Potiphar's Wife and the Latest News

December 8th: Vayeshev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah is always relevant to our lives, but, sometimes, it seems like it is ripped from the headlines. In Vayeshev this week, we read about sexual harassment and false accusation, and we find ourselves hoping that the Torah can give us some guidance. When Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt (another outrage!), he is bought by Potiphar, a courtier of the Pharaoh. God blesses Joseph and make everything he does prosper—thus making him a favorite servant. In fact, Potiphar “made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned…” This is good. However, “Joseph was well built and handsome. After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me,’ but he refused. He said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?’ And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her. One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, ‘Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.’ She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home…When his master heard the story that his wife told him…he was furious. So Joseph’s master had him put in prison…” (Genesis 39.4-20)

The story assumes and Joseph states that adultery is wrong. It is both a sin against God and a sin against Potiphar. In terms of Potiphar, it is both a violation of the trust he has placed in Joseph and a violation of the ancient understanding that a wife is owned by her husband. Having an affair with her would be a crime against her husband. We moderns, of course, look at women differently. Rather than the property of either a father or a husband, we see women as autonomous human begins who should be equal to men. However, the autonomy and equality of women do not change the wrongness—the sinfulness—of adultery. Nor do our modern ideas change the fact that adultery breaches sacred trust. The question of adultery may seem a bit out of place in the current discussion of sexual harassment, but the fact is that many of these incidents would never have happened if the perpetrators took marital fidelity seriously.

The story of Joseph and the current spate of prominent men being accused of sexual impropriety are deeply troubling. These stories touch on some of our deepest fears—being abused and victimized by someone more powerful that we, and being falsely accused. There is clearly much to be said, but I would suggest the following principles to guide our thinking.

(1)   Sexual harassment is wrong. The standards of equal opportunity and liberty are clear: sexual favors should not be a condition of employment. Using the hierarchical power of a work, educational, or government structure to cajole or force sex is immoral, illegal, and usually against company policy.

(2)   The term sexual harassment is very expansive and can cover a number of problematic behaviors—some more serious than others. As explained in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, some sexual harassment behaviors are in and of themselves and immediately wrong, while others are a matter of personal judgement and preference. For example, it is wrong to make sexual behavior a condition of work or to physically assault a co-worker. However, it is not necessarily wrong to hug someone or to tell an off-color joke. It only becomes wrong if the offended co-worker expresses his/her discomfort officially, and the hugging or telling of off-color jokes continues.

(3)   Each case is individual—with its own unique context, behaviors, and motivations. It is unjust to group all these incidents together and say things like, “All men are…” or “All women are…” The adjudication of each case—in companies, in court cases, and in public opinion—should be based on the facts of each individual case.

(4)   Given the sexual energy that courses through humans and human interactions—and the various postures and attitudes of flirting or not flirting and sexual availability or non-availability, the fact is that misunderstandings and mixed signals are pretty much inevitable. Whether in high school, college, social situations, or the work place, individuals should be wary of assuming other people’s thoughts or attitudes regarding sexual activity. And, individuals should be wary of bringing any kind of coercion to these kinds of encounters.

(5)   While it is important to take seriously claims of victimization, saying that it is a moral imperative to believe victims’ claims seems a dangerous principle. We all know that some people lie—and for a variety of reasons. And, we all know that different people can regard the same behaviors with widely differing interpretations. Automatically believing someone who feels victimized is not a very judicious approach. There has got to be a way to evaluate claims without blaming or re-victimizing victims and without leaving innocent people vulnerable to false accusations. In other words, justice requires due regard for truth, subtly, and miscommunication. Justice requires diligence to facts and not resorting to platitudes or generalizations.

(6)   Repentance should always be a possibility. We are taught that God welcomes our teshuvah—that it is possible to ask forgiveness and find a path back. This obviously involves acknowledging that one has done wrong and caused damage. And, this obviously involves stopping the sinful behavior. And, this obviously involves asking forgiveness of the individuals who have been harmed.

As I read each scandal, I find myself wondering, “What was this guy thinking?” Was he an amoral manipulator who felt that his power and status entitled him to sexual favors? Was he a hapless fellow who thought inaccurately that he was a “player” and therefore desired by all he met? Was he misreading the signs of sexual availability—just figuring that the other person was interested? Or, was he guilty of insensitivity, thinking that something unfunny was funny, something witless witty, or something grotesque subtle and persuasive? We do not really know about the sinners in the spotlight, just as we do not really know the thoughts of Potiphar’s wife. All that we should know is that coercion in sexual matters is wrong, as is false accusation. In this remarkably sensitive area of life, we need to be very careful and treat the sensibilities of our fellow human beings with great respect.