(JTA) — Rabbi Harold Kushner, one of the most influential congregational rabbis of the 20th century whose works of popular theology reached millions of people outside the synagogue, has died.
Kushner, who turned 88 on April 3, died Friday in Canton, Massachusetts, just miles from the synagogue where he had been rabbi laureate for more than three decades.
Kushner’s fairly conventional trajectory as a Conservative rabbi was altered shortly after arriving at Temple Israel of Natick when, on the day his daughter Ariel was born, his 3-year-old son Aaron was diagnosed with a fatal premature aging condition, progeria.
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” published in 1981, represented Kushner’s attempt to make sense of Aaron’s suffering and eventual death, just days after his 14th birthday. It was turned down by two publishers before being released by Schocken Books, a Jewish imprint.
In the book, Kushner labors to reconcile the twin Jewish beliefs in God’s omnipotence and his benevolence with the reality of human suffering. ”Can I, in good faith, continue to teach people that the world is good, and that a kind and loving God is responsible for what happens in it?” he writes.
Ultimately, he concludes that God’s ability is limited when it comes to controlling the hazards of life that result in tragedy on a widespread and smaller scale, such as the Holocaust and the death of a child.
It is a view that runs afoul of traditional Jewish teaching about God, and it earned Kushner critics among some Orthodox Jews and also drew rebuttals from other Jewish theologians. But it resonated widely for a long time and with many people, Jewish and non-Jewish, rocketing to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list. More than 4 million copies have been sold in at least a dozen languages.
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He scaled back his duties at his synagogue, then stepped away, as other books followed, tackling topics equally as daunting: the meaning of life, talking to children about God, overcoming disappointment. “To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking,” published in 1993, became a go-to resource for people exploring Judaism, while “Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success,” published in 1986, was another best-seller.
“I think that Rabbi Kushner was successful because he catered to everybody,” Carolyn Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council, said in 2017 when it revived the Lifetime Achievement Award to honor Kushner. “He reached everybody’s heart. It wasn’t just the Jewish heart. He reached the heart of every human being.”
Kushner was born in Brooklyn and educated in the New York City public schools. After his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1960, he went to court to have his military exemption waived.
For two years he served as a military chaplain in Oklahoma before assuming his first pulpit, as an assistant rabbi at another Temple Israel, this one in Great Neck, New York.
Four years later he moved to Natick, where he remained even as he became a celebrity. In 1983, with his book a best-seller and demanding more of his time, Kushner cut back to part-time at the synagogue. Seven years later he stepped down to devote himself fully to writing.
The congregation, believing their then-55-year-old rabbi too young to be named rabbi emeritus, made Kushner their rabbi laureate, a title held by only a handful of American spiritual leaders.
It would be one of a growing number of accolades: Kushner was honored by the Roman Catholic organization the Christophers as someone who made the world a better place, and the organization Religion in America named him clergyman of the year in 1999. In 2004 he read from the book of Isaiah at the state funeral of President Ronald Reagan.
He remained involved in the Conservative movement after leaving the pulpit, serving as a leader in the New England region of its rabbinical association and, with the novelist Chaim Potok, editing its 2001 Etz Hayim Torah commentary.
“My seminary training was all about Jewish answers. My congregational experience has been more in terms of Jewish questions,” Kushner told JTA in 2008. “I start with the anguish, the uncertainty, the lack of fulfillment I find in the lives of the very nice, decent people who are in this synagogue and who are my readers. And Judaism is the answer.”
He added, “How do I live a fulfilling life is the question. And Judaism is the answer.”
Kushner’s wife, Suzette, died in 2022, 45 years after their son Aaron. Kushner is survived by his daughter, Ariel Kushner Haber, and two grandchildren.