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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

THE ALMOST-HUMANISM OF RABBI HAROLD KUSHNER, Z"L

Last Friday the world lost a significant Jewish thinker when (Conservative) Rabbi Harold Kushner died at the age of 88.


Known for his insightful writings and teachings on spirituality, ethics, and the human condition, Rabbi Kushner came to notable national and international attention with the 1981 publication of his book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Prompted by the death of his young son, it examined what theologians call "theodicy," the problem of reconciling an all-powerful deity who is also believed to be entirely merciful and good. 


Rabbi Kushner's solution was to offer a new twist that some have termed "limited theism." In short, this way of thinking about God — popular with Jewish thinkers from across the spectrum — resolves the problem of evil by proposing that God is not all-powerful and is actually unable to prevent all the bad things that happen in the world. This, say its advocates, is because God created the world and humans with certain laws and principles, including both natural limits and human free will, both of which can lead to suffering and tragedy.


One of the key consequences of this approach is its teaching that in such a world as ours, humans alone must bear the responsibility to take the necessary action to alleviate suffering and make it a better place. 


What could be more humanistic than that? Isn't that precisely what we teach?


Well, yes and no.


By itself, the emphasis on human agency sits at the very center of our beliefs. But Rabbi Kushner's religious theistic humanism does not stand by itself because it includes God, the very idea of that divides us. 


When challenged by skeptics like us, proponents of limited theism frequently fall back on a defense that has deteriorated into a cliche, attempting to reassure us that the God we don't believe in is the same one that they don't believe in. After which they proceed to describe their brand new God (limited power! unlimited love and inspiration!) in an attempt to salvage the whole idea of a deity. 


Rabbi Wine was especially critical of re-defining God, calling it "both evasive and immoral." He elaborated:


"It is evasive because a word that can mean anything the definer wants it to mean is no longer intended for communi­cation. Its purpose is either psychother­apy or social security (i.e., respectability).


Redefining God is immoral because or­dinary words are entitled to their ordinary meanings. God is an old word with an old historic denotation. For the ordinary user, God refers to a supernatural father figure who made and runs the world and who consciously interferes with the operation of his creation.


... It is immoral to steal words from every­day communication and to alter their meaning arbitrarily — especially if the ac­tion serves your personal advantage. Theology as a cloak for atheists is like the emperor’s clothing...."


I am entirely in agreement with Rabbi Wine. One of my dearest colleagues frequently says, "Truth matters." And the truth is that there is no more evidence whatsoever for this all-loving but completely powerless deity than exists for the other beefier, if more mean-spirited version. They're both fictional, products of the human imagination. 


That said, God is not just any kind of fiction. God is one of the most overwhelminghly powerful fictions ever invented. (Also one of the most potentially dangerous.) So while I would love nothing more than for humanity to finally outgrow its need for any supernatural beliefs, especially deities, we know that even many with a strong belief in science and naturalism have a hard time giving up God. The promise of (or the hope for) a caring loving deity is simply too strong.


As it happens, I had the opportunity to share my ideas with Rabbi Kushner. During my time at the Miami JCC his grandchildren attended our preschool. One day while he was visiting them he sat down with me in the empty lobby of our theater. After sharing my early interest and one-time affinity with his theological approach, I told him about my then-recent affiliation with Humanistic Judaism. He was, of course, familiar with Rabbi Wine and disagreed with our approach. As he had throughout his entire career, he told me about the comfort he derived from belief in a compassionate God, the power of prayer and ritual, and what these taught him about faith, love, and trust. As we parted, he congratulated me on finding my way to a Jewish path that better suited me, pointing out that at the end of the day we continued to agree on the absolute responsibility that humans must take for our own present and future welfare. He said this to me with the kindness and openness for which he was so beloved.


"When Bad Things Happen to Good People" was a powerful part of my early rabbinical education and my Jewish and humanistic journey. Though I would later depart from Rabbi Kushner in his desire to salvage the idea of God, his teachings nevertheless pointed me toward a path that demanded complete — and ultimate — human agency and action.


Speaking about another of his bestselling books, "When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough," he touched upon another principle that we Humanistic Jews value, that of finding meaning in life. "People," he wrote, "need to feel that their lives make a difference to the world.... We are not afraid of dying so much as of not having lived.”


He certainly did make a difference to the world. 


Out of the tragedy of losing a young child, Rabbi Kushner conveyed some powerful lessons to those who — like him — are not ready to abandon the fiction of God. In a world that demands human responsibility, this is no small legacy. He was, without question, one of the righteous people of our times. I offer my condolences to his lovely family whom I was privileged to know all too briefly.


May his memory always be a blessing.

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