RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: 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...
MONTAGNE: 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.
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?
MONTAGNE: 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.
MONTAGNE: Gee, that's an interesting question. I'm - 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.
MONTAGNE: 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.
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