Joseph

Joseph – Parsha Vayeishev (Genesis 37)

by

Howard Adelman

This parsha is but the first of four (Miketz, Vayigash and Vayeh as well) telling the story of Joseph, a story which Andrew Lloyd Weber told in one musical evening in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. That was not quite the interpretation of the story I would tell. My version is told in the shadow of Jacob wrestling with the stranger, perhaps the same stranger who would redirect Joseph’s search for his brothers from Shechem to Dotham. It is also the story told against the much fainter shadow of the treatment of Dinah, someone also effectively cast out by her brothers. And it is a story that, after this parsha, will be interrupted by the tale of Tamar and Judah.

“This, then, is the line of Jacob,” begins the parsha. But verse 2 which effectively ends the period of the three patriarchs, though Jacob would live many more years after Joseph was sold off to slavery in Egypt, does not, in fact, tell us about the entire lineage of Jacob, only of his twelve sons, including the late-born Benjamin who arrived after Jacob’s return from his uncle Laban. For in addition to the twelve sons that headed the twelve tribes of Israel, there was Dinah. Dinah was the seventh child of Leah after she gave birth to six sons. She was still young, probably a teenager, when the family returned and likely the youngest sibling except for Benjamin. She was probably just a year or two younger than Joseph who was seventeen when this week’s parsha begins.

Further, we are told that Jacob favoured Joseph. Not Benjamin who was indeed the youngest, but also the one Jacob may have partially resented for his beloved wife, Rachel, died in giving birth to him. Not Dinah who was about the same age as Joseph and Jacob’s only daughter. And why not? Don’t fathers usually dote on their daughters? Is it not strange that Jacob does not?

Dinah is clearly adventurous and perhaps a fun-loving teenager. Perhaps she was in search of a father figure. In Shechem, she goes out “to visit the women of the region.” Curiousity? To make friends her own age and get away from the stodgy old adults she felt suffocated her? Or, perhaps, even to get into some hanky-panky, where visiting the women of the region becomes an association with prostitutes rather than the wives and daughters of the local inhabitants. She goes out alone, unchaperoned. That was both dangerous and certainly contrary to standard practice. “Girls out alone are looking for trouble.” So the saying goes, however untrue.

Further, in the next portion, Tamar as a widow plays the role of a prostitute in order to get her father-in-law to sleep with her so she can conceive a child in his line. She does it when he went off to shear his sheep. Tamar is a widow. Judah is a widower. Thus, there is nothing wrong with their having sex. Tamar does not engage in intercourse for money, for bargaining for an ewe in return for sexual favours was a ruse, not the intention of making herself available. The only point here is that Dinah was never an adulteress – adultery was strictly forbidden. Nor was she a prostitute simply for “wanting to have some fun.” She would only have been a prostitute if she exchanged her sexual favours for money.

Dinah finds the “fun” she is looking for in Shechem. The spoiled local prince, used to having his way, espies her. Presumably he tries to woo her. Perhaps she resists. He rapes her. Or did he? The text reads that he took Dinah by force. But the precise Hebrew is that Shechem “saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” (34:2) The force follows taking (as in taking a bride) and lying with her – וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ. The text does not say he forcefully took her. Further, the root,עָנָה , does not suggest coercion, but a response, a reaction, reciprocity and not that Dinah was taken by force. It suggests that she possibly responded and acceded to Shechem’s seduction.

Shechem was smitten. He not only wanted Dinah sexually. He fell in love with her and wanted to wed. He asked his father, Hamor, to pay the bridal price. Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled, meaning, perhaps only that she had lost her virginity and not that she had been raped, but she had lost it to a man who was not a member of the tribe. To be defiled is something different than being a prostitute. This is explicitly made clear in reference to the High Priest. He (the high priest) “shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or one divorced, or a woman who has been defiled, or a harlot, these he shall not marry; but he shall take to wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his children among his people; for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.” (Leviticus 20:13) Jacob learns that his daughter had lost her virginity to a man who was not a member of the tribe, presumably at the same time as he learned that the supposed “rapist” wanted to marry his daughter, a situation which usually allowed a perpetrator of rape to get off free of any reprimand.

Jacob, ever the cautious calculator, bides his time until his sons return from their shepherding duties. He is then told that the brothers were incensed. Perhaps they adored their little sister. Perhaps they felt guilty that she had been allowed to go off visiting by herself. Perhaps they had adopted a new moral dictum that rape was never forgivable, even if the rapist offered to marry the girl. After all, the text says that Shechem “had committed an outrage in Israel (my italics) by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.” (Genesis 34:7) The new moral seemed to state that not only is rape a crime, but even sleeping with a shegetz is a crime, and then not just for a High Priest. A shegetz, from the Hebrew, sheketz, applies its connotations of detestable and abominable to non-Jewish young men.

For this transgression, which Shechem and his father probably did not know, not only Shechem, but his father and ALL the males of the tribe were slain. Not only slain. But murdered en mass after they had welcomed the Israelites to share their land, their women and their resources. The men of Shechem even went further. They agreed to be circumcised, but the text does not say that they agreed to adopt the God of Israel as their God. Hamor and Shechem convinced all the men of the city to go along with the deal. And when they were in terrible pain recovering from an adult circumcision, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, full brothers of Dinah, “took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males.” (34:25) Even worse, the rest of Jacob’s sons, presumably including Joseph, unless the reference was only to full brothers, plundered the town, took all the women and children captive and appropriated all the herds and property.

Jacob was bothered by the action, not because it was heinous, but because his tribe was still relatively small and the local population could unite against the Israelites and destroy them. Jacob did not think of Dinah’s humiliation, which could in part have been redeemed if he had allowed her to marry Shechem. He did not say anything about the deceit and the horror of the crime his sons had committed. His only thought was to remonstrate his sons for putting them all in danger. Jacob had not changed character one whit since he had wrestled with the stranger. And then the brothers offered their lame excuse: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (v. 31) even though Hamor’s and Shechem’s offer made it unequivocally clear that she would not be treated like a prostitute. Further, there was never any question until they utter this phrase that their sister had offered herself for money. She was at most taken by force, but more likely cooperated in the seduction.

The plunder and looting never bothered Jacob. Uncalculated murder, mayhem and warfare did. On his death bed, after he had remonstrated Reuben for sleeping with his concubine, Reuben, “unstable as water,” was the one who disgraced his father, the same Reuben who prevented his brothers from murdering Joseph with the intention of saving him before he was sold to slave traders. Jacob did not seem to know or understand who Reuben was and the sense of responsibility he carried. Simeon and Levi were chastised for using weapons as tools of lawlessness and allowing anger to determine their actions, including the murder of men. Those two sons were cursed and were to be “scattered in Israel.” (Genesis 49: 4-6)

What does the Dinah tale have to do with the Joseph story that virtually monopolizes the Torah portion this week and for a month after? I will not repeat the full story. It is all-too-familiar. What I want to first do is set key elements of the story against the backdrop of the “rape” of Dinah.

First, Joseph is portrayed as a snitch. He tells his father that the four sons of his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, were engaged in evil, but we do not know what that evil was. Was Joseph, so much an expression of his creative imagination rather than rational calculation, making this accusation up? He is portrayed as a dreamer, not an exaggerator. But even then, was he not a whistle blower? There is no reason offered why he had to inform his father of his brothers’ behavior. But he is not quite the whistle blower, though he took enormous risks in informing on his brothers. Perhaps “snitch” is more accurate. We also learn that Joseph’s brothers despised him, presumably because he was his father’s favourite. They also treated him uncivilly, but this might have been more because he was a dandy and wore a coat of many colours. As Jacob was to Esau, so Joseph was to all his brothers. But also a snitch. A dandy. And his father’s favourite. We know where the detestation and rude treatment of Joseph by his brothers, however itself detestable, came from.

The brothers’ treatment of Joseph was adumbrated in their treatment of Dinah. Though the deplorable act of her two natural brothers killing all the men of Shechem and Haror’s town enormously overshadowed their treatment of Dinah, the way they thought of, discussed and referred to Dinah was horrific, though not nearly as great a crime as mass murder. Admittedly, they did not engage in honour killing just as they decided to fake Joseph’s death and instead sold him into slavery. The fact remains, Dinah, like Joseph, also had been terribly mistreated. Not only was she called a whore by her brothers, presumably attempting to defend their own honour more than hers. They never asked what Dinah wanted. They never gave any consideration of her feelings, her wishes, her desires or her persona.

They were not nice guys. And they became even worse.

There was a big difference between Dinah and Joseph. Dinah was an adventurer. Joseph was a dreamer, a dreamer who easily surpassed the reputation of his father’s. But Joseph as a youth lacked his father’s diplomacy. Tell it as it is without conniving or manipulation. Hence his dream of the sheaves in which the sheaves of his brothers bow down to those of Joseph. Joseph even had the gall to tell his brothers his dream. They despised the arrogant snitch and dandy even more. Even more troubling, he had a second dream of eleven stars, the sun and the moon all bowing down to him no longer disguised as a sheaf of wheat. Even his father and mother would eventually bow down to him. Can you imagine Jacob dreaming not only that Esau prostrated himself before him, but so did Isaac and Rebecca? That suggests how outlandish and inconsiderate Joseph’s behaviour was in telling both his father and his brothers of his dream.

Israel, not called Jacob here, sent Joseph to go out and look at how his brothers were taking care of his father’s sheep in Shechem. We know that something momentous is about to happen when Joseph responds to his father’s request with the phrase, “Hineni,” here I am. Jacob then adds: יד וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר “Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock.” His first instruction is to report back on how they were fulfilling their responsibilities. Perhaps, remembering his favourite son’s reputation as a snitch, his follow up instruction, as if it was a second thought, was to report back also on the well-being of his brothers.

Was Joseph responding like his great-grandfather, Abraham, and stating that he was offering himself to the other, God in Abraham’s case, in complete dedication and commitment? If so, why would he have a dream where the sun, the symbol of his father, prostrates before him? The daylight of reason and calculation bows down to the night of dreams and fantasies, whereas, in the case of his mother, were she alive, the light of the night would bow down to the bright shine of the day. Joseph stood before Jacob in a very different way than Abraham stood before his God.

When Joseph went out to report on his brothers – one might ask why he was not out in the fields tending the sheep himself – he meets a stranger. He does not wrestle with him until dawn. Instead, the stranger – the man – asks him what or whom he was looking for since Joseph seemed lost. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where he was. But lost in the sense of bewildered when he could not find his brothers where they were supposed to be. They were not in the place where Abraham offered his sacrifice, where Joseph’s half-brothers killed all the adult males and conquered the city, but in a city nearby occupied by the Habiru who did not attack the Israelites, as Jacob feared, when the latter ravished Shechem, for the Habiru had always stood in rebellion against the overlordship of Shechem and his father.

Did Jacob send Joseph out to espy on his brothers because he feared their insensitivity to others and was worried that his sons might arouse the local populace because they resented the Israelites feeding their flocks on the rich pastures not rightfully belonging to them? For when Joseph told the stranger of his mission, the stranger told him that his brothers were not in Shechem, but were now in Dothan (דתין or דתן). They were not where they were supposed to be, but in the lush vale in Dothan. They were halfway between Shechem, now a holy place conquered by the Israelites, and Megiddo, that ancient fortress. Dothan was halfway between the symbol of both betrayal and promise and the fortress standing for the rule of might. Did its inhabitants fear the Israelites who had a powerful god or were they eager to prove they were bolder and stronger than these recent intruders who were now trespassing on their pasture land?

The brothers spied Joseph coming after them. They knew Joseph was a snitch and they were not where they had been told to be. So they conspired to kill their brother whom they always resented. Why then? Why there? Why were the brothers not in Shechem? Did it matter that they were not? Shechem is the first city Abraham entered when he reached the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:6) and where God proclaimed his promise to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. Jacob, when he returned from his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram, stopped in Shechem. Shechem is where he wrestled with the stranger or the angel. Shechem is where Jacob was renamed Israel. Shechem is the place where the rape or seduction of Dinah took place. So Shechem is both a very holy place as well as a place of defilement.

דת (dat), the first letters of Dothan, is a feminine noun. It means edict. It means law. It also means elect. Joseph was elected to lead his brothers. Israelites were elected to be a light unto the nations. “Dat” also refers to both a doorway and well, an entry point and a rich source of the abundance of the earth. It is the turning point where the Israelites will fulfill the promise made to Abraham and go down to Egypt, to the wealth of Egypt, where they would eventually become slaves and then gain their freedom and acquire their Torah and book of laws in their return to Canaan. Jacob was placed in the pit by his brothers when Reuben, the eldest, told his younger siblings not to get blood on their hands, but leave Jacob to be killed by the wild animals thereabout, though Reuben, carrying the responsibilities of the eldest, planned to come back and rescue Joseph.

The land, that will be Israel, was never forgotten as a promise. Although his brothers did not kill him and sold him as a slave to a group of Ishmaelite traders on route to Egypt, Joseph never forgot the land that he was promised to inherit and rule and, in his will, instructed that his bones be carried back and buried in that land. (Genesis 50:25) And it would be at Shechem that God repeated the promise and ordered Israel to return, both blessing and cursing the narrative of the nation’s tribulations. So Joshua split the nation, just as Jacob had once done, placing half in front of Mount Gerizim and half before Mount Ebal to confirm that, on the one hand, they would be blessed if they obeyed the law, and the other half to confirm that they would be cursed if they did not. Thus, Shechem, which was such a symbol of treachery and betrayal to both the goyim and by Jacob’s sons even their own father, was the place that finally and ironically would lead a cluster of rivalling tribes of one family into becoming a nation under the rule of law. But the Israelites were not yet ready. They had to be sent down to Egypt via Gothan for 400 years.

What role did Joseph’s dreams play in that trajectory and what role did the earlier treatment of Dinah? Though Joseph is carried off to Egypt in slavery, the crux of the narrative turns around the polarity of loyalty versus treachery. Shechem was where the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, buried the bones of their father on the very spot that Jacob bought initially from the family of Hamor. And Shechem became not only a symbol of both loyalty and betrayal, but a city that would stand for the rule of law. Further, it became, like Philadelphia, a city of brotherly love, a city of refuge, a city to which refugees from tyranny and the miscarriages of justice could flee and receive protection. However, it was at Gothan that Joseph was cast out as a refugee, placed into slavery and taken to Egypt.

In the process, a version of the trick that Jacob played on his father, Isaac, would be played on him. But instead of Jacob wearing the skin of a goat on his arm to appear hairy like Esau, his sons had soaked Joseph’s many-coloured coat in goat’s blood, suggesting that he was killed and eaten by wild animals. Dinah will disappear from history, the fate of an adventurer taking risks in an unknown land. Joseph will loom even larger in history than even Jacob as he becomes the vehicle for saving both the Egyptians and the Israelites from famine. For Jacob bends and uses his fantasies and dreams rather than deceit and manipulation to assume and wield power. Joseph is the progenitor of a very different kind of politics than the politics of might is right or the calculating politics of a Kissinger (Jacob) who uses positions of power to advance self-interests. Joseph will lead because he is a visionary of a global political landscape where helping one’s own and helping the other are synergistic and not oppositional. Joseph, the hero of the story, stands in contrast to Dinah who was treated as a prostitute by her brothers.

But it is well not to forget that Jacob was a whistleblower or a snitch, with all the problems of discerning whether what is leaked is false news or profound revelations.

With the help of Alex Zysman

Genesis Chapter 37 בְּרֵאשִׁית
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו–בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן. 1 And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
ב אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו; וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil report of them unto their father.
ג וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו–כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ; וְעָשָׂה לוֹ, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.
ד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם. 4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
ה וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם, וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד, שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ. 5 And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more.
ו וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲלֵיהֶם: שִׁמְעוּ-נָא, הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתִּי. 6 And he said unto them: ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed:
ז וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי, וְגַם-נִצָּבָה; וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם, וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי. 7 for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.’
ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, אֶחָיו, הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ, אִם-מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו. 8 And his brethren said to him: ‘Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.
ט וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר, וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה חָלַמְתִּי חֲלוֹם עוֹד, וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים, מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי. 9 And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said: ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.’
י וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל-אָבִיו, וְאֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיִּגְעַר-בּוֹ אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ: הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ, אָרְצָה. 10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him: ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’
יא וַיְקַנְאוּ-בוֹ, אֶחָיו; וְאָבִיו, שָׁמַר אֶת-הַדָּבָר. 11 And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind.
יב וַיֵּלְכוּ, אֶחָיו, לִרְעוֹת אֶת-צֹאן אֲבִיהֶם, בִּשְׁכֶם. 12 And his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.
יג וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם–לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנֵּנִי. 13 And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them.’ And he said to him: ‘Here am I.’
יד וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר; וַיִּשְׁלָחֵהוּ מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן, וַיָּבֹא שְׁכֶמָה. 14 And he said to him: ‘Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock; and bring me back word.’ So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
טו וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה; וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר, מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ. 15 And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying: ‘What seekest thou?’
טז וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ; הַגִּידָה-נָּא לִי, אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים. 16 And he said: ‘I seek my brethren. Tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock.’
יז וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ, נָסְעוּ מִזֶּה–כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֹמְרִים, נֵלְכָה דֹּתָיְנָה; וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו, וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן. 17 And the man said: ‘They are departed hence; for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan.
יח וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק; וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם, וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ. 18 And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him.
יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: הִנֵּה, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה–בָּא. 19 And they said one to another: ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh.
כ וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ, וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת, וְאָמַרְנוּ, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; וְנִרְאֶה, מַה-יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’
כא וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. 21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’
כב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ-בוֹ: לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו. 22 And Reuben said unto them: ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’–that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father.
כג וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר-בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו; וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף אֶת-כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ, אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him;
כד וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ–וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ, הַבֹּרָה; וְהַבּוֹר רֵק, אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם. 24 and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
כה וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד; וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים, נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט–הוֹלְכִים, לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה. 25 And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.
כו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, אֶל-אֶחָיו: מַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ, וְכִסִּינוּ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?
כז לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, וְיָדֵנוּ אַל-תְּהִי-בוֹ, כִּי-אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ, הוּא; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶחָיו. 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him.
כח וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִן-הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף; וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, מִצְרָיְמָה. 28 And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt.
כט וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו. 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.
ל וַיָּשָׁב אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיֹּאמַר: הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ, וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי-בָא. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’
לא וַיִּקְחוּ, אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת יוֹסֵף; וַיִּשְׁחֲטוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים, וַיִּטְבְּלוּ אֶת-הַכֻּתֹּנֶת בַּדָּם. 31 And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood;
לב וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, זֹאת מָצָאנוּ: הַכֶּר-נָא, הַכְּתֹנֶת בִּנְךָ הִוא–אִם-לֹא. 32 and they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said: ‘This have we found. Know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not.’
לג וַיַּכִּירָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; טָרֹף טֹרַף, יוֹסֵף. 33 And he knew it, and said: ‘It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.’
לד וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו; וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל-בְּנוֹ, יָמִים רַבִּים. 34 And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
לה וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: ‘Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.’ And his father wept for him.
לו וְהַמְּדָנִים–מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל-מִצְרָיִם: לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים. {פ} 36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard. {P}

Shame and Humiliation: Part I of V: Shaming and Shame

Shame and Humiliation

Part I of V: Shaming and Shame

by

Howard Adelman

Is shame a virtue or a vice?

Shame is what you do to yourself. Humiliation is what one person does to another. You humiliate your neighbour when you try to shame him or her. Trying to put a neighbour to shame is one ineffective way of trying to get rid of the shame you feel in yourself. Whether expressed inwards towards oneself or displaced outwards onto another, as the ancient Jewish sages wrote, “Better a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and got her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her so she could conceive. However, even though Judah had broken his promise to provide his other son as a husband for Tamar so she could have a child, even though he publicly denounced her as a prostitute when it became obvious that she was pregnant, Tamar refused to humiliate her father-in-law and the biological father of the foetus she carried in her womb. She revealed the truth only in private to him and not only informed him that he was the father of the child, but gave him clear proof. He decided on his own to acknowledge his guilt in not fulfilling his promise to Tamar and took responsibility as the father.

The story of Joseph, the favourite son of Jacob, and the coat-of-many-colours his father gave him, is also a tale of a refusal by Joseph to shame his brothers before their father. His brothers had pretended that wild animals had killed Joseph when they had sold him into slavery. When, many years later, his brothers, during a drought and famine, traveled down to Egypt for provisions, Joseph had risen to the highest position in the land next to the king. However, he kept his identity secret and made his brothers go back and bring his father. Joseph then revealed himself to them, but adamantly refused to humiliate his brothers by telling his father what happened. He lied. Joseph had not told his father earlier even to relieve the pain at the loss of his favourite son lest Jacob take out his wrath on his brothers. Joseph always made his concern for his brothers’ dignity as human beings primary. He fabricated a story to spare his brothers ignominy, humiliation and the wrath of their father.

If it is wrong to humiliate another and shame him or her in public, is it wrong to feel shame oneself? Carl Jung called shame the swampland of the soul. Steve McQueen recognized this when he directed and co-wrote the part of a sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in the movie, Shame. As it happened, when Shame was given its public release, Fassbender appeared in another movie released at the same time; he played Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. It is 1904 and Carl Jung is treating a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), with Sigmund Freud’s new talking cure. Shame was also a theme in that movie for Jung diagnosed his patient as being obsessed with sexual humiliation, in her case, brought on by the abuse of her father.

In the film, Shame, Fassbender stands before the audience in full frontal nudity. What a contrast to being em-barr-assed! In fact, the movie is about the main character, Brandon, who insatiably pursued sex. Sex was not on display in such detail for titillation, but to allow the audience to get inside Brandon’s head and learn to understand a man running away from himself and escaping his deep sense of loneliness through sex. Standing nude before us, not with Fassbender’s usual macho body, we view Brandon as an addict who fuels his addiction with junk food while watching porn and masturbating.

Shame is the product of our loss of self-esteem, our increasing self-doubt and insecurity. When we feel shame, we have set aside any consideration of our self-worth. Shame feeds on self-loathing. That self-loathing, in turn, forms a vicious circle to propel us into behaviour that increases our contempt for ourselves even further. Shame is indeed a “soul-eating emotion” in Jung’s terms. I knew a mother of a grown daughter who obsessively shamed her offspring in public. The mother would directly tell her daughter, “Why can’t you do it as beautifully as ….N?” She asked her daughter rhetorically, “Why can’t your child be as smart as G?” That mother fed on humiliating her closest offspring, yet her daughter had learned to turn the tables and prevent shame from swamping her life and, most importantly, disrespecting herself and showing disrespect to her own mother. The daughter was still never perfect enough, still had to be everywhere exactly on time, still had to perform always at the highest standard. But she did not allow the shame to eat away at her soul as if it were the spiritual equivalent of a flesh-eating disease.

Shame is allowing your self-worth to be determined by how you appear to others. Ironically, shame, so tied with exposure, hides in the deepest recesses of your being, subverting your self-worth in the most devious ways. Fed by self-doubt and a low opinion of oneself, shame is not determined by who you are or what you do, but by the phantom of who you are supposed to be.

Why then is shame defined as a painful feeling that arises from a consciousness of dishonourable or improper behaviour towards another? It is because we project shame onto another and believe it is the other who behaved dishonourably? Tim was a sexist. Rachel was a dissembler, if not a liar, who, to compound her problems, showed no proper respect towards her parents. He or she should feel pain, we insist. He or she should be conscious of his or her misbehaviour. But it is we who cast stones who must become self-conscious of our behaviour. Tim Hunt did not feel that he was disgraceful. But he was disgraced. Rachel Dolenzal pursued her quest to identify with and fight for the rights of Blacks with intelligence and energy. But she was subjected to public shaming as a dissembler and even a liar.

Deborah Blum is not only an American journalist and columnist for The New York Times, but also a Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for best reporting for her series entitled, “The Monkey Wars” on the ethical conflict between scientists who use animals in their experiments and animal rights activists opposed to this purported cruelty to animals. As a star science reporter, she gave a parallel lecture to Tim Hunt’s in South Korea at the Ninth World Conference of Science Journalists. She wrote about what happened to Tim in an article for The Daily Beast called “Sexist Scientist: I Was Just Being Honest,” the title of which quickly informed readers about her view of Tim Hunt as well as satirizing rather than explicating and understanding his own account.

Both speakers had given their lectures. At the luncheon afterwards, they were each asked to add a few informal comments. Deborah talked about the way women make science smarter. Tim gave a tribute to women’s contribution to science. He then went astray to talk about his troubles with girls in the lab (supposedly humorously, and suggested perhaps structuring labs on the apartheid principle).

Deborah Blum’s nerves had already been set on edge when Tim referred to female scientists as “girls.” When he made his infamous remarks which I wrote about, Blum, along with two other science journalists, were appalled.  They tweeted simply to put what they had seen and heard on record, and the story went viral. Tim later protested that he had been “hung out to dry” and that he had only been joking, but to no avail. He insisted that no one had called him to ask him to explain what he meant. Blum took umbrage at that for she declared that she had made a point of asking Tim for that very explanation. In that explanation, Tim had evidently said that, “he was only trying to be honest.” But Blum never reports on what that explanation was. She presumes the remark was just a revelation of Tim Hunt’s sexism, though she quotes from his apology to the Korean female scientists and journalists. Most serious of all, in contrast to her award-winning series on the war between lab scientists and animal rights activists, she never even attempts to explore the war of righteous journalists battling for the purity of principle in a number of different fields and the sacrifice of individual human lives and reputations in that crusade.

Hunt had written that he regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added: “I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.” Blum acknowledges that this indicated that the event was not entirely an “ill wind,” but not because Hunt’s remarks were not an ill wind, but because Hunt was forced to retreat and retract his sexist remarks – without ever determining whether those remarks were intended to convey a sexist worldview. Blum never tries to reconcile the remark, Tim Hunt’s apology and his behavioural record as a scientist and collaborator with women or to explore why he would offer such a tasteless joke. Instead, Blum went in another direction. She challenged characterizing the firestorm that followed as a “witch-hunt” and, instead, insisted that, although she sympathized with anyone caught is such a media storm, “if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.”

But that is precisely the nature of a witch-hunt. The individual hunted down and quartered does not count. What counts is the principle. And if Tim Hunt had to be sacrificed on the altar of pure principle, so be it. Further, it was not even worth investigating whether there was any empirical evidence to support her assumption that Hunt was a sexist. That was just a given. The remark was made. He said that he was trying to be honest. Case closed. And that has been the problem with most of the journalism coverage of both Tim Hunt and Rachel Dolezal. The frame determines what the facts are. Disputes over interpretations of so-called facts are set aside and certainly never traced to different frames of interpretation. Nor is her own role in igniting the firestorm critically investigated. After all, Deborah was just tweeting for the record. She had not intended to bring Hunt down. But when the corpse of his reputation lay in tatters, that was just the cost of upholding a principle. Quite aside from never investigating whether such pain was proportionate to the alleged offence, Blum never asks whether her offence might have been far worse than Tim Hunt’s. He apologized. She remained self-righteous.

However, shaming another begins with being made to feel ashamed of oneself. How do we combat shame that somehow has been instilled in us? By self-love. By self-respect. By attending to our actual performance rather than our inadequacies and all the ways we fall short. Shame is a cancer that can only be held at bay by subjecting it to laughter and derision, by forcing it into the light where it has a great deal of trouble thriving. For shame belongs in the shadowland of the soul. It is a saboteur, a terrorist of our spiritual health. It sends the message that we are unworthy and unloved, indeed, unlovable. Shame corrodes. Shame corrupts. Shame paralyzes and induces impotence.

That is why it is wrong to try to hang a scarlet letter of shame on another. If feeling shameful is a process of sickening oneself with the thought of oneself, shaming is often the effort to project that state of being onto another because of what one believes deep down about oneself. To project shame on another is to attempt to relieve oneself of that feeling no matter how we rationalize it. Why do we try to get rid of the feeling by ejecting it onto another? Because we feel deep down that we are not good enough and so try to bring down someone who appears too good, too active in the battle against privilege. Rachel Dolezal is a case in point.

And she was vulnerable. She did not show proper respect for her parents, whether they were her biological forbears or not. She somehow seemed ashamed of them. She stumbled when she tried to articulate who she was and who she was trying to become because she lacked an adequate intellectual framework to articulate her own aspirations within a more universal context. However, as I will later try to show, no matter what she had done, once caught up in a system of shame, there is no escape and no method of throwing off the shame. For it is akin to a Haitian curse, to having an effigy of oneself struck through with a long needle. The pain is excruciating and cannot be avoided. Further, the process, once accepted and dominant in a culture, gives official permission to allow others to portray the shamee, in this case, Rachel, as a dissembler, as someone who deliberately wore a disguise, because there was a grain of truth in it. The world is invited to join the exercise of shoving in pins. But the real truth was that Rachel courageously took on her own self-definition of who she was, and, further, stood up to the abuse and name-calling.

Tim Hunt, in contrast, when he cracked a stupid dumb joke and it backfired, fled the field when the abuse and put-downs poured in. He offered a clearly sincere and heart-felt apology, that, as can be expected when one understands witch hunts, was either ignored or misinterpreted and used against him. But he never joined the media circus. A Nobel Prize winner had been brought low. The institutions that are there to protect intellectuals from their deepest vulnerabilities because they venture to work on the frontiers of ideas, suddenly turned tail and allowed the lions to maul and scratch and bite their own offspring to deflect the public rage against themselves. Tim Hunt could be the most courageous of individuals in pursuing the frontiers of knowledge in a field where he had enormous expertise, but when he inadvertently left his comfort zone, and failed to perform up to scruff, the lions were waiting. Released into the arena of public opinion, Tim Hunt never had a chance. The feeling of inner doubt that he had worked his whole life to overcome through superb performance to insist that he was good enough rather than never being good enough, now escalated into a different domain altogether. “Who do you think you are?” Not satisfied with watching a highly respected man being drawn and quartered, the watchers and gazers, those who cried for more blood, tramped on the torn and shredded body to demonstrate their own disgust with themselves.

Do not get me wrong. Those engaged in humiliating another never experienced their sadistic behaviour, their efforts to humiliate, their desire to bring an esteemed person down, as an engagement in public humiliation. No. They were serving a higher purpose – fighting against sexism or combating a failure at transparency. Like the Puritan witch hunters of old, they were serving a higher calling. “This is who we are!” they shouted from their fountainheads in the media. “Now see where you are.”

But what about Jian Ghomeshi, Evan Solomon and Senator Mike Duffy when they failed in what they actually did, when their hidden selves – their sadism, poor judgement or greed – were exposed to the public glare? Should they not feel shame? Should they not be humiliated and disgraced?  Perhaps the media firestorm was far out of proportion to the slip-up of Rachel Dolezal and even more so of Tim Hunt, but surely those other three should be made to face the guilt for what they did.

Facing guilt and shaming are two radically different enterprises. Ensuring that they face what they did wrong does not require humiliating them. If they erred legally, it is for the courts to judge. If they failed ethically, society will hold them to account and convey what is unacceptable behaviour. There is no necessity to heap on humiliation. They may or may not feel shame. But we fail if we try to transfer our own sense of low worth onto any of them. Humiliating another is unacceptable, not simply or mostly about what is done to them, but about what we are doing to ourselves.

A shaming society is a society of witch hunts and public flogging. It is not a society that tries to raise the level of self-worth of everyone. A society of shaming is a society that says we all have equal value when that can only be done by bringing many of those with great value into the common trough. If they misbehave, they must be found guilty in the eyes of the law or in public valuation. They must be brought face-to-face with their guilt. But rubbing their noses in the trough of greed or a failure in transparency and recognition of what they did wrong, only enhances the difficulty they face in dealing with the truth about themselves. More importantly, it hides and displaces our failure to deal with the truth of who we are. They have done it to themselves by their behaviour. What those guilty of a crime or moral turpitude deserve from us is compassion and a sense of proportion. And it is the latter that is so sorely lacking when we engage in schadenfreude.

A society that respects guilt and allows and encourages confrontation with one’s guilt is a healthy society. A society which indulges itself in humiliation and shaming is a sick society. A communist system is a shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercuts any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual.

Shame is not the acknowledgement of guilt. Shaming is not the focus on what you did to harm another. Shame is not an effort to get someone to acknowledge that what was done was bad – though I will later discuss a hybrid that pretends and contends that it does precisely that. Shame is not assisting another to apologize sincerely and to take a punishment proportionate to their deeds. Shame is humiliating the other, is heaping scorn on another. And it is always done in the name, not of a specific legal or moral code, but in the name of a universal abstract principle – anti-sexism, honesty, Puritanism, communism.

Shaming someone because she did not show sufficient or proper respect for her parents is not an effort to allow Rachel to face her failure. For her failure is allegedly misrepresentation. The abandonment of respect for her parents was viewed as the core case of that failure, not the core of  failure in her altogether. For if she was alienated from her parents, that was simply an interpersonal problem between Rachel and her father and mother. But if she disowned her parents for the purpose of lying and dissembling before the public, then Rachel crossed a universal moral principle which we must all uphold –  honesty. And honesty is the demi-god before which all journalists must bow down in an uncritical idolatry.

That god was called Veritas, the goddess of honesty in the ancient Mediterranean world. I will not go into the difference between the parallel Athenian god, Athenaia, which offers a subtle explanation. Instead I will try to offer a mythological explanation of why representatives of the public media seem to take such much pleasure in revealing that a greatly admired or respected person has feet of clay. I will retell the tale about Veritas that can be found in Aesop’s Fables.

Tomorrow: Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mandacius and Humiliation