When Bad Things Happen To Good People

When Bad Things Happen To Good People
More than four decades ago, we lived in the Boston area while I served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. On many Saturdays, I tuned in to an early morning radio program that brought together a Christian clergyman, a Jewish ordained rabbi and occasionally a Muslim religious scholar. It was not a contentious theological forum, and importantly, the discussion was not designed to seek conversion of the listeners to any particular faith. The participants mostly addressed ecclesiastical issues relevant to the time, and opposing views were expressed in a friendly, cultured manner.

I was especially impressed by the articulation and expositions of Rabbi Harold Kushner, pastor of a small Jewish synagogue in Nantucket, a town near Boston, who was a regular attendee. Sadly, he passed away on 28 April at age 88, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some years. His death was prominently reported by major newspapers around the world, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian, showcasing the influence he had exercised on millions of lives. From a small-town rabbi, he had risen spectacularly during his lifetime to become an internationally recognised bestselling author. He wrote more than a dozen books, all aimed at uplifting the spirits and alleviating the anguish and sufferings of those going through rough times.

When I followed the weekly discussion of Rabbi Kushner in Boston, he had not yet authored any books, nor had he attained any recognition. His weekly discourse occasionally betrayed some disguised sadness. Few of his audiences were privy to the fact that he was going through a personal misfortune. His only son Aaron was born with a fatal, incurable genetic disease, known as progeria. It is a rare disease that afflicts one in four million children, and is characterised by baldness, wrinkly skin and stiff joints. The patients characteristically age at an accelerated rate and die young. The disease is not inherited, and although its genetic basis is now known, there is no cure.

Aaron was diagnosed with this disease when he was only three. When he was ten years old, weighing only 25 pounds and standing three feet tall, his body and physiology functioned as if he was in his sixties, The parents were told that their son would not have a normal life, and most likely would not live past his teenage years. Indeed, he died two days after his 14th birthday, a traumatic event for the parents. Towards the end of his life, Aaron was concerned, according to his father, that he would soon be forgotten as he had not lived long enough to achieve anything. But the father promised him that he would tell his story.

The son’s diagnosis and slow death shook up Kushner’s religious beliefs that had been anchored in the certitude of a just and compassionate God. The Washington Post quoted him as saying “What I felt was a deep, aching sense of unfairness. I had been a good person, and always tried to do what was right, so how could this be happening to my family.” The rabbi is not alone in his nagging doubts. The issue has troubled the minds of religious scholars, illustrious jurists and ordinary mortals for millennia with no easy answers. When we lose a dear relation or close friend, the resulting grief and bereavement prompts many of us to seek solace in religion and the friends around us. Jews have been questioning their faith and asking why God did not intervene to save the six million innocent people when they were annihilated by Hitler during the holocaust.

Kushner was often called upon as priest to provide comfort to those who came to seek his help and guidance at the time of suffering. He studied scholarly texts and opinions of ancient sages of all religions to try to learn from them and draw upon their wisdoms. As an ordained priest and a grieving father, Kushner himself gave a lot of thought to this vexing question as traditional answers did not satisfy him. In 1981, he developed an ingenious explanation to reconcile the contradictory convictions that a merciful and infinitely benevolent God allows injustices and cruelties to prevail. Finally, Kushner developed his own theory, compiled and recorded it in a book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He hoped to offer some explanation of the predicament which he and countless others faced.

Writing the book, he thought, was challenging; however, publishing it in 2004 was much worse. Kushner showed the manuscript to several publishers, but none exhibited any interest. He was a new author and untested, and the venture was risky. One small publisher in New York, however, agreed to do so. The book turned out to be a spectacular success and soon climbed to the New York Times’ best seller list, selling more than four million copies, and was translated into a dozen languages around the world. Years after its publication, Rabbi Kushner remarked about his motivation “he had written the book to redeem my son’s death from meaninglessness.”

In the introduction to his book, he noted “This is a very personal book, written by someone who believes in God and in the goodness of the world, someone who has spent most of his life trying to help other people believe, and was compelled by personal tragedy to rethink everything he had been taught about God and God’s ways.”

No, God does not inflict misfortunes and calamities on humankind. Kushner advances the thesis that God is omnipotent but has chosen of His own volition not to interfere in the workings of the laws of nature. They normally proceed unhindered--fire will burn, and water will drown unless something is done to stop them. And, ultimately, we all shall die. Second, Kushner argues that God has granted humans the freedom to make the choice between good and evil. Otherwise, there would be no justification for the doctrine of rewards and punishments. Kushner became such a successful writer and grief counselor that he gave up his job as a Rabbi at his synagogue to engage fulltime in writing.

Not everyone agrees with Kushner’s ideas as the religious leaders belonging to Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity openly opposed his thesis which in their opinion questioned God’s omnipotence. Kushner did not expect universal acceptance of his hypothesis in the first place. Regardless of the opposition, his books continue to be popular and widely read and have helped people of all faiths in times of grief. Alas, in recent years, the author-- suffering from dementia--was not even aware of all the good his writings were doing to fellow humans and will continue to do even though he has now departed from this earth. At the end of his book, Rabbi Harold Kushner paid tribute to his son, “I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realise how much I have lost and how much I have gained. Yesterday, seems less painful, and I am not afraid of tomorrow.”