Rabbi Harold Kushner asked God tough questions and shared the answers with all of us
Jewish lore says that in every generation, the fate of the world rests on the merits of 36 righteous people. They are called “lamed vavniks.” It’s a Yiddish term that comes from combining lamed (the Hebrew word for 30) and vav (the Hebrew word for 6). Lamed vavniks are righteous people living among us anonymously and, underscoring their humility, unaware of their elevated spiritual status.
I believe Rabbi Harold Kushner, who died on April 29, 2023, was a lamed vavnik. He brilliantly, and gently, transformed the time-honored Jewish tradition of questioning God and the very idea of faith. In doing so, he gave solace to people of all backgrounds and faith traditions.
He was 88 years old and leaves a legacy of kindness, love and humility through his good deeds and bestselling books, including “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists when it was published in 1981.
[He] transformed the time-honored Jewish tradition of questioning God and the very idea of faith.
Kushner wrote the book, which was eventually translated into 14 languages, in the aftermath of the death of his 14-year-old son, Aaron, in 1977. When Aaron died, Kushner stepped away from his pastoral duties for 30 days to grapple with his grief and anger. Eventually, he turned to Jewish wisdom and his faith to try to answer his questions about why tragedy befalls good people. He ultimately decided that there was no quid pro quo with God. It was a simple proposition that yielded a profound yet accessible theology.
In “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Kushner explains:
The idea that God gives people what they deserve, that our misdeeds cause our misfortune, is a neat and attractive solution to the problem of evil at several levels, but it has a number of serious limitations. As we have seen, it teaches people to blame themselves. It creates guilt even where there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves. And most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.
Kushner led Temple Israel, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Natick, Massachusetts, for 24 years before stepping down in 1990 to focus on his writing. But rather than become a rabbi emeritus, he became the congregation's rabbi laureate, a fluid title indicating his desire to maintain a strong intellectual and emotional connection to his congregants and the rabbinate. He attended Temple Israel until the end of his life.
But Kushner’s influence extended far beyond Temple Israel. He engaged those Jewish and not Jewish, exploring the omnipresence of kindness and mercy in the midst of life's tragedies. Through his writing and public speaking, Kushner became everyone's rabbi. In recognition of that, the national organization Religion in American Life named him Clergyman of the Year in 1999. And in 2007, the Jewish Book Council honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Kushner was a man of deep faith, but he was also forthright about his occasional disappointment in God. On the last page of his twelfth (and last) book, "Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life" (2016), he wrote a letter that he called a "Love Letter to a World that May or May Not Deserve It," trying to convey his faith in a God that sometimes seems fickle. In that letter, he beautifully deploys radical amazement — finding the holiness in the everyday — a concept advanced by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, (who may also be a lamed vavnik).
In that final book, Kushner directly addresses 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.
After 9/11, Kushner penned a meditation, "The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm." Once again, he offered plainspoken, sage guidance on coping with tragedy, this time on a national scale:
Much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us. But we can always control how we respond to what happens to us. If we cannot choose to be lucky, to be talented, to be loved, we can choose to be grateful, to be content with who we are and what we have, and to act accordingly.
In Judaism, it is tradition to say to a person mourning the loss of a loved one, "May [his or her] memory be a blessing." Kushner blessed so many with his love and wisdom, and his discernment of all that was holy in our day-to-day lives.
Everyone's rabbi was laid to rest on May 1, 2023. May his memory be a blessing for us all.
Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook.
This article was originally published on May 03, 2023.