Q & A: Rabbi Harold Kushner

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On the 25th anniversary of the publication of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, his landmark book on coping with life's tragedies, Rabbi Harold Kushner's new book, Overcoming Life's Disappointments, returns to a similar theme. Having retired from his day-to-day responsibilities as a pulpit Rabbi, Kushner spoke to TIME's Jeremy Caplan about coping with tragedy, how Moses is misunderstood, and why prayer doesn't work the way some people think it does.

TIME: Why did you focus your book around Moses?

Kushner: I wanted to give people a more rounded picture of Moses, not simply the triumphant hero who splits the sea and works the miracles, but Moses the man who fails and perseveres, who gets over frustration and rejection. I don't need to learn from Moses how to split the Red Sea. I need to learn from Moses how to fail and not see myself as a failure.

TIME: How is your view of Moses different from traditional portrayals?

Kushner: It's the more superficial Sunday-school Moses that I want to expand on. Moses the mouthpiece of God, Moses the conquering hero, Charlton Heston in that terrible movie. There's so much more to Moses than that: there's a Moses we can identify with. None of us can see ourselves as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea. But a Moses who is so engrossed in his work — because it's important — that he neglects his family; a Moses who feels that the people he has given his life to don't appreciate him. That's something we can all relate to. Moses who has spent his whole life yearning to see the promised land, and has to acknowledge at the end that all these people who have made his days miserable are going to have that experience, and he'll never have it.

How does he get over that crushing disappointment? The greatest achievement of Moses' life is not the plagues or the Red Sea or any of that stuff. The greatest achievement is that he comes to the end of his days not angry at God, not bitter over not having gotten what he deserves in life. And it's in that way that I think Moses can be a model for us.

TIME: Is Overcoming Life's Disappointments an academic or personal book?

Kushner: This was a very personal book. There were parts where it was almost painful for me to type. I wrote my second book, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, the year I turned 50, and I wrote this one the year I turned 70. It's very much a retrospective about what I did achieve and didn't achieve in my life. There's a whole chapter there about what do you do with the shards of your broken dreams. I talk about parents who lose a child, and parents who can't have more children, and a lot of the ways in which life is frustrating. And I certainly wrote that out of my own anguish. I don't want to be typecast as the Rabbi whose son died. I would like to think that there's more insight into people's problems than that. This is a book written by a 70-year-old man looking back on what he did and did not achieve in his life.

TIME: Your books, including this one, challenge the idea of God's omnipotence. Could you explain your reasoning?>

Kushner: Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around. Why do we worship power? Why do we assume that total power is the most wonderful thing we could ascribe to God, even if it means compromising his fairness and his love? I believe that God is totally moral, but nature, one of God's creatures, is not moral. Nature is blind. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease germs, speeding bullets, they are all equal opportunity offenders. They have no way of knowing whether it's a good person or a bad person in their path. In fact, there's a passage in the Talmud [Jewish scripture] that says that God's justice would demand that certain things not happen, but nature is not just and those things happen.

TIME: Does that separate you, to some extent, from the Orthodox Jewish community?

Kushner: I get a better reception from Mormons than I do from the Orthodox Jews. It's precisely because of that point. They feel obliged to defend God's omnipotence, irrespective of the fact that that holds God responsible for every retarded child, every flood and earthquake, every plague and everything else that happens in the world, and they have to twist themselves into all sorts of theological pretzels to explain why bad is good.

TIME: What does that mean about the power of prayer?

Kushner: There were reports a few months ago about experiments in which two groups of hospital patients: one was prayed for, one wasn't. The results showed that it didn't seem to make a difference. I said in an interview at the time that God's job is not to make sick people healthy. That's the doctors' job. God's job is to make sick people brave. You know what we've done in this country? We have confused God with Santa Claus. And we believe that prayer means making a list of everything you don't have but want and trying to persuade God you deserve it. Now I'm sorry, that's not God, that's Santa Claus. Prayer is not bargaining with God. Prayer is simply coming into the presence of God. Because when you come into the presence of God, even the things you don't have matter a lot less.

TIME: At one point in the book you say you see evidence for God in the ability of ordinary people to do extraordinary things? Why do you see proof of God in that?

Kushner: Because before they had to do it they didn't believe they were capable of it. When my wife and I had to contend with the illness and death of our son, we were sure it was more than we could handle. But somehow we managed to do it. The example I give is Christopher Reeve, who had his perfect life snatched away from him in moments, and somehow was able to overcome the bitterness that might have stricken a lot of people. Had you asked him a week before, "How do you think you would handle it if you suddenly woke up and were quadriplegic?" I suspect he'd say, "I'd be devastated." Yet he was able to go on bravely for another nine years. And I see this all the time. People who say, "I'm not sure I can handle this," and they manage to handle it.

TIME: You spoke last week to the Jewish community in New Orleans. What was your message to them?

Kushner: One thing [is] that the Hurricane last year wasn't an act of God; it was an act of nature. Their willingness to come back and rebuild their city, the generosity of so many other Americans, the college students who gave up their vacations to build houses, to me, that was the act of God. That's people doing something they didn't think they would want to do, and somehow in the situation found themselves motivated to do it. Where does that come from, unless that's God at work in us?

TIME: Is there, in some way, a tendency for people to perpetuate their reliance on suffering?

Kushner: You bet there is. I have to deal with so many people who just absolutely refuse to forgive someone who slighted them, because they believe the only power they have over these people is to withhold forgiveness, the power to remain angry. I try to say to them, what kind of power is that? You're having zero impact on these people. The divorcee who is still fuming at her husband who walked out on her 15 years ago? I say to her: What are you doing to him by being angry? He's living it up with his new wife in New Jersey. And you are turning yourself into a bitter woman. Are you hurting him, or are you hurting yourself? And this is what I would say to anybody who immerses himself or herself in bitterness toward the end of their life: The only person you're harming is yourself.

TIME: This month marks the 25th anniversary of When Bad Things Happen to Good People , your most famous book. What about that book gave it such strong resonance?

Kushner: It makes people feel better. It doesn't explain, it comforts. This is what people in times of difficulty need. They need consolation, not explanation. Too many books, especially ones written before mine, didn't understand that. They try to tell people why it isn't so terrible. People want a book that says it is terrible, but you can handle it. That's the first reason. The second reason is my own personal family experiences gave me the right to write that book, the authenticity. People have to listen to it because I've been there.