One Minute Torah: Vayeshev 5779

The story of Potiphar’s wife touches a lot of raw spots in today’s sexual politics.

The story of Potiphar’s wife touches a lot of raw spots in today’s sexual politics.

Quick reminder of the story: Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, an Egyptian courtier. Joseph was a talented young man, and Potiphar quickly promoted him within the household. Unfortunately for Joseph, Potiphar was not the only one impressed by him. Potiphar’s wife also noticed Joseph, and she tried to seduce him. When Joseph resisted her advances, she spitefully accused him of assaulting her, and Joseph ended up in the dungeon.

Is Potiphar’s wife an archetypal expression of that familiar male nightmare? Is this it–the fear that prevents rapists from being prosecuted, turns sexual assault victims into defendants, and drives a culture of silence? As one law school textbook, Investigating Sexual Assault Cases by Arthur S. Chancellor, comments about the challenge of prosecuting rape: “male jury members could very well be thinking, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’” Potiphar’s wife did it to Joseph, and so couldn’t any woman do it to any man?

In fact, I once helped a young man in a parallel situation. After an ugly break-up, his ex accused him of having forced himself on her during their relationship. Fortunately for him, he had text messages from her clearly contradicting her story, and the case was thrown out of court. But here is the key element in their relationship: she was wealthy and powerful, and he was coping with serious health and financial problems and was deeply vulnerable. They were quite a bit like Potiphar’s wife and Joseph.

Would the biblical story hold together if Potiphar’s wife had been the slave, and Joseph was already Pharoah’s viceroy? Of course not! No slave would be so foolish as to falsely accuse a powerful man. Few would be foolish enough to even rightfully accuse him. If we take slavery out of the equation, and replace it with a less severe but nonetheless real power dynamic, the psychology remains the same. It is dangerous for the weak to accuse the powerful. It is easy for the powerful to hurt the weak.

#MeToo should not be just about men abusing women. We know that some men sexually assault men, that some women sexually assault men, and that some women sexually assault women. False accusations could even be included in the category of assault. The Torah teaches about false witnesses: “As he plotted to do to his brother, so you should do to him.”

The core issue of #MeToo is the abuse of power. All the myriad ways in which the powerful can hurt the vulnerable–that is the real nightmare.