“Maybe” is not always comfortable in a world that values black and white, in or out, yes or no. But the Book of Jonah, recited on Yom Kippur afternoon, suggests that coming to terms with “maybe” is a key lesson of these days between “it is written” and “it is sealed.” And two musical approaches to “Maybe” help illuminate Jonah’s struggles with concept.
Jonah doesn’t stand still for long. For at least 34 verses of the 47 in the Book of Jonah, he’s on the move:
- God speaks to Jonah in verse 1:1;
- Jonah’s told to go to Nineveh in verse 1:2;
- Jonah is on the way, instead, to Tarshish by verse 1:3;
- Jonah continues to move — under his own power, on the boat, or in the belly of the great fish — until chapter 4;
- “Jonah” [yonah — יוֹנָה] means “dove”
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg teaches that Jonah’s is, at the start of the book, unable to stand:
…to flee from God is to refuse to stand between death and life; it is to refuse to cry out from that standing place. The opposite of the flight from God is, in a word, prayer. Or, to stand one’s ground in the human place between death and life is, in itself, to cry out. Standing — amidah — is the essential posture of prayer….This posture is, for Jonah, untenable, perhaps unbearable…
— p.84, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (NY: Schocken, 2009)
In addition to being unable to stand still, Jonah son of Amittai, a name related to the Hebrew word for “truth,” doesn’t seem to do well with “maybe.”
- On the ship, while Jonah is lost in his rigid worldview, it’s the captain who says, “Perhaps [ulay] that God will give us a thought and we will not perish.” (1:6)
- While Jonah is stuck in the great fish, still on the run from God, his psalm of praise (Chapter 2) speaks with the equanimity of someone already rescued. Various explanations for this have been offered, including ibn Ezra’s suggestion that Jonah is employing “the prophetic past tense,” envisioning his future gratitude for rescue. Through it all, Jonah seems to lack what Zornberg calls “any religious or moral awareness of his situation….The existential terror of his condition remains quite unexpressed in this formulaic prayer.”
- When Jonah finally deigns to deliver God’s warning to Nineveh, doing so with five terse, uncompromising words – basically: “40 days, you’re dead meat” (see 3:4) – it’s the king who imagines a different possibility and declares, “Who knows [mi yodea], God may turn and repent, and turn back from His wrath so that we do not perish.” (3:9)
‘Perhaps’ is a peculiarly Jewish response to the mystery of God’s ways. ‘Who knows?’ speaks of humility and hope and a sense of the incalculable element in the relation of God and human beings….Jonah will need to lose some of his knowledge so as to rouse himself to his own distance from God.
-– p.90, The Murmuring Deep (emphasis added)
And Judy Klitsner says:
…what separates Jonah from the populations he encounters is the latter’s ability to embrace a sense of ‘ulay.‘ The sailors on the boat and the people of Nineveh…hold the capacity for radical change since they never cease to consider such change possible.
— p.27, Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other (Jerusalem: Maggid Books/Koren, 2011.)
We learn late in the Jonah’s story that his flight to Tarshish was motivated by certain beliefs and expectations he had, back when he was at home:
…was this not my saying,
when I was yet in mine own country?
— Jonah 4:2
Zornberg discusses in depth this “knowingness,” which keeps him from getting to “maybe.” (Read “Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight” in Murmuring Deep, partially available via Google Preview.)
The doo-wop versions of the song, “Maybe” (by Arlene Smith, also credited to Richie Barrett), help illustrate how hard it is to let go of assumptions about the future for a true “maybe.” (Thanks to Second Hand Songs for the history.)
The Chantels’ (1957) “Maybe” —
and The Three Degrees’ (1970) cover —
— both exemplify Jonah’s point of view throughout most of the book.
Both include the line, “Maybe, if I pray every night you’ll come back to me” and a chorus of “maybe maybe baby.” And, like Jonah fleeing to Tarshish, both begin by suggesting that their own actions can affect what comes next:
- In 1957, Arlene Smith sings, “If I kissed your lips, I’d be at your command.”
- In 1970, Valerie Holiday sings, “If I kissed your sweet lips, you’d be at my command.”
Each quickly devolves, however, into a view of the future that is a foregone conclusion.
- Like Jonah’s psalm from inside the belly of the fish, the Chantels seems to drift into the prophetic past tense; from the present, they declare the outcome: “you came to me only in my dreams.”
- Thirteen years later, the Three Degrees open with patter – “You know girls it’s hard to find a guy that really blows your mind “ – and their “maybe” is a proposition we get the sense the “nicest guy in the world” is unlikely to reject.
The expected outcomes differ, but the “maybe maybe baby” of both songs is part of a torch-song formula. Like Jonah, with his half-hearted fulfillment of his vow to prophesy to Ninevah, these songs are not meant to evoke a real possibility for change on anyone’s part.
Can the same be said of our approach to the high holidays?
A Different “Maybe”
The “Maybe” Janis Joplin recorded with the Kosmic Blues Band in 1969 can illustrate lessons from Jonah that suggest a different path through these Days of Awe and beyond.
- The opening, “Maybe. Oh, if I could pray – and I try, dear…,” can serve as acknowledgement of the challenges of true prayer, some of which Jonah has illustrated for us: Zornberg calls Jonah’s first prayer “emotional plagiarism” (p. 95, Murmuring Deep), e.g., while his post-prophecy prayer is an angry request for his own death.
- The Kozmic “Maybe” omits the line about strategic kissing, instead offering some of the introspection many find missing in Jonah’s psalm:
I guess I might have done something wrong.
Honey I’d be glad to admit it
(above recording, 1:20-1:28)
This points toward the possibility of “corrective repair” that Klitsner sees in the close of the Book of Jonah:
Jonah hears God’s final argument but fails to respond….In this silence lies the hope and the opportunity of ulay….the potential of human beings to imagine themselves as other than they have always been and to undertake the courageous task of corrective repair that will reverse their standing themselves before God.
— p.29, Subversive Sequels
- Rather than standing with a foregone conclusion, this version leans toward the uncertainty of what Zornberg calls “standing…in human vulnerability”:
Honey maybe, maybe maybe maybe, yeah
Well I know that it just doesn’t ever seem to matter, babe
Oh honey, when I go out or what I’m trying to do
‘Cause, you see, I’m still left here and I’m all alone in needing you…
— above recording, 1:45-2:20
Honey maybe, maybe maybe maybe
Maybe maybe maybe, yeah
The enigmas that enrage and sadden Jonah are not riddles to be solved. They remain; God invites Jonah to bear them, even to deepen them, and to allow new perceptions to emerge unbidden. In a word, to stand and pray.
–p.105, Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep
Can standing, like Jonah, in this “maybe” help new perceptions to emerge and, with them, a possibility for change?
Maybe dear, oh maybe maybe maybe
Let me help you show me how
As we attempt the “corrective repair” in our own lives and in the wider world, can we learn to stand in uncertainty, without foregone conclusions or expectations?
Maybe maybe maybe, yeah