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The Not-So-Supreme Being?

More than two decades after Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” became a best seller, another rabbi-author has reopened the vexing question of whether divine justice exists in the universe. This time, it’s Benjamin Blech, weighing in with his book, “If God is Good, Why is the World So Bad?” (Simcha Press, 2003).

With so many goods and bads flying around, one could be forgiven for confusing these two theological self-help guides. Blech’s book even features a promotional blurb at the top of the cover promising would-be readers that the work “picks up where Harold Kushner’s classic… leaves off.”

In reality, however, Blech is supplying not a continuation of Kushner’s tome, but rather a rebuttal.

A longtime Conservative pulpit rabbi, Kushner wrote his book after the passing of his son, Aaron, who died just days before his 14th birthday from a rare, terminal disease called progeria. Kushner insisted that his goal was to write a book for people like himself who, in the face of tragedy, “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.”

Kushner’s starting point was the biblical story of Job, a pious and successful man whom God tests through a dramatic reversal of fortune. The crisis of faith experienced by many suffering people, Kushner wrote, stems from their desire to square three beliefs: God is all-powerful, God is just and Job was good. In the end, Kushner argued, you can’t have all three — if Job is good, then God is either unjust or limited in His powers.

The secret to rebuilding one’s faith, according to Kushner, is to relinquish the “neat and attractive” notion of a heavenly judge, because it is this idea that “makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves.” To pull off this theological maneuver, Kushner relies on a novel interpretation of Job: When God admonished his loyal servant, demanding to know “Where were you when I planned the Earth?”, according to Kushner, He was not pulling omnipotent rank about the mysteries of divine justice, but simply saying, “If you think it is so easy… you try it.”

Kushner, in other words, frames the issue as a simple choice between believing in a loving but limited God who wishes He could help us and a higher authority that permits the suffering of innocents and the triumph of the wicked.

Enter Blech — a graduate of Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, and author of several books, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism” — with two objections, one theological and one practical.

First, he insists that Judaism “forcefully rejects [Kushner’s] view,” and then sets out to salvage the idea of a God who is all-powerful and just. Blech attempts to soften the potential ramifications of this theology by stressing God’s love of the righteous and insisting that human beings are incapable of always comprehending the divine plan.

Packed with rabbinic and biblical citations, Blech’s book stands on firmer ground when it comes to traditional Jewish theology.

But to be fair, Kushner never claimed to be putting forth a particularly Jewish view, and his book is generally shelved in bookstores’ self-help sections. So it would seem that Blech is looking for a theological disputation where none exists. But he also challenges Kushner on utilitarian grounds, arguing that it is impossible to find spiritual comfort in a handcuffed, not-so-Supreme Being.

“We have to believe that God is good and just and that God is all-powerful,” Blech writes. “To believe otherwise is to no longer have a God to whom we can pray. Why pray to a God who is impotent to respond? Few of us who believe in God would accept that view.”

So which is it, Kushner or Blech? Well, both — at least in Hollywood.

In the 2003 film “Bruce Almighty,” Jim Carrey plays a Jobian figure who, after enduring a string of bad breaks, demands a divine accounting for his misery. In response, God (played by Morgan Freeman) says he’s tired of it all and hands over the reins to Carrey. One catch: no interfering with free will. Is that a limit on God’s power or a stubborn rule that He simply refuses to discard? We never know for sure, and hence the Kushner-Blech debate remains unresolved.

The film is unable to decide whether running a just world is simply too tough a job for God, though He means well (Kushner), or whether human beings lack the perspective to understand that God is doing the job just right (Blech).

More telling than their theological disagreements, though, is that the books and the movie all seem to assume that modern people, even religious ones, cannot tolerate a glaring challenge to their faith when faced with tragedy. The gloomier among us, however, might prefer this thought from the late Modern Orthodox religious leader Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments.”

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