In Parashat Miketz, Joseph is raised from the depths of the royal prison to the very heights of Pharoah’s palace. Having proven himself a wise interpreter of dreams and a shrewd consultant, Pharoah makes him an official over the land. He is second only to Pharoah himself and is given a new name and a wife.
“Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him for a wife Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On” (Genesis 41:46).
“Poti-phera” should sound familiar. In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph was serving in the house of Potiphar. It was there that Joseph resisted the seduction of Potiphar’s wife. Our sages inform us that “Poti-phera” is indeed Potiphar. Having resisted the mother, Joseph now weds the daughter.
In Thomas Mann’s opus “Joseph and His Brothers,” the attempted seduction of Joseph takes up no less than 200 pages. We enter deeply into the psychology of Potiphar’s wife and come to sympathize with her. Wedded to a eunuch, she has no chance of sexual or romantic satisfaction in her marriage.
We watch as her fancy for Joseph morphs from a bemused curiosity into a wild lust and a dangerous obsession. The once dignified wife is brought low, resorting to witchcraft in an attempt to coerce Joseph’s heart, and finally, when she has despaired of him for the last time, removing him from her life the only way she knew how—accusing him falsely and having him cast into the “pit” of prison.
According to Mann, resisting this seduction was no easy thing for Joseph. He was tempted to the extent that an excruciating effort was required to keep himself from sin.
This section of Mann’s masterpiece is thus wrenching and titillating, tragic and erotic. It speaks to the way that taboo not only serves to tame man’s baser instincts, but also amplifies them by bestowing an alluring aura of the forbidden.
When Joseph finally marries, however, Mann writes the following: “What had once been evil and dared not happen, was now to be good.” That is to say that sex, once a sin to be resisted, was now an act of holiness between the groom and bride. Joseph is mystified and thrilled by this transfiguration.
At Hebrew College where I am studying to become a rabbi, we are currently engaged with the study of Kiddushin, or the laws of Jewish betrothal and marriage. The blessing recited by grooms at a traditional Jewish wedding evokes Joseph’s experience.
“Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the forbidden sexual relationships, and forbade us from betrothed women, but permitted to us our wives by way of [the laws of] marriage and betrothal.”
It is a strange blessing. Nowhere else do we bless over what is forbidden to us.
It is a strange blessing. Nowhere else do we bless over what is forbidden to us. For instance, we do not say before a meal, “Blessed is G-d who forbade us un-kosher foods and permitted us kosher ones.”
One way to explain this irregular blessing is that it expresses a rabbinic discomfort with sexuality—a desire to temper the wedding’s implicit sexual content with a reminder that sex is highly regulated by the Torah.
Perhaps, also, the blessing is an expression of a deeper truth—that sexual acts are made meaningful by the restrictions that circumscribe them. This is because sexuality embodies, paradoxically, both our great capacity for good and our great capacity for evil.
Sex is an expression of love, a site of pleasure, and means of union and communication; but it can also be a tool of abuse, a site of trauma, a means of seeking oblivion in another human being. We therefore bless God for what is forbidden.
As a society, we are currently renegotiating our understanding of which forms of sexuality are forbidden and which are permitted. This is not unique to our time, but is rather the ongoing work of human culture. For example, my own generation has rethought norms of sexual orientation, identity, monogamy, consent, and power dynamics. In some cases, what was permitted has become forbidden. In others, what was forbidden has become permitted.
Both are worthy of blessing.
We bless God for instructing us in the ways of the Torah.
For forbidding the forbidden.
For permitting the permitted.
For transforming what was evil into what is good.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.