Author Archives: Rabbi Harold Kushner

Rabbi Harold Kushner

About Rabbi Harold Kushner

Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts. He is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Praying in Hebrew

Reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown & Co.)

Praying in Hebrew, reciting words that are familiar but untranslatable, helps reinforce the sense of prayer’s being an emotional-aesthetic experience rather than a rational-intellectual one. A friend of mine suggests that the Hebrew words function as a kind of mantra. They provide our rational side with something to keep it busy so that the nonrational part of us, usually repressed and kept in check by custom and society, can take off and soar. It permits us to do something that doesn’t make sense, to fly off in search of God, without our left brain’s being embarrassed by it and making us feel self-conscious.

hebrew prayer bookThe other advantage of praying in Hebrew without understanding it is that it spares you from the temptation to argue with the prayer book. My aphorism is, “Liturgy unites, theology divides.”

When a hundred Jews are chanting a prayer in Hebrew, they are welded into a single congregation. When, instead of chanting the Hebrew, they contemplate the English translation (usually offered on the facing page of the Hebrew prayer book), that unity is lost as every. one of them begins to challenge and analyze what he has just been saying.

That is why congregations get so upset when the cantor introduces a new melody for a familiar prayer. It is not the meaning of the words that matters to us; it is the emotional-aesthetic, right-brain experience we crave.

Torah Study as Worship

Reprinted with permission from To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown and Co.)

Jewish prayer is not a matter of informing God as to what we believe and what we need, but of seeking His presence and being transformed by it. We don’t ask God to change the world to make it easier for us. We ask Him only to assure us that He will be with us as we try to do something hard.

Jews worship God through study. The central moments of a Sabbath morning service are dedicated to reading aloud not merely a brief passage from the Bible but several chapters of the Torah, so that in the course of the year, the entire Five Books of Moses will have been studied aloud [or, in some communities, over a three-year cycle].

In the autumn, on Simchat Torah after the High Holy Days, we begin “In the beginning,” with the Creation story, and week by week, chapter by chapter, omitting nothing (who are we to pass judgment on God’s word, deciding that the story of Joseph and his brothers is edifying but the laws about leprosy and menstrual flow are not?), we come to the end of Deuteronomy just as we are running out of year and preparing for the Holy Day season again. At that point, we are ready to start all over again, finding new insights in the Torah, not because it has changed but because we have.

Why this emphasis on study? One of my seminary professors used to say, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, I keep quiet and let God speak to me.” If worship is the effort to connect with God, Judaism affirms that we don’t have to do all the work ourselves. God is prepared to meet us halfway. By immersing ourselves in Torah, we transport ourselves back to Sinai, to the presence of God. Some people have used fasting, drugs, or forms of self-hypnosis to summon up the presence of God. We have never had to resort to those measures. Like the wife whose husband is away on a business trip and who conquers her loneliness by rereading his letters, we turn to the Torah and feel God’s presence.

Synagogues Instead of Cathedrals

While visitors to some of the larger, more decorative European synagogues–most dating from the 19th century, such as the Spanish-style synagogue in Prague or the Dohany Street synagogue in Budapest–may quibble with the author’s assertion that none is a “masterpiece,” it is true that none rivals Europe’s large cathedrals in size or ornamentation. This passage is reprinted with permission from
To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking
, published by Little, Brown & Company. Washington Cathedral

For most of our history, we Jews have been a single people scattered over many geographical locations. Not since biblical times have most Jews been concentrated in the same country. Moreover, changing political fortunes and persistent antisemitism frequently forced us to migrate from a land we had lived in for generations and find ourselves a new home. Though we were always loyal and devoted citizens of the countries we lived in, we learned not to invest too much in the assumption that we would go on living there indefinitely. As a result, even when Jewish communities were. prosperous, our synagogues were comfortable but modest structures.

When you travel through England, France, and Germany, you marvel at the magnificent Christian cathedrals that brought people together to worship. There are no architectural masterpieces among the surviving synagogues of Europe. Instead, we created our cathedrals in time rather than space, in mood rather than stone. Instead of shaping granite, we learned to shape days into forms that would bring people together in reverence. The holiness of time was more portable and more democratically accessible than the holiness of space. When we wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of God, we did it not by going to a special place (even Jerusalem did not play this role in the Middle Ages, when travel was difficult and dangerous), but by giving the day a special shape and flavor. The best example of this is the Sabbath.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

The following article, excerpted from Kushner’s bestseller, is a response to suffering which assumes that God is not the immediate cause of tragedy. It should be noted, however, that this is the theological solution of this particular thinker, and indeed, is probably contrary to traditional covenantal theology, which assumes that suffering is inflicted on the Jewish people because of their sins. Reprinted with permission from When Bad Things Happen to Good People, published by Schocken Books.

Suffering is Not Punishment from a Cruel God

I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom.

when bad things happen to good peopleI no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.

Some years ago, when the “death of God” theology was a fad, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read “My God is not dead; sorry about yours.” I guess my bumper sticker reads “My God is not cruel; sorry about yours.”

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.

A Sense of Meaning Makes Pain More Bearable

Some Meanings of Brit Milah

Reprinted with permission from To Life! (Little, Brown and Company).  All rights reserved.

Jewish weddings are recognizably similar to non-­Jewish wedding ceremonies, and our non-Jewish neighbors have religious traditions–confirmation, first communion–analogous to the Bar Mitzvah, to celebrate their children’s coming of age religiously. But I know of nothing in any religious tradition to compare to a bris, the ritual circumcision of a newborn Jewish boy.


Circumcision involves the surgical removal of the foreskin from the male sex organ. In a world where most religious rituals consist of words and gestures, a world in which explicit references to sexual organs, let alone involvement of sexual organs in religious ritual, is rare, circumcision is certainly unique. It is an ancient ceremony, one that retains its power to move us even as it makes us anxious and uncomfortable…

Often, people will feel squeamish, avert their eyes, even leave the room during the brief ceremony, returning for the festive meal (is there ever a Jewish gathering without one?) a few moments later. Tech­nically, a bris ceremony is not required to make the child Jewish (unlike, say, an infant baptism). The exception is the case where the child’s mother is not Jewish and the circumcision is for purposes of con­verting the infant to Judaism. Yet, over the centuries, Jews have risked humiliation and danger to fulfill this commandment.

baby boy and fatherWhat is this rite so different from anything else we do in our Judeo-Christian society? Like other Jewish rites, it does not change things; it celebrates them. In this case, what is being celebrated is the continuity of Jewish identity, passed on from father to son. At the bris, the child is given his religious name. Typically he will be named after a deceased relative, to give that relative a measure of immortality, to “make the name live on” and to emphasize that the newborn child is the latest link in a long chain. Presumably the foreskin is designated to be removed from the generative organ to symbolize the fact that Jewish identity is passed on by birth, from father to son, from generation to generation.