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Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of 'When Bad Things Happen to Good People,' dies at 88

Rabbi Harold Kushner, seen here on July 10, 2008, had a way with words that resonated with readers across the world and across religions.
Ariel Kushner Haber
Rabbi Harold Kushner, seen here on July 10, 2008, had a way with words that resonated with readers across the world and across religions.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who never strayed from answering life's most vexing questions about loss, goodness and God, and by doing so, brought comfort to people across the world, died on Friday while in hospice care in Canton, Mass. He was 88.

"He was a giant for our family and an incredibly dedicated father and grandfather who can be counted on for everything. We are gratified to know so many people are grieving with us," Kushner's daughter, Ariel Kushner Haber, told NPR.

Kushner's funeral will be held Monday at Temple Israel of Natick in Natick, Mass., where he served as a congregational rabbi for 24 years.

Kushner was born and raised in a predominately Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. He studied at Columbia University and later obtained his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1960.

The author of 14 books, Kushner is perhaps best known for his title, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which he wrote after losing his first-born child.

The tragedy propelled grief-stricken Kushner to look to the Bible to boldly confront issues of suffering, fairness and the role of an omnipotent God — a task that many have ventured to explain but very few have answered as effectively and gracefully as him.

"God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God's goodness," Kushner wrote.

The book, published over four decades ago, provided a message that readers throughout the generations needed to hear: that God's love is unlimited and that God's ultimate plan is that people will live fully, bravely and meaningfully in a less-than perfect world.

Kushner's writings resonated with readers across religions

Kushner's other works similarly tackled life's most difficult questions about goodness, failure and purpose. Though they were largely informed by a Jewish theology, his writing resonated with readers across religions.

After the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Kushner's meditationon Psalm 23 became a best-seller, offering guidance on how to find faith and courage in the midst of unbearable tragedy.

"Much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us. But we can always control how we respond to what happens to us," he wrote. "If we cannot choose to be lucky, to be talented, to be loved, we can choose to be grateful, to be content with who we are and what we have, and to act accordingly."

In an interviewwith NPR's Renee Montagne in 2010, Kushner admitted he felt conflicted that When Bad Things Happen to Good People continues to draw new readers.

"I feel just a little bit conflicted about the fact that it continues to resonate, because it means there are more people confronting new problems of suffering," he said. "There's always a fresh supply of grieving people asking, 'Where was God when I needed him most?' "

When asked whether his relationship with God has evolved with age, Kushner, who was 74 at the time, said no.

"My sense is, God and I came to an accommodation with each other a couple of decades ago, where he's gotten used to the things I'm not capable of, and I've come to terms with things he's not capable of," he said. "And we still care very much about each other."

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.