Are You My Mother?: A Maternal Read of the Book of Jonah

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
September 12, 2012
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It doesn’t take long for the text to tell us Jonah’s parentage; already in the first verse of the first chapter of book, we are told that the word of God came to “Jonah son of Amitai” (Jonah 1:1).

My husband’s name is Amitai and, for this and other reasons, he immediately rejected my suggestion of the name “Jonah” for our (as of this writing, unborn) son. Though it’s common in Biblical text not to include the name of the mother in a child’s name/lineage, I sit here, 6 months pregnant with our first child, wondering about Jonah’s mom.

In many ways, Jonah seems like the most motherless character; he doesn’t have a sense of tenderness about him. He cannot fathom humanity in the people of Nineveh and seems to be either unwilling or incapable of having empathy for others. God’s attempts to parent Jonah throughout the book seem maternal to me. It’s as if God is trying to impart lessons most often learned early in a child’s life: that other people have feelings too.

What was Jonah’s experience of mothering? Halfway into the book, Jonah spends time in an animal’s belly, which might be a kind of fetal experience. While in the “womb” of the fish, Jonah has the opportunity to gestate, to rest quietly in the darkness and feel physically touched by another living being. Back on dry land, though, he seems only partially transformed. While he is willing to follow through on God’s command that he prophesy to the people of Nineveh, he continues to lack empathy and is disheartened to learn that these sinners will be forgiven upon their repentance.

Jonah’s transformation began in the belly of the fish, but it is still incomplete. Though he spent three days and three nights in the safety of another animal’s body, Jonah, rather than being born in some usual way, gets vomited up by the fish. Being vomited is hardly loving, hardly gentle; it seems almost to have been a rejection by the fish. As such, Jonah does not yet seem capable of opening his heart to others. He may have evolved enough so as to alter his behavior, but not yet enough to truly transform his character.

The book of Jonah ends before the reader learns whether Jonah fully comprehends and internalizes this message. It ends, literally, with a question — an unanswered question. God asks Jonah whether he might expand into empathy, caring about the fate of thousands of human beings (and animals, too!) (Jonah 4:11).

Is such transformation possible in a man lacking in basic social skills?
How does a person grow into one incapable of empathy for others?
Is God Mother enough for Jonah?

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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