Dovid Kornreich
An anglo-Haredi blogger who speaks his mind

The Biblical Joseph: A Typical Victim of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Could it be that Joseph is a more fitting #metoo Biblical ‘poster child’ than Dina?

I noticed that before the Torah reading of two Saturdays ago, there was a plethora of blog posts and online sermons dedicated to forging a connection between the first recorded rape in the Bible (Jacob’s daughter Dina by Schechem) and the current #metoo sexual harassment awareness campaign.

But I think that’s a shame, because by focusing on Dina’s victimization and ignoring Joseph’s, many have missed an opportunity to see what the Bible actually has to say about a very common human phenomenon.

Dina’s rape, like all rape, was ghastly and horrific beyond description, and rather uncomplicated in nature. Rape is a violent crime committed by a violent male, who physically overpowers and violates a female victim. The Bible, under certain circumstances, equates it with murder.

Although it happens way too often, it is not an every-day occurrence for most women living in the West. It is never tolerated in moral, civilized society. Condemnation is instinctual, absolute, and almost universal. No moral human being can defend it let alone condone it.

So what am I supposed to learn from Dina’s experience? Are all men potential rapists who need to review this incident carefully in order to strengthen their sagging resolve not to commit rape?

Sexual harassment on the other hand, which can apply to a wide spectrum of speech and actions, can be much more subtle and complicated. The lighter the harassment is, the more situational and subject to perception it becomes, and for men, the harder it is to avoid committing.

The lines that divide appropriate remarks and behaviors from inappropriate ones might be sharper between strangers, much less so between colleagues and co-workers who know each other for years. And it is very pervasive, it happens all the time even within the most progressive and educated circles of our society—which is a sure sign that there is something that society just isn’t getting. Our modern moral compasses are still leading us to systemic failure.

This is why extra guidance for contemporary society in this area is desperately needed, and the Bible is the perfect guide. So let’s explore the interaction between Joseph and the wife of his master Potifar in more detail to see if we can glean some insight and moral direction from the story.

Let’s begin by stating the most relevant fact about this story to today’s reality: The relationship between Joseph and his master’s wife is one of a subordinate to a superior.

Joseph is a slave who is under the absolute control of his owners and has no recourse to complain about inappropriate behavior by his superiors. (No HR department.) When Potifar’s wife makes repeated, unwanted sexual propositions, Joseph is simply trapped. And as we will see, if he continues to resist her sexual advances, he will be severely punished by her.

 7 And it came to pass after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said: ‘Lie with me.’ …

10 And it came to pass, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her.

So what does Joseph do? First, he appeals to moral logic: after elevating Joseph to being the highest servant in his estate, trusted to oversee all his master’s financial affairs, how can he betray his master’s trust and sleep with his wife? Second, he makes a simple religious argument—adultery is simply wrong. It’s a violation of G-d’s law.

But this has no effect. Potifar’s wife is unrelenting and she eventually resorts to sexual assault by taking hold of Joseph’s cloak to disrobe him. At this point, Joseph is faced with a simple choice: succumb to the pressure and violate his moral code in order to keep his successful position as head of household and perhaps rise to even greater prominence, or resist and suffer the wrath of a spurned master’s wife–not only losing his prestigious job, but losing any job in the foreseeable future.

Is this not the typical predicament of women in the workplace who are “hit on” by their superiors?

The culture of pervasive sexual harassment in Hollywood and the news media industry is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades. Some pundits have pointed out that many of the original silence breakers in the entertainment and news industries earlier this year were women who already reached considerable success in their respective fields. Some had already become famous actors and accomplished journalists—household names– before coming out and bring public shame and disgrace to their former harassers.

At the time they experienced the harassment however, they may have complained to personal friends and colleagues within the industry, but they didn’t dare go public with the accusations like they are doing now. They didn’t try to change the harassment culture like they are trying to now.

The Uncomfortable Question is Why?

Likely Answer: Fear of ‘Wife of Potifar’-like consequences.

Chances are, had they spoken out publically to name their bosses to the world before they reached the height of their careers, they would have been blackballed by the entire industry. You’re a whistle-blower? Forget about that dream position. You’re a prude who doesn’t want to get cozy with the boss? No chance on that promotion. You will simply be passed over for someone else who is willing to play ball on the boss’ terms. If you make too much noise, word will get around that you are ‘a trouble maker’ and not worth the risk of employment altogether.

Result: they stayed quiet, tolerated the harassment/groping (and perhaps more) by their superiors until they reached the position they wanted. When they felt secure enough in their careers to call out the harassment, they finally did.

Without a doubt, these women were placed in a very difficult predicament and deserve our sympathy and our support. But was what they did courageous? Did it take moral fortitude?

To their credit, some of these famous SBs had the honesty to admit that they didn’t speak out publicly when it happened for selfish reasons– and expressed remorse that they could have spared others the same treatment they received had they refused to remain silent for so long.

They are not the heroes of this story. But the many women in the workforce who do not go silently along with the culture of harassment and abuse of power, who speak up in protest loudly and clearly either with words or with actions and suffered the consequences, are.

Larry Jacob writes: 

Going public is not as easy as one might think.  Many of the SBs advised they were hesitant to do so because “your complaint becomes your identity.”  Lindsay Reynolds, one of the women who reported on the culture of sexual harassment at the group of restaurants run by celebrity chef John Besh, opined “nobody wants to be the buzzkill.”  One lobbyist, who was reporting about abuse in the California state government was warned “remember Anita Hill.”  On the other hand, many who have gone public report a catharsis of sorts.  Says Susan Fowler, the Uber SB, “there’s something really empowering about standing up for what’s right.  It’s a badge of honor.”

Joseph is our role model because made the right call at the right time. He literally ran away from his master’s house and his comfortable position and refused to be complicit in the sexual extortion.

Yes, Joseph certainly suffered unfair imprisonment in a dank dungeon for standing up for his principles. He had faith in G-d, did the right thing, and took the fall. But did he lose out in the long run? No way.

That short stint in prison gave Joseph the opportunity to make connections so good that they literally propelled him into the palace of the Pharaoh to become the second most powerful human being in the ancient world!

All with a clean conscience!

Another moral of the story:

When Joseph rebuffed Potifar’s wife’s propositions, this woman had no problem reversing the incident to others (by telling people that it was Joseph who attempted to rape her and fled when she screamed) in order to get Joseph in trouble. She took advantage of the fact that women are more likely to be the victims of abuse rather than the abusers, in order to get revenge.

How many women are now taking unfair advantage of the #metoo revolution to get back at their bosses for perceived wrongs and stunted careers that had nothing to do with sexual harassment? We’ll never know.

Given the current climate of accepting the accuser’s story at face value without any due process, it is way too easy for an unscrupulous female who is nursing a grudge against her boss to topple him and ruin him. All she has to do is give an anonymous tip to a reporter, or concoct a plausible story with enough verifiable details on her facebook page, and her boss’ career is instantly in jeopardy. And the bigger a jerk the boss is, the easier it will be to find more enemies who are willing to join the smear campaign.

So. while I’m not at all suggesting that we disbelieve any accuser, I, along with Larry Jacob, think it is worth pointing out the following: that the trending social policy of taking any and all reports of sexual harassment very seriously is a good thing overall, but it is not without a price—it can lead to deeply regrettable consequences.

About the Author
Dovid Yitzchak Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying Talmud and Jewish thought for over 30 years and has taught a variety of Jewish subjects in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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