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Obituary

Rabbi Harold Kushner, 88, author of ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’

The leader for 24 years at Temple Israel in Massachusetts addressed major philosophical questions in his writings.

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his office on Jan. 5, 2021. Credit: Cult of Maximilian via Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his office on Jan. 5, 2021. Credit: Cult of Maximilian via Wikimedia Commons.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, bestselling author and rabbi of 24 years at the Conservative Temple Israel Natick, Mass., where he earned the title rabbi laureate, died on April 27. He was 88 years old.

“He was a giant for our family, and an incredibly dedicated father and grandfather who can be counted on for everything. We are gratified to know so many people are grieving with us,” his daughter, Ariel Kushner Haber, told NPR.

In 1977, Kushner’s son Aaron died at age 14 from the degenerative disease progeria—sometimes called “Benjamin Button” disease after the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—that aged his body rapidly and prematurely.

Four years later, Kushner wrote the bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which continues to inspire people of all faiths.

In it, he posed the question of whether God was all-powerful but unkind, insofar as bad things happened to good people. Or, perhaps, God was good but not all-powerful.

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his office on Jan. 5, 2021. Credit: Cult Of Maximilian via Wikimedia Commons.

“The theological conclusion I came to is that God could have been all-powerful at the beginning, but He chose to designate two areas of life off limits to His power,” Kushner told NPR. “He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature; and secondly, God would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.”

To Kushner, God was at the side of, rather than aloof from, mourners in their grief. In 2012, he wrote another volume on the subject: The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, among many other writings.

Kushner was born in 1935 in Brooklyn, N.Y. After realizing that he lacked his father’s business judgment, he chose a different path. He studied at Columbia University and earned his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1960. He earned a doctorate in Bible from the flagship Conservative Jewish school in 1972.

He also studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, taught at Clark University and JTS’s rabbinical school, and received six honorary doctorates, according to a profile on the Temple Israel website.

Kushner was also a chaplain at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and an assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y.

David Wolpe, rabbi of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, called Kushner “a wonderful man, an exemplary rabbi, and one whose writings helped millions deal with pain and loss.”

The Jewish Book Council added that Kushner was “an inspirational figure” whose “powerful books and his words continue to resonate with us.”

“Rabbi Harold Kushner, my teacher, colleague and friend, will be buried, but his Torah will continue to inspire, challenge and comfort people for many years to come,” added Baruch Frydman-Kohl, rabbi emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Toronto.

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