Devastated by watching his only son die at 14 from a debilitating illness, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book he hoped would comfort others who faced such unendurable tragedies.
“There is only one question which really matters,” he said to open the first chapter. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Initially a sort of secret handshake — quoted in sermons and pressed by clergy into the palms of grieving families — Rabbi Kushner’s 1981 book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” became a publishing juggernaut, selling millions of copies and spending more than a year on the bestseller lists.
Rather than let fame whisk him away, he remained for nearly a decade in his post at Temple Israel of Natick, and stayed for many years in the community, where he and his wife could be near the grave of their son, Aaron, who died of progeria, a rare disease that accelerates aging.
Rabbi Kushner, who went on to write more than a dozen books, revisiting the bestseller lists as he helped to pioneer the religious self-help genre, was 88 and his health had been failing when he died Friday in hospice care at the Orchard Cove senior living community in Canton.
His wife, Suzette, whom he married in 1960, died last July. After that, “He was sort of anchorless,” said their daughter, Ariel Kushner Haber of Wellesley.
On the day Ariel was born, just after her brother had turned 3, a doctor told their parents that Aaron had progeria, “would look like a little old man while he was still a child, and would die in his early teens,” Rabbi Kushner wrote in “When Bad Things.”
“How does one handle news like that? I was a young, inexperienced rabbi, not as familiar with the process of grief as I would later come to be, and what I mostly felt that day was a deep, aching sense of unfairness,” he wrote. “It didn’t make sense. I had been a good person. I had tried to do what was right in the sight of God.”
With each year’s birthday “we would rejoice in his growing up,” Rabbi Kushner wrote, but the family knew that each passing day “brought us closer to the day when he would be taken from us.”
He soon realized he would write about Aaron, about the family’s love, about their community’s support, and about how to confront impossible ordeals.
“I wrote the book because I needed to tell the story,” he told the Globe in 1981, not long after the book was published. “I had all these ideas I had wrestled with and painfully worked out when Aaron was sick.”
During Aaron’s brief life, illness didn’t define him. He liked pranks, and was witty, brave, and an A student, his parents recalled in 1981.
“Aaron wanted a book written about him. He was looking for some immortality,” Suzette said then.
Some might suggest that after Aaron died, the family should have moved on to “some new ways of thinking,” she said. “But it was just too meaningful. It was the most meaningful experience of our lives, even our daughter’s. He was an incredible youngster!”
Often writing drafts longhand in college-style notebooks, Rabbi Kushner published book after book, among them “Living a Life that Matters,” which he dedicated to his granddaughter, Chila Sara Haber, and “How Good Do We Have to Be,” which he dedicated to his grandson, Carl David Haber.
“My parents were very thrilled and involved grandparents,” Ariel said. “Having grandchildren, they knew their legacy would continue.”
Harold Samuel Kushner was born on April 3, 1935, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and his family moved to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights section when he started grammar school.
His father, Julius Kushner, ran Playmore Publishing, which focused on children’s books.
And while his mother, Sarah Hartman Kushner, had studied at Jewish Theological Seminary, “She felt her role was as a homemaker, and she did a great job of that,” Ariel said. “She took it as a profession. She crafted a lot. She did a lot of beautiful handwork.”
Rabbi Kushner graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and attended Columbia University, where he studied psychology before switching to literature, even taking a class from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren.
As an undergraduate, he worked for Columbia’s radio station, broadcasting sports games and developing an on-air presence he would use years later as a panelist on the popular WEEI-AM program “Topic Religion.”
Enrolling in night classes at Jewish Theological Seminary while still at Columbia, he switched to full-time studies after receiving his bachelor’s degree and was ordained in 1960. He later received a doctorate in biblical studies from the seminary.
The year of his ordination he married Suzette Estrada, who had graduated from what is now Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine. When Rabbi Kushner served in the Army at Fort Sill, Okla., after ordination, she was a dental hygienist on the base.
Before moving to Natick, Rabbi Kushner was an assistant to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island. His younger brother, Rabbi Paul Kushner, who died in 2019, was a longtime rabbi at Long Island temples.
Rabbi Kushner, who spoke at the interfaith prayer service for President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration and at the funeral for President Ronald Reagan, worked to keep his life centered after his bestselling books gave him an international reach.
“In the beginning, I accepted all speaking offers and all travel without realizing this would crowd my life to the point where I couldn’t do the things that were important to me, in terms of my job and my family,” Rabbi Kushner told the Globe in 1986. “I think it was really my wife who made me understand that getting caught up in the kind of life that became accessible to me would have meant I would no longer be me.”
In 1990 after 24 years at Temple Israel of Natick, he stepped down as rabbi laureate. Unassuming in his fame, he stood in line at the library checking out books and delighted in running errands that provided opportunities for “a lap around downtown Natick,” visiting friends and engaging in spontaneous conversations, his daughter said.
Rabbi Kushner leaves his daughter and two grandchildren. A funeral service will be held Monday at 1 p.m. in Temple Israel of Natick.
Speaking with the Globe in 1981, he conceded that there was “something a little bit impudent about writing books explaining what God is. I wouldn’t have done it except that I felt I really had to help people.”
Rather than be persuaded by awful events that God is cruel or that bad things happen only to sinners, he wrote in his first book, “Can you accept the idea that some things happen for no reason, that there is randomness in the universe?”
After watching what his son endured, “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.”
And in the 1981 Globe interview, he said: “The question we should be asking is not, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ … A better question would be, ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?’”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.