Rabbi offers practical advice for coping with real world issues

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

Harold S. Kushner, the 75-year-old rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Mass., was an army chaplain and, in the several decades following, a Conservative synagogue rabbi. Meanwhile, he earned an international reputation as an author, especially for his 1981 best seller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The list of Kushner’s published works-offering useful wisdom, rooted in a contemporary, Jewish, world view-adds up to an even dozen with his latest book, “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World” (Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95).

“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” was written in the wake of a personal tragedy, the death of a 14-year old son due to a rare, congenital disease which turns “a three-year old boy…into an old man with arthritis and heart disease.” Kushner ascribes that book’s popularity to something also true of his latest book. “It doesn’t explain, it comforts…People want less theology and more religion.” Writing for The New York Times, Gustav Niebuhr echoed Kushner by describing him as “a public theologian of a most practical sort, discussing questions…that vex people in the pews.” 

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Kushner begins “Conquering Fear” by humorously proposing an Eleventh Commandment: Don’t be afraid. This might be the gold nugget of the whole book bringing our attention to the idea that fear-which “shrinks people’s souls” and “drains joy” from people’s lives-is often a choice.

As another preliminary, Kushner addresses the concept of natural catastrophe (including human illness) as a tool for divine punishment. In the author’s view: God is not in the hurricane, nor in the disease that blights an innocent child’s life. “God is in the response”-in the capacity to ease others’ suffering or to cope with our own pain.

This allusion to God’s powers raises the question: is there any purpose to prayer? Kushner reproaches people for petitioning God as if he were “Santa Claus.” He notes with fervency: It is not God, but doctors who perform medical miracles; prayer is not for making sick people well; it is to make them “brave”; the reason to pray is to bring “God’s presence” into our lives.

The author continues with counsel informed by personal incidents and rabbinical experience comforting and counseling hundreds of people in crisis. He uses informal everyday language with references to Torah, Talmud, current events, and popular media-“Defending Your Life” (a movie with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep); an article in the science section of The New York Times and other inspirational books.

Chapter-by-chapter, Kushner affirms our capacity to assume power over our lives with thoroughly practical advice. About rejection by employers or lovers, he says: Don’t assume that no one will ever hire you or love you; consider that the potential employer or unenthusiastic heartthrob sees something that might eventually become ruinous for THAT job or relationship. About change: Are you afraid of change? Be more afraid of being unable to change. About terrorism: The target is those who will witness acts of terror and change their behavior; the best response to terrorism is to go on with our lives. 

Despite Kushner’s general acclaim, Orthodox Judaism is not happy to acknowledge him as one of its own. (Kushner jokes that his ideas hold more sway among Mormons.) For at least some traditionalists, Kushner’s deity is wrongly conceived and confused with humans who have limited control. A traditional Jew is more likely to understand God as infinitely powerful and to see suffering as God’s will in an invisible, greater plan. 

Meanwhile, in Kushner’s view, suffering is inevitable in a world that God created, but which operates by nature’s internal laws, without random, divine interventions.  Although, Kushner does not favor esoteric discussion. He is adamant: Religion should not be about “word games we learn in philosophy class”; religion should be about helping people to live satisfying and productive lives. 

“Conquering Fear” is rich with real world ideas for coping with real world problems without challenging us to believe in a Higher Power that operates perfectly, but in an invisible dimension. Rather this slim volume urges us to see the good will in others and ourselves as an expression of “God’s language.”

Kushner urges us to live ethically, but is never moralistic. And he inspires us as an ongoing spiritual practice to consciously and deliberately adopt perspectives that motivate us to live kindly and well during this, our-one-and-only life.

Rabbi Harold Kushner

WHO: Author of “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28

HOW MUCH: $18 (free with Series Plus ticket)