In his introduction to the Book of Yonah, Radak asks an obvious question – what’s such a book doing in Tanakh? He points out that it is the only book that deals entirely with gentiles. Granted Yonah, himself is Jewish, but a straightforward reading of the text shows that his mission has no direct connection with the Jews of his time. For Ibn Ezra, the question is even more pointed. His claim that the people of Nineveh were not idolaters is at least partially based on his assertion, that “had they not been people who had previously followed God, He would not have sent His prophet to them.”
There is obviously a basis for what these great commentators write. Central to Judaism is the tenet that God has a special relationship with His people. Moreover, the tenacious historical connection between gentiles and idolatrous practices has distanced God from the gentiles even further.
If a careful reading of Yonah makes it clear that the Radak’s question should only be asked empirically and that there is nothing wrong with a Biblical book about gentiles, Ibn Ezra’s underlying question is harder to address. Granted, God’s relationship with the Jewish people is not exclusionary; but can He really have much concern for those who turn away from Him in idolatry? The question is actually stronger, since the historical evidence would make it appear almost certain – contra Ibn Ezra – that the Assyrians of Nineveh were indeed always idolaters.
Yet a close reading of other parts of Tanakh shows that God may actually be more tolerant of idolatry among the nations than we might assume. That is, so long as they “fear God.” While that may first sound like a contradiction, it really isn’t. As I once wrote, “It is important to note that from among the few times the concept (of fearing God) is mentioned […] is when Avraham says Avimelech’s country was devoid of the fear of God (Bereishit 20:11) and when Yosef, posing as an Egyptian, reassures his brothers that he fears God (42:18). As these references are dealing with non-Jews, it appears that even if almost all of the nations of the time were idolatrous, there was nevertheless an expectation that they should be – and, in fact, often were – ‘God-fearing’… Fearing God, then, could more generally be thought of as fearing higher powers, and thus not necessarily presuppose monotheism. Instead, it is an attitude that comes from acknowledging something greater than men and their nations, something that by its very transcendence informs the human condition… a generic awe that leads to a certain basic decency.”
Recently I came across a much bolder formulation from R. Chaim David HaLevi. In Aseh Lecha Rav (I:53), he cites a midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 429) that speaks about the “righteous idolaters” who will eventually be brought up to Gan Eden with great fanfare and be described as “priests of God!” He accordingly writes, “Behold, it is the good character traits and good deeds that a person does in his lifetime – even if he serves idolatry… – that endow him to be considered among the righteous of the nations of the world, so that he merits the world to come.”
R. HaLevi continues by pointing out that this has implications for Jews as well: The great loftiness of the Jewish people that comes by way of God’s Torah is only when they [also] fulfill the fundamental basis of ethics, which is the true and basic foundation for all the accomplishments of man.
You might ask whether this has anything to do with Yom Kippur, the day we read Yonah. Perhaps it is the following: There are more Jews attending synagogue on Yom Kippur than any other day of the year. One thing that draws those who otherwise never attend is the desire to identify with the Jewish people. While there is something to be said for that, it can easily get overblown and even destructive. It should be clear that just being Jewish is not a free ticket to Heaven. On the contrary, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells us that the first question we have to answer to get in is whether we were honest in our business dealings. I am not sure what happens if we don’t get the right answer on that one, but I certainly don’t want to find out!