Justice and Mercy… and Truth

Dr. Gail Labovitz
September 9, 2012
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How can one not be intrigued by a book of the Bible whose last words are “and many cattle”? There is much to be said about the short, but complex, confounding book of Jonah. Each of the contributors to the current issue of Sh’ma has already given us much to think about, added to our understanding. What else is there to be said?

As I perused the book, thinking about what to write, I was struck by Jonah’s invocation – his partial invocation – of the attributes of God that are revealed to Moses in Ex. 34:6-7 (and see also Num 14:18):

(ו) ויעבר ה’ על פניו ויקרא ה’ ה’ אל רחום וחנון ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת:
(ז) נצר חסד לאלפים נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה לא ינקה פקד עון אבות על בנים ועל בני בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים:
6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness,
7 extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations. (translation from the Etz Hayim Humash)

Here is Jonah’s version, from 4:2:
(ב) ויתפלל אל ה’ ויאמר אנה ה’ הלוא זה דברי עד היותי על אדמתי על כן קדמתי לברח תרשישה כי ידעתי כי אתה אל חנון ורחום ארך אפים ורב חסד ונחם על הרעה:
He prayed to the Lord, saying, “Please, O Lord! Was this not my word when I was still in my own land? That is why I hastened to flee to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil. (translation from Jonah: the JPS Bible Commentary)

But Jonah isn’t in “conversation” with Moses only, or he isn’t the only later prophet to be in conversation with Moses. His words are nearly identical to those of another prophet, Joel 2:13. His words also bear similarities to those of Nahum 1:2-3:
(ב) אל קנוא ונקם ה’ נקם ה’ ובעל חמה נקם ה’ לצריו ונוטר הוא לאיביו:
(ג) ה’ ארך אפים וגדול וגדל כח ונקה לא ינקה ה’ בסופה ובשערה דרכו וענן אבק רגליו:
2 The Lord is a passionate, avenging God;
The Lord is vengeful and fierce in wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on His enemies,
He rages against His foes.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and of great forebearance,
But the Lord does not remit all punishment. He travels in whirlwind and storm,
And clouds are the dust on His feet. (translation from The Prophets, New JPS Translation)

What interests me is what each prophet includes and leaves out from the original version transmitted to Moses. Jonah and Joel focus on the aspect of God’s mercy; although Divine justice too figures in the original, it is not referenced in their statements (I’ll come back to Nahum in a moment). Why not? Uriel Simon, author of the commentary in the Jonah: the JPS Bible Commentary, downplays the significance of the apparent omission: “We should not view this as a tendentious omission on the part of Jonah; the attributes of justice are left out of almost all biblical prayer that invokes the attributes of the Lord (Joel 2:13; Pss. 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Neh. 9:17)… Thus when Jonah says, “For I knew,” he is relying on the knowledge vouchsafed to Moses, and subsequently consolidated over the generations, with special emphasis on the attributes of mercy.” Simon emphasizes instead the very different valences with which Jonah and Joel say nearly the same words: “the Lord’s compassion, which for Joel (and Moses and all who appeal to the compassionate God) is the basis of hope, is a source of despair for Jonah.”

Now, Simon is a biblical scholar, and I am not, so far be it from me to challenge his understanding of biblical thought and literature. But I am a rabbinics scholar, and it is my tendency to read scripture in light of rabbinic insights, even if the resultant reading must be deemed homiletical rather than academically accurate. In this case, I want to read Jonah’s version the Divine attributes in relation to a Talmudic passage that appears, appropriately in this case, in the tractate Yoma, the rabbinic description of the rites and observances of Yom Kippur. Under discussion is a phrase that to this day we say in the opening paragraph of the Amidah prayer, a passage which is a citation of Deut. 10:17, in which Moses describes God as האל הגדול הגיבור והנורא – the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.
אתא משה אמר האל הגדל הגבר והנורא, אתא ירמיה ואמר: נכרים מקרקרין בהיכלו, איה נוראותיו? לא אמר נורא. אתא דניאל, אמר: נכרים משתעבדים בבניו, איה גבורותיו? לא אמר גבור.
Moses came and said “the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.” Jeremiah came and said, “Strangers are destroying (or: are reveling in) His Sanctuary; where is His awesomeness?” He did not say “awesome” [a reference to Jeremiah 32:18, “O great and mighty God”]. Daniel came and said: “Strangers are enslaving His children; where is His might? He did not say “mighty” [a reference to Daniel 9:4, “O Lord, great and awesome God”]. (Yoma 69b)

The passage goes on to explain how God can still be considered both mighty and awesome even after destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people – but what I want to highlight is the deep and challenging rabbinic insight here. These two prophets, in their individual moments, do not experience God in the fullness that Moses did – and they will not simply pretend that they do. They will speak to the truth of their own moment.

If Jonah’s words are different from Moses’ – and if they are the same words as Joel’s, but said in a very different manner – then what is the truth of his own moment that Jonah is speaking to? Here I want to look also a little deeper at Nahum’s prophesy as well. Nahum, unlike Jonah or Joel (or several partial citations of the attributes found in the book of Psalms), very much does emphasize the aspect of judgment. What is further notable is to whom is prophesy is directed. Nahum 1:1, which I omitted above, reads as follows:
משא נינוה ספר חזון נחום האלקשי
A pronouncement on Nineveh: The Book of Prophesy of Nahum the Elkoshite.
Nineveh! Nahum preaches judgment for Nineveh, the very thing Jonah, the prophet actually sent to Nineveh, does not say!

What is the truth of Jonah’s moment, such that when he speaks of God’s mercy, he does so in a tone of despair and a kind of dark irony, and such that he does not speak to God’s judgment at all? Jonah sees before him only mercy, and none of the judgment that Nahum calls for. Have the Ninevites earned mercy? Does a hasty repentance cancel out judgment and justice? Is it that easy? It seems to me that Jonah is challenging God, and us when we read the book that bears his name, to remember that ultimately the world rests on the fulcrum between mercy and justice, and for it to tip too far in one direction or the other is dangerous. On Yom Kippur, we tend to be, as it were, on God’s side in the dispute between the Holy One and Jonah – we want God to have mercy on us even when we do not deserve it. But the book doesn’t let us rest easy with that conclusion. If the Ninevites go back to their old ways, if we go back out into the world on the 11th of Tishrei, on the day after Yom Kippur, and do not strive to make a world that is more just, make ourselves people who act more justly, then we will only find ourselves back in the same place the following year, with nothing to shelter us and begging for mercy that we do not deserve.

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Dr. Gail Labovitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, where she teaches primarily for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is also an ordained Conservative rabbi. She is the author of a number of scholarly articles, and the book Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature. She has also worked as a Senior Research Analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and the coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group for the Women's Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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