bring his brothers and father into his own world.

Jacob sends Joseph to discover how his brothers are doing, and he gets lost. “It may not be surprising that Yosef is lost, given that children on the spectrum often have spatial and other sensory deficits, coupled with a degree of self-absorption leading them to be somewhat oblivious to their physical surroundings, all of which impact their sense of direction.”

His brothers sell him as a slave. In Egypt, as a slave to Potiphar, Joseph continues the same type of behaviors that infected his relationship with his brothers, his inability to anticipate and navigate social challenges, this time with Potiphar’s seductive wife, that lead him into trouble. “When Potiphar’s wife looks at Yosef, she not only observes that he is a handsome young man. She also notices that he is engaged in childish, self-absorbed, and dreamlike activities, singling his inability to effectively navigate his surrounding, and his vulnerability to the attacks – or in her case, the advances – of others, particularly adults in positions of authority.” Joseph is unable to read Potiphar’s wife’s intentions and to anticipate and handle her maneuvers. Joseph runs from Potiphar’s wife without realizing that he should have snatched his coat – the evidence against him – from her hands.

He is imprisoned, and it is in prison that he can begin to utilize his advanced cognitive abilities in a way that will impress people around him. He interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s officials. “Yet, without missing a beat or allowing for a gradual and socially appropriate dialogue to develop, Yosef calls out his own desires, demands, and expectations, unable to picture the situation from someone else’s perspective.” It is no surprise that the official ignored Joseph’s demand and only fulfilled it by chance two years later.

It is also possible that the official thought it inadvisable to plead with Pharaoh on behalf of someone with Joseph’s disabilities. This may explain why the official later described Joseph to Pharaoh as a naar, as “a warning to Pharaoh, to be prepared to encounter possibly strange behavior – albeit coupled with brilliant insights.”

It is no surprise that Pharaoh overlooked Joseph’s disabilities because many leaders can identify the strengths in others and the contributions the person can bring to the country. Pharaoh tells Joseph that he heard that he can interpret dream. Without waiting to hear the dream, Joseph curiously interrupts Pharaoh and contradicts him, “It lies beyond me. God will answer Pharaoh’s peace.” This response seems ill advised. It shows again Joseph exhibiting socially inappropriate behavior, not thinking how his actions impacts others and even his own safety.  Joseph should not have contradicted Pharaoh’s generous remark. And Joseph who has still not heard the dream seems overconfident that God will answer Pharaoh. Also, mentioning God identifies Joseph as a Hebrew who were held in contempt by the Egyptians.

After interpreting the dreams, Joseph continues his unwise behavior. Unasked, he offers Pharaoh advice on a course of action Pharaoh should take for the next fourteen years. This was discourteous and downright reckless. Perhaps recognizing Joseph’s disability and his perspicacity, Pharaoh gives Joseph dignified cloths (because people on the spectrum commonly have challenges about personal grooming – and this may also explain why Jacob gave him a coat), an honorable name, servants to help him, and a wife from a prominent family to protect him and help him navigate his social surroundings.

Joseph seems to have been able to channel his deficits during the ensuing years and achieve success. But when he encounters his brothers again, “Yosef returns to some of his old – and odd – behaviors” in the ways he treats his brothers and fails to consider their reactions and those of his father when he learns how the second-to-Pharaoh treated them. He also acts inappropriately when Jacob is near death and wants to bless Joseph’s children; he attempts to intervene and have his father bless the children as he, Joseph, feels is appropriate. And when Jacob requests that Joseph swear that he will bury him in Canaan, Joseph refuses to take the oath, and responds tersely, “I will do as you have said,” Jacob again requests Joseph to swear, and this time he complies.

Do these and other behaviors by Joseph prove that he had Asperger Syndrome? People may differ. Many, but not all, finding the evidence very persuasive. And if we are convinced that he did have the Syndrome, this does not belittle him. It helps us understand the many strange and inexplicable things that Joseph did.

 

[1] Contrary to what numerous people think, many rabbis recognized that none of the ancient Israelites were perfect. Nachmanides, for example, wrote that Abraham committed a great wrong when he lied and claimed that his wife Sarah was his sister so that Egyptians would not kill him when they kidnapped his wife. He also assumed that Jacob did wrong when he married two sisters, which is contrary to the law in the later promulgated Torah. See my Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker.

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