Rabbi Harold Kushner on the problem of evil

From Samantha Trenoweth "The Future of God" (Millenium Books 1995)

"One of the unique aspects of Judaism," he says, "is that it believes that everything God created is potentially holy. It does not draw a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the worldly." p. 138

A variety of human religions, he believes, will always be required by the variety of human experiences. p. 139

"Why do bad things happen to good people? Why has illness struck my innocent child? If there is a God who is good and just, how has this God come to create a world which is so generously endowed with injustice and pain?" There is no more universal theological question yet, in Western religions, there are few satisfying answers. p. 140

"This is the crucial religious question," he explained earlier this evening. "When it is left unanswered, it festers the soul, it corrupts faith, it causes people to leave faith. When it is answered badly, it breeds cynicism and mistrust. When it works, when people are able to find consolation and solace in the teachings of their religion, at a time when they need it the most, then that religion will be a source of sustenance for the rest of their lives. How shall we understand the sufferings of good people? There is no more important question we can ask." p. 141

"... when we ask this question, we discover that most of the answers we're given simply do not work. ... They would say to me, 'God is putting your family to this test because you're so strong in your faith and you can handle it. You'll be an inspiration to others.' All I could think of was, I wish i was less religious. Let God test somebody else and give us a healthy child.' People said, 'God is doinmg this to you so you become a more sensitive person and write this book which will help thousands of people afterwards.' I imagined the response if a defence attorney for a human murder was to get up in court and say , 'Look at all the good my client has accomplished by killing that child. All over the country, people are much more vigilant about where their children go when they leave the house and all over this continent, people are grateful that their child is alive and well because my client hasn't got his hands on them.' "They would never be taken seriously in a court of law. Why do we say the same thing about God? We say that God would torture and kill an innocent person so that other people will grow spiritually as a result. I have never accepted the idea that God allows retarded children to be born so that the woman next door will realise how lucky she is that her kids are normal. Why does God strike somebody blind or crippled? So we can have the opportunity to drop a coin in their tin cup as they beg? I cannot take seriously a God who would choose such things. ... I realized why all the conventional religious answers didn't comfort me. You know why? Because they weren't supposed to. They were not intended to make me feel better. They were intended to defend and justify God." pp. 142 -143

... there were three ideas which each of the characters in the book [Job] wanted to believe. First, they wanted to believe that God was all-powerful, the creator, the prime mover, indisputably in control. Next, Job and his friends wanted to believe that God was absolutely good, compassionate and just. Finally, they wanted to believe that Job was a righteous man. ... as soon as job's world began to rock, it became impossible to assert more than two similtaneously. The problem for Job and his friends - and for Rabbi Kushner - was which of the three they should jettison. p. 144

"Job's friends are doing what we have learned to call blaming the victim. ..." p. 145

"It's not that God's ways are too wondrous for us mortals. The question is, will God permit himself to do things which he has told us are wrong?" p. 146

"The conclusion I came to ... was to challenge number one, that everything that happens in this world, God wants to happen." ... Harold Kushner jettisoned his belief in an all-powerful God." pp 146 -147

She said to him, "Pastor, if one more person tells me it was God's will, I'm going to scream. Why are they teaching me to hate God?" ... "We teach people either to hate themselves for deserving it or to hate God for doing it to them when they don't deserve it." .... "I would rather affirm God's goodness," he says, "while compromising his power. I would rather believe in a God who sees things happening that he does not want to happen but cannot stop them. I think goodness is of more religious value than power." Around this central tenet, he rebuilt his faith. According to Rabbi Kushner, the primary reason why bad things happen to good people is that laws of nature do not differentiate between a good person and a bad one. p. 147

... a passage in the Talmud that he paraphrases as follows: "If a man steals seeds from his neighbour and plants them, justice would require that those seeds do not germinate. Why should that man profit from his theft? However, nature is not just and stolen seeds grow." Life is full of such instances. Nature is amoral, he insists, and God does not interfere with laws of nature. ... the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. Human beings have that ability. Falling rocks and viruses don't. ... That's the first source of suffering and unfairness that God cannot prevent." ... Dorothy Soell ... German Lutheran theologian ... "Where was God at Auschwitz?" Her answer is that God was at the side of the victims, suffering and grieving with them, not on the side of the murderers. p. 148

"... Instead of raising our hands to heaven and saying, 'God, why do you let these things happen" we applied our God-given intelligence to the problem, until we solved it, just as we will one day solve the problem of cancer and AIDS and heart disease." p. 150

" ... a nineteenth century Hassidic rabbi: 'Human beings are God's language.' p. 151

" ... the person who says, 'Why me?' doesn't want explanation, she wants consolation." p. 152

"Why do good people suffer in God's world?" he asks again. "The answer is, I don't know why and if I knew why, I wouldn't tell you because, if I told you , I'd be making the same mistake that all those people made with me so many years ago - taking something that fundamentally doesn't make sense and trying to make sense of it. ..." p. 155'

"MacLeish [in the play J.B.] responded to that ending [in the book of Job] the way I suspect many off us do.: 'Who wants a God like that? Who wants a God who plays these sadistic games with his most dedicated worshiper to see if he can make him lose his faith?' So McLeish changes the ending. Instead of God rewarding Job, Job forgives God. ... " p.156

We don't explain our suffering, we survive it, we respond to it, we choose to go on. p.156

In other words, the pain, the suffering, the tragedy we experience has no hidden meaning. It is not directed towards us by a vengeful God, nor is it, most often, the consequence of our own evil doing. The suffering we endure has no meaning until we impose one on it and then, we are free to choose the nature of that meaning. p. 157

"... Jews don't actually pray for, Jews pray to. Prayer does not mean asking God to do something. Prayer, in Judaism, means asking God to be with you. .." p. 158

"... Ultimately the question is not, 'Why does God permit this?' ... The real question is, 'From where does my help come? How will I manage to get through this?' The psalmist's answer, it seems to me, must be our answer as well: 'My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.'" p. 159