On April 30, I attended a presentation sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival featuring a talk by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner on his latest book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person. Job is a much-maligned book of the Hebrew Bible, too often abandoned by readers after the rather ‘unbelievable’ first chapter!
From one of our most trusted spiritual advisers, a thoughtful, illuminating guide to that most fascinating of biblical texts, the book of Job, and what it can teach us about living in a troubled world. Kushner’s book is a full-length argument about whether the misfortunes that befall, ostensibly good people, come through the hand of God.
It is the story of unjust things happening to a good man. After losing everything, Job, though confused, angry, and questioning God, refuses to reject his faith, although he challenges some central aspects of it. Rabbi Kushner examines the questions raised by Job’s experience, questions that have challenged wisdom seekers and worshippers for centuries. What kind of God permits such bad things to happen to good people? Why does God test loyal followers? Can a truly good God be all-powerful?
Kushner’s study gives us the book of Job as a touchstone for our time. Taking lessons from historical and personal tragedy, Kushner talked about what can and cannot be controlled, about the power of faith when all seems dark, and about our ability to find God. In an age that produced the Holocaust, Stalin’s and Mao’s purges and terrorism’s random violence, it is still a question for all humans.
By writing this book, Kushner said he was “closing the circle” on a five-decade effort to come to grips with “life’s unfairness and God’s role in dealing with it.” In 1963, he and his wife learned their young son Aaron suffered from an extremely rare disease, progeria, or “rapid aging syndrome,” that led to his death a day after his 14th birthday. Kushner has revisited a central motif he has explored since his first book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that chronicled his struggle to maintain his faith after his son’s death in 1977.
One thing he said is that the Boston Marathon bombing wasn’t an act of God; it was an act of human nature. He spoke about how people helped each other following the blasts. How, within minutes, it became the case of stranger becoming consoler, helper, and healer.
He also mentioned Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as an act of nature and not an act of God. The willingness of people to come back and rebuild their city, the generosity of so many other Americans, the college students who gave up their vacations to build houses, are examples that, to Kushner, were the acts of God. That’s people doing something they didn’t think they would want to do, and somehow in the situation found themselves motivated to do it.
“Where does that come from, unless that’s God at work in us?” Kushner said in a subdued voice.
Since many people only read the older “fairy tale” (Chapter 1, 2 and 42) framework of the Job story, Kushner said they have typically misunderstood Job “as the guy who suffered but never complained.” Interweaving biblical and modern history, scholarship and his own grief, he brings alive the conflict at the heart of a 2,500-year-old story that has bedeviled people of many faiths hungry to reconcile God’s supposed infallibility with the inescapable fact of random evil.
Kushner made alive the tale of “the upright man” who lost his wealth and 10 children because God made a wager with Satan to test his faith. After grievous suffering worsened by self-righteous friends convinced he had sinned, Kushner said Job still affirmed his righteousness and demanded God explain his predicament.
“Job wanted to know ‘Why am I suffering,'” said Kushner. “It’s not, ‘Why are you letting the innocent suffer?’ It’s ‘What have I done to deserve this?'”
For Kushner, the longer poem achieves universal power when Job “confronts” God and “challenges” him to explain why he is suffering despite his blamelessness. Job insists he has honored God’s laws and demands “if only God would hear me, state his case against me” he will bear his sufferings in silence. He explained that as he analyzed the poem’s conclusion, when “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind,” that this did point toward his own answers.
After chastising puny humans for “speaking without knowledge,” God recounts his unfathomable power in creating the complex world. In a passage that still divides many scholars, Job replies, “I am small; how can I answer You? My hand I lay on my mouth.”
God then takes a strikingly different course in his final words to Job. He cites two possibly mythological animals, Behemoth, the beast, and Leviathan, the sea monster, that for Kushner represent “the life force and chaos” and are responsible “for most of the misery in the world, most of the bad things that happen to people (like you) who deserve better.”
Kushner believes that, though God created a magnificent world for humans, there are some parts of life God cannot control. Though he gave humans freedom, God cannot control “human behavior” because to require them to act justly would only be a form of coercion. And God does not control the forces of nature, even a tsunami that killed 250,000 people or an earthquake that ravaged Haiti.
“God is moral,” Kushner said. “Nature is not.”
But what comfort can the Job author and Kushner offer to the countless millions of innocents, his son Aaron included, who have borne undeserved suffering?
At the end of his presentation, Kushner said: “Like Job, I have met God. I have met Him in sunshine but more often in shadows, not in the elegant perfection of the world but in the resilience of the human soul, the ability of people to find even a pain-filled life, even a grossly unfair life, worth living. … I have been sustained by the message that God has not abandoned His world.”
People from more traditional perspectives have asked him whether he thought his son’s death was part of God’s plan. He says they said that going through the tragedy of a child’s loss prompted him to write his first book, and rejects that idea. “If that were God’s plan, it’s a bad bargain,” Kushner said. “I don’t want to have to deal with a God like that.”
He says that if he had to face the fact that God was either all-powerful but not kind, or thoroughly kind and loving, but not totally powerful, he would rather compromise God’s power and affirm his love. The theological conclusion he came to is that God could have been all-powerful at the beginning, but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power, Kushner said, “He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature.”