Photo courtsey Weinstein JCC
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner has a new book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, and he's coming to Richmond Nov. 8 to kick off the Weinstein JCC's Jewish Book Fair, which runs through Nov. 18. His book is a sequel of sorts to his 1981 best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written after his son passed away from a premature-aging disease. I caught up with Kushner on Oct. 23 in between his book tour stops.
To attend his JCC talk, call 545-8610 or visit weinsteinjcc.org
RM: How did you move from your understanding/acceptance that God was less than all-powerful to speaking of Him today as self-limiting?
HK: I still believe pretty much what I wrote in my first book, but I learned that, while it made God much more acceptable to a lot of people if He wasn't to blame for their misery, it left a lot of people feeling I had diminished God, which was not my objective. So in place of saying that there are things God can't do, I now say there are things God could theoretically do ― for example, create human beings incapable of lying or stealing ― but He chooses not to, because He wants a world to emerge in which people choose to be good.
RM: Do you get much resistance or are you challenged when you suggest in talks or sermons that God is not necessarily omnipotent, or as you phrase it, that there is the reality of God?
HK: The idea shocks a lot of people at first until I unpack it. I usually put it in terms of compromising God's power so that He can be entirely good ― not responsible for the terrible things that happen― and why should we worship power as the supreme virtue? The response I often get is, "I'm comfortable with that but I thought we weren't supposed to believe that way."
RM: I was not familiar with the Poem of Job, which follows the Fable of Job, and what a discovery it was to hear an angry Job as well as God in a conversation with Job. Do you counsel that it is perfectly OK to be angry with God sometimes?
HK: I firmly believe not only that it is legitimate to be angry at God, I believe anger is part of any authentic relationship. If you're afraid to face your anger, you are censoring your emotions. The verse in Deuteronomy, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart..." comes right after the Israelites have expressed their anger at God. If we feel angry at God and pretend not to, we are being dishonest with Him.
RM: The visits to Job by the three friends Eliphiz, Bildad and Zophar made me laugh. They reminded me of those people who say all the wrong things whether at a funeral or when someone is going through a tough personal experience. What, in your opinion, is the message we should take away from their visits?
HK: My response to the friends is not to laugh at them for their ineptitude but to sympathize with them. I'm sure it was hard for them to see their friend suffering, and it would have been easier for them had they stayed home, but Job needed visitors. Their mistake was thinking that, when he cried out, "Why is God doing this to me?" he was asking a question. That's not a question. It's a cry of pain and should be responded to with sympathy, not with theology.
RM: At what moment did you know you had to write this book? Did seeing A Serious Manprompt you a bit?
HK: I wrote the book at the invitation of the publishers. It is the latest in a series called Jewish Encounters, which have generally been of a high level and I am honored to be included among their authors. A Serious Man ― to their credit, the Coen brothers never call it a modern version of Job, but all the critics did ― was a dreadful movie, but my book was well under way when I saw it. People who called it a modern-day tale of Job obviously never got beyond the first chapter of the biblical book.
RM: What book, other than this one, are you recommending right now?
HK: The most stimulating book I have read this year is The Righteous Mindby Jonathan Haidt.
RM: What is your next project?
HK: I have no idea what I'll write next, if anything. I write every book on the assumption it may be my last. One should never assume an unending flow of inspiration.
RM: What is the most helpful thing you do when you are having difficulty finding the rights words for the next passage in a sermon or you are staring at a blank page for the next chapter in a book?
HK: When the writing doesn't come, I write a check to charity and re-read what I've already written. It usually works.