In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a 150-page book, published with little fanfare, that changed the lives of the more than 4 million people who read it and made its title, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," part of the vernacular.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 20th anniversary reissue has been flying out of bookstores and Kushner -- who'll speak at the University of Judaism (UJ) Tuesday, Oct. 30 -- has been overwhelmed by interview requests from journalists seeking his wisdom about faith when great tragedy strikes.
"Some people give up on the world because it's not fair," says the 66-year-old author from Natick, MA, whose new book, "Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success" (Knopf, $22) is number 10 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. "Some people will say that the fact that so many innocent people died proves that we can't depend on God." For Kushner, it shows that "we can't depend on people without God, without a sense of morality.... But we can't depend on people who misuse God as an excuse for carrying out angry, destructive acts."
In the new preface to "When Bad Things" -- which was inspired by the death of Kushner's adolescent son -- the author reflects on the responses to the book he's received over the last two decades. In particular, he expresses his gratitude to Christian clergy who made the volume a best-seller.
His "Living a Life That Matters" addresses the human need to find significance, emphasizing compassion and generosity over competition. The practical, anecdotal book draws many parallels to the life of the biblical Jacob.
Kushner says he was struck with some of his themes (for example, the idea that when Jacob wrestles with an angel, he's actually wrestling with his conscience) while studying sources as co-editor of "Etz Hayim," a new Conservative movement Torah commentary (see page 16).
He acknowledges that people sometimes are tempted to compromise on integrity in their drive toward success. "Good people do bad things," he says. "[But] they're still good people, despite some regrettable human weaknesses."
For information about Kushner's UJ appearance, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 246. -- Sandee Brawarsky, Contributing Writer