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Potiphar’s Wife & The Spiritual

Potiphar’s Wife & The Spiritual

Associate Editor

Friday, July 11th, 2008

History is written by the winners, and so is the Torah. Korach is depicted as a bad guy, when an honest reading of the last three-and-a-half books of the Torah suggest that Moses was a singularly uninspiring leader, a less poetic speaker than most any prophet that followed, and just begging for a challenge from Korach or anyone else. Whatever Korach’s failings, the tragedy of the Korach story is that a more suitable challenger to Moses was surely intimidated into silence by the heavy-handed obliteration of Korach.

I trust the Torah’s version of things, and that it always works out for the best, but as much as I would have been sinfully sympathetic to Korach, if I were around in Egypt, during the final chapters of Bereshit, I’d have told Joseph to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. Looking at the story, Joseph owes nothing to Mr. Potiphar, his slave master. I’d have pointed out that Judah’s relationship with Tamar was considerably more ethically challenged than sleeping with Potiphar’s wife, and yet the child from Judah and Tamar is destined to be Moshiach. Abraham’s convincing Sarah to pretent they weren’t married when they went into Egypt was also more unseemly than the goings on between Joseph and Lady Potiphar, and that incident doesn’t hold Abraham back from his elite place in our hearts and history.

I figure Joseph never have had a girlfriend before being sold into slavery — and here was Potiphar’s wife. If God didn’t excommunicate and disinherit the slave-selling brothers from the Children of Israel, then exactly what crime would Joseph be committing that could threaten his Biblical standing?

If a depressed slave, abandoned by God’s chosen family, could find a few hours of affection with Madame Potiphar; if young, rejected Joseph could experience even the illusion of love (if not the real thing) then, really, what would be the harm?

There’s even a chasidic interpretation that absolves Potiphar’s wife; she had a vision of who Joseph was to become, and that her children were to be a part of it, she wanted to be a part of it. Though her vision was not understood entirely correctly, as visions are prone to misinterpretation, she was on to something that was more holy than not.

There was no apparent reason for Joseph to say no. Instead, Joseph became the first person in the written chronicles of Judaism to walk away from something that could have been personally satisfying simply because he was convinced it was wrong; simply because it would be wrong in God’s eyes, even if no other eyes would have known.

What had me thinking of Joseph’s slave days was an item on NPR’s “Speaking of Faith,” the most consistently intelligent venue for religious conversation on the national airwaves. The host, Krista Tippett, was re-running an old interview with the late Joe Carter, the great singer of black spirituals, about the religious sensibility of the spiritual (there are some 5,000 spirituals in the canon) born of the American slave experience, often filtered through biblical themes and verses in Psalms.

“The thing we find,” Joe said of the slaves, “is that in the midst of all of the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals lived transcendent, shining lives. They were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. Mammy was taking care of master’s baby. She could have smothered that child. But she loved the child like it was her own child, because there was something in her faith that said, ‘You’re supposed to be loving, you’re supposed to be kind, you’re supposed to be forgiving – and there’s no excuse if you’re not.’”

Like Joseph, the Mammy owed nothing to anyone, and yet – by all Southern accounts – did the right thing by white children, simply because, like Joseph, there was an awareness of what would be the right thing in God’s eyes, even if no other eyes were watching.

You can catch the interview with Carter here.

Some other worthwhile “Speaking of Faith” programs available online are a pair of conversations with Yossi Klein Halevi, here and here, and a conversation with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen on Abraham Joshua Heschel, here.

I’d love to hear a conversation of my own with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

Their chapter in Bereshit is as incomplete, unconvincing and inconclusive as any in the Holy Book, perhaps because their chapter was unfinished. There’s a mystical tradition that various star-crossed lovers in Tanach had successful conclusions later in history. Dina and Shechem were reincarnated as Cosbi and Zimri, only to fail again as lovers, returning yet again as Rabbi Akiva and the kindly wife of a Roman general, Turnus Rufus, as you can see here, centuries after their earlier fiascos.

Joseph and Potiphar’s wife may not yet have written their final chapter either, several millennia later. It’s why we tell the stories of the Torah in the present tense. Because their stories, like ours, are never over. Even after we seem to be gone, the story is never over.

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