Reviving an argument from the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner is seeking an answer to the timeless question Job posed to God: Why must the innocent suffer?
In his soon-to-be published "The Book of Job," the rabbi laureate at Temple Israel in Natick examines the tale of "the upright man" who lost his wealth and 10 children because God made a wager with Satan to test his faith.
After grievous suffering worsened by self-righteous friends convinced he had sinned, Kushner said Job still affirmed his righteousness and demanded God explain his predicament.
"Job wanted to know 'Why am I suffering,'" said Kushner. "It's not, 'Why are you letting the innocent suffer.' It's 'What have I done to deserve this.'"
In an age that produced the Holocaust, Stalin's and Mao's purges and terrorism's random violence, it is still a question for all humans.
By writing "The Book of Job," Kushner said he was "closing the circle" on a five-decade effort to come to grips with "life's unfairness and God's role in dealing with it."
In 1963, he and his wife learned their young son Aaron suffered from an extremely rare disease, progeria, or "rapid aging syndrome," that led to his death a day after his 14th birthday.
Subtitled "When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person," Kushner's 11th book is scheduled for publication Oct. 2.
Kushner has written a wise book that examines complex theological issues in everyday language.
"It is a story for people of all faiths who believe in a monotheistic system based on a God who is moral," he said.
He has offered profound and comforting answers to the perennial question of undeserved suffering.
At the Hartford Street temple where's he's presided for 24 years, he explained what is commonly known as the "Book of Job" comprises both a "simple folktale" in prose "of faith maintained and rewarded" of just three chapters and a longer cycle of poems by "an anonymous genius" that's not as widely known to the general public.
Since many people only read the older "fairy tale" framework of the Job story, Kushner said they have typically misunderstood him "as the guy who suffered but never complained."
Interweaving Biblical and modern history, scholarship and his own grief, he brings alive the conflict at the heart of a 2,500-year-old story that has bedeviled people of many faiths hungry to reconcile God's supposed infallibility with the inescapable fact of random evil.
For Kushner, the longer poem achieves universal power when Job "confronts" God and "challenges" him to explain why he is suffering despite his blamelessness.
Job insists he has honored God's laws and demands "if only God would hear me, state his case against me" he will bear his sufferings in silence.
Kushner has revisited a central motif he has explored since his first book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," that chronicled his struggle to maintain his faith after his son's death in 1977.
In the penultimate chapter of his newest book, he offers an in-depth analysis of the poem's conclusion when "the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind" that point toward his own answers.
After chastising puny humans for "speaking without knowledge," God recounts his unfathomable power in creating the complex world.
In a passage that still divides many scholars, Job replies, "I am small; how can I answer You?/ My hand I lay on my mouth."
God then takes a "strikingly different" course in his final words to Job. He cites two possibly mythological animals, Behemoth, the beast, and Leviathan, the sea monster, that for Kushner represent "the life force and chaos" and are responsible "for most of the misery in the world, most of the bad things that happen to people (like you) who deserve better."
Kushner believes that, though God created a magnificent world for humans, "there are some parts of life God cannot control."
Though he gave humans freedom, God cannot control "human behavior" because to require them to act justly would only be a form of coercion.
And God does not control the forces of nature, even a tsunami that killed 250,000 people or an earthquake that ravaged Haiti.
"God is moral," Kushner said. "Nature is not."
But what comfort can the Job author and Kushner offer to the countless millions of innocents, his son Aaron included, who have borne undeserved suffering?
In his conclusion, Kushner writes: "Like Job, I have met God. I have met Him in sunshine but more often in shadows, not in the elegant perfection of the world but in the resilience of the human soul, the ability of people to find even a pain-filled life, even a grossly unfair life, worth living. . I have been sustained by the message that God has not abandoned His world."