Examining the Story of Joseph’s Seductress


Do you remember the line drawing of an old woman who, if you shift your eyes a fraction of an inch, can suddenly reappear as a beautiful girl with a hat? I thought of that well-known perceptual illusion this summer when I studied the biblical narrative of Joseph at a retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders.

We chose the story deliberately. Both the Muslim and the Jewish traditions cherish the tale of a man who was himself an emerging leader, and of a family of siblings that faces the challenge of reconciliation, the very challenge facing the "children of Abraham" — Jews, Christians and Muslims.

I knew that traditions about Joseph have been traveling between Jews and Muslims since the time of Mohammad. What I did not anticipate was the place in the Muslim imagination of the story of Yusuf, as he is called in the Koran, and his Egyptian master's wife.

In the Torah, the episode of Joseph and Potiphar's wife appears straightforward. Chapter 39, which we read last Shabbat, reports that Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, rises to prominence in the home of an official, Potiphar, whose wife attempts to seduce him and, upon failing, accuses Joseph of attacking her. I was never sure why the lady of the house wanted to bring her servant down, but I did not stop to question it. Like most Jewish readers through the centuries, I viewed this woman as lustful and vindictive, a contrast to Joseph's model of restraint.

But in the Koran, this episode has a very different feel. In the Muslim version, Joseph's temptress tries to defend herself. She gathers the women of the city for a meal. Upon seeing Joseph, they "cut their hands" and cry, "God save us! This is no mortal!" In the Koran's telling, the master's wife actually confesses that she lied, another detail we never hear in the Torah.

Later, Muslim commentators name the wife — Zuleikha — and she intrigues readers for generations, eliciting sympathy. As one of the Muslim participants at the retreat said: "Allah protects Joseph from his inclinations, but Zuleikha must struggle alone." In the mystical tradition of Islam, Zuleikha becomes a model of chaste passion, a stand-in for the human soul that longs to be united with God.

Hearing different versions of a familiar story changed me. In place of judgment, I found myself curious about this woman I thought I knew. It made me wonder about people with whom I interact today, especially those from different religious cultures. How many versions of their story are hidden from me?

American Jews are aware, through the media, of Islamic violence, a partial view of a multifaceted reality. Films like "Obsession" show us a terrifying side of a civilization, but do not help us understand that side nor to place it in the context of the history of Islam or of world religions.

Liberals bemoaning the fate of "oppressed Muslim women" also provide only part of a more nuanced story. When we learn about Islam, especially from Muslims themselves, we see more complexity, more background. We develop more capacity to respond to the people and situations we encounter.

Many Jews tell me they regret their limited knowledge about Islam. They sense there is more to be learned beyond images of veiled women and angry men, that there is a rich, evolving religious culture, one with a long history and many resonances with our own.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is launching a new course "Islam for Rabbis" in February. We opened the first three sessions to adults in the community. It already has a waiting list.

Last year, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement's seminary, illustrated its annual calendar with art from a 19th-century Judeo-Persian translation of "Yusuf and Zuleikha," written by the medieval Sufi poet Jami.

Think about it: A century-and-a-half ago, Jews living in what is today Iran translated and lavishly illustrated a Muslim interpretation of our Torah story.

Our narratives are enriched when seen through others' eyes. There are so many versions out there. It's worth moving our heads an inch, and taking a second look. u

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer is director of the Multifaith Studies Department of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The summer retreat, sponsored by RRC, was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.


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