When you're as good looking and as "sensual" as Joseph, temptation and seduction are going to find you (see Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 35b). The Torah tells us, "Now Joseph happened to be fair of form and fair of appearance . . . his master's wife set her sights on Joseph and said, 'Lie with me!' But he refused, saying to his master's wife, 'Look, my master gives no thought to what is in this house; . . . he has withheld nothing from me, other than you, inasmuch as you are his wife; how then could I do this great evil, and thus sin against God?' " (Genesis 39:6-9). Everyday Mrs. Potiphar would beg Joseph to have sex with her, and everyday he would refuse. In order to try to seduce him, the Talmud (ibid.) tells us that she would change her clothes several times a day so that he might take notice of her each time he saw her.
Joseph's beauty is so powerful that it is distracting. The midrash (Tanchuma, Vayeishev 5) tells a story of Egyptian women who come to the house just to look at him. Mrs. Potiphar gives each woman an etrog and a knife to use for peeling. When Joseph walks in, every woman cuts herself when she sees him. "Then Potiphar's wife said: 'You, who saw him only for one instant, are thus overcome; how much more and more am I, who see him all the time.' " Joseph was one seriously sexy guy!
He was also virtuous. Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 35b discusses anyone who might not spend his life in pursuit of Torah. A poor man can't say he couldn't study because Hillel was poor, a rich man can't say he couldn't study because Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom was rich, and a man who says, "I was handsome and obsessed by my sensual passion" is countered with the argument that Joseph who was the most sensual and the most tempted was also proven to be the most virtuous.
When I read this story and all the detail in the Torah and all the expansions in midrash and Talmud, I wonder, so what? So he's sexy and well behaved. Why is this important to the story—to our story? The easy answer is that it gets Joseph thrown in jail, where he needs to be in order to save his family from future famine. But if that was all that was necessary, he might have only been accused of theft, why this sexual temptation? What's the other reason?
This portion is filled with sexual lessons. We not only read this story of Joseph, but also the story of Tamar, Judah's daughter-in-law. Tamar must have intercourse with one of Judah's sons after another in order to fulfill her childbearing obligation to her deceased husband (see the section on levirate marriage, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 261). Tamar's husband Er dies because God deems him wicked (Genesis 38:7). When Onan (son number two), misbehaves sexually with her, God destroys him as well (Genesis 38:9-10). When the third son, Shelah, is kept from her, Tamar is stuck in legal limbo. She is a widow but cannot remarry until she produces an heir for her husband. She cannot produce an heir as long as she is prohibited from Shelah. So she takes matters into her own hands and seduces her widowed father-in-law, by pretending to be a harlot. To his credit, Judah doesn't know that it is Tamar because she wears a veil. She becomes pregnant and the text approves of her assertive sexual behavior. Here is a woman who seduced a man in order to fulfill a requirement to have a child for his family. Her overt sexual act was for the furthering of the Jewish people. She gives birth to twins, one of whom is Perez through whom the line of King David descends.
The Rabbis also go out of their way to praise her questionable act. They are impressed that throughout this episode she preserves Judah's dignity. They say she teaches us that it is better to throw oneself into a furnace than to put another to shame (Babylonian Talmud,B'rachot 43b). They also laud her for her severe modesty, explaining that Judah didn't recognize her as the prostitute, not because of her veil on the road, but because she always wore a veil in his presence. He had never seen her face! And so we are taught that a bride of extreme modesty will bring forth prophets and kings (Babylonian Talmud, M'gillah 10b).
When we compare this to the story of Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar, we learn something. Tamar's seduction was for the sake of family; Mrs. Potiphar's was an assault on her marriage. Both are sexually assertive female behaviors, but one is considered holy and the other is not. Joseph and Judah are both the object of seduction: Joseph declines because it would be adultery and a "sin against God" (Genesis 39:9). Judah accepts, but ultimately admits that Tamar was justified by what she did because he had withheld his youngest son from her (Genesis 38:26). He thus agrees that the entire situation occurred because of his negligent behavior. The Torah and the Rabbis do not seem to disagree with his assessment.
The biblical sexual mores are certainly not our own, it would be ridiculous to try to apply these exact values to our modern lives. However, the theme I see here is the importance of commitment and family. Joseph will not sleep with Mrs. Potiphar because it is a sin against God, rather than a sin against her husband. Tamar's behavior supports the familial and inheritance system of the ancient Israelites. Sexy Joseph and sexually assertive Tamar are the heroes of these stories while Judah and Mrs. Potiphar are the sinners. The message I see here is that sexuality is positive, and serves an important purpose in our lives toward the strengthening of our marital relationships and the creation of future generations. Inappropriate sexuality—specifically adultery—is a sin against God. It's a simple message, but one we sometimes need reminding of.
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker is the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.