Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 16 March 2008

A Cold View of Heaven

When I was in the second year of my medical training, I took a course which had a segment on medical ethics and palliative care. One of our assignments was to choose a book dealing with death and dying from a sociological or religious point of view and to review it. The book I chose was Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

My review of the book was primarily a negative one and my thoughts on the subject haven't change all these many years later. The book is generally used within Conservatism to comfort people who have suffered a loss. It has also developed a certain popularity in other religious circles. One can see why, even from a look at the title of the book. When one has suffered a loss, there is a temptation to ask the question "Why me?" or "Why him/her?" There's nothing wrong with this and Jewish leaders all the way back to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, have tried to come up with an answer.

None of them have, which makes you wonder how Harold Kushner did.

He did so by essentially changing the rules. In a variation of Admiral James T Kirk's admission that he cheated while in Starfleet Academy so that he could pass an unwinnable test (see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Kushner changed the very nature of God to alow his thesis to work.

In short, we don't know why bad things happen to good people. We cannot understand why children get sick or, chas v'shalom, die. We can't understand why some people slave their entire lives for a few pennies and die in penury while cheats and scoundrels are rewarded with comfort and success. For Kusher, who suffered the tragic loss of his son to illness, it made him question God's very abilities to run the world. If God is good, how can bad things happen?

Now, in the authentic Jewish sources, such as the Ramchal and others, these concepts are explained to a degree with the understanding that all things, good and bad, emanate from God and have a role to play in this world. Kushner chose to see things more simplistically. If God is good, then He can only do good. If bad happens, then it's because God cannot do anything to stop it. He can provide silent comfort and a source of hope for tomorrow but in terms of general help, He's about as capable as a warm cup of tea.

In this, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is a very non-reassuring book. It presents the view of an impotent diety incapable of helping when times are tough. Forget Simon and Garfunkels' "like a bridge over trouble waters I will lay thee down". When bad times are close at, Kushner's god will watch silently but sympathetically from Heaven. For him, we really are all alone in our painful, random world.

Of course, if that's the case, then what's the point of observance? Kushner himself questioned this years ago when he declared at a JTS forum that Conservatism is not a halachic religion. After all, if his god cannot prevent bad things from happening, how powerful can he be to reward? And if all that happens is random anyway, what's the point of keeping any of the mitzvos? Better to look out for oneself than altruistically subject oneself to possible harm.

In the end, I can understand why non-religious groups have such admiration for the book. The same god who can't help you can't stop you from doing whatever you want and calling yourself a good Jew for it. What I don't understand is why people can't figure out why Torah obsrvant Jews have such a problem with it.

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