(RNS) — “There are only two categories of Jewish books…”
When I first embarked on a writing career and expected a modicum of literary (certainly not financial) success, that’s what a friend told me. He kindly advised me to have appropriate expectations regarding book sales and the potential impact of my work.
“There are only two categories of Jewish books,” said that friend.
“’When bad things happen to good people,’ And everything else.”
I thought of that joke this weekend when I found out about the death of Rabbi Harold Kushnerat the age of 88 years.
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 ancestor was Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman of Temple Israel in Boston. His 1946 book “Peace of Mind” spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list. It was also a publishing phenomenon, because it was the first book to combine religious ideas with the then new popular science of psychology.)
Rabbi Harold Kushner served as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts. He was a conservative rabbi. He gained 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 he would have lived quite happily without it.
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” grew out of the early and tragic death of his son, Aaron, from the rare condition known as progeria: rapid aging. That tragedy led 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 “Judaism” magazine, and then expanded on them in a book, in which he reflected on the Biblical Book of Job, which focuses on unjustified suffering and God’s justice. .
What was Rabbi Kushner’s approach?
To simplify: Rabbi Kushner noted that we can make three statements about the world, but we can hold two of those statements to have a coherent worldview.
- There is suffering and evil in the world.
- God is almighty.
- God is good.
Which two will we stay?
Most of us will not deny that there is suffering and evil in the world, so that statement must stand.
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 must not be a God that any sane person would worship. Likewise, Rabbi Kushner rejected the idea that suffering is a 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 sticks with the good God and discards the idea of an all-powerful God.
What happened to the omnipotence of God? God voluntarily chose to limit divine power, in two distinct areas:
- Human evil (ie, the Holocaust) exists because God gave human beings free will.
- Natural evil (disease and natural disasters, for example) exists because the world was created according to immutable natural laws, which make no exceptions for good people.
The impact of Rabbi Kushner’s book was immeasurable, far 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 one of the books they highly recommend to people who are grieving and/or feeling the wounds of life.
Kushner’s words and theological reflections enabled countless people to maintain a faith in God and a relationship with God, even through and through their struggles.
Rabbi Kushner followed with many other books. My own favorites list: “When everything 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 Consciousness 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 Thought and Being” was my reference book for Introduction to Judaism classes. It was the book I recommended the most to people who were considering joining the Jewish people through conversion.
Finally, he contributed his own layer of commentary, mostly snippets of midrashim and other gems of Jewish literature, for “etz hayim”, the Torah commentary of the conservative movement. It is one of the most valuable facets of this extraordinary work.
One of my favorite passages from Kushner comes not from one of his books, but from an article he wrote for his own synagogue newsletter.
It was an article about the crisis in Jewish education.
At first you came to us, to the Jewish rabbis and educators, and told us: “Teach our children to be proud to be Jewish and to take care of it. And we said, “No problem. Judaism is such an exciting and inspiring guide to life that we will invite your children to be a part of it with minimal difficulty.”
So you said: “In that case, let me make it a little more difficult. Teach my son to be proud to be Jewish and to care about it, even though we live in a community with so many distractions, so much conflict on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, and no real Jewish atmosphere outside of synagogue.”
And we replied: “That will be more difficult, but give us enough time, good teachers and textbooks, and we will try to overcome those problems.”
So you said: “I will make it even more difficult. Teach my son that being a Jew is one of the most important things in his life, and let’s teach him (sic) that it is one of the least important. Teach him to take Jewish values seriously and I’ll take them lightly. You teach him to ask: ‘What does he require of me?’ and I will teach him to ask: ‘How much does it cost?’ And let’s see who wins.”
And then we responded: “If you want it that way, it will have to be that way. But it is not fair. We will not teach a child that his parents are wrong or to find fault with what he sees at home. Even if we try, a child will side with home over school in a conflict of values. All we can do is do our best and ask them to ask themselves what they had in mind when they made these rules.”
That mini-essay shakes me and moves 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 last 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, satisfaction and disappointment, war and peace, good times and hard times. There were days when you were more generous with me than I could have deserved. And there were days when you cheated on me with things that I felt I was entitled to. There were days when you looked so achingly beautiful I could hardly believe you were mine, and days when you broke my heart and made me cry. But still, I choose to love you. I love you, whether you deserve it or not (and how is that measured?). 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 it. But mostly I love you because loving you makes it easier for me to be thankful for today and hopeful for tomorrow. Love does that. Sincerely, Harold Kushner
I have little doubt in my mind that Harold Kushner was the most important Congregational rabbi of this generation. He was, to a large extent, the rabbi of the United States.
He earned that reputation (although his humility would have led him to reject it) not through political influence, nor through titles and honors bestowed by Jewish organizations, nor by running a particularly large synagogue.
He did it the old fashioned way. He was a simple, humanistic, and God-centered fountain of wisdom that spoke to people of all faiths.
A rabbi like Harold Kushner doesn’t come every day.
In the case of America, about once every few centuries.
Right now, Rabbi Kushner and God are having a wonderful conversation.
God is saying, “Thank you, Harold, for making me believable and believable 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.