The Book of Jonah and biblical social justice

To help us understand Jonah as a reluctant prophet, Yanklowitz frames his book through the paradigm of “universal ethics.”

PIETER LASTMAN’S depiction of Jonah and the whale (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
PIETER LASTMAN’S depiction of Jonah and the whale
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Book of Jonah is read at the afternoon service (minha) on Yom Kippur every year. During the High Holy Day season, rabbis and teachers in Jewish communities all over the globe offer classes and sermons explaining the meaning of this most unusual story.
Let me summarize the story so we are all on the same page.
God calls on Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh to repent or they will be punished. Jonah does not want to accept this mission, and he runs away, boarding a boat going to Tarshish. God creates a storm that threatens to sink the ship. The frightened sailors, fearing that Jonah is the cause of God’s wrath, confront Jonah, who is hiding in the lower decks while the storm rages. He tells them they must throw him overboard, and then the storm will cease.
After being thrown into the sea, Jonah winds up in the belly of a large fish for three days. He then is placed on land, where he accedes to God’s request and conveys His warning to the people of Nineveh, who do indeed repent. But Jonah is extremely displeased that the people of Nineveh are not punished and tells God that he would rather die than live.
Jonah then leaves the city and sits happily under a plant that is offering him shade. God then causes the plant to wilt. When Jonah loses his shade, he is very upset and again is so depressed that he wants to die.
The book concludes with God confronting Jonah and saying to him that he seemed to care more about the plant than the 120,000 people of the great city Nineveh. At the end of the story we know that the people of Nineveh were saved but not what happened to Jonah.
Although I have read and reread the Book of Jonah and its commentaries for many decades, I still felt I did not clearly understand all the nuances of its  implications for the story for my life; that is, until I read Rabbi Yanklowitz’s new book.
The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary is a refreshing look at the story and at some traditional perspectives on it through the lens of social justice. It directly applies the biblical tale to contemporary societal issues in the United States and Israel. It also includes the full text of the Book of Jonah.
To help us understand Jonah as a reluctant prophet, Yanklowitz frames his book through the paradigm of “universal ethics.” He foregrounds God’s concern for all humanity and for teaching ethical lessons on universal values such as repentance and mercy. By seeing Jonah’s travels and trials from this perspective, we are reminded of human beings’ responsibility for the welfare of their fellow human beings wherever they may be.
MERCY IS elevated over judgment, as Yanklowitz writes: “We should learn not to judge others, because we do not wish to be judged. We should emulate God, who judges mercifully rather than harshly.”
One of the book’s greatest assets is the way it raises questions for us: both those that we confront on the high, philosophical plane during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and also in our daily lives as parents, children, friends, neighbors, coworkers and members of larger societies. As we read through the chapters, we are confronted with issues that will motivate us to think about the meaning we give to our lives.
Yanklowitz provides additional resources by offering the perspectives of traditional and contemporary teachers, scholars, philosophers, theologians and others. Together with his insights, these resources help him achieve his goal for this book: “to apply traditional Jewish knowledge to our contemporary world and questions.”
On Yom Kippur we naturally focus on our own actions and the relationships we have with the people we are closest to or should be closest to. We make resolutions on how we can improve our lives; we commit to working on bettering our relationships. Sometimes, because of this inward focus, we forget that we also have a responsibility toward the broader society.
This book reminds us that we also need to focus on how we can alleviate the suffering of others so that vulnerable people are not left behind. In the same way that God judges mercifully, we need to be compassionate toward other people, all living creatures, and the Earth. Yanklowitz reminds us that the creation story was not limited to Jews but includes every creature God thought worthy of creating.
Throughout history we have faced unique, pressing challenges. Today we are dealing with multiple serious crises simultaneously: the coronavirus pandemic, an unsettled global economy, an increase in poverty around the world, the reemergence of powerful authoritarian regimes, and the devaluing of democratic governments. It is very easy to turn away from the enormity of those issues and to become myopic, to focus on the self without concern for the other or, even worse, at the expense of the other.
Rabbi Yanklowitz’s book gives us the strength to turn outward by enabling us to understand how Jonah misread God’s role in the world and how to create a just and merciful approach to our lives and the lives of other people. 
I strongly recommend this book for a pre-Yom Kippur learning experience that will make your holiday more special and meaningful – whether you spend the time in synagogue following the traditional prayers or use the time creatively to review your past year and think about the next. It is well worth your investment of time and effort to understand the Book of Jonah through the lens of social justice.             
The writer is a retired faculty member of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s master’s program in nonprofit management.
By Rabbi Dr.
Shmuly Yanklowitz
186 pages; $19.95