Finding Justice in Jonah
Jonah, the prophet whose story we read on Yom Kippur, is a troubling figure for the rabbis. What does one do with a prophet who experiences revelation and immediately turns tail and heads in the opposite direction? The rabbis wonder at this behavior, in no small part because they live in a time after the end of prophecy, when the idea of a direct line from God with specific instructions sounds utterly miraculous and ineluctably compelling. Why, they ask, does Jonah run from God’s command to inform the citizens of Nineveh that their evil is revealed to God? The rabbis of the Talmud offer two answers. First, they suggest that Jonah was upset that the nations of the world might repent and make Israel look bad in their ongoing refusal to heed God’s words. Second, they suggest that Jonah was afraid that Nineveh would repent, avert God’s decree of destruction, and that consequently he—Jonah—would be seen as a false prophet. The late medieval commentator Abravanel is unsatisfied with both these answers. In his introduction to the book of Jonah, Abravanel suggests that Jonah, with his prophetic knowledge, recognizes that the Assyrian empire—of which Nineveh was the capital—would eventually exile the Kingdom of Israel and Jonah wanted no part in saving a nation that would destroy his own. Within the context of the question, Abravanel’s answer is the most compelling. Having said that, I am confused by the rabbinic confusion. I find Jonah’s behavior completely reasonable under the circumstances, but I think one might need a neurodivergent lens to find Jonah’s behavior unexceptionable.
As part of the Center for Lived Torah, my goal in these essays is to explore what a neurodivergent perspective can bring to our tradition and to the stories that we visit and revisit every year. For me, I look at Torah from my own autistic perspective and, I hope, share with you how that perspective informs my relationship with Judaism. I want to invite you into my umwelt so you can see what Jonah looks like through my senses and how I experience the call and message of the haftarah we read on Yom Kippur at mincha. I want to explain to you why I am so untroubled by Jonah’s refusal to answer God’s call and what I, sliding so neatly in Jonah’s sandals, hear as the message from this book.
The main reason I struggle with the aforementioned question about Jonah’s motivation is that Jonah provides us with the answer and it makes perfect sense. We know why Jonah runs because the prophet himself tells us at the end of the text. Jonah is bitter when the people of Nineveh repent and says “Oh God! Is this not just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah objects that God spares the Assyrians the consequences of their actions. They have done evil and they do not deserve to retain their status as the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah is not particularly impressed with the fasting and the public repentance; but he knows that God finds such behavior acceptable and averts their doom. Perhaps this is why Abravanel suggests that Jonah’s prophetic knowledge plays a key role in his refusal. If Jonah knows that there will be no real change and that Nineveh’s might and cruelty will ride roughshod over his people, why should he prophecize to them? Why do they not deserve justice?
It has often been said that one of the hallmarks of autistic thinking is a deep commitment to what we perceive is right. To put it more abrasively, we do not do nuance very well. In studies, this manifests itself as a willingness to stick with our principles even when it is no longer to our advantage. We are the ones who refuse to sell out. When something is wrong, we say so and brook no argument and we demand justice. Jonah wants no part in helping the people of Nineveh evade the consequences of their actions and avoid justice for the evil they committed before God.
The text of Jonah is oddly silent as to the nature of their sin, although Ibn Ezra notes that it could not have been idolatry since there is no mention of tearing down altars to false gods (Ibn Ezra on Jonah 1:1). Given that they appear not to have sinned in how they act towards God, it seems fair to conclude that their sin was in how they treated their fellow people. The Talmud suggests that their sin was theft and their repentance was returning stolen items, although the rabbis differ as to whether they actually gave everything back (Ta’anit 16a). The prophet Nachum, who prophesied after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, accuses Nineveh of being a city of murderers with bodies piled high and unnumbered (Nachum 3:1-3).1 If the crimes enumerated in Nachum go back to Jonah’s day, the entire premise of the city’s repentance is called into question. As some of us may perhaps have heard before in the context of Yom Kippur, fasting and prayer do not absolve one of sins against fellow human beings. Nineveh fasts and wails and repents, but if their crime was war and murder, we are left wondering whether they could possibly repent and how long such a change of heart could last. How could a city of conquerers and murderers be allowed to retain its might?
That, at least, seems to be Jonah’s question. Jonah wants to see the city overthrown, wants to ensure that things cannot go back to the evil of earlier days. I find his perspective resonates strongly with me. When the powerful receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist for their behavior, when bullies act contrite for a few days…that is not justice. Those of us who tend to be the targets of bullies and biased systems grow tired of discovering that yet another commitment to repentance was an empty promise. Like Jonah, I want to believe in and live in a world where evildoers face consequences. Also like Jonah, I do find the idea of running away when I cannot see a path forward compelling. Like me, Jonah is someone disappointed with a world that persists unchanged, without consequences for those who have done wrong and safeguards to prevent them from doing it again. If we take the most extreme read, a city of murderers faces no consequences for their crimes and will, as Jonah knows, go on to murder again. Jonah’s fury speaks straight to my neurodivergent stubbornness that the world must not be allowed to remain unjust.
God’s response to Jonah is not to argue with him about the nature of justice or to defend the repentance of the Assyrians. God, instead, makes Jonah live out a parable. He sends a kikayon, variously translated as either gourd or castor bean/ricinus plant.2 The plant grows and gives Jonah shade and then, after a day, God sends a worm to destroy the plant and Jonah is once again miserable. God asks Jonah whether he is really that upset over a plant and Jonah responds that he is “grieved unto death” (Jonah 4:9). And God answers, “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well!” (Jonah 4:11).
God, in God’s own way, concedes Jonah’s point that what happened in Nineveh is not just. And God is also right: there are more principles than justice at stake. The wellbeing of all the souls and beasts of Nineveh weighs heavily on God and God would right the world with as little pain as possible. Side by side with God’s commitment to justice lies God’s duty of care. God wants Jonah to learn to be guided by both of those principles. How, God implicitly asks, do we bring consequences to those who sinned without harming those without a say? God challenges Jonah to articulate what justice is for an evil city of more than one hundred and twenty thousand, most of whom do not have any knowledge of that good or evil done in their name. And Jonah gives no answer.
The text ends at this impasse. The heart of this text is Jonah and God’s struggle over the nature of justice. The book of Jonah ends without resolution because Jonah is right. Justice has not been served. But justice cannot be served justly, not while honoring what we owe to all living creatures. The book of Jonah is, to me, both a mirror and a lamp. It mirrors my own impulses, best and worst, to see justice served and to have those who cause pain have that pain rebound back onto them. And it is a lamp for me, asking me to make space for both justice and care in the work that I do. In the emptiness at the end of the book, the real work of pursuing justice without losing sight of all those for whom we care begins.
1 Thank you to Nathan Alcabes and Jonathan Bressler for pointing me towards a number of interesting sources about Nineveh and her sins.
2 For the record, a ricinus plant makes much more sense than a gourd, especially if you have ever attempted to imagine Jonah resting beneath a giant pumpkin and found that it stretched credulity.