Joseph-Beth Brings Rabbi Kushner to College

By Amy Hall ‘10
Georgetown College News Bureau

Amy Thaxton ’07 first heard about an inspirational book by Rabbi Harold Kushner when her grandmother was diagnosed with cervical cancer 10 years ago. “Evidently she read the book and it changed her life, so she suggested that the rest of the family read it,” said the Owensboro native, who finally took that life-changing opportunity to read When Bad Things Happen to Good People for a class her senior year at Georgetown College.

“Our discussions in class about each chapter were some of the most intense, enlightening hours of my educational experience, often carrying over into the walk back to our dorms, or even into dinner that evening,” said Thaxton, now operations project manager for Lexington’s Thomas & King, Inc. “I grew as a person and will never forget my Kushner experience.”

Now every student at Georgetown will get to have their own “Kushner experience.” Rabbi Kushner, best known for that 1981 No. 1 best-seller, will speak and sign books at 11 a.m., Sept. 18 in the College’s John L. Hill Chapel. A limited number of free tickets are still available at the Provost’s Office; call (502) 863-8146. Those who purchase one of Kushner’s books at the bookstore in Lexington Green receive two tickets to this Joseph-Beth Speakers Series event and a place in the book-signing line.

Kushner, currently Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick (MA), is on tour to promote his latest of eight books – Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, which has just come out in paperback. But, his When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that has been translated into 14 languages, is the one that continues to draw attention – such as recognition by the Book of the Month Club as one of the 10 most influential books of recent years.

To the Time magazine writer who asked what he thought gave the book such resonance, he replied, “It doesn’t explain; it comforts. This is what people in times of difficulty need. They need consolation, not explanation. Too many books, especially ones written before mine, didn’t understand that. People want a book that says it is terrible, but you can handle it.”

Kushner wrote the book in 1981 in response to the death of his son Aaron, who died of premature aging. In the book’s preface he wrote, “I knew…I would write it out of my own need to put into words some of the things I have come to believe and know. And I would write it to help other people who might one day find themselves in a similar predicament. I would write it for all those people who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to hold on to their faith and be comforted by religion. And I would write it for all those people whose love for God and devotion to Him led them to blame themselves for their suffering and persuade themselves that they deserved it.”

Dr. Chris Nix of Georgetown’s Communications department uses Kushner’s first book in Health Communication, the same class that impacted Amy Thaxton, in part to encourage students to explore. “Kushner asks: Are you comfortable with what your beliefs do for you? I like this because there are no simple answers and students have to come up with their own questions,” Nix said. “I’ve never had a student walk away who hasn’t been moved to think deeply about their life and faith.”

Ashland native Davonna Hobbs ’06 said she uses what she learned in Nix’s class from Kushner’s book every day as a patient advocate at Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington. “People tend to use the whole ‘things happen for a reason’ excuse anytime something goes wrong in life,” she said. “I disagree with this theory, and Kushner’s book confirmed it was okay for me to feel this way. [The book] opened my eyes and ears to how people deal with grief and where they seek spiritual support.

“I deal with patients and families asking ‘Why’ on a daily basis here in the hospital,” said Hobbs, who still leads worship at Georgetown Baptist Church’s contemporary service on Sundays. “It has helped me to meet [them] where they are when I become involved in their lives at the hospital, and for that, I am grateful for this piece of work.”

Dr. Jack Birdwhistell of Georgetown’s Religion department called Kushner’s appearance “a great educational opportunity for our college community and a genuine coup for Georgetown! He comes from the Conservative branch of Judaism and has found a wide readership among non-church folk and many thoughtful Christians.”

Religion in American Life chose Rabbi Kushner as their Clergyman of the Year in 1999 and, in 1995, the Christophers, a Roman Catholic organization, named him one of the 50 people who have made the world a better place in the last half century.

Dr. Dwight Moody, the College’s Dean of Chapel, just read Kushner’s Overcoming Life’s Disappointments – about the life of Moses – and said, “I recommend it strongly. Many Christian pastors will find great help in Rabbi Kushner’s new book as it utilizes the resources of the Jewish community to expound the meaning of life and the struggle to triumph over life’s difficulties.”

When asked by a Time magazine writer why he chose Moses as the key figure in his book, Kushner replied, “I wanted to give people a more rounded picture of Moses, not simply the triumphant hero who splits the sea and works the miracles, but Moses the man who fails and perseveres, who gets over frustration and rejection. [His] greatest achievement is that he comes to the end of his days not angry at God, not bitter over not having gotten what he deserves in life. And it’s in that way that I think Moses can be a model for us.”

An excerpt from page 117 reads, “Humility means recognizing that you are not God and it is not your job or responsibility to run the world. Some people are disappointed to learn that; most mentally healthy people are immensely relieved. Moses was able to surmount the problems and frustrations in his life because he understood that he was not God and could not be expected to be, and that God’s plan for humanity did not depend solely on him.”

What others say:

“No human relationship is without betrayal, irritation and annoyance, but Kushner makes clear that it’s what we do about such obstacles that matter.” – Los Angeles Book Review

“Overcoming Life’s Disappointments offers the reader some sensible answers, suggestions for softening life’s journey, and ways of dealing with the inevitable disappointments. The key is seeing God as the center of our lives, as did Moses. Overcoming disappointment means putting aside any idea that the story is about “us,” recognizing that the path is more meaningful when we look outside ourselves to the Divine that guides our lives, our journeys, even our myths.” – Jeffrey Needle for the religious website, www.explorefaith.org

“From the life of Moses, Kushner gleans principles that can help us deal with the problems we encounter. Through the example of Moses’ remarkable resilience, we learn how to weather the disillusionment of dreams unfulfilled, the pain of a lost job or promotion, a child’s failures, divorce or abandonment, and illness. We learn how to meet all disappointments with faith in ourselves and the future, and how to respond to heartbreak with understanding rather than bitterness and despair.” – Random House