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Remembering America’s Rabbi- Rabbi Harold Kushner

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Looking around at the bookshelves in my office, there are only three authors of whom I have collected at least 7 of their works. Maimonides is one. Soren Kierkegaard is another. And Rabbi Harold Kushner is the third. I discovered this fact when I reflected on the death of this eminent contemporary American rabbi, who passed away on April 29th. Rabbi Kushner’s first book was published in 1971, and was called, When Children Ask About God, which he subtitled, “A Guide For Parents Who Don’t Always Have All the Answers.” Just the way he phrased that title, offering comfort to those who struggle to answer challenging questions, was emblematic of the warmth and kindness that characterized his work. I still recommend that book, in which he foreshadows the theology that he fully develops in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People in 1991 as a response to the tragic death of his son Aaron, who died of progeria two days after his 14th birthday. Kushner’s relatively radical answer to the question he himself poses is that God is NOT in control of everything that happens in the world. “God doesn’t make bad things happen to punish us or because we deserve it,” he writes, “Sometimes bad things just happen, but God is always with us to help us get through them.” Kushner rejects the notion that when we suffer, we are being punished, that we somehow deserve our pain, that it is part of some greater plan that is beyond our comprehension. Ultimately Kushner defines God not as the source of suffering, but as the source of hope that we can overcome adversity. “Being sick or being healthy is not a matter of what God decides that we deserve. The better question is ‘If this has happened to me, what can I do now, and who is there to help me do it?’” The book resonated with audiences internationally, was translated into more than a dozen languages and was #1 on the NYTimes bestseller list. He went on to write many more books and was often called, simply, “America’s Rabbi.” Yet, with all of the fame that he achieved, I remain profoundly touched by his reflection that “(he) would much rather have been left a mediocre and insensitive preacher and have my son alive.” Following the events of Sept. 11th, Kushner published The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm, a reflection on this well-known text. The author of the psalm, he notes, is not a person who has lived a life free of pain, rather, the author encourages us to have courage in God’s presence with us- “for Thou art with me.” You know the psalm. I encourage you to read the book. One author wrote of Kushner that, “Rabbi Harold Kushner asked God tough questions and shared the answers with us.” He reminded us that questioning God is the sacred inheritance of the Jewish people, from our ancestor Abraham until the challenges of this generation and the pain in each of our lives. It was Rabbi Harold Kushner who taught us that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong”- words to live by. I’ll conclude with this quote from his book, “How Good Do We Have to Be?” You will find in your bulletin a bibliography of at least the 7 books on my shelf, as well as some more of his wise words.“ If we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in each other’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know. We can reenter Paradise.” He leaves us with these words of encouragement, “How good can we expect a person to be? As good as he or she is capable of being, and much of the time that turns out to be very good indeed.” The Wisdom of Rabbi Harold Kushner 1. “The God I believe in does not send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.” 2. “God is not someone we can see or touch or hear, but we can feel God’s presence in the world around us when we see kindness and love and beauty.” 3. “Laws of nature treat everyone alike. They do not make exceptions for good people or for useful people.” 4. “Forgiveness benefits us more than the person we forgive.” (addressing God)- “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 and hopeful about tomorrow. Love does that.” 5. “People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or good boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayer answered.” 6. “God doesn’t make bad things happen to punish us or because we deserve it, sometimes bad things just happen, but God is always with us to help us get through them.” 7. “Being sick or being healthy is not a matter of what God decides that we deserve. The better question is ‘If this has happened to me, what can I do now, and who is there to help me do it?’” 8. “I would much rather have been left a mediocre and insensitive preacher and have my son alive.” 9. “If we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in each other’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know. We can reenter Paradise.” 10. “How good can we expect a person to be? As good as he or she is capable of being, and much of the time that turns out to be very good indeed.” 11. The Author of the Twenty-third Psalm gives us an entire theology, a more practical theology than we can find in many books. He teaches us to look at the world and see it as God would have us see it. If we are anxious, the psalm gives us courage and we overcome our fears. If we are grieving, it offers comfort and we find our way through the valley of the shadow. If our lives are embittered by unpleasant people, it teaches us how to deal with them. If the world threatens to wear us down, the psalm guides us to replenish our souls. If we are obsessed with what we lack, it teaches us gratitude for what we have. And most of all, it we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the priceless reassurance that “Thou are with me.” My version of the psalm’s second line would read, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall often want. I shall yearn, I shall long, I shall aspire. I shall continue to miss the people and the abilities that are taken from my life as loved ones die and skills diminish. I shall probe the empty spaces in my life like a tongue probing a missing tooth. But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have. 12. When our souls are on the verge of giving in to compassion fatigue, when we know what the right thing to do is but we are tired of being charitable and helpful, that is when we need God to restore our souls, to replenish our ability to act like human beings, to understand that what is asked of us is not to make the world perfect but to make one person’s life better. 13. A teacher of mine used to warn us that expecting the world to treat you fairly because you were a good person was like expecting the bull not to charge you because you were a vegetarian. 14. You don’t have to understand the world and everything in it to make it a better place. 15. “God will come to mean that impulse in the human collective and in the universe as a whole. . . which helps us to identify that which is good and true and worthwhile and which moves us to pledge ourselves to live up to it.” Bibliography Kushner, Harold S., The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003 Kushner, Harold S., How Good Do We Have To Be?, Boston, NY, London: Little Brown And Company, 1996 Kushner, Harold S. When Children Ask About God: A Guide For Parents Who Don’t Always Have All the Answers, NY: Reconstructionist Press, 1971 Kushner, Harold S., When Bad Things Happen To Good People, NY: Shocken Books, 1981 Kushner, Harold S., Who Needs God, NY: Summit Books, 1989 Kushner, Harold S., Living A Life That Matters, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001 Kushner, Harold S., To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown And Company, 1993

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