Judith Richlin-Klonsky Yom Kippur 5771
Toward the end of a long day of prayer and contemplation, the Book of Jonah is a change of pace. Here’s a story we can imagine pitching to a Hollywood producer. Maybe we would frame it as an action suspense thriller: Are Jonah and the sailors and even the badly behaved residents of Nineveh ultimately forgiven their sins? Do the sailors survive the raging seas, or come to a heartbreaking end like George Clooney in “The Perfect Storm?” Does Jonah emerge intact from the depths of the ocean…and does Nineveh avoid imminent destruction?
Or it could obviously be a bio pic – the story of Jonah and his amazing adventures, centering around his one-on-one struggles with the Eternal. And, as some commentators suggest, it might even be a comedy, given the over-the-top actions of a few of the main characters: we can imagine Adam Sandler in the slightly meshugeneh title role of Jonah, hilariously vomited from the belly of a large fish. This is obviously a whale of a tale with many dimensions, from the nearly cartoon-like to the dramatic.
Whatever genre our “Jonah” movie might take, the questions I want to raise this afternoon are about the nature of its central character — who is actually not Jonah, but God. I speak as someone deeply committed to Judaism and as a sociologist, but not as a rabbinic scholar. Given our time limits this afternoon — and the limits of my lay person’s knowledge — this exploration of divinity won’t be comprehensive. But I hope you find your own perspective represented in it, whether you believe in Jonah’s God literally, figuratively, or not at all. Because what I’m wondering is how we can use these different “takes” on the vision of God in the Book of Jonah to learn more about who we are and what we believe, both individually and as a Jewish community.
In this moment of concern about our fates, it’s a relief to see the theme of God’s compassion throughout the narrative of this story. Let’s quickly follow the thread: Just before the story begins, the “wickedness” of the Ninevites has somehow come to the attention of the Eternal. Nonetheless, God hasn’t immediately done away with them. Instead, Jonah is ordered to go to Nineveh and warn them to straighten up and fly right…or else.
Jonah refuses the assignment by hopping a ship that’s headed in the opposite direction. A big storm arrives and when the sailors regretfully throw Jonah overboard in an effort to save themselves and their ship, God sends a “huge fish” – not to eat Jonah, despite his disobedience, but as a kind of deep-sea holding cell, a secluded place where Jonah can settle down and gain a little perspective. For children, we might think of this as the ultimate “time out” spot; for adults, a brief stint in an isolated rehab center. These are consequences imposed by a God functioning more like a benevolent parent, hoping to bring an immature offspring along, than a harsh judge seeking to set a stern precedent.
Interestingly, Jonah’s words to God while locked in the belly of the fish are not included in the translation we read in our machzor. There’s some speculation that its chapter was written later than the rest of the Book, and in it, Jonah surprisingly doesn’t bemoan his fate, even though he’s in a tight spot (literally!) and he’s something of a whiner in other parts of the story. Instead, he offers up a lyrical psalm of thanksgiving for what he interprets not as punishment but as salvation resulting from God’s compassion. He vows to worship the Eternal. Here’s some of what he says:
The engulfing waters threatened me and the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head….
But you brought my life up from the pit, the Eternal, my God. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed, I will make good. Salvation comes from the Eternal.
Sure enough, at this point, the text goes on, “the Eternal commanded the fish, to spew Jonah onto dry land” and…he’s sprung! And in the end, Jonah finally does visit Nineveh and warns of its destruction, persuading its king and inhabitants to mend their ways. Disaster is averted for the Ninevites after they “fast, covered in sackcloth,” “cry mightily to God,” and “turn their back on their evil ways.” God not only skips the destruction of the city but admonishes Jonah that he too should be more compassionate, toward everything from worms to his fellow human beings.
Clearly the message here is that if we have sincerely repented of our misbehaviors and bad beliefs today, if we make sincere vows to God this afternoon, we too can hope for God’s compassion and be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Some of us take this vision of God at face value, believing in a Being who intervenes in the course of human affairs and in individual human lives, as the Eternal does in Jonah’s story. This is a God who does: who casts a mighty wind upon the sea, provides a great fish to swallow Jonah; commands the great fish to spew him out; sees what the people of Nineveh did; and has compassion. And this is a God we might hope will do things for us. Like the sailors in the midst of the tempest and the Ninevites facing an uncertain future, many of us pray to avoid divine punishment and seek divine assistance, for everything from world peace to our children’s health to our math test to our employment status to the performance of our favorite sports team.
But Jews are particularly open to debate on questions like these: According to a survey by the highly reputable Pew Research Center, almost nine out of ten American Jews (far more than the 68% among all religions as a whole) say that there is more than one way to interpret our religious teachings, including, I presume, our visions of God. And opinions about the nature of God – indeed, about God’s very existence – are not uniform throughout Jewish thinking, historically or now. In modern times, since the invention of science and the preeminence of rationality, some Jews believe God to be the creator of the universe – a force that put things in motion and then backed off, to allow natural laws and human reason to control the destiny of our world. When human beings are out of sync, when we miss the mark – behaving badly, like Ninevites – the results are predictably catastrophic: from everyday examples of indifference and outright meanness to large-scale plagues of poverty and violence. On the other hand, from this perspective, when we work with the laws of physical and human nature – when we find ways for “the force” to be with us (or, more precisely, us with it) – we work as partners with the Eternal to complete creation.
Some of us experience God not as “He Who Does” but as “That Which Is” – the inherent oneness, the great Echad of all creation. And the feminine divine spirit is represented by Shechinah, a holy presence from which we draw comfort and strength and inspiration: It’s a vision of Shechinah that comes to mind when Leira leads us in singing, “Shelter us beneath your wings, oh Adonai….”
But many Jews do not believe in a divine entity at all. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, just four out of every ten Jews (41% ) definitely believe in God or in a divine spirit of some kind. (This is far fewer than the seven out of every ten Americans of all faiths combined (71%).) More than half of us, then, either question or don’t believe in the active God of the Book of Jonah or in a spirit like Shechinah.
How can non-believers, whether agnostic or atheist, be Jewish? For them, Judaism is not about the actions of a supernatural power, but about the behavior of responsible human beings. Like members of the American ethical culture movement, their emphasis is on “deed” rather than “creed.”
Those non-believers among us most likely would have responded positively if they were in Washington, D.C., a few Decembers ago, and saw one of the ads sponsored by the American Humanist Association that were placed on the sides of the DC buses. “Why believe in a god?” their ads asked. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.” From the perspective of the AHA – and many Jews – Jonah, the sailors, and the citizens of Nineveh could have just as well become better people without a vision of God hovering over them, threatening imminent destruction.
And so there must be a lot of mixed reaction here and wherever Reform Jews are pondering the story of Jonah today. Those who believe literally in the God described in the Book of Jonah may seek a clue from it about what it will take to earn God’s compassion in the coming year. Those who hear it metaphorically, look for some relevance to the issues in their own lives: what is the best thing to do when you’re threatened by waves of debt or of doubt; when you’ve messed up so badly that your life needs to be yanked back from the depths; when you feel like circumstances have you confined in a small space at the bottom of the ocean, with seaweed wrapped around your head? Those who don’t take the story too seriously one way or another, may simply feel comforted by the tradition of reading the same selection that we heard as children on Yom Kippur, and that our parents and their parents did. And for those who are here out of habit or coercion, Jonah’s challenges probably serve as a backdrop rather than a focus for what’s on their minds.
Do our differences matter? Or is this diversity simply the inevitable outcome of the Jewish heritage – to wrestle like Jacob, to question like Moses, even to hesitate like Jonah, and ultimately to think for ourselves?
I’d like to suggest that the most important question is whether we can find a way to bring our varied images of God to bear on a shared vision of our Jewish community. It’s a challenge!
First in this congregation’s list of mission statements, for example, is, “To worship God in accordance with the beliefs and teachings of Reform Judaism.” Now, “worship” is just one kind of Jewish prayer. The others – confession, thanksgiving, and supplication – can be engaged in even without belief in a divine being: You can openly acknowledge your mistakes (confess); you can nurture what Oprah calls an “attitude of gratitude” (be thankful); and you can fervently hope for the best – all without necessarily appealing to a higher power. But if you are worshipping, there has to be someone or something being worshipped. We hear this in Jonah’s words: “… You brought my life up from the pit, the Eternal, my God. [So] with a song of thanksgiving, I will sacrifice to you.”
I have to admit that, after almost 6 decades of deliberate Reform Jewish life — and despite ten years of Reform Jewish religious school, three years of basic Hebrew education, and a great summer at Camp Swig — I don’t know what “worship” means in a Reform Jewish sense! I know it’s no longer the kind of sacrifices Jonah refers to. Certainly not the exaggerated, almost comical expressions of piety of the residents of Ninevah. Not the “I-better-do-this-to-avoid-getting-drowned” conversion of the sailors. What does worship mean to those who don’t relate to an anthropomorphic deity who does things to and, hopefully, for us? What does it mean to those who don’t believe in a divine being, but recognize a divine spirit? And how can it be meaningful to those who’ve concluded that Judaism doesn’t require believing at all – who may even see a focus on “worship” as a distraction to “ethical action?”
Largely ignoring those questions, our contemporary liturgy continues to refer to an active God, like the one in the Book of Jonah, who intervenes in individual lives and in human history, when clearly this is not an image that speaks to the majority of us. This is the language that we’ve inherited, language that reflects the vision — the pillar of smoke — that has brought the Jewish people this far, despite our having been threatened by some pretty strong winds and stormy seas. But it shuts out many whose thoughts about Judaism and living a Jewish life are different than those traditional words express.
It’s difficult to weave together into a single tapestry the variety of Jewish perspectives that we collectively represent.
We’re not going to agree on what or whom we worship, or if we should worship at all. But perhaps we can begin by agreeing on what we don’t venerate or idolize. Whether or how we conceive of God’s existence, whether we believe that the story of Jonah is a literal, eyewitness news account from the eighth century BCE, or a metaphor that conveys some timeless wisdom, or an outmoded fairy tale, we can recognize together the inherent truth when Jonah cries out, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
Whether or how we envision God, together we can seek a goodness bigger than our selves. Because if we “cling to worthless idols” – if what we serve is our own willful hearts and stiff-necked arrogance; if we are devoted to our greed; if we cannot let go of the judgmental minds that Rabbi George cautioned us about erev Rosh haShanah or of the fears that Laura so powerfully described the next day; if we continue to worship our biological or emotional addictions – we too risk destruction, both individually and collectively. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
As we approach the end of this long day of prayer and contemplation, the light through these windows is starting to fade. This is the moment: To release our worthless idols. To claim the grace that can be ours. To open our hearts to compassion, whatever its source.