In latest book, rabbi explores desire to make a difference
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the 1981 best seller "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" after his only son died of progeria, a rare and fatal disease.
The disorder prompts premature aging. It caused Kushner to ponder and question the power of God.
"I had to come to terms with how God would permit this - and came up with the idea that God never promised us that life would be fair," he says. "God promises us that when we face the unfairness of life, we don't have to face it alone."
Six books and many awards later, Kushner continues to explore the sublime in his latest volume, "Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success" (Knopf, $22).
The book examines Everyman's struggle with selfish desires and spiritual values. It spent six weeks on the New York Times' list of best sellers.
"Much of our lives, much of our energy, will be devoted to closing that gap between the longings of our soul and the scoldings of our conscience," Kushner writes in "Living a Life That Matters."
In his crazy-quilt style of storytelling, Kushner simultaneously draws from movies, literature, law and the Bible to explore every human being's hunger for achievement and a sense of worth. He cites the experiences of characters from Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Kushner, 66, is Rabbi Laureate at Temple Israel in Natick, Mass. After visiting more than 20 cities, Kushner will talk about his new book at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Carnegie Hall, Oakland, as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures series.
One chapter of the book examines an exceptionally timely topic: "Wild Justice: The Seductive Pleasure of Getting Even." "Justice means punishing a person who deserves it," Kushner says, talking from his home in New England. "Revenge is about hurting a person because it makes you feel good."
Trouble is, revenge ultimately makes us feel crummy. Hamlet, for example, ultimately dies "because he has used up his soul, being obsessed with getting even," Kushner says.
"The ambivalence in getting even is that our consciences condemn it even as our souls crave it," Kushner writes in "Living a Life That Matters." "Once we recognize that the thirst for revenge is really a need to reclaim power - to shed the role of victim and substitute action for helplessness - we can find ways of meeting that need without hurting another person and compromising our own goodness."
So, how should we act when someone wrongs us?
"Just realize that if you give into the temptation of revenge, you finish yourself. You won't like yourself in the morning," he says.
When possible, let authorities dole out justice, he advises.
"The best thing you can always do - if you really want to get back at somebody - is simply to walk away out of a feeling of strength, not out of a feeling of helplessness," Kushner says. "Walk away saying, 'What you did was wrong and you deserve to be punished, but I don't like the person I become when I obsess about you. I'm going to stop renting you space in my head.'"
Kushner has trouble supporting capital punishment, but he supports U.S. efforts to snag terrorist Osama bin Laden.
"I think he deserves to die, but I think we deserve better than to be instruments of executing him," Kushner says. "I'd be more comfortable if he died in a bombing than if he was hanged, or judged. I think he'd be a very dangerous person if we kept him in prison."
Two years ago, the national organization Religion in American Life named Kushner its clergyman of the year. He decided to become a rabbi while majoring in English literature at Columbia University in New York City.
"I'm absolutely overwhelmed and a little bit incredulous that I've been able to get my message out to people of so many different faiths. It's one of the things I'm proudest about," says Kushner, a Conservative rabbi who lives about a mile and a half from his Boston-area synagogue.
Kushner and his wife, Suzette, lost their son but have a daughter, Ariel Ann, of Miami, plus a grandchild, Chila Sara, to whom Kushner dedicates his new book.
To achieve real success in life, Kushner suggests becoming a "best actor in a supporting role": "You do little things behind the scene that make big differences in people's lives."