Joseph: Liberation of a Soul

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Mijael Vera considers what the Torah’s careful documentation of Joseph’s unusual wardrobe might reveal.

Parashat Vayigash. Creative Common/Heather Quintal

Creative Common/Heather Quintal

In this week’s portion, we return once again to the story of Joseph – a story in which the connecting thread shows that whatever is normally deemed absurd comes to happen and in which literal and symbolic boundaries are repeatedly crossed. The servant (Joseph) becomes master, and the master (Pharoah) bows down to the servant. But it is in the psychological realm that boundary-crossing is most significant, for it is through a deep psychological analysis of Joseph that we come to truly understand him.

In parashat Vayigash, we come to the climax of Joseph’s story. Due to the famine in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers are forced to go to Egypt and ask for food. As we saw in last week’s portion, they curiously do not recognize Joseph, their brother, when they are brought before him.

Nobody has been able to adequately explain why he could not be recognized. Some Talmudic sages suggest that the brother’s souls still had rancor against Joseph, and thus, they were not able to recognize him. But Rashi suggests that the brothers’ decision was to search everywhere but never in the Pharaoh’s court. A more radical explanation, however, is that Joseph was not recognized because he appeared to them as a sort of transvestite.

The pharaonic custom was a form of transvestism that did not necessarily imply wearing the garments of the opposite gender, but rather garments that were exclusive to the ruling cast and that were made of very fine linen.