Sunday, November 07, 2010

Job book revisited in XXI century — „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by H. Kushner

For many reasons this very book waited very long to be reviewed on my blog. And I will abstain from the explanation: why? ....

From the superficial point of view Harold S. Kushner book „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is as the other tens if not hundreds of books of Motivation & Inspiration or Spirituality genre ... There is the something though, that adds to its solemnity — the dedication to Aaron Kushner, the author's son who died at the age of 14... Having this said, despite my compassion for the author, I must admit I was rather suspicious about the book and its message. Always, when a book devoted to the most important matters is acclaimed as a „National Bestseller” I grow suspicious...

But I was wrong. Entirely wrong. Rabbi Kushner wrote a book that can be thought of as the contemporary, and very personal — commentary to Job's Bible book.

He asks the fundamental question: „Why do the righteous suffer?” and going through typical contemporary answers, rejects them. He finally states:

„All the responses to tragedy which we have considered have at least one thing in common. They all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer. … There may be another approach. Maybe God does not cause our suffering. Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God.”

Then Kushner goes directly to the interpretation of the Book of Job.

The Book of Job to many is one of the most important and most mysterious books of the Bible, because it rises the question of the reason and sense of human suffering. For many, the very presence of Book of Job in K'tuvim (Writings) is a sign. And I believe it is. It is very brave and very atypical book...

Kushner's interpretation of Job is very unorthodox, although on a different level — he concludes that the fundamental message behind this important biblical narrative is:

„If God is God of justice and not of power, the He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. … We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, but to be strengthened and comforted.”

This and many other's passages and chapters of this small book, make the traditional idea of all powerful G-d less compelling to the idea of G-d Good and Just and respectful to the human freedom:

„This is what it means to be human 'in the image of God.' It means being free to make choices instead of doing whatever our instincts would tell us to do. It means knowing that some choices are good, and others are bad, and it is our job to know the difference…. But if Man is truly free to choose, if he can show himself as being virtuous by freely choosing the good when the bad is equally possible, then he has to be free to choose the bad also. If he were only free to do good, he would not really be choosing. If we are bound to do good, then we are not free to choose it."

Kushner makes a lot of historical references, also to Holocaust. His understanding of this calamity is far from „punishment” interpretation:

„When people ask 'Where was God in Auschwitz? How could he have allowed the Nazis to kill so many innocent men, women, and children?', my response is that it was not God who caused it. It was caused by human beings choosing to be cruel
to their fellow man. (...)
I have to believe that the Holocaust was at least as much of an offense to God's moral order as it is to mine, or how can I respect God as a source of moral guidance? … I have to believe that the tears and prayers of the victims aroused God's compassion, but having given Man freedom to choose, including the freedom to choose to hurt his neighbour, there was nothing God could do to prevent it.”

Can we think of all fatalities of our lives as an „exercise” ? As the trail brought on us to bring us higher? Kushners' answer is: no, we can't:

„The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because He knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. We begin to wonder how we will ever make it through all the years. But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”

I know that Kushners' views are perhaps unorthodox, but I can tell you , my reader, the following:

Any time I visit the places in Poland like nearby Chelmno, and I feel all the horrors the innocent people came through there (and in hundreds of such places) I can not, just can not think of this loss of life of unimaginable proportions as of the punishment. Anytime an unimaginable disaster or accident happens, I have no words to utter. I only tend to think that G-d, by his own powerful choice, made the human free will really FREE. Free for Good and for Bad... Free to err and free to trace and follow G-d's message...


  1. It's interesting ti see a book addressing a question we all ask ourselves from time to time. The author seems to have come out with a coherent argument.

  2. Yes, even though his conclusion is far from traditional religious answers. Certainly it is interesting to read just to find out how some people, traditionally religious (Kushner is Jewish Rabbi) handle these problems.

    In my opinion, his reference to and analysis of the Book of Job from Bible is one of the greatest thing in this book.