Joseph, also known as, Yosef the Tzaddik, is a towering figure in the Bible. He is the quintessential immigrant, who overcame the most daunting of challenges to become a superstar in ancient Egyptian society.
In this week’s Torah portion[i], we read about Joseph’s exploits, as a young man. He was shanghaied from his comfortable and familiar surroundings at home, in parochial Shechem, to the land of Egypt. It was a center of trade, culture and sophistication in the ancient world and one of the superpowers of the period.
Joseph’s unceremonious entry into Egypt was as a slave. He was sold to the house of Potiphar, a governmental official in the court of the Pharaoh. A handsome, talented, charming and brilliant young man, he was quickly promoted and then put in charge of Potiphar’s business affairs[ii]. For a time, everything seemed to be going extremely well, but then Joseph was confronted with the harsh reality of the powerlessness of his position. His master’s wife cast her eyes on him and his good looks[iii] struck her fancy. As the mistress of the house of Potiphar, she was an imposing figure and she brazenly demanded that Joseph lie in bed with her. Her goal was to seduce him.
What a case of workplace sexual harassment? It has all the ingredients. Rabbeinu Bachya[iv] even insinuates that Joseph could have done more to avoid this situation. He notes that Joseph did pay excessive attention to his outward appearance. He also began to live it up, forgetting his roots and that he had a father in the old country mourning his disappearance.
It’s top of the fold headline material and click bait; powerful political figure demands illicit relationship in exchange for job security. The fact that the Biblical narrative reverses the typical roles, in this dramatic presentation, makes the story even more poignant.
The Bible describes how Joseph continued to rebuff the seductive advances. He buried himself in his work and tried vainly to avoid being alone with his master’s wife. She, though, continued aggressively to harass him. She asked him just to lie with her, without any sexual contact[v] or just be near her[vi]. She then urged him just to talk to her in private[vii].
The Ramban[viii] notes that this was no easy matter. Joseph was powerless and had no apparent recourse. The Talmud[ix] reports Joseph had reason to fear Potiphar’s wife. She didn’t just try to sweet talk him. She used her power and position to threaten him with harm. She also lavished gifts of money on him. However, Joseph refused, because his trust in G-d transcended his fear of what she might do to him. Nevertheless, he was not free just to leave; he had no choice but to carry on. It is an all too familiar refrain in our contemporary society.
The climactic scene occurs on a festival day[x]. Joseph came to the office to work, like any other day. However, this day was special, because the rest of the members of the staff were absent. They were celebrating outside the office. Joseph was left alone with his master’s wife. She proceeded to grab at his clothing and demanded that he service her. He demurred and moved away from her. She, however, did not release her hold on his clothing. They were ripped off in the process of his exiting the scene. Joseph did not attempt to retrieve the clothing; he just walked away.
The story is graphic and gritty; there’s no easy way to tell it. But why was it necessary to tell it at all? Indeed, what is the point of the Biblical narrative? Isn’t it just another tawdry tale of the notoriously permissive society of ancient Egypt? Why sully the otherwise impeccable reputation of Joseph, whose saintly behavior earned him the title Tzaddik? Like most stories in the Bible, there has got to be a lesson for the ages or there is no reason to recount it. But what is the lesson and does it apply to our so-called enlightened modern milieu?
It appears that human nature and the challenges of the workplace have not really changed that much since ancient Egypt. The Biblical narrative is as fresh and vital today as it was then.
The Talmud[xi] analyzes the Biblical narrative from a number of perspectives. One focus is on the phrase casting eyes on someone, as used in the Biblical text[xii]. It links this to a verse in Proverbs[xiii], which the Talmud[xiv]separately interprets to derive a psychological source for this particular type of misbehavior. It identifies arrogance as the offending character trait, which is intimately associated with this type of offensive conduct. In essence, there is a sense of entitlement, which derives from a person considering himself all too precious[xv]. It is this arrogance and corresponding sense of entitlement, which leads a person to stumble. The high and mighty, such as politically powerful individuals, are particularly susceptible, for this reason[xvi]. All that’s needed is a triggering event and the opportunity. The trigger is the casting of the aggressor’s eyes on a beautiful and desirable individual, within the context of the unequal power relationship between the aggressor and victim. The opportunity is presented when the two are secluded in private, away from the preying eyes or possible intervention of others.
It appears that there is no real, permanent cure to the problem. As the Biblical narrative illustrates, it is also not a simple matter of man vs. woman; it is about human nature. It is suggested that a two-pronged approach may be helpful in mitigating the problem. It includes cultivating humbleness[xvii] and setting boundaries[xviii].
Genuine humbleness may dull the efficacy of the triggering event. If a person feels unworthy, then why try to conquer another for sport? Without that overweening sense of entitlement driving a person, why brazenly take liberties with another? It just does not appear to be a first choice for those who are genuinely humble. However, achieving true humility is not an easy accomplishment. Indeed, the Talmud suggests only one person, Palti, the son of Laish[xix], ever achieved that high standard of personal conduct. This does not mean that efforts should not be taken to blunt the more negative aspects of arrogance. Nevertheless, it hardly seems likely that this alone will solve the problem. Hence, it is suggested that there is a need for a dual tracked approach.
The other and more practical aspect of this integrated approach is establishing firm and definitive boundaries, which cannot be crossed. In this manner, the opportunity for wrongdoing is limited. The problem Joseph encountered was contained until that fateful day, when no one else was present in the house, besides Joseph and his harasser. It is, of course, inappropriate for a person in power to make these kinds of demands on an employee, at any time. Lewd suggestions or crude talk are wrong; but, as Joseph demonstrated, they are more readily rebuffed. On that day, though, offensive touching occurred. This is not as easily dealt with, because there is often an accompanying sense of helplessness.
The Ramban[xx] emphasizes this point. He asks why did Joseph not simply take back his clothing? He was stronger and could have easily overpowered his master’s wife. However, he didn’t. This is because his master’s wife was a powerful person and out of a respect for her position, he felt inadequate to deal with her on this basis. He, therefore, chose just to exit the scene.
Doesn’t this sound all too familiar? It is hard to confront people in authority. We should be more understanding of these kinds of circumstances, all too prevalent in the workplace and the protected chambers of power.
All forms of harassment cannot be tolerated, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. The problem is not a new one and the Biblical lessons of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife are compelling and cogent. The solution is not to deny human nature. It is rather to recognize it and take active measures to avoid circumstances where harassment can rear its ugly head. This means establishing clear and definitive work rules, which are designed to militate against the opportunity for inappropriate conduct or relationships.
The workplace is not a social club. After-hours clubbing and drinking by co-workers cannot be an obligation, nor is it an ideal. This is not just a matter of circumscribing male and female interaction; it should apply to everyone. This will also help negate the perception that it is somehow advantageous to drink and carouse with the boss, a particularly noxious excuse for misbehavior. Success in the workplace should be about productivity and commitment to work. There’s a difference between being a good team player, in furtherance of work related goals, during the workday and after-hours socializing. There’s also so much more to life than dining and drinking with co-workers after work. How about going home to be with family? What about charitable activities? We can all use more time for study, exercise and quiet contemplation.
Let’s get back to basics. This means boundaries designed to avoid both indiscretions and abuses. Any less might cause confusion. In this regard, it is important to cultivate an environment of professional demeanor in the workplace, which requires a certain level of formality. This applies to mode of dress, as well, which traditionally was more formal than the casual attire appropriate in a social setting. These and other such devices were designed to differentiate the workplace from other venues. The authentic traditions of classical Judaism can help pave the way. The boundaries established by the Sages have worked well in practice for millennia. They can and should guide our way in the present, as well.
[i] Genesis, Chapter 39.
[ii] See Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 39:11.
[iii] See Genesis 39:7 and the Sforno commentary thereon.
[iv] Ibid, in his commentary on the verse.
[v] See Bereishit Rabbah 87:6 and Rashi commentary on Genesis 39:10.
[vi] Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 39:10.
[viii] In his commentary on Genesis 39:8.
[ix] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 35b.
[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 36b. See also Rashi in his commentary on Genesis 39:11.
[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Horayot, at page 10b.
[xii] Genesis 39:7.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 4b.
[xv] Citing Proverbs 6:26.
[xvi] Malbim, in his commentary on Proverbs 6:26.
[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at pages 19b-20a.
[xviii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud Tractates Kiddushin (pages 80b and 82a), Sanhedrin (page 21a), Sanhedrin (page 36b) and Megillah (page 14a).
[xix] Supra, Note xvii.
[xx] In his commentary on Genesis 39:12.