12/04/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Genesis 37:1-40:23: 'Going Negative': Joseph Rallies His Base

The opening verses of this week's Torah portion, Va-Yeshev ("He Settled"), teach us of Jacob's special love for his son Joseph. Jacob's preference fuels his other sons' hatred of Joseph, which results in their selling Joseph into slavery and, in a heart-wrenching scene, falsely telling Jacob that Joseph has died.

The text is largely ambiguous about the roots of Jacob's unique love for Joseph that proved so destructive to his family and himself. Did Joseph win Jacob's favor by tearing down his brothers, convincing his father that they were all evildoers, less worthy of their father's love? This seems to be the implication of Genesis 37:2, "Joseph brought bad reports about [the brothers] to their father."

The medieval French exegete Rashi takes this verse to mean that if there was "anything bad he could say to his father about them, he would say it." According to Rashi, this included reports that they were eating limbs torn from live animals, picking on their half-brothers for being born of slave-women, and engaging in incestuous and adulterous relationships.

As an observer of contemporary American culture, this approach to the narrative has a certain resonance for me. To curry his father's favor, Joseph shrewdly employed one of the most time-honored campaign tactics: "Go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory," as Frank Rich put it in a recent article on the subject.

In the campaign for his father's affection, Joseph knew that he only had to be slightly more loveable than his brothers. It is much easier to argue against one's opponents than it is to demonstrate one's superior qualifications.

Yet researchers at Rutgers and George Washington University recently discovered that negative campaigning is actually not a very effective way of "winning votes" from undecided voters. Jacob, then, was probably not swayed by Joseph's negative campaigning.

Negative campaigning is very effective at one thing, though. According to Going Negative, a recent comprehensive study, negative campaigning makes partisans more fiercely supportive of their candidate, and more rabidly opposed to the other guy. Supporters of Candidate X tend to unquestioningly believe negative information about Candidate Y, increasing their affinity for their candidate and seeing it as ammunition for debate. Meanwhile, they simply discount negative information they hear about their candidate, assuming it untrue, thereby fueling their partisan passions even more. Few people in the polis learn anything new or change their minds. Rather, negativity merely intensifies partisanship.

Seen from this perspective, it seems likely that Jacob was predisposed to resonate with Joseph's attacks on his brothers because he was already a Joseph partisan.

The narrative indicates this possibility in several ways. We know that Joseph is the first born of Jacob's favored wife, Rachel. And the narrative says that Jacob loves Joseph more than the other brothers either (interpretations vary) because Joseph was born to Jacob in Jacob's old age, or because he alone among his brothers was receptive to Jacob's teachings.

One thing is clear, though: Jacob did not favor Joseph because of Joseph's negative campaigning. Rather, Joseph's negative campaigning solidified his father's support for him, making Jacob a fiercer pro-Joseph partisan.

In turn, Jacob relates to Joseph the way partisan supporters do: He increases his financial support for Joseph, giving him the "Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat"; he looks the other way as Joseph tells his brothers his hurtful dreams about them; and he encourages Joseph to engage in more negative campaigning. The brothers, for their part, respond to Joseph's negative campaigning the way partisan opponents do: They hate Joseph for it, abandon all pretense of civility toward him and vow to stop at nothing to prevent his success.

The beginning of the Joseph story thus exposes the true effectiveness of negative campaigning -- that, rather than informing and persuading undecided voters, it reinforces and strengthens partisan predispositions. This highlights the precise danger that the practice poses to us both in our personal lives and in the public square. It is toxic because it encourages us to value winning over uncovering truth.

The prevalence of negative campaigning, especially in our time, profoundly increases the extent to which we, like Jacob, simply see our task as picking ideological sides. It encourages our tendency to close ourselves to other perspectives, to never fully listen to new information if it does not reinforce our predispositions. We watch MSNBC or Fox News, always assuming that the one we agree with is right and the other is wrong; and we rarely question our assumptions.

Interesting to note, Jacob accepts all of Joseph's reports about his brothers on faith, never investigating the veracity of his claims, never even questioning the brothers about their behavior. Yet even the most careful reader of the text has no indication that any of Joseph's accusations are true. Similarly, in the echo chamber of our own unquestioned assumptions, unchallenged loyalties and ideologically biased information sources of choice, our partisanship grows more fervent, and our horizons more limited, with every negative ad we see.

In this year's presidential campaign, nearly 90 percent of all ads were negative, and in other campaigns, the use of negative ads jumped 800 percent from 2008 to 2012, aided by Super PACs and other outside groups. Is it any wonder that we face the paradox of living in an era of unparalleled access to the broadest possible spectrum of information and perspectives, and yet we are increasingly polarized and ignorant?

A lesson of Va-Yeshev, the dramatic first episode in the Joseph saga, is that negative campaigning, which fuels partisanship at the expense of discovering truth, has dangerous consequences. To this, the Jewish tradition responds that God's very nature is truth, a sentiment observant Jews remind themselves twice daily when reciting the Sh'ma. And our most sacred human task is, as Psalm 3:6 states, "to know God, to know truth, in whatever we do." It is only by breaking free from our entrenchments and humbly seeking out truth wherever it may be found that our "pathways will be made straight."

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.