Book Review on Rabbi Drazin’s Commentary on Jonah

Image result for jonah whale picture

Was the whale created by Jonah’s subconscious mind?

Posted on 08 June 2017.

Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos, by Rabbi Israel Drazin; Gefen Publishing House, 2016; ISBN-10: 9652298859; ISBN-13: 978-9652298850By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Depiction of Jonah and the “great fish” on the south doorway of the Gothic-era Dom St. Peter, in Worms, Germany (Wikipedia)

CHULA VISTA, California — I would like to begin this book review with a conversation I had with the publisher of San Diego Jewish World, Don Harrison. He asked me whether there was any truth to the story that a whale swallowed Jonah? Let me share with you a story that might surprise you. James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale. He was found days later in the stomach of the whale, which was dead from constipation. … The news spread beyond the ocean in articles as “Man in a Whale’s Stomach.”

Did Jonah’s whale get constipated and vomit Jonah?
Sometimes fact can seem stranger than fiction, or as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Yet as colorful as the Book of Jonah is as sacred literature, it is a book that contains profound theological and psychological insight. Its inclusion in the Yom Kippur services is not fortuitous.
You could say that it is one whale of a tale! (Oy, did I really say that?)
And it is perhaps because of the sensational imagery of this book, many people on Yom Kippur often have only a facile grasp of the story. One of the newest commentaries I have encountered recently was written by Brigadier General, Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, entitled, Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos.” Due to my limitation of time, I will focus on Jonah for now and later write about his treatment of Amos in another article in the near future.
Rabbi Drazin’s book certainly lives up to its title! In his introduction to Jonah, the author immediate confronts the reader with a series of compelling questions that require thoughtful reflection and answers.
  • Did Jonah “convert” the people of Nineveh when he told them that unless they repent the city and all in it will be destroyed? How did Jonah communicate his message to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Did he speak their language? How did the king hear about his prediction? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Bible is correct that “every” inhabitant of Nineveh repented? Why did the people put on sackcloth and ashes? Why did they clothe the animals in sackcloth? Should we be reminded that the animals were also killed during the flood in the days of Noah? What did the people of Nineveh do that required being punished? Did every citizen of Nineveh do this wrong? Why in Jonah’s message to the Ninevites did he not mention that if the people repented they would be saved?
Perhaps the most important question he raises is “Did the author give the prophet this name to indicate that the book contains a profound truth? What is the message of the book?”
From the outset the author points out that it is no fluke that Jonah means “dove” for the dove has come to personify peace and its role in the Noah story symbolizes how God’s war with the antediluvian world had come to an end. I would only add doves are known for their devotion to their mates, and Jonah’s devotion to Israel is so powerful, Jonah is willing to defy God to show his faithfulness to Israel. As a patriot of the Hebrew people, he would much rather see the Assyrian capital of Nineveh crumble into dust for their belligerence against Israel (based on the medieval commentaries Rashi and Kimchi, p. 3).
He also cites approvingly the 19th century German biblical scholar Arnold Bogumil Ehrlich who states that this book is a parable “because it states that Jonah tried to hide from God and everybody knows that this is impossible. He understands that Jonah felt it was improper to prophesy to non-Israelites. Ehrlich adds that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel, and the author of this tale wanted to stress that God cares for everyone[1] (p. 3).
In the first chapter, R. Drazin mentions some very interesting interpretations predicated largely on Maimonides’ psychological view of prophecy, and one of his latter defenders, R. Joseph Caspi. Caspi reinterprets the Book of Jonah in light of Maimonides’ view of prophecy, which he regarded as a visionary experience or a dream-state vision. Maimonides himself says that whenever God speaks to a prophet, the prophet is never in a wakeful state of mind, but is in what moderns call “an altered state of consciousness.” R. Drazin utilizes Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams and explains that whenever you see something unnatural in a dream, odds are that object symbolizes something you have thought about during the daytime.
Caspi’s idea of the whale as a parable or a dream, along with his Freudian insight made me start to think.  R. Drazin’s insight reminded me a little bit of the insights of a little known German anthropologist named Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), as well as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), and Carl G. Jung (1875-1961). Each of their insights bear a striking similarity, despite the fact that Frobenius intuited these ideas first. In any event, as Campbell commented about Jonah in the belly of the whale’s symbolism, “The belly is the dark place where digestion takes place and new energy is created. The story of Jonah in the whale is an example of a mythic theme that is practically universal, of the hero going into a fish’s belly and ultimately coming out again, transformed.”[2] Jung also viewed this symbol is a kind of Journey into Hell comparable with the journeys described by Virgil and Dante, and also a sort of journey to the Land of Spirits, or, in other words, a plunge into the unconscious.
Like Jung, Frobenius also thought that Jonah’s ordeal represents on a psychic level a rebirth of the individual.[3] In psychological terms, Jung expanded this thought to incorporate the sudden changes that engulf a person’s life, leaving him completely disoriented and confused, as though he were swallowed by a whale, who has spat him out into a new world and reality. As the protagonist learns to redefine himself, he comes to a new understanding of self and eventually develops a whole new personal identity.[4]
So while the story about Jonah and the large fish or whale is mythic as R. Drazin noted, bear in mind that myths are symbolic stories that go beyond the surface meaning of its narrative. As Jung noted, “When we take a myth literally, we do injustice to the myth.  Indeed, such an argument is decidedly ridiculous because it takes the myth literally, and today this seems a little bit too naïve.”[5]
In another important section, R. Drazin examines the meaning of Jonah’s attempt to flee God, where he sees Jonah as attempting to flee his prophetic obligation to preach to the people of Nineveh. Throughout the commentary, he combines a peshat (or contextual interpretation of the verse), valuable Hebrew word studies, along with some very keen moral insights associated with derash (a homiletical approach to the Scriptures). Throughout the book, he brings in modern scholars—Jewish and non-Jewish—and his running commentary is keeping with the finest commentaries written by bible scholars today.
The theme of Jonah’s rebirth is certainly symbolic of the kind of rebirth we all need to undergo on Yom Kippur.
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) felt so inspired by the story of Jonah that he developed a theory called, “The Jonah Complex.” Maslow argued that like Jonah, many people have a fear of being successful and choose poorly with respect to life choices. All of this ultimately prevents a person’s self-actualization, or the realization of one’s potential. It is the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents.[6] Jonah, from Maslow’s perspective, is his own worst enemy, much like many of us, I suppose.
I give this book  5* rating and it will  enliven any serious discussion on this very important text.

[1] Arnold B. Ehrlich. Mikra ki-Pheschuto, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, first published 1901.
[2] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), p. 180.
[3] Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), pp. 228-229.
[4] Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), p 229.
[5] Carl G. Jung, The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950),  p. 592.
[6]  Abraham H. Maslow, Maslow on Management (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 1990), p. 149.
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The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings — Book Review

 

The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings by Dr. Fred Reiss — Reviewer Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The study of the Jewish calendar is not one of the easiest topics to research.  It is an area that most rabbis have at best a general knowledge of the history. Dr. Fred Reiss chronicles how the Jewish calendar evolved over the centuries and for that alone, his new book, The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings is a good read.

Although the existence of a calendar is implied in the early books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, it is only in the book of Numbers the first formal imperative to celebrate the New Moon is found (Num. 10:10), despite the fact that Leviticus 23 mentions all the festivals and holy days! Historically and biblically Rosh Hodesh certainly figures prominently in the original Passover holiday. Reiss points out that “based on the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, as a nation, officially adopted a lunar calendar about the middle of the 15th century BCE, but rejected the foreign names for the days of the week and months of the year” (pp. 29-30).

Unlike the Muslims who employ a purely lunar calendar, the Hebrew calendar, as Reiss explains is a lunisolar calendar, “whose months start with the New Moon and seasons of the year regulated by the sun.” Reiss is correct, for the Passover holiday must always occur in the month of aviv (often rendered as “spring”) but means “barley harvest.” As Reiss noted further that in the event the barley harvest was not ready, the ancients intercalated a month. Interestingly, as Philo noted (I am quoting my research on this matter), the Passover always had to occur at the vernal equinox. Reiss also makes reference to this point as well, but the origin traces back to Philo of Alexandria. Rosh Hodesh (“the head of the month”) has historically been determined by the sighting of the new moon’s crescent. In a lunar calendar, it occurs on a cycle of slightly more than 29 days. In ancient times, the Sanhedrin used to determine whether a month had 29 or 30 days and all this was predicated upon the visual observation of witnesses.

In the first chapter of the book, Reiss chronicles the development of the Hebrew calendar and its various permutations over the centuries. When the witnesses appeared, the Rosh Hodesh was celebrated and that day it was counted was marked as the first of the month. If no witnesses appeared, then the next day was designated as the Rosh Hodesh.

It is often hard for moderns to grasp what the world was like without the Internet. How did peoples communicate with one another about the Rosh Hodesh? Well, fires were lit on the Mount of Olives and this signaled to other communities to light their bonfires, and within minutes, the entire country knew when it was the New Moon. The High Priest used to make the final ruling whether or not to declare a new month.

Reiss documents how the Babylonian Jews used the Assyrian/Babylonian calendar month names, which are pretty much the same names Jews use today. When the Greeks conquered the Ancient Near East, Greek astronomy and mathematics enabled “clandestine” rabbinic councils to ascertain the arrival of the New Moon.
When one considers the number of Nobel Prize winners that happen to be Jewish, it is sometimes difficult for me to imagine why our ancestors struggled so hard in developing a Jewish calendar that was based in mathematics that would supplant the older witnessing system used by the previous generations of Jews.  Why didn’t our ancestors figure this out centuries before?

Historically, after the Jewish revolts against Rome, most Jews were dispersed from Judea, the old system certifying and signaling new moons and months in what the Romans had renamed Palestine, was in dissolution. This problem certainly worried the early generations of rabbis who realized that a new calendar for fixing our months became essential based on mathematical calculations.

A small council of rabbis guarded the secret instructions for constructing the calendar, until the mid-fourth century CE when, due to repressive acts and ultimate dissolution of the Jewish Court by Roman emperors, Hillel II, President of the Jewish Court in Babylonia, revealed those rules, so that Jews are able to construct their religious calendar.

As Reiss noted the Jewish calendar, once established by Hillel the Second in the middle of the fourth century, has never been adjusted. Even though the monthly moon cycle varies by as much as +/- 0.7 days per lunar cycle, and this can complicate the actual times when a holiday is supposed to begin. Interestingly, there has never been an instance where a new moon was ever sighted before the Hebrew calendar date. NASA claims to have improved on the amazingly precise lunar cycle of 29.53059 days used in the Jewish calendar. It has been said that even the great 18th century Vilna Gaon believed there were mistakes in the Jewish calendar.

Toward the end of the book, Reiss discusses some of the problems inherent in the Jewish calendar and the Orthodox rabbinic responses have varied over time. He discusses a number of different suggestions to the problems, but this is one topic that does not seem to have any immediate resolution as the author noted.

Personally, I have read a number of articles in Israeli journals and papers written by Orthodox scholars who think with the help of computer technology, we can now correct a number of these internal flaws embedded in the Jewish calendar we now use.

Although we have two days of Yom Tov in the Diaspora, there is still value in keeping the tradition because it reminds us that the majority of the Jews living today do not live in the Land of Israel. Yet, even in the medieval period, three days dedicated to Yom Tov and Shabbat often made it very hard for a struggling Jewish family to make a living.

Whether such changes will occur, this remains to be seen.

Reiss raises many interesting question readers might find interesting in knowing about the ancient Jewish calendar’s history: What is the definition of lunation time? Why have the rabbis condensed seven days into four days? Why is the High Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah often postponed? The civil calendar is either 365 or 366-days long, why does the Jewish calendar have six different year lengths? The Julian calendar repeats every twenty-eight years, the Gregorian calendar every four hundred years, why does it take 689,472 years for the Jewish calendar to repeat? All calendars have errors, what are the Jewish calendar’s errors and what do they affect?

When you read this book, you will find the answers quite illuminating and informative.
*
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, is author of numerous books including the Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria Commentary on the Pentateuch.

 

 

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