When we study Torah, we inevitably reflect on the text through the lens of our own experience. The range of interpretations we discover is limited by the range of our own vision and sense of the possible. How exciting it can be when our minds expand and we recognize insights that were previously hidden from us! This is the true joy of learning.
Traditionally, Torah study and interpretation were almost exclusively the province of men, viewing the text through the lens of heterosexuality. The men who gave us this patrimony of wisdom were passionate and searching souls, and their legacy is rich and beautiful. But this legacy is also incomplete. How might a woman read the Torah differently, based on her experience of life? What might a gay or lesbian person, a gender queer or non-binary or trans person perceive in our sacred texts that others might have missed? Fortunately, in recent decades we have begun to answer those questions, as every Jew, regardless of gender or sexual identity, is now welcome in our study hall. As I join in this expanded conversation, I am constantly rewarded with new understandings of the Torah, many of which have been hiding (from me) in plain sight!
An excellent case in point is the story of Joseph, which is our Torah reading during these weeks.1 I have always understood Joseph to be an extraordinary figure, an interpreter of dreams, a callow boy who matures into a generous man, a person who goes through terrible trauma yet finds a way to reconcile and forgive, a slave who becomes Pharaoh’s vizier, and in so doing consolidates the power of throne. So many layers make up this timeless tale.
But queer colleagues point out another vital layer embedded in the text: Joseph is probably not a typical gender-conforming male. Here is the evidence:
“(And Jacob) made Joseph a k’tonet passim – a coat of many colors” (Gen. 37:3).
In addition to being an expression of Jacob’s special love for Joseph, is there any other significance to this garment? As it happens, k’tonet passim is found in only one other place in the Tanakh, in the book of Samuel. Tamar, one of the daughters of King David, wears it: “And she wore a k’tonet passim, for such was the dress of the virgin daughters of the king” (II Samuel 13:18). This colorful garment is explicitly identified as the dress of royal maidens. Why would Jacob give one of these to his son?
“Vayehi Yosef y’feh to’ar vifeh mar’eh” – “Now Joseph was beautiful of form and of appearance” (Gen. 39:6).
We learn this about Joseph when he is made head of Potiphar’s household in Egypt, as Potiphar’s wife takes a sexual interest in Joseph. This description of physical beauty is also applied to Rachel, Jacob’s adored wife; Bathsheba, the object of King David’s lust; and Queen Esther, who wins a beauty contest and thence the king’s hand. Joseph is the only male in the Bible who is described in this way.
As might be expected, the ancient composers of midrash noticed these unique descriptions of Joseph and his garb, and developed them further: “Joseph acted like a boy, penciling his eyes, lifting his heel, and fixing his hair” (Genesis Rabbah 84:7). The composers of this midrash do not seem to judge Joseph negatively for his effeminacy. In fact, extensive discussions in the Talmud identify and describe a whole range of genders without condemnation.2 We must be careful about retrojection of our own culture’s standards of acceptable gender presentation onto other cultures and eras. As Gregg Drinkwater points out in his commentary on Parashat Vayeshev, “in ancient cultures, particularly Greek and Roman culture, the line between a boy (as opposed to a man) and a woman was blurrier than it is today.”3
This reading of Joseph as a gender-bending figure improves our understanding of one of the most fully formed characters in the Torah. For Joseph is a “boundary crosser” in all ways. He is a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams. That is, he crosses the boundary between waking and sleep, between the physical and the visionary realms. He is a shaman, transiting between worlds. He is a shape-shifter, moving fluidly from one identity to the next, from prisoner to royal vizier, from Joseph son of Jacob to Tzafnat Panei’akh, the name given him by Pharaoh. So complete is Joseph’s transformation that when his brothers arrive in his court to purchase grain, they fail to recognize him.
Joseph doesn’t fit in to a prescribed role. This is in fact Joseph’s gift, as it allows him to “think outside the box” and to envision futures that others cannot see. Thanks to Joseph’s understanding of the coming years of plenty and famine, Joseph is able to save countless lives. Thanks to Joseph’s understanding that his brothers’ hateful actions toward him were part of a larger plan that made his own path possible, Joseph is able to forgive them and ensure the future of the Children of Israel. Joseph is a boundary-crosser. This is never a comfortable role to occupy in any society; it is so hard not to fit in. But please note that it is very Jewish. Our original name was the Hebrews. Hebrew – עִבְרִי ivri – is said to derive from the root עבר, to cross over, to reach the other side. Beginning with Abraham the Hebrew, we Jews have been crossing boundaries since we first walked the earth. Our “cultural DNA” predisposes us to always search for new ways of seeing and understanding.
To see Joseph as gender-nonconforming – what we refer to today as “queer” – enhances and expands our grasp of the nature of this Biblical hero.