Vayeishev: A Feminist Reflection on the Women in Joseph’s life and Dreams by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23.   The portion covers too much information to address it adequately in one post.  Therefore, in this post, I will examine, from a feminist perspective, Joseph, the women in his life, and dreams. While the women in Vayeishev leave much to be desired, its dreams point to an important connection between humanity, divinity, and nature.

Vayeishev starts with the raw jealousy that some of Jacob’s sons have for Joseph. This jealousy is so great that it sends Joseph all the way to Egypt. As a feminist, I have always found it both comforting and completely realistic the way the Torah delves into emotion.  Since even the lofty patriarchs are jealous, no superhuman behavior is expected of us. Despite this comfort, I am not happy that it is once again men and boys who take centerstage. We know that these men and boys also had women and girls in their lives.  

Women are mentioned three times in this portion. The first mention is of Jacob’s daughters. They (and their brothers) provide comfort for Jacob when he learns of the alleged death of Joseph (37:35). Second, Jacob recognizes the moon in Joseph’s dream as the personification of Joseph’s mother (37:10). Finally, there is the wife of Potiphar.

Author’s photograph.

While barely mentioned, these women’s activities are not as passive as they would seem. First, Judaism highly values comforting the mourner, and Jacob’s daughters do just that. Second, Jacob’s mother is considered important as she appears alongside her husband and her sons in Joseph’s dream. While it is true that motherhood is an extremely stereotypical womanly pursuit in the Torah, in Joseph’s dream, his mother is connected to the moon. The moon has a long history of importance within the Jewish tradition.  For example, we use a lunar calendar.  There is also the modern celebration of Rosh Chodesh and its connection to women. In addition, some of our teachers have compared the Jewish people to the moon as it waxes and wanes; others have found the moon is directly connected to the divine imminent and feminine presence of the divine, the Shechinah (Dennis, 291).  

This leaves us with the most active woman in Vayeishev: Potiphar’s wife. While she is unnamed, her will is strong and she is persistent. However, her persistent will is also misplaced as she tries to seduce Joseph, who is not her husband, and then lies about what happens. From a feminist perspective, this is quite a shame as it associates the female will once again with evil and lies. Carol P. Christ was adamant that one of the things we need in a feminist spirituality is the acknowledgement that the female will can be good and have strong admirable aspirations.* Unfortunately, that is not the case here.   

Moving onto Joseph, I find his dreams and his ability to interpret dreams to be the most interesting part of Vayeishev. In Judaism, dreams are a powerful way in which the divine is thought to communicate with people. Numbers 12:6 describes how the divine communicates with prophets through visions and dreams, and it is the divine, according to Joseph in Vayeishev, who also interprets dreams (40:8). Interestingly, when Joseph actually interprets the dreams, the divine is not mentioned. Has the divine inspired Joseph with the meaning? We do not know.

Author’s photograph.

Anyway, what I find particularly interesting about the dreams is the prevalence of nature within them, and this speaks to my ecofeminist side. Joseph’s dreams have corn and heavenly bodies, the cupbearer’s dreams has vines, blossoms, and grapes, and the baker’s dream has birds and baskets.  We already know that the divine communicates through dreams and that these dreams are filled with natural elements. While one could say that the divine manipulates nature to deliver a message, that is in fact not the case. In the dreams, all of the elements of nature from star and moon to vine, bird, and corn move of their own accord. Thus, it would be more correct to conclude that nature is teeming with holiness. In other words, that the distinction between divinity and nature is little to none. This is important from an ecofeminist perspective since in capitalist patriarchy we ignore the connection between humanity, nature, and the divine, and use nature as we see fit.  

I’m happy to see in another example in the Torah drawing nature, humanity and divinity into partnership. From an ecofeminist perspective, Vayeishev succeeds in this way. However, from a feminist perspective, it is lacking truly developed female roles and an evaluation of the female will as something, that at least most of the time, can be understood to be good. 

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  


Carol P. Christ’s “Why Women Need the Goddess,” 

Geoffrey Dennis’s “The Encyclopaedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, 2nd edition.

Categories: Dreams and Dreaming, General, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Motherhood, Nature, Torah

Tags: , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. I love the way you draw out the ecofeminist element in this, highlighting the connection between the divine and nature, the divine in nature. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another fascinating analysis! I had never thought of nature in the dreams as relating to ecofeminism, but you are right – it is there! I’m also glad that you refer to the stories of women as not being developed — from what you have said, I could see how each of the female roles could be expanded with some imagination so that each would have a story of her own that could be just as meaningful as Joseph’s.


  3. Ah, I like these words -“it would be more correct to conclude that nature is teeming with holiness. In other words, that the distinction between divinity and nature is little to none. This is important from an ecofeminist perspective since in capitalist patriarchy we ignore the connection between humanity, nature, and the divine, and use nature as we see fit”.

    I also like seeing the words “eco feminist”…. Ecofeminism is how I came to feminism in the first place so many years ago – and I lament that this woman – nature connection seems so lost today.

    I appreciate how hard you work to pull out a feminist perspective from biblical writings…

    Liked by 1 person

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