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How Harold Kushner overcame some of life’s disappointments to become a publishing juggernaut


Rabbi Harold Kushner, who died April 28 at age 88, sold so many homespun, folksy popular theology books like When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981) that by 1986, Publishers Weekly was referring to a new title by the rabbi, with an initial printing of 250,000 copies, as “another Kushner juggernaut.”

The term juggernaut, meaning an unstoppable force, paradoxically derived from the Sanskrit name of a Hindu god, since one of Kushner’s coping mechanism for negative occurrences was to realize that God is not all-powerful about every detail of life.

This suggestion was controversial among Orthodox Jews and Christian fundamentalists, but readers drew comfort anyway from his anecdotes. When Kushner died, Rabbi David Wolpe, a leader of Conservative Judaism, tweeted that the former was a “wonderful man, an exemplary Rabbi, and one whose writings helped millions deal with pain and loss. Baruch Dayan Emeth — may his memory be a blessing.”

Others had more mixed conclusions. Historian Andrew Heinze’s Jews and the American Soul placed Kushner’s work among popular bestsellers by religious Jews, alongside Rabbi Joshua Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946) and the novelist Herman Wouk’s This is My God (1959).

Kushner himself, longtime Conservative congregational rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, might have preferred to be placed in the lineage of Mordecai Kaplan, a Lithuanian-born religious leader who cofounded the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism.

More than one reviewer lauded Kushner’s message as akin to that of the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, underlining that religious belief accords a sense of meaning and purpose. In a foreword to a 2006 reprint of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), Kushner reminded readers: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Anecdotal in style with the kind of cracker barrel wisdom that provided narrative charm, Kushner’s writing reiterated favorite sources like Kaplan. In To Life! (1993), Kushner cited Kaplan as saying that “expecting the antisemite to like you better because you were a nonobservant Jew was like expecting the bull not to attack you because you were a vegetarian.”

This story reappeared in slightly different form in Kushner’s Overcoming Life’s Disappointments (2006): “To paraphrase something my teacher Mordecai Kaplan used to say, expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are an honest person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.” And one year later, in a chapter of Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century, Kushner referred once again to this revised version of Kaplan’s same bon mot.

While respecting Kushner’s motivations in consoling readers, inspired by the experience of the death of his son, a few mavens were flummoxed when they tried to follow his logic.

Reviewing When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow opined that a God who is “at the side of the afflicted and downcast,” as Kushner put it, but useless in stopping their suffering is “simply not coherent…If God has the power to comfort us, why not the power to mitigate suffering? If God cannot mitigate suffering, perhaps God is impotent altogether.”

Traditional Orthodox critics were even more dismissive. In the October 1996 issue of Modern Judaism, Abraham Cohen, a theologian based in Toronto, kvetched that “Kushner’s Genesis violates biblical theology.”

Cohen appeared especially irked by what he called the “literary license” of declaring belief in God and the goodness of the world, whereas the argument of Kushner’s book is that God is merely a neutral observer, rather than benevolent participant, in earthly happenings. Ultimately, Cohen asked rhetorically, “can Kushner himself look at the Holocaust and remain no ‘less able to affirm the world’s goodness’?!”

Cohen’s fairly devastating conclusion was that “having entered the innermost chambers of Harold Kushner’s theology, we find in it no trace of the God known to Judaism, and we leave this chamber, uncomforted.”

These and other objections were minority viewpoints, and Kushner typically reacted to them with open-minded civility, ever-ready to entertain the possibility that in fact he might be mistaken. Even when he was targeted onstage by the English Jewish polemicist Christopher Hitchens at a 2009 public debate in Connecticut, Kushner retained his calm, if appearing uncharacteristically deflated.

On that occasion, the topic of circumcision led to a sudden flareup in an otherwise civil exchange. Kushner tried to downplay any serious impact of the bris ritual by claiming that his son “cried more at his first haircut” and jesting that the only lasting material effect of being circumcised was to increase a male infant’s chances of “winning a Nobel Prize.”

Perfunctorily granting Kushner’s “humaneness,” Hitchens cited this badinage as further proof of his notion that religion makes good people do bad things. Thundering “Shame on you” to Kushner, Hitchens scolded: “There is nothing funny about genital mutilation!”

Nevertheless perpetually upbeat, Kushner regularly offered optimistic interpretations of events that are usually seen less cheerily. So, in a 2013 interview for Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Kushner stated that American Jews were “marginalized” before World War II, but after serving in the military, Non-Jewish “G.I.’s served overseas with Jewish comrades and realized that they were just like themselves.”

This idea is contradicted by abundant evidence of anti-Semitism and racism among US armed forces during and after the war; indeed in the same article, Kushner admitted that in 1960, when he was stationed for his own military service in at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, he was the “first Jew” locals had ever met, and their notions of Judaism still relied on outdated stereotypes from Shakespeare and Dickens.

Self-contradictory at times, while asserting that God does not become involved with details of human life like illness, Kushner told an audience at Brigham Young University, Utah, in October 1994 that as an observant Jew, he felt validated because “I go around all day saying, ‘Isn’t it incredible? There are five billion people on this planet, and God cares what I have for lunch. And God cares who I sleep with. And God cares how I earn and spend my money. And God cares what kind of language I use.’”

Regardless, Kushner’s lasting popularity was due to aspects beyond theological reasonings, with the comfort factor a religious leader may represent, akin to the bedside manner of a consoling physician.

Kushner implied to the Dialogue interviewer that Jews expect more dissent than members of other religions because “Judaism sees itself, first and foremost, as a community, and only secondarily as a theological system.” And disagreeing, even vehemently, with the conclusions of someone does not usually mean dissolving community connections, at least not recently. Kushner’s books were at their most Jewish in permitting diverse viewpoints, including the author’s own.

After all, as Kushner told Dialogue: “My mother was a very indifferent cook, but I loved her food anyway.” A multitude of readers caring little for precise theological recipes felt lasting affection for the smorgasbord of books by Harold Kushner.

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