This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Coat of Many Cultures*

Few texts in Jewish literature are as dramatically crafted as the Joseph story that dominates the latter chapters of Genesis. It is hard to imagine what could be added to such elaborately plotted tale.

And yet storytellers over the ages could not resist the temptation to add to the Biblical narrative, filling in in meticulous detail the personalities of the protagonists.

Joseph and Zuleika

An outstanding Hebrew example of this genre of expanded Bible is a work entitled Sefer Hayyashar, first published in Venice in 1625. In retelling the stories of the book of Genesis, the unnamed author weaves into the Biblical text all manner of supplementary traditions derived from the Midrash, ancient apocryphal works, and other sources.

One episode that clearly caught the author's imagination was Joseph's stalwart resistance in the face of his employer's wife's attempts to seduce him. Whereas the Bible speaks only of an anonymous "wife of Potiphar," the Sefer Hayyashar gives her a name: Zuleika.

Against the Biblical narrator's terse and suggestive account, Sefer Hayyashar paints a vivid portrait of an woman pathologically obsessed with Joseph's physical beauty. She continually urges Joseph on, whether by enticement. threats or trickery, and her passion ultimately brings upon her a suicidal state of physical depression.

The Sefer Hayyashar illustrates these themes by means of the following episode: In response to the Egyptian women's berating her for her lack of self-control, Zuleika invited them to a banquet at which oranges were served. Joseph entered as the women were peeling the oranges, and they became so distracted by his beauty that they cut right through their hands drawing blood. This, Zuleika stated, was the kind of temptation she had to put up with day after day!

The name "Zuleika" is not mentioned in either the Bible or Midrash. As to the incident of the oranges, its origin is unclear. Similar episodes (with variations in the menu) are included in some medieval midrashic anthologies, but the earliest datable attestation is in Muslim tradition: The twelfth chapter of the Qur'an, known as "Surat Yusuf," is in itself an elaborate midrash on the Joseph story incorporating many elements from the Jewish aggadic tradition.

The name "Zuleika" also seems to emanate from an Islamic source. Epic poems on this theme circulated widely in medieval times, of which the most popular was Persian Yusuf and Zulaikha composed in 7000 Persian couplets by the fifteenth-century poet Jami. The author was a Sufi who regarded the story of Joseph's temptations as an allegory for the mystical striving after divinity.

Scholars are not in agreement about the chronology of the tradition: Were the Jewish authors of works like Sefer Hayyashar borrowing Muslim traditions that had originated in earlier Arabic or Persian novels. Or were they in fact repatriating ancient Jewish legends that had for some reason been excluded from the standard compendia of Midrash?

Joseph and Asenath

If the situation of Joseph and Potiphar's wife inspires an intrinsic fascination, there is a more urgent difficulty posed by the other woman in Joseph's life: His wife, Asenath.

Asenath is identified in the Bible as the daughter of an Egyptian priest--a yihus that comes into conflict with the Jewish prohibition against mixed marriages.

This discomfort was felt most acutely by the Jews of ancient Alexandria, Egypt. While participating in a vibrant and cosmopolitan centre of Greek culture, this community was ardently committed to their ancestral religion. Furthermore, they had a special reverence for Joseph, whom they regarded as the founder of their own community.

It is against the social background of 1st-century Alexandria that we are to appreciate the composition of "Joseph and Asenath," one of the most remarkable literary creations of Hellenistic Judaism.

At one level, the Greek story provides a simple solution to the fundamental religious problem: It relates how the chaste Asenath learned to reject her idolatrous upbringing and underwent a sincere conversion to the faith of Israel.

However the "Joseph and Asenath" does not stop there. It makes use of all the conventions and devices of Greek literary art to fashion a readable romantic novel that conforms to the esthetic tastes of Hellenistic culture. The resulting tale includes such ingredients as love at first sight, a struggle against the unwanted attentions of Pharaoh's son, plenty of swashbuckling swordplay between Joseph's brothers and the royal rivals, and more.

Joseph and his Brothers

Some years ago I participated in an engagement dinner hosted by one of Jerusalem's most eminent Rosh Yeshivahs. As is the custom at such occasions, one of the Yeshivah students delivered a learned discourse on the blessings of marriage. In his d'var Torah the student made references to several "rabbinic" embellishments to the Biblical stories about Jacob and Joseph.

At the conclusion of the discourse, the Lithuanian Rosh Yeshivah asked the student if he could identify the source of a midrash he had just cited (Some 25 years later, I no longer recall its precise content). The student sheepishly replied that he had heard it at a previous engagement dinner, and did not know its original source.

The learned Rabbi smiled and pointed out that the tradition in question is not found in any traditional Jewish text. As far as he could tell, its earliest source is Thomas Mann's historical novel Joseph und seine Brüder.

I admit that I was struck initially by the sage's erudition-- noting that there are probably few among his younger collleagues who could have made the identification. On a more profound level, however, I was most impressed by the Rabbi's attitude. At no point did he suggest that the story's foreign source should be construed as grounds for rejecting it.

I suspect that he saw this as yet another instance of Judaism's genius for drawing upon the esthetic sensibilities of surrounding cultures, in order to uphold the vitality and relevance of the Torah.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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    First Publication: Jewish Free Press, January 2 1996, p. 6, 8. Bibliography:
    • John D. Yohannan, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in World Literautre, New York 1968.
    • C. Burchard, ed., "Joseph and Asenath"; in: J. H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Garden City and New York, 1985.