RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to be joined now by a man of faith, for our occasional series "The Long View." Yesterday, we heard from Archbishop Desmond Tutu about how he, raised in apartheid South Africa, came to see the essential goodness in all people.
Today, Rabbi Harold Kushner. He's written a dozen books offering guidance from the Bible on living a life that matters - which is, as a matter of fact, the title of one of his books. His best-known title, his most famous book by far, is "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." That book came out nearly 30 years ago, and Rabbi Kushner is still hearing from new readers who find great comfort within its pages.
Rabbi HAROLD KUSHNER (Author, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"): Well, I feel just a little bit conflicted about the fact that it continues to resonate because that means there are more people confronting new problems of suffering. There's always a fresh supply of grieving people asking: Where was God when I needed him most?
MONTAGNE: That is a question Rabbi Kushner confronted as a young father when the unthinkable happened: the death of his first-born child, which led him to rethink his view of an omnipotent God.
Rabbi KUSHNER: What I realized is, where did we ever get the notion that worshiping power was the greatest compliment we could play to God? Why is power the most admirable virtue? If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either God is all powerful but not kind, or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise God's power and affirm his love.
So the conclusion, the theological conclusion I 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. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, God would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.
MONTAGNE: Many things have happened to you since you wrote this book. When you first wrote it, you were reasonably fresh from the experience of losing your own son. Tell us about that.
Rabbi KUSHNER: Our son Aaron was born in 1963, and he was a perfect child for about the first six months of his life, and then he just stopped growing. And the doctors were puzzled until finally, we found a specialist who diagnosed it as Progeria, the rapid-aging syndrome. And Aaron never grew to be beyond 3 feet tall; lost his hair, was very skinny. His heart started malfunctioning when just after his bar mitzvah, when he was 13.
And it just seemed so terribly unfair, and it forced me to reconsider everything I had been taught in seminary about God's role in the world. Yeah, it was shattering.
Since then, I've had people from a more traditional perspective saying to me, don't you think maybe this was God's plan - that by going through this terrible tragedy, you would be stimulated to write this book, which has brought comfort to millions? And my answer said, if that was God's plan, it's a bad bargain. I don't want to have to deal with a God like that.
MONTAGNE: Although you hear, on occasion, people saying that about their own suffering, that something good came out of it, and that's what is solace to them.
Rabbi KUSHNER: Ah, let me make a very important distinction here, and I'm so glad you raised this, Renee. There is all the difference in the world between saying, I was able to get something good out of this and saying, God intended it to teach me this lesson. I don't believe God sends the tragedies so that we will grow spiritually. I believe the tragedy happens for all sorts of reasons: natural reasons, biological, genetic reasons, human cruelty reasons.
Once it happens, I think God's role is to give us the strength and the vision to come through it - and come through it with our faith intact. God is there to send us people to hug us and hold our hands and dry our tears so we don't feel abandoned, not by God and not by friends. And then in our response to the tragedy, then we have something good that comes out of it.
MONTAGNE: Can I take you back to a time before all of this? When you were growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1940s, from what I understand, it sounds like you had - rather a happy childhood.
Rabbi KUSHNER: Oh, I did. No, there was no preparation for tragedy. I went to seminary, and I was given a fairly traditional theological education, and I believed it. Renee, I am embarrassed to remember how I counseled some families who had a tragedy - in my early years as a rabbi before I had to try those words out on myself and discovered they really didn't comfort very much.
MONTAGNE: And I can imagine that you in other words, it was somehow God's will or...
Rabbi KUSHNER: Yeah, I can remember one case, my first year as a rabbi, the 17-year-old son of a family in the congregation was killed. He'd been joyriding on the back of a truck and fell off, and the car behind hit him and killed him. I felt utterly helpless. I mean, what do you say in a case like that? I said something to the parents like, we can't understand why this happened, but we have to believe that somewhere down the road, we'll see that it made sense. And God, I wish I could take those words back today, 60 years later.
MONTAGNE: Huh. You when you reached age 70, you wrote a book about overcoming life's disappointments, a book that touches on broken dreams.
Rabbi KUSHNER: Right.
MONTAGNE: And because we're talking to you about a long view on one's life, what does one begin to know of broken dreams when one arrives at a certain age?
Rabbi KUSHNER: You look back, maybe even before age 70, and you realize that a lot of things you really had your heart set on doing are not going to happen, and now it's too late for them to happen. Whether it's business success, whether it's how your kids will turn out, whether it's the height of something that you will achieve, and now it's you didn't get it and it's probably too late ever to get it. And does that brand your life as a failure, or can you find the secret - and that's why I use Moses as the central character of that book -can you find the secret of failing and not feeling like a failure?
The difference between the person who has a happy old age and the person who has an unhappy old age is not how successful they were, but it's how much the things they failed at continued to gnaw at them. And no matter what you've achieved, if you are not able to still that little voice of disappointment, you are never going to be happy.
MONTAGNE: We have talked to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for this brief series, and people heard him yesterday, and I want to ask you something that I also asked him. I'm wondering if your relationship to God changed as you, you know, you got older.
Rabbi KUSHNER: Gee, that's an interesting question. Im I think I need some more retrospective to be able to answer that fully. My sense is no. My sense is, God and I came to an accommodation with each other a couple of decades ago, where he's gotten used to the things I'm not capable of, and I've come to terms with things he's not capable of. And we still care very much about each other -at least, I would like to think so.
MONTAGNE: Rabbi Kushner, thank you very much for talking with us.
Rabbi KUSHNER: It's been a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Rabbi Harold Kushner. And if you missed yesterday's Long View with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, you can find it at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.