Proactive Kavod: A Parashah Blog

By Student Rabbi Micah Geurin Weiss

December 1, 2018 - Parashat Vayeishev 5779

This blog post was originally published on September 5th, 2018. You can read the original post here and learn more about the 929 Torah commentary project.

The vast majority of survivors of sexual assault are cisgender women. It is important for women’s stories of gender-based violence to continue to be uplifted through the #metoo movement. In addition, we should not forget the many stories of cisgender men, trans, and gender non-conforming people who are also survivors amongst us.

The story of Joseph’s assault at the hands of Potiphar’s Wife in Genesis 39 is just such a story.

We could read Joseph as just any old straight man, or we might read his character with an overlay of queerness from the many hints in the Torah and rabbinic literature that Joseph had an extra flair of flamboyance in his gender presentation and sexuality. The Torah particularly focuses on Joseph’s good looks and youth (Genesis 37:2, 39:6). Bereishit Rabbah interprets the emphasis on his youth to say that he liked to fix up his hair, and touch up his eyes to appear good looking.[1] Contemporary readers looking for queer stories in the Torah have read these hints and others to create a reading of Joseph as queer.

The Torah may emphasize Joseph’s beauty in his encounter with Potiphar’s Wife, but I read her primary motivating force as the desire to assert power over another, as is the case with most instances of sexual assault. Potiphar’s Wife makes repeated, unwanted sexual advances towards Joseph, culminating in the use of physical force. When Joseph flees, she wields the social and political power she holds over Joseph to accuse him of the very crime she herself has committed. This perpetrator narrative resonates with familiar tropes of victim blaming. Joseph has no voice to defend himself and is thrown in jail.

Whether Joseph was straight, queer, asexual, cis-male, or transgender doesn’t matter in the slightest as a reason for his abuse, but these readings do allow the experiences of those not easily seen in the text of the Torah or the public discussion of sexual assault to be more visible. Oftentimes, initial judgements connected to a survivor’s identity and the situation they find themselves in cloud our capacity to listen, and leave us overly fixated on the “truth” of what happened in a claim of sexual assault. This unfortunate default line of inquiry gives great power to our inevitable biases, and makes the survivors’ needs invisible. Once we have given so much power to judgement, it is hard to shift the balance back towards empathy. The next time you hear someone brave enough to come forward with a story of assault, I encourage you to withhold judgement and ask yourself, “How would Joseph want me to respond to this story if it were his?”

This week’s Torah Reading: Genesis 39:7-20, 40:20-23

1Bereishit Rabbah 84:7


Read past Proactive Kavod posts:

Parashat Lech Lecha 5779

Parashat Chaye Sarah 5779

Parashat Toledot 5779