Was Joseph autistic?

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By Rabbi Laurie Green

This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23.

Was Joseph autistic? It would certainly explain a lot about his personality and behavior. The Torah begins by telling us that Joseph is 17 and a youngster (na’ar). Already this seems contradictory. In biblical times a 17-year-old was an adult.

But let’s assume that a 17-year-old is a na’ar. If so, why does the Torah need to say na’ar at all? As the Rabbis taught, no word of Torah is wasted. So what is Torah telling us? It’s common for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be particularly skilled and successful in some areas, yet appear to others as childlike, as if a youngster, a na’ar. In fact, the famous biblical commentator Rashi says just that.

Sibling rivalry is normal, but Joseph doesn’t seem to be trying to upset his brothers. He tells them his dreams, perhaps, because he is honest at heart, and has no idea that sharing this information is hurtful. The text repeatedly tells us that the brothers hated Joseph and were jealous of him. We are never told of Joseph’s feelings toward his brothers. A neuro-typical teenager would return the animosity of his brothers, but not Joseph.

Years pass and Joseph’s social skills show no improvement. Pharoah tells Joseph, “I have heard about you, that you can interpret dreams.” Rather than offer an appropriate response such as, “Yes, sir. I can interpret your dreams. I’ll do anything you ask, O Great Pharoah,” Joseph says, “It is not within my power.”

Joseph is honest to a fault. Honest to his own detriment. This behavior is common for many people on the spectrum when they interview for jobs. Neuro-atypical people may not understand that interviewers expect them to make themselves look good and don’t understand what they did “wrong.”

These are just a few of the points made by Samuel Levine in his book “Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph through Torah, Midrash and Classical Jewish Sources.”Levine explains:

Viewed through this lens (of Asperger’s Syndrome, a.k.a. autism), Joseph emerges as a more familiar and less enigmatic individual, exhibiting both strengths and weaknesses commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder.

We can’t be sure if Joseph was autistic, but when has that ever stopped a midrash from hypothesizing. The midrash is full of contradictory and questionable theories.

Sadly, this idea is controversial only because it is wrong to speak badly of a tzaddik like Joseph. Why assume that autism is a criticism? This is a profound misunderstanding of people on the spectrum and, more broadly, of individuals with IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities).

The stigma in our community persists. Autism is an “imperfection,” our community tells us. Disability in general is stigmatized and disabled individuals and their families are separated from the community.

A rabbi I know left the pulpit after the president of his synagogue insisted he keep his autistic son home because he was “too distracting.”

It’s time to break the stigma.

Rabbi Laurie Green is an author, chaplain, educator, spiritual director and yoga instructor. After 15 years in the pulpit, she is pleased to be joining the staff of Makom, and working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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