The cry of ‘Why?’

Through a study of the Book of Job, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner revisits the theme of why bad things happen to good people, providing a fresh approach and drawing a new conclusion.

Job painting 370 (photo credit: wikimedia commons)
Job painting 370
(photo credit: wikimedia commons)
There are two surprising aspects to Harold S. Kushner’s The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person.
The first surprise is what it isn’t: This is not a self-help manual to be read when you feel life (or God) is treating you badly. Kushner has produced an intellectual rather than an emotional piece of writing.
The second twist is the conclusion. This well-researched study reflects the personal intellectual development of the author, whose name will be forever linked with his seminal When Bad Things Happen to Good People, published in 1981 following the death of his 14- year-old son. Whereas in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he described a “limited” God, in The Book of Job, Kushner presents the argument for a “self-limiting” Divine Being.
Early on, Kushner notes that one of the things that defines human beings as opposed to other living creatures is the need to search for meaning, “to understand the world in terms of cause and effect.” We want to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” he says.
This is one reason the biblical Book of Job is such a difficult read. To this day Job’s suffering as the tragedies hit him one after another is considered the epitome of horror, and the single-word question “Why?” echoes in the mind of the modern reader as much in that of the biblical protagonist as he wrestles with questions of faith.
Kushner engages the reader from the start when he notes that the Book of Job is divided into two distinct units: the “Fable of Job,” found in Chapters 1 and 2, and the later, much more complicated “Poem of Job,” in which the eponymous hero challenges God.
“From time to time, a novel or screenplay will be described as ‘a modern version of the book of Job,’” writes Kushner, “when it tells of an innocent person suffering, but the profundity of the biblical book, once we get past the Fable, will be lacking.”
Among the differences between the two sections is that the fable is a simple story written in prose, whereas the poem is written in rich and often obscure language.
In addition, as Kushner points out, “in the Fable, Job is a character; in the Poem, he is the most prominent speaker.
But the most important difference is that, in the Fable, Job is never tempted to cry out or express anger towards God. He tells his wife, ‘Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?’ (2:10), whereas the first thing that Job does in the Poem is to curse the unfairness of his fate.”
Kushner is clearly captivated by his subject, not just as a bereaved father or as a spiritual adviser, but as a man of words: “The Poem of Job is one of the most sublime creations in all of biblical literature – in fact, in all of literature,” he enthuses.
“Once you get past the first two chapters, the book of Job is perhaps the most challenging book to understand in all the Bible,” he says. “It is probably impossible to understand it fully. But it is worth the effort.”
Kushner’s book, too, is not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one.
WHEN I suffered a devastating pregnancy loss many years ago, after several rounds of fertility treatment, a friend asked me if I hadn’t lost faith in God.
My answer was that I was more convinced than ever in His existence, but I was angry with Him.
A similar message can be found in Kushner’s book: “Being angry at someone who matters to us – a parent, a lover, even God – need not shatter a relationship. Anger can be a part of an honest relationship. Ultimately I would like to think that we will come to realize that God is on our side, and not on the side of misfortune. But in the meantime, echoing Job 6:10, I will insist that a God worth worshipping is a God who prefers honest anger to flattery.”
Job the person is not Jewish, as Kushner points out, “but Job the book is a thoroughly Jewish book.”
It is a book that tries to reconcile suffering with justice. Israel (literally, “the God-wrestler”) has always struggled in this way.
“Let me suggest that at the core of Jewish God-talk is the unshakable conviction that God’s most dominant attribute is his commitment to justice rather than power,” writes Kushner.
“Earthly kings lust for power, for total control, and are prepared to sacrifice justice, to hurt innocent people to hold on to power. But as far as the God of Israel is concerned, in a conflict between justice and power, justice will prevail. God will not do wrong. That more than anything gives Job reason to hope.”
Kushner’s thinking, some 30 years after he tried to come to terms with the loss of his child, has evolved. Instead of thinking of God as limited, he writes, “I would speak of Him as self-limiting, along the lines of [16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac] Luria’s tzimtzum, God withdrawing from some area of existence to leave room for humans to be humans.”
Kushner, like Job, finds God in the shadows, in times of sorrow – he finds Him in the “miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections.”
God, in Kushner’s opinion, is found in the miracle of surviving tragedy.
Nonetheless, as human beings, we still seek to understand it. That’s where a book like this can help.