Book Review of Dr. Yitzhak Berger’s New Book on Yonah.

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jonahBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times

“Jonah in the Shadows of Eden” is published by Indiana University Press. It was published in July of 2016 and is 149 pages.

Dr. Yitzhak Berger’s newest publication has profound implications in the interpretation of Sefer Yonah. Essentially, Dr. Berger employs a combination of new tools of analysis to derive a new thesis and reading of Sefer Yonah. His reading of Sefer Yonah unfolds a multiplicity of simultaneous meanings and themes.

His new thesis is that Yonah’s attempt at escaping his Divine Mission is essentially a crisis of Hashkafa on Yonah’s part and thus a rejection of the manner in which Hashem runs the world. On account of this, Dr. Berger suggests that Yonah is seeking Gan Eden – a perfected place where the problems of this world do not exist.

Dr. Berger’s analytical tools, particularly when they are combined, do point to the idea that Yonah is, in fact, seeking Gan Eden. His tools of analysis and intra-biblical comparison reveal parallels to almost every reference in Tanach to Gan Eden – from Kayin to Sefer Yoel.

Although not found in Dr. Berger’s work, there is a fascinating interpretation found in the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of Shir HaShirim. In the Even Shleimah on Shir Hashirim (page 103), the Vilna Gaon citing Kabbalistic interpretations that the leaves of the gourd emanated from – yes, Gan Eden.

But why did Yonah refuse his mission?

There are two possible animadversions that Yonah has to the mission, according to Dr. Berger. Nineveh is immoral. It is corrupt and its evil is profound. And yet it is a stunningly beautiful city. How could it be that by mere Teshuva – Hashem will allow this sinful city to remain in all its beauty. No, reasons Yonah. He rather seeks a true and genuine beautiful venue – one that banishes evil and immorality – Gan Eden.

Alternatively, Yonah’s animadversion is a protest of pacifism. He wishes to avoid being any part of the destruction of an unrepentant city. Dr. Berger suggests that the authorial intent of Sefer Yonah is, in fact, both of those described. The message of Hashem to Yonah according to the latter possibility is that without the possibility of penance – there can be no earning of reward. Just as Yonah had mercy upon his gourd – so too should he have mercy on the residents of Nineveh.

The moral messages that are freshly unfolded in this new work are that we must be more flexible in how we deal with those who have exhibited moral weakness and faults. The second message is the idea that the need for punishment and the penance that it evokes is necessary to receive man’s ultimate reward in this world.

Dr. Berger’s thesis is reminiscent of Dr. Hillel Goldberg’s explanation of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s Igeres HaMussar, where clauses in one sentence modify both the previous clause and later clause in two different sentences. Dr. Berger has demonstrated that this double and triple entendre form of interpretation, in fact, was the authorial intent of Sefer Yonah. We look forward to future works by Dr. Berger.

The reviewer can be reached at [email protected]