The Best-selling Theology of Rabbi Harold Kushner:
God as an Afterthought
When Bad Things Happen to Good People and
When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough
by Harold S. Kushner
books reviewed by Michael J. Prival
I am grateful to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. Only a theistic clergyman could have written an international best-seller that describes in great detail the harmful consequences of traditional views of God and religion. In fact, Kushner has written two such books. In these books, he has asked and answered two of the most important religious questions – the reason for undeserved human suffering and the purpose of human life. In the process, he has faced the issues of God’s role and the purpose of religion.
Kushner’s first popular book is When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The rabbi devotes much of this book to explaining the problems that arise when people view God in traditional terms – as an omniscient, omnipotent being that has great power over us. He gives examples of the unnecessary and destructive guilt caused by the popular idea that God metes out justice in this world by rewarding the good and punishing the wrong-doers. He describes the case of a nineteen-year-old girl who died suddenly from a stroke; her parents assumed this had happened because they had failed to fast on Yom Kippur that year. Kushner further illustrates the destructive consequences of believing in God’s power by relating the story of an eleven-year-old boy who was found to be slightly nearsighted during a routine eye examination. The boy was terrified by this; he thought that it meant that God was beginning the process of punishing him with blindness because he and some friends had, a few days earlier, looked at a copy of Playboy magazine that they had found in a neighbor’s trash. Kushner points out that the popular notion that God rewards virtue and punishes wrong-doing is based on a number of Biblical passages. For example, "No ills befall the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble" (Proverbs, 12:21). Kushner calls this "wishful thinking" – rather strong language about the Bible from a theistic rabbi.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People is an important, engrossing, and well-written book. It was obviously a product of Kushner’s inner need to express his reaction to the long illness and death of his young son, Aaron. In this book, Kushner faces head-on the problem that has led many of us to reject all notions of God – the problem of Evil. Now, "evil" in this philosophical context does not necessarily mean immoral or intentionally harmful behavior; evil refers to the imperfections of the universe that lead to harmful consequences to innocent people, whether induced by human behavior or by natural phenomena. A humanistic point of view on evil was expressed a few years ago by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Hiam Cohn in his address to the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Cohn said that "the Holocaust is the final and conclusive proof that there can be no God. If there were a God, he would not be a just and merciful God, but a cruel and unjust God, a God of inequity ... a God who does not care. Rather than attribute to God cruelty, injustice, and inequity, we ... should do him the favor of denying his existence. "
Kushner, surprisingly, comes close to accepting Cohn’s premise that there cannot be a God who is both just and powerful. He looks at human suffering and says that either God is malevolent or He has limited power. Kushner is unwilling to say that the world is ruled by a malevolent god, so he is forced to conclude that God is simply not powerful – that God would like to stop the suffering of innocent people but simply does not know how to do it. Kushner sounds like a rational secularist when he says that evil and suffering are caused by random events (a cell suddenly becomes a malignant tumor), by the laws of nature (a volcano destroys a village), and by human freedom to be destructive (wars, persecutions, etc.). "God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He can’t bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims." With these words, Kushner has answered a key theological question by demoting God to the level of a security blanket – comforting to have around when things go wrong, but not of any real use in solving serious problems.
Since Kushner has de-deified God, he is forced to answer the question of God’s relevance to humans. How does he know that God is really there? On this point, Kushner’s argument is so weak that it is hard to believe that he is himself convinced by it. "One of the things that constantly reassures me that God is real, and not just an idea that religious leaders made up, is the fact that people who pray for strength, hope, and courage so often find resources of strength, hope, and courage that they did not have before they prayed. ... When we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. ... And finally, to the person who asks 'what good is God... ?,' I would say that God may not prevent the calamity, but He gives us the strength and the perseverance to overcome it. Where else do we get these qualities which we did not have before?"
It does not require a Ph.D. in psychology to understand that the ability of faith and prayer to bring out inner courage and strength can be explained easily without invoking God's power. It is not difficult to understand how a strong belief in a supernatural helping force can give courage and strength to a person. The point is that it is not God, but rather the belief in God, that is the source of this strength. The belief in God has inspired unbelievable acts of self-sacrifice as well as many of the world's greatest works of art and music. The fact that emotional strength or creativity can be inspired by religious faith does not in any way imply that the object of that faith exists. It is simply a demonstration of the strong psychological impact of a sincere belief in a benevolent, powerful God. We can agree with Kushner that people with difficult problems to face can find strength and courage as a result of prayer. The fact that belief in God "works" in this way does not, however, justify Kushner’s conclusion that God is the source of this effect.
After reading When Bad Things Happen to Good People I was appalled that Rabbi Kushner could base his whole belief in a benevolent God on the fact that he had seen people successfully use prayer to summon their inner strength. So I decided to read his more recent best-seller in the hopes of finding some less trivial basis for his belief in God. The second book, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, attempts to give guidance on the purpose of life. Here again, Kushner surprises us by rejecting all of the expected religious answers to the search for meaning. He completely rejects the notion that the purpose of life is to act properly in order to obtain a reward after death. In fact, his answers to all important questions appear to be made without any reference to God.
In order to spare you the necessity of reading this rather tedious book, which was obviously written to capitalize on the success of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, I will tell you Kushner’s view of the purpose of life: "love and the joy of working, and the simple pleasures of food and fresh clothes." After having spent nine chapters coming to and explaining this rather pedestrian conclusion, Kushner recognizes that he has virtually excluded God from any important role in human affairs. He therefore devotes the last few pages of this book to a chapter that deals with the problem: "To what question is God the answer?"
According to the book, the question to which God is the answer is: Why are people basically good and honest, generous and compassionate? Thus, having absolved God of all responsibility for human suffering and evil, having said that God is simply too weak to protect us from natural and human-made catastrophes, Kushner concludes that a benevolent God has given us a conscience and the desire to do good. My experience is that Kushner is correct in saying that most people want to do good. Can we, as humanists and rationalists, offer a scientific explanation for this? I think we can. Humans and other animals have developed through millions of years of evolution in hostile environments largely because they have learned to work together in cooperative groups. Presumably, variant individuals who did not cooperate with their families and neighbors were not as "successful" from an evolutionary point of view and died out, taking their uncooperative genes and behavior patterns with them. It is not God that makes us want to help others, it is our brain, which has been molded by evolution acting through natural selection. Survival of the fittest often has meant survival of the cooperative and even the compassionate.
From a purely biological or evolutionary point of view, the "purpose" of life is to pass on the information coded in one’s genes. Sometimes, altruistic behavior is the most efficient way of accomplishing this goal. For example, worker bees, which have no offspring themselves, spend their lives helping the queen, their mother, take care of reproductive bees, which are the workers’ brothers and sisters. This is thought to occur because the workers share many genes with their reproducing siblings, and by ensuring their survival, they are ensuring perpetuation of their own genetic traits – including the workers' instinct to help care for the reproductive bees. Similarly, it is easy to understand that the forces of evolution could have shaped the human brain in such a way as to cause individuals to want to help others, even to the point of great self-sacrifice, because the perpetuation of the group requires such behavior.
Of course, it could be argued that altruistic tendencies are not genetic but rather instilled by the process of socialization in early childhood. That is, the information required to develop compassionate offspring is not simply in our genes, but in the child-rearing patterns of behavior handed down through the generations. It would still have to be said, however, that the most successful groups instill cooperative behavior in their children, and that the underlying reason for such cooperative tendencies is that it helps ensure survival of the group. Thus, whether one wants to emphasize the genetic or the psychological basis for cooperation and compassion, it is still not necessary to invoke a supernatural God to explain altruistic behavior.
In summary, Rabbi Kushner has written two books that go a long way toward debunking many of the traditional notions of God. In doing so, he has made a great contribution because he has attacked some of the most pernicious aspects of religion. It took great courage for him to say that God does not reward the good and punish the evil, that we should not count on justice in a life after death, that God does not – indeed, cannot – answer our prayers for restored health or other vital needs, and that our views on the meaning and purpose of life must be developed independently of God. Kushner, however, clings to a God, much reduced in stature and power, but nevertheless a God whose presence is manifested in our lives. The examples he gives of God’s effects are the efficacy of prayer in bringing out our inner courage and strength and the fact that people basically would like to be good. It is clear that there are simple, rational explanations for these so-called manifestations of God. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Rabbi Kushner for writing on such important subjects in a clear, straightforward manner so that his points of view and arguments can be easily understood. I am also grateful to him for pointing out the harmful consequences of traditional religion in books that have been read by millions of readers throughout the world.
This review is reprinted with the author’s permission from the journal Humanistic Judaism (Volume XVI, Number I, Winter 1988, pages 42-45), published by the Society for Humanistic Judaism, 28611 W 12 Mile Rd, Farmington Hills, MI 48334, www.shj.org. Subscriptions to the journal and individual issues are available from the Society http://www.shj.org/store/hj-journal/.