Issues: When Bad Things Happen

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In the 1981 New York Times best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner concludes that God is benevolent but not omnipotent. For example, he writes, “God does not want you to be sick or crippled. He didn’t make you have this problem, and He doesn’t want you to go on having it, but He can’t make it go away.”


In Kushner’s 2012 work, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, he says his views of God’s role in our suffering have evolved. “I am not sure I would still speak of God as limited,” Kushner writes. “… Rather, I would speak of Him as self-limiting.”


Whether limited or self-limiting, we still end up with a God we need to make excuses for. But, as Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner points out, “If God cannot prevent suffering, then neither can He direct Creation to bring about good. If He is not responsible for the bad, neither can He be credited with the good.”


In the biblical account, Job protests, “I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer” (Job 30:20). God does answer, reminding Job to whom he is complaining: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand” (Job 38:4). Humbled, Job responds, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).

So Job acknowledges God’s omnipotence and, in the end, his benevolence as well.

Trials are often the best teachers of theology. So in this edition we bring you the stories of two Jewish people who wrestled with suffering—Jack Sternberg, an oncologist, and Susan Perlman, a two-time cancer survivor. We also share a fanciful tale from the old country on this topic.

1. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books 2004, c. 1981), p. 142.

2. Kushner, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (New York: Schoken Books, 2012), p. 197.

3. Kirzner, Rabbi Yitzchok, “Why Harold Kushner is Wrong”, November 5, 2006.

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