This May Day, a Jewish Refusenik looks back on the Spring of 1985
Forthcoming from Nextbook Press: The Jewish Encounter series will be complemented with Rabbi Kushner’s forthcoming popular introduction to the Book of Job. Rabbi Kushner has spent years pondering the subject of Job—as a young doctoral student in Bible, rattled by recent revelations of the Holocaust, he contemplated a dissertation on the biblical character, only to find himself deferring the challenge. The book continued to haunt him, as a congregational rabbi counseling the bereaved, and as the father of a child taken young by terminal illness. He has finally returned to the subject with which he had planned to begin his scholarship, and has produced a book that understands the biblical world that produced “Job” as well as the modern world that continues to cry out for answers to life’s deepest mysteries. The book explores the biblical answer to the question of why God permits good people to suffer, as understood by people through the centuries and in our post-Holocaust age.
Rabbi Harold Kushner is best known as the author of the bestselling When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a book about God and suffering that he wrote after his teenage son died from a rare disease. Since the 1981 publication of that book, he has published numerous works of popular theology, many examining the ways in which religion can help people endure difficult times. Now, he turns his analysis to what is perhaps the most famous tale of suffering in the world in The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person. “The book of Job is a full-length argument about whether the misfortunes that befall ostensibly good people come to them from the hand of God,” he writes. “If we want to believe that ours is a moral world, the scene of justice and fairness, we need to confront the arguments presented in what is probably the most challenging book in the entire bible: the book of Job.”
Kushner writes that the book of Job contains both wisdom about the question of why good people suffer, and a somewhat “enigmatic” answer. But he sees the story as standing behind all his previous writing, including his own meditation on his family’s tragedy. Writing about Job, he says, “returns me to the issue that I believe I was put on earth to deal with, the question of what kind of world we live in.”
•When Kushner was a young rabbi, pursuing an advanced degree from his seminary, he told his professor he wanted to write his dissertation about God’s role in human tragedies in the Bible. His professor told him, “You’re not ready to write that.” What do you think his professor meant? That he was too young, too inexperienced, too unaffected by personal tragedy? Do you think people have to be a certain age or experience tragedy first-hand to truly understand the subject?
•Why do you think the book of Job resonates for Kushner? Is it simply because of Kushner’s personal experiences? Or is there a deeper level in which he engages the text—emotional, spiritual, theological? Does the book of Job resonate for you today? Why is it such an enduring story for so many people?
•“More than wanting to be reassured that our world is orderly and predictable,” Kushner writes, “we very much want to believe that it is fair, that people get what they deserve.” So why is it that when bad things happen to good people, we often bemoan the lack of justice in the world, question God’s motives, or wonder what failings those people must have to deserve such punishment—yet when good things happen to bad people, it may elicit envy, but rarely stirs the same kind of deep philosophical angst?
•Baruch Spinoza called Job “the most honest book in the Bible,” because it questions God’s goodness. Kushner calls Job “the most challenging book in the entire bible.” What’s the difference between these two phrases? And when Kushner calls it “challenging,” what does he mean—challenging to whom?
•Kushner is a scholar—he has a Ph.D. in biblical literature and is the editor (along with another scholar-writer, Chaim Potok) of the conservative movement’s Torah commentary Etz Hayyim. But he is also a rabbi who sees his role as offering consolation and searching for larger meaning in the world. In what ways does he braid these two callings together in his study of Job?
THE FABLE OF JOB
The book of Job can be divided into two distinct parts. First, there is the fable of Job, a brief legend about a good and pious man whose faith is tested by God through a series of tragedies that befall him and his family: His sons are killed, he is stricken with illness and pain, and his home and belongings are destroyed. This fable, which constitutes just a few chapters at the beginning and the end of the book of Job, is the story that most people know, a story of a good man being tested.
•Why do you think this is the part of the book of Job that comes to most people’s minds when they think of the story of Job? Is it because, as Kushner writes, it is “the part of the book that is easiest to understand”? Is it because most people don’t actually realize there is more to the book of Job? Or is it because this the part of the story that has the simplest, clearest moral and the starkest view of bad things happening to a good person?
•In the fable, Kushner explains, “Job is never temped to cry out or express anger toward God.” Do you see such behavior as virtuous and pious, or unrealistic and naïve? Is Job’s acceptance of suffering, and endurance of God’s tests, a sign of his deep religiosity—a model to which we should all aspire?
•“Our hero, Job, is not a Jew, not an Israelite,” Kushner writes. “In all likelihood, this is an ancient folktale, probably one that circulated in many cultures.” Does it strike you as strange to have a hero of a biblical book who is a gentile? What reason might the book’s editors and authors had for creating a biblical “Everyman”?
•If this is not a specifically Jewish folktale, does it have special resonance for Jewish readers that it wouldn’t have for others? Kushner argues that even if Job the man isn’t Jewish, the book of Job is a “thoroughly Jewish book, beginning with its arrogating to itself the right to challenge and question God on moral grounds.” Do you agree that this is a particularly Jewish trait?
•In the fable of Job, we see a God “who prizes unquestioning loyalty and absence of criticism over all other virtues,” Kushner writes. Here, God is “all-powerful and all-controlling.” Such a deity may instill fear and obedience, Kushner writes, “but can we love such a God?” Do you find it comforting to think that God is always in control of what happens to us—including our suffering and misfortune—and that God must have reasons for making bad things happen?
•The fable of Job explores one man’s struggles with suffering. Do you view this as a story that’s truly about individuals? Or can the individual and his personal suffering also be used as a metaphor for an entire community and its shared suffering? What is the difference between individual and communal suffering? For instance, was the Holocaust an instance of millions of individuals enduring horrible ordeals, or the Jewish community at large suffering together? Are these two concepts mutually exclusive? Does focusing on one obscure the legitimacy of the other?
THE POEM OF JOB
The bulk of the book of Job consists of the poem of Job, a heated back-and-forth discussion between Job and his friends—and God—about suffering and God’s role in his ordeal. Whereas in the fable, Job accepts his suffering without complaint, in the poem he is seen questioning, doubting, and even speaking out in anger against God, in what Kushner calls “a no-holds barred argument about God’s role in the world, the likes of which we find nowhere else in the Bible.”
•The language of the poem is difficult to understand. Unfamiliar words, unclear contexts, poor editing, and entire sections that are simply inscrutable and confusing make the poem particularly challenging. Kushner frequently cites various translations that have given certain verses radically different meanings and interpretations; readers with different preconceived ideas about the nature of God, suffering, and divine justice can impose translations on the poem that suit their own ideas. “The text becomes a mirror in which we see our own face reflected,” Kushner writes. If this is true, then how are we to understand what the poem is truly intended to communicate? Or is the point of the poem that it can be taken to mean very different things to different people at once?
•In the poem, Job’s friends come to comfort him, but instead they end up starting pointed arguments about theology, God’s responsibility to people, and human fallibility. How and why do his friends fail to comfort him? Or is having such a heated discussion actually what Job needs to understand what is happening—and is that understanding the only way for him to be comforted?
•In the poem of Job, Job notes the futility of calling God to account for his actions: “Man cannot win a suit against God if he insisted on a trial with Him…Who can say to Him, What are you doing?” Do you believe this is true? If so, then what is the use of Job’s anger and questioning of God’s judgment?
•Job and his friends have an intense, often antagonistic, argument about God, in Job’s home. Does this suggest that all people are qualified to have legitimate and profound discussions about theology based on their personal experiences—not only scholars and sages who have studied the canonical texts? Is this, in itself, a peculiarly Jewish take on theological discourse? Have you had similar theological discussions in your own home?
•What role do Job’s visiting friends play in the poem, from a dramatic point of view, and from a theological point of view? Are we, as readers, expected to side with Job, the protagonist, throughout the story, or are our loyalties supposed to shift?
•Job expresses anger toward God in the poem, something that shocks his friends. But as Kushner explains, paraphrasing the text, “Any God worth worshipping should prefer honest anger to hypocritical praise.” (He later goes further, saying that anger at God “may be one of the hallmarks of a truly religious person.”) Do you agree with this sentiment? If so, how would this affect how you react to tragedies, both personal and communal? What form might such anger take?
THE NATURE OF GOD
Most of the Bible, Kushner explains—citing his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel—focuses “less about who God is and more about who human beings ought to be.” But the book of Job, Kushner writes, “is one place in the Bible where serious theological conversation about the nature and thought process of God does take place.” As Kushner explains, the book of Job includes a rigorous debate about God’s role in our lives, God’s motivation and reasoning, God’s sense of justice. And, late in the book, God appears and joins the discussion directly.
•Martin Buber distinguishes between theology and religion—the former an intellectual contemplation of God, the latter the experience of being in God’s presence. Kushner applies this distinction to the book of Job, noting that the vast majority of it concerns theology, but near the end, when God appears out of the whirlwind, it shifts into religion. Do you find Buber’s distinction useful, or accurate? Do you agree with Kushner that it applies here to Job?
•Kushner recounts a Jewish legend about Abraham coming across a palace “lit up by fire” in the desert. Abraham asks if there is nobody in charge of the palace, and God appears to assure him: I am the master of this palace. One interpretation suggests that the palace is simply lit, as if by torches or candles, and the message is that God’s presence (or light) exists everywhere, even in a palace that appears to be without an owner. A second interpretation focuses on the fire—the palace actually in flames—and takes God’s answer to mean that bad things, destructive things, happen in God’s world, but that doesn’t mean that the world has been abandoned or left to exist in chaos. Which of these interpretations speaks to you more? How do you see this legend relating to the story of Job? To modern times?
•When God appears out of the whirlwind and speaks directly to Job, his tone is not comforting or sympathetic or soothing, nor does he directly explain why such tragedies have befallen Job specifically. He also never mentions the wager made with Satan to test Job so horribly. So what does God have to say when he appears before Job? Do you think God’s explanation warrants Job’s apology, where Job says, “I spoke without understanding. Of things beyond me, which I did not know”?
•Kushner writes, “Is God fair? Yes, but the word ‘fair’ doesn’t mean the same thing when we speak about God as it does when we apply it to people.” What is the distinction Kushner is suggesting? Do you agree with his distinction?
•Kushner concludes: “As I have now come to understand it, the book of Job celebrates God’s awesome power but recognizes self-imposed limits on that power, to avoid compromising God’s primary quality, His goodness.” How might such a conclusion apply to modern-day individuals enduring horrible suffering, such as the loss of a child, or disease? Are there lessons from Kushner’s conclusion that might apply to our understanding of the Holocaust and other communal suffering? Natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes?
•In Kushner’s interpretation, Job wants a response from God even if it isn’t one he can wholly comprehend. Do you agree that Job is satisfied after God appears in the story? And do you feel, personally, that it is the sense of God’s existence that consoles as much as any assurance that God responds directly to human needs or fits or fits logically into a human scheme?
When selecting an author for this 21st book in the Jewish Encounters series, editor Jonathan Rosen had a clear choice. Continue reading
"Kushner’s analysis challenges popular understanding of a text written and rewritten by unknown authors perhaps separated by centuries. Job, he says, is more than a fable that says, “Believe.” It poses a question at the center of any faith: Why does God inflict such misery on some people?" Continue reading
"Harold S. Kushner is a rare bird: a popular religious writer set apart by his humility and lack of proselytizing...Kushner's latest book is "The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person," and it too is supported by thoughtful scholarship and his skill at using modern concepts without leaking treacle." Continue reading
"Throughout The Book of Job Kushner pushes and prods his readers to explore the possibilities with which this difficult text, with its often obscure vocabulary, challenges us to seek our own responses. Serving as a guide, he reviews the answers of classic commentators, then ends with his own understanding, an understanding persuasive for both theological and personal reasons, an understanding that is moving, comforting, and active." Continue reading
What kind of God allows such horrible things to happen to good people, "That is the question, it's the question I'm asking more than any, not only because I wrote a book about it 30 years ago,but because anybody that has any sense of religion and suffers, anybody who has a sense of this fairness that this world ought to treat good people better...you're going to ask this question." Continue reading
Rabbi Harold Kushner spoke in Minneapolis about coping with hard times and the lessons that can be learned from the Bible's Book of Job. His newest bestseller is "The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person." He spoke Oct. 18, 2012 at an event sponsored by Park Nicollet Foundation's "Growing Through Grief" program. Continue reading
Unlike a great deal of rabbinic commentary, which condemns Job’s reaction, Kushner believes that being angry with God "may be one of the hallmarks of a truly religious person. It puts honesty ahead of flattery." Job is open and honest with God when he demands that God explain the reason behind his afflictions. Continue reading
"In “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which I wrote 31 years ago, I devoted about 10 pages or so to the Book of Job; what the problem is and how I think it’s answered. This [new] 200-page book is a chapter-by-chapter guide through Job, because some marvelous things happen there. You really have a debate on both sides of the equation. It’s the only book like it in the Bible, and nobody appreciates it because they read that awful first chapter and they give up on the whole book. There are some wonderful ideas in it." Continue reading
"[The Editors of the Jewish Encounters series] wanted me to write a book, not on why people suffer, they wanted me to write about the Book of Job." Continue reading
Harold S. Kushner has spent the past three decades writing about human suffering. It's no surprise then, that he's learned a few things. Continue reading
Kushner talks with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about the very personal roots of this exploration, dating back to the 1970s, when his son Aaron was diagnosed with a rare and incurable disease (Aaron died in 1977, at age 14); about the depth and complexity of the Job verses; and about why he believes we must choose between an all-loving God and an all-powerful one. Continue reading
This book is a tremendous accomplishment. If you want to read one recent book about the Book of Job—this is the one. Harold Kushner smoothly condenses an extensive body of Job scholarship into an accessible book. Continue reading
HAROLD KUSHNER is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick. He is best known as the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and ten other books, many of them best-sellers. He has been … Continue reading