God, Prayers and Keeping the Faith

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s son, Aaron, died two days before he turned 14 following a battle with a rare and horrific childhood disease. The experience led the 68-year-old Massachusetts rabbi to write, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a comforting and deeply insightful book on the nature of tragedy and evil. Kushner’s latest book is “The Lord is My Shepherd: Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm.” While in Los Angeles last week, he spoke with Rabbi Naomi Levy, author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle and Celebration” (Knopf, 2002), about the nature of God, the purpose of prayer, and the power of the synagogue on the High Holidays.

Naomi Levy: It seems that people are so much more interested in a relationship with a personal God today.

Harold Kushner: There are a lot of people who wish I had written a book saying, “God is in charge of the world, and everything that happens is for a good reason, and it will all work out in the end, and God is there to provide happy endings.” I wish I lived in that world. I wish I lived in a world where children would be healthy, and good people got what they deserved, and bad people would somehow get in a traffic accident on the way to commit a crime and never get there. I happen not to. And I can either hide from the reality, or I can deny God’s goodness, or I can do what I’ve done. And that is to say that God is not there to control, God is there to comfort.

NL: I’m thinking of words in the 23rd Psalm: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.” Yesterday, I went to visit a young woman in the hospital who is dying. She believes in God and knowing that God is with her is a comfort. My presence and my prayers for her were also a comfort. But ultimately she’s dying and there’s no comfort in it.

HK: You’re right. That’s the shadow of death. We are unsettled about the fact of mortality. I’m sorry, but it’s a fact. What my pastoral experience has told me is that people can accept mortality. It’s partly the pain of dying that they’re afraid of, the process of dying. And partly the real fear, I think, is not just that they won’t live forever. I think people are concerned about, and this is what I finally realized what the book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], is not that he’s going to die, but that death will nullify everything that his life has been. And so the reassurance for people who are intimidated by the valley of the shadow of death is to reassure them that their life means something.

NL: When you’re that young and you’re dying, there’s also a sense of being cheated.

HK: Absolutely. That’s one of the only consolations that you can give those people is that they’ve had an impact. I had to talk to my 13-year-old son about the fact that he wouldn’t live very long after that, and he felt terribly cheated. The only thing I could say to him, and it was around the time of his bar mitzvah is that, “Yeah it’s a rotten deal,” and it’s not anything he deserves. But the fact is that a lot of people live a whole lot longer than 14 years and don’t change other people’s lives the way he did. And that was even before I wrote this book about what his life and death has taught me.

NL: Why do you think the 23rd Psalm has been such a comfort to so many?

HK: One of the reasons we recite the 23rd Psalm at a bedside and the reasons it’s comforting is it says, there’s a whole lot of suffering and unfairness in the world, but I can handle it because God is with me and not on the side of the malignant tumor and not on the side of the criminal and not on the side of the accident. So that the woman who’s dying of cancer doesn’t have to feel that God has condemned her to this death, but that nature, mortality, human frailty, power lines, chemicals, genetics, has caused her to die young and God is there to ease the pain. To invest her all-too-brief life with meaning. To give her loved ones whom she leaves behind immense resilience to mourn for her and get over it and find their way through the valley of the shadow into the sunshine again.

NL: Do you think Christians and Jews respond differently to the 23rd Psalm?

HK: You know what the biggest difference I found is? Jews are surprised to find out it’s a Jewish prayer. Maybe some Christians see it differently in terms of a promise of the world to come more than Jews do. But I think in terms of its comfort it’s the same for all people.

NL: Yet prayer seems so difficult for so many Jews, for those who are not involved in Jewish life and even for the Jews who go to synagogue every week.

HK: I think you’re right to separate out the problem for the Jews who pray regularly from the Jews who don’t. For those who aren’t familiar with the service, I think the answer is obvious. They don’t know what the heck is going on. It’s like going to a football game if you don’t understand football…. A non-Jewish friend of mine asked me recently: What do Jews pray for? And I said I don’t think Jews really pray for. I think Jews pray to and I think Jews pray with. I think a lot of what goes on at a service is davening the liturgy without paying close attention to the meaning of the words, because I think there’s a difference between the meaning of the words and the meaning of the prayer. The emotional impact of the “Mourner’s Kaddish” has nothing to do with what the words are. I think part of the difficulty is that Jews haven’t quite figured out what they believe about God. It’s very hard to make sense of prayer unless you know what you believe about God.

The other part of the difficulty is that we have excessively bought into the Christian perception of prayer as begging. And either we’re not comfortable doing that or we have reason to believe it doesn’t work. Prayer is congregating. Prayer is affirming. Prayer is gratitude. If we understood that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, I think it would be a lot easier for us to pray. I go to shul not because there’s something I need to tell God, I go to shul because I want to be with other Jews who are in shul. And one of the ways I achieve that is by reciting the same liturgy in unison, whether or not I subscribe to the literal meaning of the words.

NL: What I see outside of shul are many Jews who have a deep need for prayer who find themselves at the Zen center or at the local church precisely because they don’t find shul to be a meaningful spiritual experience.

HK: I can’t tell you how many Shabbats I do not find shul to be a meaningful spiritual experience. When you go to a bar mitzvah and half the congregation doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t care, it’s very hard to get that sense of tzibbur [community], and I think that’s one of the things we go to shul for. I think the purpose of the congregational service is to become part of a congregation. The need for personal prayer, a relationship to a personal God, I think that’s something you either do at home alone or you do in shul when you tune out from the liturgy.

NL: In your book you say that the line in the 23rd Psalm: “He leads me along straight paths” is actually an incorrect translation of the Hebrew. And that the proper meaning of the Hebrew is that God leads us along circuitous paths that turn out to be straight in the end. Are you saying that God leads along circuitous paths, and then that we’ll look back and we’ll realize that it all made sense?

HK: I’m saying two things. One, it’s possible the psalmist believes that’s what God does. Secondly, I think God’s role is that when our life become tortuous, which of course means twisted, God will sometimes intervene to show us the way through. For example, a woman is dumped by her husband for a younger woman, and she feels terribly rejected. I cannot believe that God puppeteered this to teach her a lesson or to cause her to grow spiritually, or to make sure she ends up with the right guy. I think it happened because her husband was selfish and inconsiderate. God’s role, I think, is to give her the strength of character not to let that event define her as an unlovable, rejected woman, but to make her the kind of person who will be able to love again and ultimately to find someone to share her life with. God is not stage managing the whole problem the way a scriptwriter does.

NL: You don’t read divine intention into the path that our lives take?

HK: No, I don’t. Because, you see, that would force me to say that God wanted my son to die a horrible death so that I would write a book.

NL: This book is also a book of comfort, with, it seems, something important to say as we enter Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

HK: I think there are two messages. One is, with every scary thing that’s going on in the world the message of the psalm is don’t be afraid. Not because this will be a year of good news. Don’t be afraid because whatever happens you’ll be able to handle it. Did you know the mitzvah most commonly repeated in the Torah is, “Don’t be afraid?” I think that’s what the psalm comes to tell us. Secondly, when at the High Holidays, at Yizkor time or at any other time, even though the shul is so crowded, we are painfully aware of the empty seats, the people who once shared the holidays with us [who] are no longer there. I think God’s message is that there’s a sense in which they are still there. Death can take them out of our future, but not out of our past.

What God calls on us to do if we’re still grieving for them is to find our way through the valley of the shadow back into the sunlight again. And I think the question is: “What can God do to help me in an uncertain and scary world?” The answer I find is God can’t guarantee happy endings. God guarantees that He’ll be there to help you.