Jewish Journal


October 26, 2006

Q&A With Rabbi Harold S. Kushner


Twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote a book that changed his life and the perspective of millions. "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" became an international bestseller that made Kushner a celebrity and gave many suffering people a sense of comfort. Kushner wrote the book after grappling with the loss of his teenage son, who died from a rare condition that causes rapid aging.
Now, Kushner, 71, has written another practical guide of spiritual wisdom. His 10th book, "Overcoming Life's Disappointments," uses Moses' example to discuss ways of dealing with - and rising above - failure.
"When we think of Moses, we think of his triumphs: leading the Israelites out of slavery, splitting the Red Sea, ascending Mount Sinai," Kushner writes. "But Moses was a man who knew frustration and failure in his public and personal life at least as often and as deeply as he knew fulfillment."
Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Mass., where he lives with his wife of 46 years, Suzette.
The Journal spoke with Kushner by phone, as he was preparing to leave on a trip to Florida to celebrate his grandson's bar mitzvah.
The Jewish Journal: Why did you focus on Moses?
Harold S. Kushner: I meet a lot of people who can't see the tremendous sources of gratification in their lives, because there are mountains of unfulfilled dreams blocking their view. I wanted to help these people. It occurred to me that Moses dealt with disappointment, and he would be the perfect figure, because people tend to think of Moses as a hero.
JJ: Why did you write this book now?
HK: I don't find my subjects, my subjects find me. I hear a lot of people complaining about things. When I hear the same complaint coming up a lot, I'm going to think there's a book there.
I wrote the book when I turned 70, and there was this sense that I'm at a point in my life when I'm looking back and evaluating more than I'm looking forward and anticipating.
JJ: Looking back, what has been your biggest disappointment?
HK: We were not able to find a cure for our son's disease, and he died when he was 14. We had another child, but we would have liked to have had a larger family.
JJ: Have you had any dreams that you've had to let go?
HK: Oh, sure. When I was a teenager I dreamt of being a professional athlete; I just wasn't good enough. I dreamt of a spectacular college career. It was better than average but not spectacular. I got turned down for a couple of jobs that I applied for.
JJ: I wonder whether people set themselves up for disappointment, because they have unrealistic dreams.
HK: I want people to have unrealistic dreams. I want them to dream big. And then I want them to trust themselves, so that when those ambitions don't come true, they won't feel like failures. They'll fall down, bounce back, dust themselves off and plug in a new dream.
JJ: What's the secret to failing but not feeling like a failure?
HK: Look at all the other people who have failed and gone on to do wonderful things. Find another dream, a more realistic one. Realize that the first dream was probably worth having, but if you can't have it, you have to let it go.
JJ: You say God's power is not the power to control events but the power to help people deal with events. How does that idea fit with the traditional Jewish and Christian belief in an omnipotent God?
HK: It's different. I grew up believing in an all-powerful God. But we have to tie ourselves in such knots to explain why an omnipotent God permitted the Holocaust, why an omnipotent God permits children to be born retarded, why an omnipotent God permits earthquakes and hurricanes. It just got so complicated, you ended up twisted in so many theological knots, that it became unsustainable.
There are two things in life that God does not control: one is laws of nature and the other is human choice. This does not diminish God. I would rather worship a God who is completely good but not totally powerful than a God who is completely powerful but not completely good.
JJ: In your book, you list the five elements of a complete life: family, friends, faith, work and "the satisfaction of making a difference." You say Moses has four out of five, since he may have shortchanged his family by working so hard. You appear to have all five.
HK: I don't think anybody is going to be lucky enough to have all five simultaneously. There were times when I was working very hard to make a difference, and my family got cheated. And there were times when, because I gave a lot of myself to my family and my writing, I lost touch with friends. For me, that's the one that falls to the bottom. You have to decide your priorities at a particular juncture in life.

JJ: What are your priorities now?
HK: My family and making a difference in the world.

JJ: Are you working on a new book yet?
HK: That's like asking a friend who just had a baby if she's pregnant.

JJ: Maybe when you turn 80, you'll write about mortality?
HK: I don't know if I can wait that long to write a book; 80 sounds awfully old. JJ: Seventy-five, then?
HK: Seventy-five sounds more like it.

JJ: You've dedicated much of your time to exploring what gives life meaning. How would you sum up the meaning of life?
HK: The purpose of life is to be a fully realized human being, someone who has had the experience of genuine love and doing something to make the world better.
JJ: It's that simple?
HK: No. But it's that clear.
JJ: It's been 25 years since you published "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Is that book your proudest accomplishment?
HK: No, that's my second proudest accomplishment. My proudest accomplishment is that when my son was very sick, I could make him laugh.
JJ: And how would you do that?
HK: Tell him a funny story.
Rabbi Kushner will be speaking in dialogue with Rabbi David Woznica at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 6, 7:30-9:30 p.m. For more information, contact Susan Dean at (310) 889-2200 or sdean@WiseLA.org.

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