The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, by Harold S. Kushner (Schocken Books, 224 pages)
The title of Harold S. Kushner’s new book at first suggests that the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People has gone Hollywood and thrust a sequel on us with little new information or plot.
Kushner’s 1981 classic, after all, was a satisfying answer to the age-old question of where God is in human suffering. Born of his own agony when his son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease that killed him at 14, the book dissected well-meaning but offensive platitudes of pain (“He’s in a better place now,” “God is testing you,” “This will make you stronger!”) and skewered them with clarity and reason. He offered, instead, a defense of God and a universe in which horrible things happen without cause.
So, what else can possibly be said on the subject? Plenty, if you believe, like Kushner does, that the Book of Job is not only “the most challenging book in the Bible,” but also “one of the most sublime creations in all biblical literature, in fact, in all literature.”
For the biblically illiterate — and we know you’re out there — it’s Job, rhymes with robe, and he’s not the creator of Apple, but the Old Testament character who travails make Jonah’s three days underwater seem like whaleburgers in Paradise.
In the story that bears his name, Job loses everything — his children, animals, home, fortune — because of a bet Satan makes with God. Three friends come to console him, and their conversation, plus a cameo appearance by a thundering God, comprise the bulk of the book. It’s the When Bad Things Happen to Good People for people who lived 3,000 years ago.
And yes, you will have to read Job if you’re going to read Kushner’s new book. But don’t worry; you’ll want to, after just two chapters of Kushner. A poetic masterpiece, Job is a singular refutation of Albert Einstein’s “God letter,” recently for sale on eBay that calls the Bible “a collection of honorable, but still primitive lessons which are nevertheless pretty childish.”
To that, the God of Job answers, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?’ the famous beginning of a soliloquy as lovely and powerful as E=mc2.
So why, if Job is so great on its own, do we need a book about it? Why not just read Job and cut out Kushner’s 200 pages of musings on it, however adroit they may be?
It’s because this rabbi is as wise as the ancients and rational as the moderns. And a formidable intellect, tempered by anguish, is necessary for explaining an aged, much-translated text that deals with what’s possibly the most important question that human beings ask.
Creationists — those who believe in a literal translation of the Bible — may take offense at Kushner’s description of the first part of Job as a fable. But similar stories of loss and redemption go back to the Sumerians and Egyptians, Kushner writes. Job was not even Jewish, nor an Israelite, he says, but “a pious, God-fearing Everyman.”
“Only when an Israelite author appropriated it as the starting point for his inquiry into God’s role in human misery did it become Israelite literature and a book of the Bible,” Kushner says. But, he adds, “It may not be factually, historically true, but it can be true in a more important sense. It can teach us profound truths.”
The leader of a Natick, Mass., temple for a quarter of a century, Kushner frequently encounters atheists who lost their faith because of the question of suffering. If religious institutions want to survive in an increasingly secular world, they’d better learn to answer the questions that Job and Kushner so eloquently address.
While When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person can be dry and academic in places, the bulk of it is engaging for even those with no theological impulse. Everyone asks “why?” now and then, even if they don’t know who, exactly, to ask. Kushner’s latest offering isn’t a sequel to his original best-seller, but perhaps a sequel to Job. As Kushner writes of the biblical book, it doesn’t have one answer, singular, but answers, plural. For questions as high and wide as eternity, a conclusion in multiples is a very good thing. B+ — Jennifer Graham