Friday, October 21, 2005

Yonah's Rebellion and Yonah as Metaphor

A. Yonah's Rebellion
Another blogger (sorry - can't find her post at the moment - someone please comment or email me so I can link) related that when her sons came home from school, having learned the story of Yonah in school in preparation for Yom Kippur. When she asked why Yonah ran away instead of delivering his prophecy, they repeated what they were taught -- that Yonah did not want to deliver the prophecy because when the gentiles repented, it would look bad for the Jews. She was upset -- "What are we teaching our children?" she cried out. She seemed to be upset for two reasons: firstly, if Hashem tells you to do something, you do it, and your own calculations of the best course of action do not matter; and secondly, what kind of message does this teach in terms of dealing with, and having regard for other people, namely gentiles. She was offended by this midrash or interpretation and wanted to see if was indeed brought down in a midrash or perush.

I'm going to play the game, but then rise above it.

Indeed, this midrash or interpretation does exist - it could be found in Rashi, in Mahari Qara`, in Radak, etc., who state that Yonah knew that upon receiving his prophecy of destruction, they would repent, and Hashem would spare them. Hashem would then be angry at the Jews who did not repent even though He sent them prophets calling upon them to repent.

This midrash is derived from a specific interpretation of the end of the third perek and the beginning of the third, in which Yonah states why he did not go:

Yonah 3:10:
י וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹקִים אֶת-מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם, כִּי-שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה; וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת-לָהֶם--וְלֹא עָשָׂה. 10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, which He said He would do unto them; and He did it not.
Yonah 4:1-2:

א וַיֵּרַע אֶל-יוֹנָה, רָעָה גְדוֹלָה; וַיִּחַר, לוֹ. 1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
ב וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל-ה וַיֹּאמַר, אָנָּה ה הֲלוֹא-זֶה דְבָרִי עַד-הֱיוֹתִי עַל-אַדְמָתִי--עַל-כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי, לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה: כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה. 2 And he prayed unto the LORD, and said: 'I pray Thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repentest Thee of the evil.
ג וְעַתָּה ה, קַח-נָא אֶת-נַפְשִׁי מִמֶּנִּי: כִּי טוֹב מוֹתִי, מֵחַיָּי
3 Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.'
These pesukim seem to suggest that Yonah fled rather than deliver the prophecy because he was afraid they would repent and not perish.

Now, in terms of the objections, firstly, we see Hashem was ready to punish Yonah, and he repented. We see in the fourth perek that Hashem attempts to show Yonah he was wrong, and how all creatures, from the humans down to the innocent animals are deserving of Mercy and should not be wantonly destroyed. Just giving Yonah's motivations -- indeed, ones that seem to jump right out of the text -- is not to assert that Yonah was right in doing what he did.

That should suffice to answer her objections.

B. Political Correctness, Academic Freedom, And Intellectual Integrity
However, to digress and rant -- even if they were trying to assert that his was the right course of action, the fact that a Jewish housewife may get offended by the message should not prevent them from advancing this peshat or derash. It is founded on pesukim and legitimate principles of textual analysis. Baruch Hashem that Chazal, and the classical merforshim, were not restricted by politically-correct filter, either self-imposed or imposed from the outside, or else a good deal of great Jewish literature and scholarship would have been lost.

When I began a Yoreh Deah shiur at YU, one of my fellow students brought a tape recorder, and asked if he could tape record the shiurim for the purpose of chazara. But the Rabbi did not agree, since he felt he could be freer to express himself, and would feel less self-conscious, if he knew he was not on tape. Now, he did not say anything offensive at all over the course of the year, but I think he was absolutely correct in his decision, though of course the lack of tapes of his shiur will be a loss for posterity. Other Rabbis who did agree to be tape recorded were negatively affected by their decision, even as the presence of their shiurim on the YU website is a great boon to Jews worldwide.

For example, Rav Schachter's shiur discussing women reading the ketuba under the chuppa - his statement about monkeys and parrots being able to read the ketuba was an halachic statement about the act of reading the ketuba being an act of creating hefsek, being on par if not less than what is termed a maaseh kof, the act of a monkey, in the halachic literature (discussed for example in terms of netilat yadayim). He had previously in shiur, to my recollection, in terms of other topics, discussed the status of maaseh kof in terms of speech - you need something that produces the sounds without any of the intention - and came up with example of the act of a parrot. His shiur was geared towards students who would understand what he meant, and would see that there was nothing to be offended by. Instead, it was summarized by someone and then read by ignoramuses, who knew nothing and decided to be offended, and called for him to apologize - something picked up and reported upon by ignoramuses who were also journalists.

For example, Rav Schachter's shiur in which he talked about the concept of "the chosen people," and based part of his talk on a distinction made in Pirkei Avot between all humanity, wich was created in the image of God, and the Jewish people, who are called "children to the Omnipresent," and to mark this distinction, used the clear metaphor of "divine DNA." What this distinction was, which seemed to be a calling to be extra-nice and merciful, I will not go into here. Steven I. Weiss, in a post on Protocols, at first misunderstood what he was hearing, and thought that Rav Schachter was saying that gentiles were not created in the image of God, but then, to his credit, corrected himself quickly when people explained what Rav Schachter was truly saying. But of course the "scandal" was reported upon by the Jewish week, together with quotes of how this represented the shift to the right of Orthodoxy. A subsequent opinion piece in the paper, which called upon Jews to accept the legitimacy of idolatry in the name of pluralism (which I fisked here), and basing itself on the report of the remarks rather than on hearing the speech itself, claimed:
Just recently, we’ve read of disturbing positions taken by religious authorities in our community. A prominent rosh yeshiva said that Jews are spiritually superior to other people because Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA, and instincts.”
and later
and statements that proclaim the superiority of Jews over non-Jews will be denounced as contrary to the Torah’s statement in Genesis that all human beings are created in the image of God.
which are complete misunderstandings of what Rav Schachter said.

For example, Rabbi Tendler's shiur in Niddah which contained a quote about the metzitza befeh issue.

For example, the article in a scholarly publication of YU that mentioned that historically, there was an opinion that the Biblical command of lo tirtzach does not apply to gentiles. (Note that a similar opinion was mentioned in a shiur I attended, that the specific command in the 10 Commandments of lo tirtzach does not apply to gentiles, but it would be forbidden for other reasons.) This was not a fatwa calling for death to gentiles, but rather a scholarly article discussing the various opinions about a complex halachic subject, and mentioning an interesting one. This is legitimate scholarship, and the manufacturing of a scandal by journalists interesting in a juicy story just served to help to squash academic freedom.

For an example outside YU, Harvard President Lawrence Summers' remarks that besides social factors and discrimination, there could be some genetic factors at play for the dearth of females at the top levels in the hard maths and sciences, and there are some reasons to think that they are. (To briefly and crudely flesh one such reason out, while of course there are dumb, average, above average, and brilliant males and females, a look at the distribution for each shows that the majority of females tend towards the middle, while a larger portion of males are at the extremes -- either really smart or really dumb. Since real super-duper-genius is often required in these fields, especially at the top, and there are more males in this category, the males would be represented at a greater level than their percentage in the population, and this is not necessarily a result of discrimination.) The politically correct reaction to his remarks resulted in many an apology from Summers, and the granting of large sums of money to ensure no gender bias. But this was legitimate scholarship, supressed by the forces of political correctness.

In summary, we should not judge scholarship based on whether someone will be offended - we should judge it on its merits, or risk quashing academic freedom and intellectual integrity.

C. Yonah As Metaphor
And now back to Yonah. In fact, I believe this midrashic explanation is sublime, but in order to explain why, we need to take a step back.

Yonah reads as a kind of morality play1, and as a metaphor.

The theme of the book of Yonah is teshuva, repentence, a good reason it is read on Yom Kippur. Yonah rebels against God, then does teshuva. The sailors, who worship other gods, when experiencing God's salvation, repent and follow God. The city of Ninveh, which has sinned, is warned by Yonah of its imminent destruction, and they repent and are spared.

Further, we do not find reference to Yonah ben Amitai the prophet elsewhere in Tanach, and this book does not state during which kings' reigns Yonah prophesied. (A midrash makes him a disciple of Elisha, and thus of Elisha's time, and perhaps in another post I will explore this.) To get really annoying, Yonah is the son of Amitai because rather than being an actual person, he represents a "greater truth," that of the message of the book.

Taking Yonah as an actual person and prophet, the role of the book stays the same. Why is this particular prophecy, and this particular sequence of events (and no others), recorded for posterity?

As with any book in the canon, the intended audience of the book is the Jewish people. This is a call upon them to do teshuva, giving three examples of people who did teshuva - Yonah the individual, the sailors as a somewhat larger group, and finally an entire city. The Israelites should see these positive examples and be inspired to do teshuva.

In fact, there are examples of public movements to repentence - one salient example being the reform in the day of Yoshiyahu. However, the impression one gets from most of Neviim - those prophetic works deemed important to pass on to future generations, contains calls for repentence and the Israelites not responding. The constrast is one of Goofus and Gallant. (If you are unfamiliar with the reference, please follow this link before proceeding.)

Now, on to Yonah's rebellion. Why did he rebel? One can argue from within the confines of the narrative. In this regard, the verses at the end of perek 3 and at the start of perek 4, mentioned above, will be particularly influential. Yonah seems to state that he did not go to deliver the prophecy because he knew the people of Ninveh would repend and God, being All-Merciful, would spare them. This still does not answer the particulars of why he rebelled. One could interpret these verses in various ways. A few random possibilities:
  • Yonah hated gentiles and wanted them to be killed.
  • Yonah hated sinners and wanted them to be killed.
  • Yonah's feeling of fairness and justice was that sinners should get what is coming to them, and if he did what God wanted, these people would be spared.
  • Yonah was afraid that when the promised destruction did not come, the people would consider him a false prophet, which would either cause a loss of prestige or else a lynching.
Those answers are ones which exist within the confines of the narrative. However, let us break free of this constraints and operate on a meta-textual level.

Once again, why did Yonah refuse to deliver the prophecy?

The answer is that the book is about teshuva, and Yonah as an individual must sin if he is to repent. There is only one sin that is particular to a true prophet of God, that of supressing prophecy. And so, Yonah must sin to teach us about repentence at the individual level.

That Yonah gives an explicit reason in a later chapter is unimportant - foremost because that is internal to the narrative, but also because the purpose of the fourth chapter is to teach another lesson - the value of life and thus God's acceptance of the repentance. Yonah role here in chapter 4 is different - to provide a foil for the message of the legitimacy of Hashem's mercy. Yonah is wrong that repentance should not save, and he advances this position in order to be shown wrong. His initial rebellion is reread in this light. Do not cite the end of the book to shed light on the beginning, for different slices of the overall message of teshuva are presented at different points.

The midrash, as I stated above, is sublime. It operates on the meta-textual level and, at the same time, within the confines of the book. Chazal realize that the purpose of the book is to advance the message of teshuva, and that the exemplars in this book, the people of Ninveh in particular, but in fact every penitent in this book, serves as a Gallant to the Goofus of the Israelites. And everybody detests Gallant. :)

Thus, if Yonah must rebel, give him a good reason to rebel. Yonah has a meta-textual realization, that he is starring in a morality play, one that will cast the behavior of the Israelites in a bad light. Why not have him rebel against this role he is cast, for he dislikes this role of implicitly criticizing the Israelites by causing the people of Ninveh to do teshuva. Even better, we can read this meta-textual reason into the confines of the narrative and text, and into the reason Yonah explicitly gives. For Yonah states that he was reluctant to go because he knew that the people of Ninveh would repent and God would spare them.

What now of the offense taken to this sublime midrash? One problem was how this is presented as a valid reason to rebel against God. From within the narrative/textual constraint, I previously argues that an explanation of motivations does not equal justification. Now, on the meta-textual level, we can say better -- the rebellion against God is an act within the contrainsts of the text and narrative, but the midrash is one that recognizes, on a meta-textual level, the role of the book as a call to teshuva and implicit criticism of Israel. The midrash is commenting on the nature of the book. The other objection, about the poor gentile residents of Ninveh, is also beside the point, for the people of Ninveh are beside the point, for they reside within the constrainsts of the book, and the lesson the midrash teaches is meta-textual, about the nature of the book.

1: I'm not using this term exactly right, but it's the best term approximation I can come up with at the moment.


Double AA said...

"Further, we do not find reference to Yonah ben Amitai the prophet elsewhere in Tanach"

See II Kings 14:25

joshwaxman said...

oops! I stand corrected.



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