Today, we heard the news of the death of my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner. Rabbi Kushner will be remembered for his many contributions to his communities and to the Jewish people. But, for me and for so many others, his greatest contribution was his heartfelt, profound and groundbreaking book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner spoke from his own experience and helped us all come to terms with tragedy in our lives and continue to believe in God and in lives of purpose.
Fifteen years ago, I delivered this sermon on Yom Kippur in recognition of the meaning that this book held for me and for so many people. Before I included it in my book The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey, I shared it with Rabbi Kushner and he thanked me for sharing it with him and for speaking about the book in this way. I was deeply honored by his response.
May Rabbi Harold Kushner’s memory be for a blessing.
TWO OUT OF THREE
YOM KIPPUR 2008
I decided on the subject that I wanted to address during this sermon two months ago. I wrote a first draft and I liked it but I knew it needed something. It needed a twist to make it interesting and memorable and I couldn’t come up with it.
So, I did what I often do when I am faced with a situation like this – I got in my car and took a drive in the country.
It was a lovely day but the drive wasn’t helping. I still could not think of the missing piece. After a while, I became frustrated and started to turn back for home. As I did, I noticed there was a CD loaded in the car’s CD player. Without knowing what it was or which member of my family had put it in, I decided to turn it on.
Let me assure you that I do not believe that God sends messages through CD players. But maybe I should consider it because the song that came on provided the perfect missing piece to the sermon.
I don’t believe the song was meant to be a theological statement, but others by the same writer have a strong spiritual element to them so I’m not prepared to completely dismiss that possibility. Either way, though, I am not being irreverent when I suggest that there is some wisdom in this song, whose most popular version was recorded by a singer, with the decidedly inappropriate (for Yom Kippur) name of Meat Loaf, to help us understand a very serious spiritual issue.
The song is called: Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.
Some of you will recognize the song and some won’t. But it really won’t matter in the long run because my sermon today is not about the song but rather about a book.
The book, written 30 years ago by my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, is called When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Rabbi Kushner’s son, Aaron, was a victim of a terrible disease called Progeria, otherwise known as Rapid Aging Syndrome. Aaron died at the age of 14 in the body of an old man. Throughout Aaron’s illness and after his death, Rabbi Kushner faced a theological crisis as all of the lines he had heard as a student and all of the lines that he had said in his role as a rabbi suddenly sounded hollow in this changed reality that he faced. How could a rabbi continue to preach, how could a Jew continue to pray, how could a person continue to believe having faced this reality?
Rabbi Kushner decided not to hide from the issue but to think it through. After much contemplation and after reading through Job and other sources of wisdom, he had a startling realization. He took out his pen, because that’s what we did 30 years ago, and wrote out three simple statements which he said all people who believe in God would like to believe:
- God is all-powerful and directly causes everything that happens in this world.
- God is just and fair and stands for people getting what they deserve in this world so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
- Job — or Aaron Kushner — was a good person.
Rabbi Kushner writes: “As long as Job is healthy and wealthy, we can believe all three of these statements with no difficulty. When Job suffers, we have a problem.”
And, whenever one has experienced deep sadness or has felt the pain of someone else in the world which can be so cruel, that problem surfaces again.
Knowing he could never give up believing in God, Rabbi Kushner felt he had to eliminate one of these three statements in order to continue to believe. He would not abandon his belief that his son was basically a good person and he concluded that to believe in an unjust God, one who did not stand for fairness and justice, was senseless and offensive.
That left only one of the three sentences to eliminate. So he came to the conclusion that to believe in an all powerful God who is involved in every act that takes place in the world and in every aspect of our lives and treats us based upon our adherence to commandments or to ethical living is indefensible, untenable, and potentially hurtful as well.
Rabbi Kushner looked at those three sentences about God’s omnipotence, God’s goodness and his son’s innocence and concluded (and these are my words) that “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.” He decided that he would rather believe in a God who was not all-powerful than to give up his faith in God’s goodness or Aaron’s.
Kushner wrote his book so that people who felt distant from God, feeling that God’s touch was so cold that they, like the singer of the song, were in fact “crying icicles instead of tears,” could find comfort in believing in God again. They could believe although the expectations were different. They could believe in God who was not giving them protection from pain but sympathy, comfort, and encouragement when the world turned against them.
Rabbi Kushner teaches this approach with hesitation. He admits that something is lost when you give up this belief in an omnipotent God. He writes: “In a way, it was comforting to believe in an all-wise, all-powerful God who guaranteed fair treatment and happy endings, who reassured us that everything happened for a reason, even as life was easier for us when we could believe that our parents were wise enough to know what to do and comforting enough to make everything turn out right. But…it worked only as long as we did not take the problems of the innocent seriously. When we have met Job, when we have been Job, we cannot believe in that sort of God any longer.”
I believe he is right. I believe his theology makes perfect sense and it has guided my thought and my interactions in my own life and in my rabbinic work.
But the story can’t stop here because thirty years later, there is a question that has to be asked: Is it good for the Jews?
By that I mean two things. First, can we sustain a belief in God and build a traditional Jewish life of prayer and ritual around a belief in a God who does not directly impact our daily lives? Is this blunt honesty or is it the first step towards denying the existence of God altogether and undermining everything our teachers have taught for millennia?
Secondly, does it really help people? Is it fair to leave people with this answer or is it ultimately unsatisfying?
Let me address the second question first.
No matter how clearly or passionately I or anyone else might present this idea of limited divine power, it does leave us with some serious issues. There are those who reject it entirely, preferring to ignore the question or to embrace the more traditional answers: “We can’t understand God’s actions.” Or, “Everything will be explained to us in the world to come.” Or, God forbid, “We should have fasted on Yom Kippur (or checked our mezuzahs more often).”
I understand the reason people choose to believe that God punishes those who aren’t loyal to the covenant or aren’t the best people they can be. Such beliefs underscore the importance of being good. They underscore the importance of observing the traditions. But the pain and the guilt that this belief can cause is so deep and so damaging. To even suggest that directly or indirectly God punishes with devastating illness those who do not keep kosher is a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.
Still, some see Kushner’s approach as an unreasonable alternative and too great a challenge. They think it is wrong to expect that people in the midst of terrible agony can accept a complex idea and would want to struggle with a thorny and somewhat paradoxical theological concept. For some, it is better to accept a clear statement defending God or claiming we can never know God’s reasons or denying that God exists. For some, the comfort lies in having a definitive answer while Kushner’s answer may be seen as weak and defensive.
Then, there are those who have accused him and others who hold this opinion as engaging in “theological gerrymandering” — trying to structure God’s role in the world so that it includes just what we want and excludes everything else. I accept that criticism but would argue that a theology that causes us pain or runs counter to what we see in the world with the hope that it would make us better people doesn’t work for everyone. In addition, it is important to note that, for Rabbi Kushner, the idea of this theology is not to take responsibility away from us but to envision God as teacher and to help us to become God’s agents and God’s angels on earth bringing comfort, support, and love to those who so desperately need it.
This theology works for me. It is honest, constructive, and thoughtfully sensitive. It leaves me with far fewer unanswered questions than any of the other approaches that I have ever heard. But theology is personal and one size does not fit all.
Then, there is the other issue. If God can’t or, as I prefer to think of it, has willingly stopped interacting in history at one point after the Exodus and Sinai, then why in God’s name would we waste time praying: why would we say a Mishebayrach blessing asking for God’s healing? Why would we pray for rain when there is a drought? Why would we pray for God to protect our family or our people?
If God can’t control any of these things, why bother to pray at all?
What do we need God for if God can’t do what we need God to do?
For these questions, I have answers.
We do need prayer. We need prayer to remind ourselves and remind God what is important to us whether or not we can expect a tangible response. We need prayer to bind us together in a community reaching for something greater. We need public prayer to remind others how much we need the community’s help in supporting us as we face difficult times. We need the comfort of community and the comfort of believing we are not alone.
We do need God in our lives. We need hope and we need faith: faith in God, faith that living correctly makes our lives and our world better in the long run, even if some days bring disappointment or even tragedy. We need faith to believe that this story that we are all writing together will someday have a happy ending in a redeemed world.
We even need faith in answered prayers and in miracles which, when they occur, seem to contradict Rabbi Kushner’s belief in God’s limitations.
Yes, it seems prayers are sometimes answered and divine miracles occasionally do occur, and I celebrate them joyfully and praise God even at the risk of being inconsistent in my theology. But some prayers are not answered and miracles don’t happen to everyone and they don’t happen every time, and I refuse to believe that God plans miracles only for those who perform the right rituals or who say the right words or who are in some sense deserving. The Talmud tells us: Ayn Somchim al Hanays, “We do not depend upon miracles” and we don’t question our merit or blame ourselves if the miracle doesn’t happen for us or someone we love.
But even when the prayer is not answered or the miracle doesn’t occur, we must continue to believe that God cares. We just need to know where to look for proof. The Torah says that when Moses asked God if he could see the Divine face, God said: “You can only see My back.” A traditional commentary explains: “You may not see Me clearly but look back on a situation and you will see where I have been,” in the face of a friend who cared, in a doctor who tirelessly worked to bring healing, in the sense of comfort brought by a familiar song or word of prayer. That is evidence of God’s caring and that comfort is real.
When I see you, God forbid, in times of horrible tragedy, I remember what Rabbi Kushner taught us at the Seminary one day. He taught us that Job’s friends only got in trouble when they started to talk. Sometimes the best I can do is to offer my presence. Sometimes, silence is the best answer.
But you still have a right to ask: Why? Why did this happen to me?
And, because I have no other answer to give and because even at times of pain I need to be honest, I will say to you: “I don’t know why. But as the psalmist says: ‘I am with him in your trouble.’ I believe with perfect faith that God is crying with you now. It is precisely at times of tragedy that people need God the most, to believe in a God who can’t change the past or even the future but who is there to support us, to cry with us, to encourage and inspire us and, yes, even to be the object of our anger.”
Our tradition has always encouraged and modeled screaming out in anger against God and I believe that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to scream out against God in the face of tragedy. But I would humbly suggest that if you are going to blame God, you should blame God specifically for creating a world in which free will and natural consequences rule. Don’t blame God for singling you out to receive such pain because that can’t be the way God works.
Blaming God for the world that God created rather than for bringing pain to your life does make a difference. As the world goes on and as we, God willing, recover at least somewhat from the tragedy that we have faced, we might come to accept the fact that a world of free will and natural consequences is much better than a world in which we are merely puppets being orchestrated by God. Occasionally, when life is so bad to us, we might like that comfort, but being a free human being is, on balance, far better.
I know that there are still unresolved theological questions. I don’t and I can’t speak for God. But I believe that no one is singled out for tragedy in this world. I believe that God cries with us and I believe that we need God in our lives even if all of the serious theological gymnastics don’t satisfy us.
The Torah commands us to love God and despite what we will hear later this morning when we read about the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva who said he loved God even as his life was taken in such a cruel way, for most of us, loving God at times of great sadness is impossible. No one should apologize for finding it difficult or impossible to love God when in the midst of suffering.
So, let me return to Meat Loaf and my song for the day. As many of you no doubt know, his “two out of three” were:
“I want you, I need you but there ain’t no way I’m ever going to love you.”
I believe God says something very similar: “I want you to want me and to need me even if you can’t love me at this moment.” Two out of three, dayenu, that is enough for now.
But now isn’t forever and nothing in life is set in stone, and that’s why we should never say to God: “There ain’t no way I’m ever going to love you” because no matter how dark and cold the world may appear now, one day the sun may shine brightly enough or at just the right angle to melt away the icicles and bring you not only to want God and to need God but to love God and God’s world again.
May we all be blessed with comfort and with the peace of God’s embracing presence. No matter what each of us believes about God, may we never forget that we are God’s agents of comfort in the world God created.