We sat down with Professor Levine to discuss his insightful book exploring if Yosef (Joseph) from biblical times was autistic. Also, we discuss his disability rights and inclusion project at the Touro Law Center.
For more information on the Disability Rights & Inclusion Project click here.
His book is available on Amazon and links to scholarly articles on the text are in the description of the video.
The video is Closed Caption and the transcript is below.
Hi, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. This is Professor Levine. And today we're going to be discussing his disability inclusion projects, and also his book, Yosef on the Spectrum. And we'll go ahead and get started with some introductions. If you'd like to share a little bit about yourself, what you do for a living, and how you became involved with neurodiversity, and autism advocacy.
>> Professor Levine
Great, thank you. And first, I want to thank you for having me today. it's really a pleasure and really an honor for me to participate in your important work on autism awareness, inclusion, acceptance, and neurodiversity. And it's an area I've been trying to promote for a number of years now. And on that note, just to go back a bit, my formal training is as a lawyer, I practice for a number of years as a prosecutor and other areas of law. And over the past several years, I've been teaching full time as a law professor, as part of this work initially tangentially for both personal and professional reasons. But over the years, more so, I have been involved in efforts to promote advocacy, inclusion, awareness, acceptance in the areas of disability rights, generally, as I've had a specific interest in the area of autism.
Great. Do you have any personal experience with autism?
So I do. And without getting into details, I have both personal and professional connections extensive, both personal and professional work in the area of autism and with autistic individuals.
Wonderful. And so as far as it goes with autistic allyship and being an ally of the community, and being able to advocate alongside the community and people that are on the spectrum, what is your personal philosophy on how that looks and how it should be done?
That's a great question. Thank you. And I know different people have different views on this. And I think it's important to have these conversations. For like-minded individuals, I think, on some level, we are all on the same page, and what we're trying to promote the results that we're trying to bring about and achieve. So it's important to talk about different strategies and different philosophies when it comes to advocacy. And as you mentioned, allyship. So as an ally, I recognize first and foremost, I'm a proponent, and I recognize nothing about us without us. And I think that's a basic principle. And I say that basic, most basically, as a matter of dignity as a matter of autonomy. If we're talking about advocating on behalf and in behalf of autistic people, autistic individuals, as most basic matter of human dignity, and autonomy, and respect, it's important that we include autistic individuals in that advocacy. And in those conversations, it's also as a strategic matter. And here's where my background in the law, my background in advocacy really comes into play. As an advocate, I recognize that if someone has their own lived experiences, if someone is promoting their own needs, desires, importance, justice that they deserve, then they will bring knowledge information, and at times, often passion to the table that even well meaning allies can't always achieve on their own. So when I say nothing about us, without us, it's again, it's a basic matter. Strategically, when it comes to advocacy, it's important crucial to have the individuals that we I am advocating for part of that conversation. And on that matter, for example, when I'm involved in an event, and I'm asked to speak on the panel, when I organize my own events, I do make a point a bit to request and if possible to insist it's not always possible. If I'm speaking on my own as the individual speaker, we might not always be able to include the autistic individuals on the panel, but you make a point of it to make that request and when possible, when I'm organizing an event to include autistic voices in those conversations, at the same time when it comes to advocacy. I think it's important that the principle, nothing about us without this doesn't become us against them. And that's where I think allies enter the picture. I think it's important that again, like minded people who are really trying to achieve to promote to reach the same results, the same goals, find ways to work together, and to highlight and draw on the strengths that different individuals bring to the table. I am also recognized and I also promote the understanding that if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person. So we're not talking about a monolithic community, no community is fully monolithic. But there are certain areas where I think we recognize as a society that as autistic individuals have certain strengths, neurotypical individuals have certain strengths. And sometimes we view the same characteristics as a strength, or as a deficit or a liability. Yeah, sometimes we talk about someone being a perfectionist. Depending on your circumstance, depending on the context, sometimes perfectionist can be meant, and can be a compliment. Sometimes a perfectionist is someone that we're not so thrilled about. If you're at work, and the job has to be done correctly, I like my doctor to be a perfectionist, I want them to make sure that they're doing everything right. If someone's cooking you dinner. And it's not exactly the way you wanted it. And you make a fuss about that. Well, that's kind of kind of perfectionist that we resist. So there's a time and place for everything, I think many neurotypicals have an edge when it comes to advocacy. Because advocacy. And here I think analogies are sometimes helpful. I view autism advocacy, as a form of justice, as a form of social justice and as a form of civil rights. And we know from experience that in other areas of civil rights in other areas of inclusion of diversity in other areas of discrimination, which is where I see autism advocacy, pushing back against really often open and certainly hidden forms of discrimination. We know as lawyers, or I know, we the legal community. And society at large is well aware that to change hearts and minds, it's not always enough to speak out about what you know, to be true, and to be correct and to be right. But you have to speak to the listener in a way that will appeal to them. I think it's a generalization, I hope it's not a stereotype. So I think this is again, based in studies, certainly based in countless experiences I've had with autistic individuals, there is a tendency to be direct, to be very truthful, to be very open, honest, and to demand rightly so the correct result to demand justice. But when it comes to advocacy, sometimes you have to temper that justice with a form of spinning. Again, that term often has negative connotations. You don't want to spin the situation, you don't want to dis describe the inhibition the situation in a way that's not accurate when it comes to your friends when it comes to your family when it comes to many areas of life. But when it comes to advocacy, sometimes and the work of lawyers, I trained lawyers, I worked as a lawyer, the job is to describe truthfully, the situation to describe the facts in a way that's going to promote the goal that you're rightfully trying to achieve. And that's where, as an ally, I like to bring those skills to bear changing hearts and minds is not limited to. And we've seen once again, other areas, we've seen it in areas of disability rights, we've had the ADA for 30 years. And without diminishing the importance the value of the success of the ADA. It only gets you so far. When it comes to society's attitude. And when we're trying to change hearts and minds. And just in the area for example of employment for autistic individuals, which is an area I become increasingly interested and involved in. We know that an employer can discriminate often will discriminate and a wrong minded employer will find ways to avoid getting caught. They will find ways to paper over the discrimination if they want to if someone really wants to discriminate if someone wants to do the wrong thing. So as much as we have to continue fighting those fights, as much as we have to continue implementing and enforcing ADA, another anti discrimination laws and other areas, whether it's special education in other fields I'm involved in where we have federal laws. The IDEA based on the ADA, requiring certain civil rights be provided for students but we all know from experience that school districts all too often will find a way to avoid implementing their legal obligations. So we need something else, it's not enough to say, this is wrong. It's not enough to say these are the statutes. These are the laws on the books, this is what you're required to do under the regulations. It takes anything else a spinning, finessing, describing things in a way that a are going to achieve a legally successful outcome. And I think more importantly, to achieve a change in the mindset amongst society.
You know, all really great points that you made. And one that really stands out when you when you talk about the spinning, that is, like you said, often has a negative connotation, but it's important to meet people where they are, so that they're receptive to the information. And it is true A lot of times, people in the advocacy world, whether you're doing social justice for other communities, or if you're autistic, a lot of times, especially if you have lived experience, you want to just say I'm right now accept it. And that's doesn't work. And and a lot of walls can come up when that approach is taken. So I definitely agree with you with that it's important to have people in the advocacy world that are on the spectrum off the spectrum, anyone involved with social justice and things as far as anti discrimination laws, and support for marginalized communities, to be able to persuade in a way that people can understand and not be defensive towards it. So definitely really love all of the things that you said there. And it really is a good segue into your book. So I took another read through, because I wanted to read it again. And I know that previously, when we had talked, I was a little uncomfortable with some of the terminology in the book and, and some of the way things were said, but doing a second read through, I really kind of took some time to digest it. And I think I understand more clearly what you were saying. And I want to go ahead and dive into what inspired you to dive into this research onto whether yo sieve or some will know as Joseph and the Bible, Yosef in the Torah was on the spectrum, what inspired you to do this?
So thank you. And again, thank you for your interest in the book. And I appreciate your taking a close look at the book, which was primarily intended of all things, not as a piece of advocacy, not as a way which has developed into in to my pleasant surprise in many ways, a way of bringing autism to the attention of readers who are unfamiliar with autism as reality and the different aspects. And again, no two people are like, but the lived experience of many people on the autism spectrum. But my particular interest began, like many, and I'd say the majority of readers, the majority of viewers of Broadway shows or movies. The story of Joseph is a story, Joseph, son of Jacob, as you mentioned, is a story that we culturally, the United States and elsewhere. In fact, much of the world is very familiar with, whether it's as a result of studying the Bible, whether it's a result of reading the Bible, whether it is a result of seeing the Broadway play Joseph having Techno Color Dream Coat or the many variations of the play, or the this is my barometer of cultural significance, the DreamWorks animated film, if you can make an animated film about a story that means it's got some cachet, that means there is an interest that we use. It was the few of the Hollywood producers that this is important enough and culturally significant enough that we're going to get an audience of children and presumably parents when it comes to DreamWorks and other animated movies. So this was a story I was already familiar with. And in addition to my legal training, I have rabbinic training. And I've read the story from when I was a child, and continuously reading the story with an increasing interest in the commentaries in the traditions and the Jewish biblical tradition. And exegetical tradition includes looking at texts written 1000s of years ago, through the gloss and understanding of commentators throughout the world who have continued to try to understand to peace through the story. And whether I've consistently found in many I've found that part of the reason the story is fascinating is because of how puzzling this figure of Joseph seems to be on the one hand, he is this brilliant, seemingly precocious individual with these dreams that end up being true With these dreams that he knows to be correct with these dreams that on the other hand, get him into serious social trouble with his brothers in ways that likewise, we often find puzzling. Why is he telling them his dreams, and they resist, and they express their resentment and their hatred for him. And nevertheless, he goes back to them again. And that's one of the puzzle pieces of the entire story. And then as we continue to look to the story, well, his brothers, isolate him ostracize and marginalize and bully him, until they sell him into slavery. Now his father loves him. But his father Jacob, is in here, this seems a bit puzzling as well, unable to navigate and to manage the conflict between Joseph and his brothers. So what's that about? And then Joseph, arrives in Egypt and becomes a star, although the heir to his path is not direct. He experiences this uneven sense of success, where he has the opportunity to demonstrate his talents. And at the same time, he continues to encounter the social difficulties, where he's taking advantage of by others as a result of his trust and keep putting them as a result of his honesty, his candor, his willingness to express what he believes to be true, until finally, he's probably for Pharaoh, Pharaoh has dreams as well. And Joseph has demonstrated his skill in interpreting dreams, Pharaoh calls him in, and he tells Pharaoh, this is what your dreams mean, including the bad news and the good news. Pharaoh recognizes this skill, and Joseph provides him the supports that he needs, and the circumstances the structure through which he will now leave Egypt and the rest of the surrounding world, at least through this famine to great success. so fascinating story. What's it all about? How is it that this very same individual can have these characteristics? For example, and here's where I found it fascinating. There are some biblical commentators that talk about some of his behaviors, in manners that I think very much match what we consider to be self stimulatory, stimming behaviors. And at the same time, commentators discuss and describe just how wise Joseph seems to be wise beyond his years using the biblical text, the language in the text of the Torah itself. And it struck me one day, wow, based on not the goal of looking for autistic individuals in the Torah, I believe there have always been autistic individuals, they've always been all kinds of neurotypes, among people, but I wasn't looking for that. But it struck me that understanding just as an individual on the autism spectrum, really does explain in a very plausible way, the possibility that an individual can have these seemingly contradictory characteristic characteristics, but they're not a contradiction now that someone can have social challenges. And again, here, I'm not certainly not blaming Joseph, I'm not sure I'm blaming, although they certainly deserve fault here. His brothers were his father, who's clearly well meaning, but the reality is that there were these tensions, there were these difficulties. And to me, one of the potential explanations for why it is that these challenges continue to arise is a suggestion that if Joseph was autistic, well, that's why people looked at him differently. And that's why Unfortunately, some individuals took unfair advantage and marginalize them.
Definitely, and you know, that is it's a really interesting concept. A lot of people will take different figures in history and dive in to their past to see if they could have been on the spectrum of Nikola Tesla and Einstein and different scientists. Well, honestly, this is the first time that I have met someone that's gone that far back. And it's a really important thing to to do that and set that precedent of, it's a neurodiversity, and it's been around a really long time. And that really bridges that gap that people have between being afraid of it or confused into awareness and then acceptance of it to show like, this isn't new. It's been around and we just didn't know it till now. And one of the things I wanted to ask you when you're talking about how Pharaoh took him in and was using his gifts, do you feel based on your research and what you've written that Pharaoh had good intentions or was it malicious intentions for self promotion in his own ideas?
That's a great question. And here's where it's so ironic, and tragic, of course, looking at it from the perspective of Jacob and his son that he loved and, and Joseph, of course, he was the victim of all this. Jacob loved Joseph. He wanted to include him. But his method of inclusion well intended was, I'll give you this beautiful quote, I will highlight your skills of being a good shepherd, another fascinating aspect of Joseph's personality. We're again, commentators. And just to make the point, these are commentators going back 1000s of years, all over the world, coming to us from Spain, from North Africa, from the Middle East, from Europe, to the present day, who made comments, not because they use the term autism, certainly not because they necessarily understood autism the way we do, but I think they saw some of what we are seeing. And some commentators know that based on the biblical text that Joseph was really good, as a shepherd, he had this skill with animals, again, with that stereotyping, a common characteristic that we do find among some individuals on the spectrum, with that connection to animals that in a way that may not apply to others. And here Joseph's skill with animals gave Jacob an opportunity. So he thought, let's demonstrate to your brothers who have this resistance to you, or bullying you, let's show them how good you are at shepherding. But of course, if these efforts at inclusion are not done correctly, they often backfire. And here's where Joseph's brothers see him has. And he said the term special see him as needing some extra help. And they are there for a reason. But they don't see this as Justice. They don't see this as the right thing to you. They see this as unfair favoritism. And that's where Jacob went wrong, tragically. And the Talmud points is that the Talmud points out that this was an error that Jacob made the well meaning well intentioned, are ironically, we fast forward to Pharaoh, I have no reason to believe Pharaoh at any good in his heart, right. This may be the same Pharaoh at different Pharoahfrom what we know of the ancient world, and from what we know the biblical descriptions of the Pharaoh, who shortly thereafter is going to forget everything Joseph and his people have done for the Egyptian nation, and is going to start initially exterminating and ultimately enslaving through a brutal slavery, the nation of Joseph's people. So I have no reason to ascribe to Pharaoh any well meaning. motivations. And in fact, as in the story, Joseph is comes to Paris attention, based on his experiences with the Butler and the baker, in prison. The Midrash in the Jewish tradition teaches that the Butler and the baker, the Royal Butler, and Baker, were in prison because of minor, truly minor errors they had made, the butler allowed a fly in Pharaoh's drink various wine, and that was enough to send them to jail and almost execute them. And the baker had left a few pebbles and those days in particular yet to really sift the flour to get all the pebbles out and there have been a few pebbles, and that was a capital offense, per se. When it came to Pharaoh he casts him in jail, and ultimately executes him no justice property for this Pharaoh. And I don't think Pharaoh had any interest in helping someone in supporting someone to help that individual. I think Pharaohs looking out for his own self interest. Pharaoh's got a dream. He no one consulted for him. He goes to all of his they're described as wise men. They're described as magicians, all of his aides, all of the people working with him. And they can't resolve the dream. They can't figure out what is the dream mean, they can interpret it in a way that Pharaoh finds acceptable so he figures for last resort. I'll listen to this individual. And by the way, the way Joseph comes to the attention of Pharaoh is at the clinical recommendation of the Butler because Joseph had interpreted the Butler's dream correctly when they were in prison together. But the Butler has a very unusual might say, we have quote unquote, recommending Joseph. The butler says to Pharaoh, you know what, when I was in prison, there was this slave. There was this Hebrew. There was this notar this child who was with us in prison. And that's very coded query coded language, suggesting that with the recommendation, there's another caution because and this is in my reading. But I think this is borne out by both the text and the interpreters. My understanding is that the butler was concerned that if he recommends Joseph, and he feels that he has to because no one else can solve, can interpret power streams correctly. So he knows he holds the key to the answer, because he met this really talented individual. But he's reluctant, because he's concerned that Joseph might do the wrong thing. Joseph might say the wrong thing, Joseph might be too direct, too honest with Pharaoh. So he kind of couches his recommendation, by hedging his bets just to let you know Pharaoh, and again using COVID language. This is someone who and the term Hebrew in those days was considered in Egypt to be outside really a derogatory term, almost a racist term in that sense. So just to let you know, this is a notar Now the word notar. Fascinating, it means context, because that's the word that often typically would mean a young child when it comes to Biblical Hebrew. But interpreters understand that meaning in the context of Joseph, an indication of what seems to be the others challenges child's like behaviors. And that's where this self stimulatory behaviors come into play. That's where some midrashim interpret Joseph's behaviors as tending to his hair, kind of playing with his eyes, kind of kicking his heels, maybe toe walking, types of behaviors that we often associate with autism. So in my reading, this is what Pharaoh was expecting, or protect, perhaps anticipating. But he was willing to take the talents, the skills, he was willing to overlook those aspects of Joseph's personality, or behaviors that may have bothered others, to accommodate them. And to see, all he cares about is his own self interest. What do these dreams mean? And how am I going? Am I going to deal with this? Joseph gives him the bad news. Joseph says, guess what your dreams mean? There's gonna be seven years of famine. Now, travel at that point, as a couple of options as to how he can respond. He can say, How dare you tell me that we're going to have a negative future, I don't want to hear from you. And it was certainly within his power to say no off with your head, as he had done to the baker, Pharaoh instead says, You know what, this person has something to tell me. And Joseph convinced Pharaoh, not because he was a particularly skillful orator, as we see from his other encounters with other individuals who are not sympathetic him, not because he knew how to spin things again. But because he spoke the truth in a very direct way. And Pharaoh looked at the truth that he saw and said to himself, and said openly, you're my man, you're the right person for this job. And Joseph actually recommends himself, he continues, his is essentially a soliloquy, he goes on and on, and tells Pharaoh, hire me, I'll be the one to not only recognize their problem, but I have a plan, I have a method of how to deal with how to manage this issue and economic plan to save Egypt again, and surrounding areas and Pharaoh is convinced that Joseph is the right person for the job. And again, I don't think it's added any goodness in his heart, I think it's completely with his within his own self interest, that he ends up appointing Joseph. And here's where, to me, there's the irony, but maybe an important lesson in the area of autism employment, as I mentioned, the area I'm increasingly interested in. And I'm finding, and this is based on many reports for many individuals, both the autistic individuals who were applying for these positions, and many individuals working in organizations promoting employment for individuals with disabilities and autistic individuals. And it's often the interview. That's the touchy point it's often the interview where the employer sits down with an applicant. And the reality is that typically, when it comes to interviews, we expect an element of spin, as I put it before, we're expecting someone to promote themselves, and to put a good face to advocate for themselves, even when it may not be deserved. And you know, one of the great examples that we often find is there's kind of that typical question at the end of an interview where the interviewer says, so tell me some of your weaknesses. And, of course, the effective answer, not the honest answer, but the effective answer. Is Oh, my weakness is I'm a perfectionist, my weaknesses, I work too hard. my weaknesses, I'll just stay in the office to get that job done. And I'll take the blame for other people. I'll take responsibility. And of course, the other things not in any way, suggesting any weaknesses. Yeah, it's just trying to build themselves up in a way that puts this element of spin that re characterizes their own self promotion to sound like it's okay for this type of conversation. And the interviews typically proceed along those lines. Now, if the applicant would say something like, Well, to be honest, I have these deficits. And whether they're deficits that are common among autistic individuals, or deficits that anyone might have. Imagine someone saying in the interview, well, you know what, I'm a pretty rude person. You know what, I make snide remarks. So, understandably, the employer would resist would recoil from that type of response. Why is it that people get hired, who are rude, people get hired, who are nasty, who are malicious, and we make accommodations, so to speak, for those conditions, as you might call it. And the reason is, individuals like that are hiding, of course, they know the game. They know how to play the game. And when they're interviewed, they would never think of bringing up their actual deficits, their actual negatives, their weaknesses. Well, unfortunately, if an autistic person says, Well, I'm autistic, and that sometimes brings with it certain types of behaviors or characteristics. It's a form of discrimination, of course, for the employer to say, Oh, well, we can't accommodate that. And that's where Pharaohs saw certain aspects of Joseph's answers that might have given him pause and Pharaoh heard the warning signs from the Butler, be ready for someone that might say things that you don't expect them to say. And Pharaoh instead of responding to the bad news, Now, again, think of an interview, someone's saying. So we think we're a company. And the applicant says, Yeah, I did a lot of work investing in your company, and you're in for a very bad quarter. Yeah, here's all the things you're doing wrong. But I've got the plan, well, applicants probably not going to get to the plan. Because who wants to hear, oh, you're in for bad quarter. But you know what? A wise employer, I would think, wants to hear the bad news. A good employee or smart employer in their own self interest, doesn't need someone to keep repeating, oh, this is going to be great. This quarter is going to be better than ever. And then be surprised by the reality. Well, why is it? And this is fascinating in the context of the story of Joseph, why is it that all of Pharaoh's wiseman, all Pharaoh's magicians apparently they had, you know, pretty good skills, let's pause it. Why is it that none of them could interpret the dream properly for Pharaoh. So there are some who suggest that none of them wanted to tell Pharaoh the bad news, even if they got a sense that these dreams and these dreams on their face to suggest that there is going to be a famine, that's at least a plausible way of interpreting it. No one wants to say that, because they were all sycophants, they were all yes men. They were all people telling Pharaoh what he want to hear. Joseph told Pharaoh something he didn't want to hear. And again, not because Pharaoh thought, Oh, I feel bad for you. Not because Pharaoh said, Oh, you're special, you need some help. And ironically, maybe this model of the self interested employer, in some ways is a more effective model of inclusion may be the model of networking to give you a special coat, as well meaning as we are not, oh, we feel bad for you. So a form of charity will give you this job, but we don't really take you seriously. That really, in the short run, you might feel good. And here, you don't want to diminish in any way, the importance of charity, the importance of helping someone who needs help.
But that can't be the end of the story. Because the limitations there are, you're relying on the goodness of someone's hard. On the one hand, the employer, which can only last so long as we know it from human reality. And you're also not recognizing the dignity, the potential, the humanity, in some cases of the person who's being held to charity is great when it's necessary, and when it's appropriate. But if you give someone charity and they're looking for a job, that's not going to speak to the dignity of that person. So to me it was not for any good intention. But to me, Pharaoh saw this potential in Joseph. And when, in his own self interest, Pharaoh gave Joseph the opportunity to shine, the opportunity to bring to fruition the talents, the potential that Joseph knew he had. But he couldn't get anyone else to agree with. He kept getting in trouble because there was a limit to how much his family or even his employers at a time, even when he had success, how far they were willing to recognize his skills and his potential. And it was only when Pharaoh said, I'm going to give you the responsibility that I think you deserve. And the responsibility that I think you can handle and you can achieve, that's when Joseph actually reached his potential.
That is such a good point, you know, when you are talking about..*microphone echoes* oh microphone, there we go...When you're talking about how employers want, don't actually want to know your deficit, that is so true. When you work with a vocational rehabilitation counselor, when you work with coaches, and people that are there to do interview training, you are taught to twist it so that you're not actually answering the question. And that is something I know, for myself, it's always been a struggle to do because I just want to be honest. And, and so it's a great example of how sometimes, even though Pharaoh's intentions weren't good at all, and they were self serving, but sometimes being direct and just authentic as yourself can open doors that you might not necessarily expect. Thank you so much. Really, I appreciate your breakdown of that. And when you're talking about employment and things, I kind of want to jump into your disability inclusion project. And I would love to hear a description of your project. What is it? What's your mission? What's the vision? And where are you in the process?
Okay, thank you for asking, it's great opportunity to share my work there as well. So it really started a few years ago, I had my own personal and professional interest in primarily special education as it started out as well as autism. And then just a few years ago, I had a student at Touro law school where I teach a law student who approached me. And she too, had an has a strong interest in special education, growing out of her own experiences. And it's fascinating to me, we sometimes lose sight of history, and forget, with all the challenges that still are out there with all of the obstacles that are still in the way and have to be overcome how far we really have come. When this student was a child, no one was talking about, in her experience, learning disabilities, no one was talking about special education, no one was talking about supports and accommodations. They just saw a child who wasn't like the other children. And they didn't know what to do. They didn't know how to properly educate this child. And out of that experience arose, as is often the case of passion on her part, to help others as