Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
What are we supposed to do when our kids turn out a little bit different?
Specifically, what if your son likes to play dress-up in feminine clothes? And what if he has elaborate dreams and prophetic visions that suggest a closeness to G-d? While not all fathers can relate to that last part, I imagine the first is a bit more common, especially these days. Luckily for all of us, we have Israel’s example to contemplate.
In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Joseph, Israel’s youngest son. And when it comes to playing dress-up, the Torah wastes no time in telling us exactly how his family deals with that:
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” (Genesis 37:3-4 NIV)
So What’s a Ketonet Passim?
The New International Version (NIV) gives it this translation “ornate robe.” But we might better know the garment as Joseph’s “coat of many colors.” If we look at the Hebrew, the exact translation is somewhat lost, but contextually we can find it applied to the same dress worn by Princess Tamar (2nd Samuel 13:18).
Nothing in the story directly deals with Joseph’s subjective experience of gender. We don’t know how he “identified” (to use contemporary parlance). We don’t know really how Israel or Joseph’s culture understood gender. And while Jewish law provides for a multitude of perceived genders, whether these were specific categories people lived as (versus were simply perceived as at any given moment) is still a matter for debate.
What we do have to work with is Joseph’s story. If you pick up the highlights from Genesis 37:18 onward, Joseph’s brothers hate him so much they plot to kill him, decide instead to sell him into slavery, he winds up in a foreign city in a foreign land, he’s falsely accused of rape, put in prison, and is forgotten about.
To me that feels like the kind of story we’re going to get from activists tugging on our heartstrings for one cause or another. Joseph is the perfect victim. He does nothing wrong. He tells the truth, even when it gets him in trouble. And his truth he tells points to the flaws of the culture around him rather than any fault with him. Add to the story that his father gives him a princess dress to wear as a teenager, and I’m fairly certain I’ve read several versions of that story in the news already.
I think that’s important. I think that’s meaningful that we can find an ancient story being played out again and again today in our society. Maybe it’s some sort of archetypal myth the collective unconscious is running through. Or maybe we’re meant to find a more direct parallel between Joseph and people whose lives mirror his today. One day the correct perspective there will be revealed.
I see two key differences though between the ancient story and the modern retelling. The first is Israel’s love for Joseph. That love is so strong and so unbreakable, the imagery of it is contemplated by some kabbalists seeking to better understand the sefirah Tiferet. Put another way, Israel’s love for Joseph–which scripture only captures in a handful of lines right here–is so powerful and so pure that it is representative of a foundational channel established in creation between us and G-d.
Our modern retellings see the world in more black-or-white terms. There is no loving father nor loving G-d, only total oppression around every corner meant to be remedied by law or social mandate.
The second key difference though between the story in Torah and the stories of activist counterculture today is that identity isn’t central to this story at all. Like I said above, we don’t know how Joseph identifies himself. We don’t know how Joseph’s family sees him, other than what we can interpret from their interactions with him (hate and love).
What the story makes to matter in the Torah is Joseph’s character–his truthfulness, his purity in the face of temptation and pressure from those with power over him–and the love he receives from both his father, Israel, and G-d Himself through his lifetime. The blessings Joseph incurs show up for others and they recognize them. Perhaps this is even why Israel’s reaction is so much more loving and compassionate than Joseph’s brothers’ who are not yet spiritually refined enough to perceive G-d’s hand at work.
What Kind of Man Do We Look to Here?
If we want to look to the Bible for an example of how to live, we look to Israel in this story, not to his older sons. In the footsteps of Israel’s older sons, we might turn to specific passages in scripture such as Deuteronomy 22:5 which tells us “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for [HaShem] detests anyone who does this.” Read plainly, shouldn’t our model of behavior be to detest boys like Joseph who put on dresses (or fathers like Israel who enable their sons’ doing so)?
Perhaps on some level that is true, and when we get to Ki Teitzei, I’ll explore the context around that specific passage more fully. But here, in Vayeshev, neither G-d nor Israel detest Joseph. Reality is quite the opposite actually, while the choice to detest, to hate even, and to act on those emotions is something assigned fully to other people in Joseph’s life.
That difference between how people act (even with a basis in scriptural law) and how G-d chooses to work in someone’s life is the difference between reading the Bible as a compendium of plain laws and understanding the Bible as a testament to G-d reaching across such a great distance to show us love again and again. Israel, of course, understands that kind of love because he too has wrestled with his own sense of unworthiness.
(I’d wager the hatred of Joseph’s brothers and their jealousy towards him stems from a similar internal conflict).
It’s Israel’s example I believe we are meant to model ourselves after here. The message of this passage is not that we ought to become encyclopedias of Biblical rights and wrongs, or the earthly judges of who is to be loved by G-d. It’s that we ought to show compassion and show lovingkindness towards others, especially because we too are again and again shown compassion and lovingkindness from our G-d across such great distances.
Does that mean we throw out all commandments and traditions found in scripture? No. It means that we understand the full picture of what the Bible is showing us. G-d’s love doesn’t end with a legal arrangement. It surpasses it. Joseph’s brothers we might think of as acting informed by law. G-d though acts according to a higher standard of compassion and love. The same Bible which gives us Deuteronomy 22:5 gives us Joseph walking the fields in a dress, and tells us that G-d blesses not just him but the household where he works in Egypt, because of him (Gen. 39:2-5).
Does that mean that the Bible supports a particular view on contemporary gender politics? No. The Bible doesn’t provide that kind of guidance or endorsement any more than the presence of slaves and kings in Biblical stories is an endorsement of slavery and monarchy.
The closest we get to any sort of perspective on gender here is in Israel’s gifting of the dress to his teenage son to begin with. Even from that act–which again offers us a glimpse of Tiferet, a channel through which G-d’s love reaches us–we receive more insight about fatherhood, familial bonds, and faith than we do about gender or identity.
Israel, I believe, in that one set of verses, is showing us both that he knows his son well enough to know what he really needs, and that his faith in G-d is so strong that he knows G-d will work through and bless what seems a site of condemnation and rejection outside of his own love for his son.
If we take nothing else from this passage, I think that’s the message. Love your children and have faith that G-d will sort out the details.