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Remembering Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of 'When Bad Things Happen to Good People'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We are taking a few minutes now to remember the life and the work of Rabbi Harold Kushner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HAROLD KUSHNER: There's always a fresh supply of grieving people asking, where was God when I needed him most?

RASCOE: That's Harold Kushner speaking to NPR in 2010. He died last week at the age of 88. Kushner wrote a number of books - bestsellers that comforted millions of people, including one with a title you might remember, "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." He wrote it after the death of his teenage son.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KUSHNER: If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either God is all-powerful but not kind, or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise God's power and affirm his love. So the conclusion - the theological conclusion I came to is that God could have been all-powerful at the beginning, but he chose to designate two areas of life off limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature, and secondly, God would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.

RASCOE: Joining us now to talk about Harold Kushner's legacy is his daughter, Ariel Kushner Haber. Thank you so much for joining us, and I am so sorry for your loss.

ARIEL KUSHNER HABER: Well, thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Listening to your father just now, how do you think that conclusion he made about God - how do you think that influenced how he led his life?

HABER: Those philosophies, though - that theology was something he was grappling with as a very young rabbi all along, and throughout my brother's illness. And when you follow the arc of his career, you see him really continue to develop those ideas. And it meant so much to him that he was able to comfort others with his words. I don't know that that was something he always anticipated would happen, but maybe it was something he hoped he would be able to achieve.

RASCOE: Do you think that he was surprised by the reaction to his books? And how did that change his life and, by extension, your family's life, that he brought comfort to so many people?

HABER: I think he was surprised by it. And also, he never stopped being gratified when people would come up to them and share their stories. And he received a lot of fan mail. And when he first finished the manuscript of "When Bad Things Happen To Good People," initially, he didn't have an easy time finding a publisher for it, but then he did settle on Schocken Books. And it was a little bit smaller publishing house and a Jewish publishing house. We were on a family vacation when we got news that a bidding war had started between the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. Finally, by the way, Book of the Month Club won out that that bidding war. And we, you know, jumped in the car to go celebrate at a restaurant, and it started pouring rain. And we were so excited, we just abandoned our car and went in the rain to the restaurant and celebrated. We were really, really excited.

RASCOE: Your father spoke to NPR many times. He's very gentle, very thoughtful. And one time he joined us to talk about a different kind of spiritual confusion. This is a little more lighthearted - the confusion of being a die-hard fan used to seeing his team lose suddenly faced with that team winning big. I'm talking about his love of the Boston Red Sox. Let's take a listen to the conversation he had with us when they won the World Series in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KUSHNER: What will we have to yearn for? What will we have to complain about? What are all those people who call talk radio going to be able to call and vent about? It's going to be a major readjustment for a whole lot of people in the Boston area and all of Red Sox nation around the country.

RASCOE: Did he ever come to terms with a winning Red Sox team?

HABER: Well, that's so funny. I think probably his book "When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough" maybe speaks to that a little bit.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HABER: He really did love being a Red Sox fan. And one of his big splurges after the success of "When Bad Things Happen To Good People" was he bought season tickets to the Red Sox. And I think he really got to share some of his love of baseball with his grandchildren, so he did get to continue to enjoy being a Red Sox fan.

RASCOE: What do you think your father's legacy will be?

HABER: Well, it's really my hope that his words and his theology will continue to resonate with people. And at the time "When Bad Things Happen To Good People" came out, I think some of his theology was quite controversial. And it's interesting to see, over time, how much a lot of that theology has become adopted. So I hope that people will continue to be able to find comfort, not just in - from "When Bad Things Happen To Good People," but from some of his other writings. I particularly think the book that he wrote, "The Lord Is My Shepherd," on the 23rd Psalm is wonderful and will resonate with people. And I think it's important to note, too, that - how much his book was embraced - or his philosophies, theology was embraced and received by interfaith community, and I think that was something that really surprised him and that he was incredibly gratified and thrilled for to sort of be able to bridge those divisions.

RASCOE: There's a traditional Jewish response to losing someone - that is may their memory be a blessing. If you don't mind sharing, what memory do you think will comfort you the most?

HABER: The way that he interacted with his grandchildren - just the way he involved themselves in their learning and their everyday lives. You know, and the joy that they brought to him was really wonderful. And of course, those are, you know, some of the greatest memories for me personally.

RASCOE: That's Ariel Kushner Haber talking about her father, the late Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." Thank you so much for talking to us today.

HABER: Ayesha, thank you so much for having me. Appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.