Harold Kushner was America’s rabbi

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the bestselling Jewish book of all time — with the possible exception of the Bible. His gentle wisdom helped and healed millions of people.

Rabbi Harold Kushner. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — “There are only two categories of Jewish books … ”

When I first embarked on a writing career, and hoped for a modicum of literary (certainly not financial) success, that’s what a friend told me. He was gently advising me to have appropriate expectations regarding book sales and the possible impact of my work.

“There are only two categories of Jewish books,” that friend said.

“‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People,’ and everything else.”

I thought of that quip this weekend upon learning of the death of Rabbi Harold Kushner, at the age of 88.

There was no other rabbi like Harold Kushner in the history of American Judaism, because there was almost no other author like Harold Kushner in the history of American Judaism.

(I say “almost,” because Rabbi Kushner’s literary and spiritual forebear was Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman of Temple Israel in Boston. His 1946 book “Peace of Mind” spent more three years on the New York Times bestseller list. It, too, was a publishing phenomenon, because it was the first book to combine religious insights with the then newly popular science of psychology.)

Rabbi Harold Kushner served as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts. He was a Conservative rabbi. He earned international prominence with the publication of his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in 1981. The book sold more than 4 million copies, was a New York Times bestseller for many months and was translated into at least 12 languages.

But Harold Kushner never sought that success. At times, he seemed almost uncomfortable with that success, and I imagine that he would have lived quite happily without it.

“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” emerged out of the early and tragic death of his son, Aaron, of the rare condition known as progeria — rapid aging. That tragedy prompted Rabbi Kushner to question what it means to have faith in God, especially in the face of suffering. First, he expressed his ideas in an essay in the journal “Judaism,” and then expanded it into a book, in which he reflected on the biblical Book of Job, which focuses on unwarranted suffering, and the justice of God.

What was Rabbi Kushner’s approach?

To simplify: Rabbi Kushner noticed we can make three statements about the world, but we can keep any two of those statements in order to have a coherent worldview.

  • There is suffering and evil in the world.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • God is good.

Which two shall we keep?

Most of us will not deny there is suffering and evil in the world, so that statement must stay.

What about the next two?

If God is all-powerful, and allows suffering and evil to flourish, then God must not be good — and therefore, not a God any sane person would worship. Likewise, Rabbi Kushner rejected the idea that suffering is punishment for sin, which had been a traditional Jewish idea.

Therefore, if the choice is between a good God and an all-powerful God, Kushner keeps the good God, and discards the idea of an all-powerful God.

What happened to God’s omnipotence? God voluntarily chose to limit divine power, in two distinct arenas:

  • Human evil (i.e., the Holocaust) exists, because God gave free will to human beings.
  • Natural evil (illness and natural disasters, for example) exists because the world was created according to immutable natural laws, which do not make exceptions for nice people.

The impact of Rabbi Kushner’s book was immeasurable — way beyond its sales figures. Ask most pulpit rabbis, and many Christian ministers, and they will tell you that “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is among the books they recommend the most to people who are grieving and/or feeling life’s wounds.

Kushner’s words and theological musings allowed countless numbers of people to maintain a faith in God, and a relationship with God, even and because of their struggles.

Rabbi Kushner followed up with many other books. My own list of favorites: “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters,” a meditation on Ecclesiastes; “Living A Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success“; and “The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm.” 

For years, his book “To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking” was my go-to book for Introduction to Judaism classes. It was the book I most recommended to people considering joining the Jewish people through conversion.

Finally, he contributed his own layer of commentary, mostly featuring snippets from midrashim and other jewels of Jewish literature, to “Etz Hayim,” the Conservative movement’s Torah commentary. It is one of the most valuable facets of that extraordinary work.

One of my favorite Kushner passages comes not from one of his books, but from an article that he penned for his own synagogue bulletin.

It was an article on the crisis in Jewish education.

In the beginning you came to us, to the rabbis and Jewish educators, and you said to us: “Teach our children to feel proud of being Jewish and to care about it. And we said: “No problem. Judaism is so exciting and inspiring a guide to life that we will invite your children to be part of it with minimal difficulty.”

Then you said: “In that case, let me make it a little harder. Teach my child to feel proud of being Jewish and to care about it, even though we live in a community with so many distractions, so many conflicts on Saturday and Jewish holidays, and no real Jewish environment outside the synagogue.”

And we replied “That will be harder, but give us enough time, good teachers and textbooks, and we will try to overcome those problems.”

Then you said: “I’ll make it harder still. Teach my child that being Jewish is one of the most important things in his life, and let us teach him [sic] that it is one of the least important. You teach him to take Jewish values seriously, and I’ll make light of them. You teach him to ask: ‘What does it require of me?’ and I’ll teach him to ask: ‘What does it cost?’ And let’s see who wins out.”

And then we answered: “If that’s the way you want it, that’s how it will have to be. But it’s not fair. We won’t teach a child that his parents are wrong or to find fault with what he sees at home. Even if we tried, a child will side with home over his school in a conflict of values. All we can do is to try our best, and ask you to ask yourselves what you had in mind when you set up these rules.”

That mini-essay shakes and stirs me.

I have nicknamed it: “When Bad Things Happen to Good Jewish Education.”

Rabbi Kushner wrote his own epitaph, in the last words of one of his later books, “Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life.”

Dear World, We’ve been through a lot together over the past eight decades, you and I —marriages, births, deaths, fulfillment and disappointment, war and peace, good times and hard times. There were days when you were more generous to me than I could possibly have deserved. And there were days when you cheated me out of things I felt I was entitled to. There were days when you looked so achingly beautiful that I could hardly believe you were mine, and days when you broke my heart and reduced me to tears. But with it all, I choose to love you. I love you, whether you deserve it or not (and how does one measure that?). I love you in part because you are the only world I have. I love you because I like who I am better when I do. But mostly I love you because loving you makes it easier for me to be grateful for today and hopeful about tomorrow. Love does that. Faithfully yours, Harold Kushner

There is little doubt in my mind Harold Kushner was the most significant congregational rabbi of this generation. He was, in large measure, America’s rabbi.

He earned that reputation (though his humility would have prompted him to reject it) not through political influence, not through titles and honors by Jewish organizations and not by running a particularly large synagogue.

He did it the old-fashioned way. He was a source of simple, humanistic, God-centered wisdom that spoke to people of all faiths.

A rabbi like Harold Kushner doesn’t come along every day.

In the case of America, about once every few centuries.

Right about now, Rabbi Kushner and God are having a wonderful chat.

God is saying: “Thank you, Harold, for making me believable and credible to so many people.”

Rabbi Kushner is probably saying: “It was my honor and privilege.”

May God comfort his family, his friends, his many students — and all of us, as well.

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