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In the Story of Jonah, an Urgent Lesson About the Dangers of Solitary Confinement

Isolation didn’t help Jonah find redemption inside the whale. It isn’t helping thousands of American prisoners today, either.

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Some extremely resilient prisoners can survive even long-term solitary confinement with their minds and souls whole, almost unscathed. But for many, perhaps most, isolation—and the featureless, purposeless life that accompanies it—is deeply damaging. Yet today, we impose this state, this harm, on tens of thousands of prisoners. The Michigan prison system has over a thousand prisoners in long-term segregation. In our national experiment of mass incarceration, we are not only imprisoning more people than any nation ever has before—over 20 percent of the world’s current prisoners—we are housing more of them in segregation, for longer periods of time than has ever been attempted. We should be unsurprised if few or none experience Jonah’s positive response.

Let’s move back to Jonah for a deeper look: Jonah learned something in the whale’s belly, but even Jonah’s new-found clarity was far from perfect. He learned obedience but not understanding. Later in the story we find that Jonah is deeply aggrieved, even angry with God. Why? Because when the Ninevites so speedily repented, God relented and went back on the prior promise to ruin the city. Jonah heads outside the city to sit alone—again, solitary if not confined—and stew over this felt grievance. He complains that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil,” throwing those words at God as an accusation, not, as we pray today, as words of hope or entreaty or praise. Jonah is deeply skeptical of mercy and believes only in harsh justice. At the same time, he is psychologically in a very similar place as the prisoner quoted above, enraged and desperate over the withering of the gourd on which he was relying for shade.

God could simply reject Jonah’s views about the world and subject him to punishment for them. Perhaps that punishment would be a harsher or longer term of isolation, as it is so often in prison. But that’s not what happens. Instead, what God rejects is Jonah’s chosen isolation. God ends Jonah’s segregation in the sukkah, the booth he has built, interrupting it with conversation that extolls the quality of mercy—deserved or not, applicable even to the thousands who don’t know their right from left, to the beasts as well as the people. We don’t see or hear Jonah’s reaction, but the tradition subscribed to by most Jewish commenters on Jonah holds that he is abashed and persuaded, that this book is about Jonah’s salvation more than the redemption of Nineveh.

Following that tradition, Jonah’s teshuvah does occur, but not in isolation in the whale’s belly, and not as a matter of justice. Jonah’s teshuvah occurs when God engages Jonah’s humanity to explain to him the ineffable value of mercy and when Jonah understands that just like a child who doesn’t know right from left, good from evil—just like all of us, including our prisoners—he, too, depends on mercy.

The views expressed are the author’s, and not those of any past or present employer.

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In the Story of Jonah, an Urgent Lesson About the Dangers of Solitary Confinement

Isolation didn’t help Jonah find redemption inside the whale. It isn’t helping thousands of American prisoners today, either.

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