God's World, Good People, and Bad Things: An Interview with Rabi Harold Kushner

Rabbi Harold Kushner
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Sep/Oct 2002

MR: Most serious thinkers recognize that, before we begin using terms like “good” and “bad,” we need to know what we mean by them. What do you mean by them? Is there a universal, transcendent law or standard of some sort by which good and bad are to be measured?

RHK: At the very foundation of my religious faith is the conviction that God has built into the universe standards of good and evil as fixed as the laws of gravity and chemical reactions. Some of them (murder, harming children) we intuitively recognize as wrong, and others (courage, helpfulness) as intuitively right. Others, we have struggled to discern God’s will. For a long time, cheating was seen as an admirable form of cleverness; it later became disreputable. One hundred fifty years ago, decent people debated the legitimacy of slavery; a hundred years ago, the propriety of extending the right to vote to women. Today we are struggling with the moral acceptability of abortion, homosexuality, and nuclear war. But I believe that with time and effort, we will discern God’s will on these matters as we did on the earlier ones, and our grandchildren will wonder about us, as we do about people of the nineteenth century, why we found the issue so hard.

MR: What do you think are the “bad things” that good people must wrestle with in their lives?

RHK: Some bad things are the result of other people’s meanness, selfishness, or thoughtlessness. Others are the result of biology. Some people are born susceptible to illness; others are born without the physical or intellectual gifts that would enable them to lead fulfilling lives. Still others have the bad luck to be born into a family ill-equipped to raise them, or into a time and place of war. As a result, they experience barriers to fulfillment not of their own making. A teacher of mine at seminary used to say “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are an honest person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.”

MR: Aren’t there circumstances in which something that appears to be bad, even evil, is actually the means for a greater good? For instance, it seems that the story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery is related by Joseph, later on in life (Gen. 50), as the means to a blessing-both for his family and for the nation of Egypt. Should cases like this affect the way we understand the events and circumstances of our own lives?

RHK: The story of Joseph and his brothers, as I understand it, carries a profoundly important theological message. When Joseph, as vice-regent of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and says to them, “You intended to do me harm but God turned it into something good, to save many lives,” I don’t understand him to be saying that being sold into slavery was part of an elaborate plan on God’s part. I hear him saying “God could not prevent you from doing something mean and vicious. But God guided me to turn that act of evil into something redemptive.” In the same way, I don’t believe that God wanted my son to be born with an incurable illness, not to punish him, not to punish me, not to inspire me to write a book that would comfort millions, a book I would otherwise not have been qualified to write. But God did for me what he did for Joseph. He led me to turn that personal tragedy into something redemptive that would bless the lives of many people.

MR: Your books seem to regard it as settled that human beings are basically good. But should that be taken for granted, especially after 9/11?

RHK: I am not sure that people are basically good, but I believe that virtually all people are born capable of goodness. Some have that capability realized; others find their lives distorting them so that they never become the good people they might have been. I believe that there are a few psychopaths among us, but fewer than most people would guess. I believe that most of the bad things that are done in the world are done by good people who are frightened, angry, lazy, or misled by evil teachers. Specifically to the events of 9/11, I hold those who planned the attacks to be evil because they chose to celebrate death instead of life (“evil” is “live” spelled backwards; it is the rejection of the value of life and the celebration of death, as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, and serial killers have done). But the people who carried out the attacks may not have been evil. They may have been ordinary people who, had they been wiser in their selection of teachers to follow, might have been capable of goodness.

MR: How do you square your view of God, who-like the rest of us-is somewhat hamstrung by circumstances, with the portrait of God in the Bible as an almighty Creator controlling the circumstances of his creation?

RHK: I believe that, in the beginning, God could have kept total control of the world and everything that happened in it, but chose not to, leaving human beings free, as no other creatures are free, to choose between good and evil. Only in that way would goodness be possible. If we did not have a choice, if we were “programmed” to do good, it would be necessary, but it would not be good. It may be that God loves goodness more than he loves perfection and, at great risk to his creatures and his creation, fashioned us free to choose. I also believe that God, at the outset, determined not to interfere with the workings of Nature, no matter how much harm befell the innocent as a result. Does this diminish the greatness of God? Interestingly, in the past few years, two books appeared independently of each other, one by Jack Miles, and the other by Richard Friedman, both making the same point. In the beginning of the Bible, God is in charge of everything that happens. But gradually, God recedes and leaves more of the stage to human actors, so that in the time of the prophets, God pleads and warns more than he controls events, and by the time we reach the time of the Book of Esther, God goes entirely unmentioned. For my part, if I must choose between an all-powerful God who is not kind and fair, who could have prevented the Holocaust or the birth of the deformed child and chose not to, or else a kind and fair God who is awesomely powerful but not omnipotent, I choose to affirm God’s goodness even at the expense of his power. Maybe in a medieval world where the emperor had power over the life and death of his citizens, one had to affirm that God was at least as powerful as the emperor. Today, I find it more desirable to worship goodness than to celebrate power.

MR: Does human history have a purpose or a point? Is God in control, and is he bringing time and space to some final consummation? Does how we answer that question have any effect on someone’s perception of meaning, purpose, and justice in this life?

RHK: One of the great and original ideas of the Hebrew Bible is that time is not cyclical but is heading toward an ultimate goal, and that the end of the story has not been written but is waiting for us to write it. The challenge to every human being is to move the world in some small way in the direction of that goal. The person who can look back at his or her life and see where he or she has made the world a little bit more like the world God had in mind when he fashioned it, can deem his or her life a success.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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