Eulogy for Rabbi Harold Kushner (z”l)

10 Iyyar 5783 — May 1, 2023

Delivered by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Vice Chancellor for Religious Life and Engagement at Rabbi Kushner’s Funeral

I want to begin with a most vivid memory I have from 36 years ago. In 1987, we were in the Tucson area, and hiking up to Thimble Peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains. On our ascent, in a completely unexpected coincidence, I spotted a hiker in the distance. He was on the descent, coming ever closer, and I quickly realized that it was Rabbi Harold Kushner. He, too, was out there not just for the exercise, but primarily for the experiential joy of the natural beauty of the desert hills, an exhilaration that showed on his face.

How did I know him way back then? Truthfully, I’m not at all certain just what our first meeting was, but it was no doubt in one of two settings, that is, Jewish Theological Seminary, or the Rabbinical Assembly, both of which institutions were especially dear to him.

I am here, of course, as a colleague—a younger, grateful colleague—who has learned much from Harold. But I am also able to represent JTS, from which he had three degrees. He was, of course an ordainee of the Rabbinical School, and he also earned his Doctor of Hebrew Literature degree there. But JTS’s Seminary College, as it was known then, was also a complement and companion to his undergraduate studies at Columbia University, and the Bachelor of Hebrew Literature degree was the first of his JTS degrees. He so cherished that undergraduate education under the Seminary faculty, that when the Seminary College became the Albert List College, Harold took on the role of Chair of the school’s Board of Overseers.

As for the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers will no doubt elaborate, and note the intellectual and financial contributions that he made with Suzette z”l to the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary that has educated and edified so many, to this day, even beyond the Conservative Movement.

These institutions are deeply grateful to him.

However it came to be that I first met Harold, I came to know him much more fully in just the way millions did, that is, via his writings. That began, of course with the enormous success of his 1981 best seller, which shared with the world the wisdom that he had derived from the tragedy of Aaron Zev z”l’s rare illness and early death. (And is it not ironic that Harold died on the eve of the Shabbat of Aharei Mot— which leads with the death of sons?) I remember well sitting with some of my own cousins in Chicago in the early 1980s, after a tragically young death of a beloved member of their family, and how the conversation very quickly turned to a recent book written by a rabbi that everyone there had read, and that had brought comfort to them.

Some years ago, I heard of an oral teaching by the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who noted that the Hebrew root נ.ח.מ has both the meaning of comfort (e.g. Genesis 37:35), and also the meaning of changing one’s thinking (e.g. I Samuel 15:11). And Soloveitchik’s point was that comfort often comes from being able to change perspective, and to move one’s thinking from such things as guilt, or from nihilistic thoughts, to the imperatives of love and empathy. And this change of perspective—this meaning of Nahem, was exactly what made “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” such a success.

More than that, however: it was not just written words that Harold offered. It was his actual presence that demonstrated his sincere caring to so many. My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Lester Bronstein related this memory to me, which came from his time as a young rabbinic assistant working in the Boston area. Les recalled that in the summer of 1981, friends of his wife and him lost their first child at birth. At the graveside, with the parents holding the heartbreakingly tiny casket, Harold offered the most measured, wise, and comforting words he had ever heard at a funeral. He said something like, “I know that you and I don’t believe that there’s any reason, rhyme, or punishment in this death. This isn’t ‘God’s will.’ God’s will is that we surround you with love and compassion, and pray that you two will find a way to affirm life as you always have.”

And they did. They stayed together and went on to experience the happiness of children subsequently born to them. And this brings me back to that hike in Arizona. Because seeing Harold there on the trail returning from the majestic peak was not just a lovely surprise. It showed Harold doing just what he counseled—enjoying life still, appreciating the wondrous beauties of the world, and being grateful for it all, even while he surely carried an enduring scar.

I can’t resist adding here a note about Harold’s generous sense of humor. When that same colleague invited Harold to speak at his synagogue, he made the mistake so many of us make, that is, forgetting that people have all sorts of conflicting obligations, and so 300 chairs were set out for the talk. A more than respectable crowd showed up, but the chairs were barely half filled. As an apology was being offered, Harold interrupted and said: “Les, you’ve got just the right number of people here. Your problem is you have too many chairs.”

Over the years, I would have some precious occasions to be with him in various programs and panels, and it was always a privilege and a learning experience to be in conversation with him on matters of theoretical and practical theology. So I want to add some theological reflections on Harold’s legacy.

The Kushner Torah on God and suffering was not entirely uncontroversial. How could it be, since it departed from so many conventional tropes? Even so, I should hasten to add that even his theological critics would readily express admiration of his humanity. Here’s literally what one such critic said: “you envy the congregation [this congregation!] that is led by a man of such spirituality, such moral passion, such lucid intellect, and such warmth and caring and kindness.” But the critiques came nevertheless, and several such reviewers put forward an objection that I feel compelled to answer on Harold’s behalf, because as persistent as it was, I believe it was always unfair to Harold and to the true meaning of what he thought and wrote. These theologians protested what they felt they were being offered: an image of an impaired God who was willing, but pathetically, was unable, to do away with all the evil in the world. A God who gets credit for all the warm, charitable gestures among people, but somehow gets none of the blame for the cruelties of humans and of nature.

I want to offer a response to such critiques, because I do not think that Harold believed in a “pathetically limited” God. And I have come to believe that the key to understanding this is in the Book of Job, the very biblical work that Harold was so deeply affected by.

God speaks to Job out of a storm, and famously misses completely the point of Job’s protest against the horrendous injustice that has been visited upon him. God only speaks of the awesome power of creation that God alone can unleash, but not at all of justice or fairness. As Carl Jung put it, Job asks for right, and God speaks of might. But it is not divine callousness that produces this non-response. It is rather because God is necessarily unable to understand Job’s complaint about suffering and injustice. And that, in turn, is because God is fundamentally different from us. God cannot understand suffering and the cry for justice not because God is limited in power but rather because God’s power is of a totally different nature. Since God cannot have the experience of pain or suffering, how is God to understand Job’s experience and the source of his cry for justice? It is not a pathetically limited deity that we worship, but rather a transcendent source of all that is created and all that unfolds in the world over time. And what unfolds from God’s creative power includes what was so crucially important for Harold, that is, the evolved moral sense that only we have and only we know, and that only we can control. When we faithfully live by those moral imperatives, we are engaging in the truest worship of the Creator. That, I have come to understand, was the Torah that Harold had learned and was teaching us.

Human evil will be with us. But so, inevitably, will be random horrors: tsunamis, asteroid strikes that extinguish species, and rare diseases that can extinguish lives. The answer to “what is God’s goodness?” is the manifestation of God’s power in the human being, which is the only place where moral goodness can reside. The gifts of moral sense and compassion can bring us meaning, even as we are forced to give up on the sincere, but misguided, quest for a theodicy.

I lament the reality that I did not have the opportunity to discuss these more recent thoughts with Harold. But I am as sure as I can be, as sure as I am standing here, that he would have said, “yes, of course that is what I’ve been teaching all along.”

Job loomed large for Harold, and he knew very well what happened after Job came to understand that God was simply unable to see the human truths about suffering. Job forgave his friends and made offerings for them. He prayed for them. And while we know him to have been smart enough never to have entirely given up mourning his losses, he was able to come to terms with life, and even enjoy what it brought him in his many later years. For that’s how the book finally ends, with a Job who was “old and sated with days.” As was Harold.

We say farewell today to a rabbi who exemplified what the Talmud says about תורה של חסד, a Torah of kindness and of love. It is תורה ללמדה, that is, Torah that is produced not only to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but to teach others how to live, and to live well.

Harold also knew what Second Isaiah had keenly observed — יבש חציר נבל ציץ — that grass must wither and flowers must fade, when the power of the winds of the world buffet them. Indeed, humans are so much like grass. But the prophet adds that דבר אלהינו יקום לעולם, the word of God endures forever. And so it is: Harold’s body had to give way to the forces of nature. But the divine wisdom that he helped to articulate in this world, that is his legacy, which need never reach its end.

One of Harold’s literary touchstones was Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. So it is fitting to end this appreciation of his life with the final words in that book, which as much as anything are Harold’s rightful epitaph:

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Moreinu ve-Rabbenu, Lekh Le-Shalom — our teacher and Rabbi, go now in peace.