Trial 092612: The People Vs. Jonah

Caryn Aviv
September 10, 2012
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The truth: I’ve never really liked Jonah as one of the central characters in the High Holiday texts, unless you deliberately approach the narrative along the lines of an anti-heroic cautionary tale of ‘what not to do if you’re tapped as a prophet.’  No, Jonah is not exactly an empathetic, nor likable character, with qualities a reader might want to emulate.

Far from it – Jonah avoids the responsibility of prophecy by fleeing.  Little does he realize the futility of flight.  He numbs himself asleep inside the ship.  But the captain and crew are onto his Jonah and his shortcomings.  They sniff fear, self-loathing, and avoidance in this small-minded man.  Jonah sees that his ethical ugliness has been discovered, and he urges them to toss him out.   In despair, deep within the symbolic innards of a sea creature, Jonah cries out to God.   That’s the one moment – perhaps the only one! – where I feel a glimmer of empathy for this guy.  Then, Jonah finally (grudgingly?) shows up and delivers his message in the flattest, most uninspiring way, but then complains bitterly when the people of Nineveh actually clean up their act.  He complains some more when a shade-bearing gourd shrivels up, and asks to die in a fit of angst.   What’s with this guy?  Why can’t he just get himself together and deal with himself?

Yes, I understand that one of the most important messages, about divinity, gratitude and compassion, comes through in the final chapter.  When God asks Jonah to look beyond his own obscuring veil of despair in the form of a question, I want to ask God – ‘could you have given Jonah some prophetic pointers a bit earlier in the story?  Wasn’t there anyone else you might have tapped for prophecy than this nudnik?’

In other words, this reader is not convinced nor particularly moved by the story of Jonah this year.  I’m not convinced that what we can learn from Jonah’s character shortcomings is to embrace our own weaknesses and look to God for compassion.  I’m not convinced that Jonah’s anguished complaints, questions, and troubled relationships (with himself, with others, with God) could serve as a viable model of relationship.  In fact, I’m not convinced that the book of Jonah is such a fantastic story to read, year after year, on the day when we seek forgiveness from within ourselves, with others, and from God.

I think I’m suffering this year from a serious case of Jonah-induced alienation.  Maybe it’s because I feel so despondent about the sorry state of our political and electoral process.  Maybe it’s because I’m yearning – I’d like to have more faith that there are true leaders and prophets out there that can point towards way out of our collective malaise. I’d like to see more robust and inspiring leadership, more compassion for those who are vulnerable.  Maybe it’s because there’s so much suffering in the world, so many ways in which we as citizens, leaders, and ordinary people either refuse to or are completely unable to think creatively to address urgent problems and meet many basic needs.

Whatever the reason, I haven’t felt very compassionate towards or connected to Jonah this Elul and Tishrei.   This fact has alarmed me gravely for the past month.

So to address this worrisome alienation, I decided to do something creative about it.  In my mind, I concocted a fantasy show-trial about Jonah. I thought that setting the book of Jonah to the formulaic and dramatic courtroom scenes of a “Law and Order” episode might break through the alienation, to perhaps see this flawed, somewhat bumbling and disagreeable character in a different light.

In a grand and elaborate courtroom, a jury of Jonah’s peers would weigh in on his criminal failures and shortcomings, and decide whether or not Jonah should be ‘put away’ instead of re-read next year.

The charges?  One felony count for initial refusal to prophesize, one felony count for flight/escape, and two misdemeanor counts: contempt towards God and the People of Nineveh; and general ingratitude.   I imagined that the judge (the Honorable Ha Shechinah) would compassionately and calmly preside over the proceedings.  The defense counsel, representing Jonah, would argue that their client was not guilty as charged, but simply ‘fell off the boat’ when it came time to prophesize, and should be granted mercy and compassion by the jury (composed of 12 members of the Jewish People).

The witness list would be a bit unusual: the captain would testify about his crew’s moral dilemmas and misgivings about throwing Jonah overboard.  Yonina, Jonah’s mother, would provide a statement about Jonah’s persistent reluctance to take on new challenges as a child, and his generally turgid demeanor throughout his adolescence.   The whale would testify on behalf of the defense, citing the intensity, fervor and authenticity of Jonah’s prayers.  The shriveled gourd would speak out on behalf of the people, cattle, and soil of Nineveh, describing Jonah’s crabby grumbling and sourness.    And finally, Jonah would ascend to take the stand, and speak on his own behalf, in a gravelly, slow, and trembling voice, pleading for mercy.

If you were in the jury box, how would you be swayed?   Would you convict Jonah for his human failings and move towards punishment?  Would you ‘throw the book’ at Jonah and motion to discontinue reading his story next year?  Or would you move for leniency and compassion?

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Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

1 Comment

  1. _, This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses. Youve got a design here thats not too flashy, but makes a statement as big as what youre saying. Great job, indeed.

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