Emor – Thinking of Rabbi Harold Kushner Z’L

Posted on May 3, 2023

By Rabbi Alex Freedman.


When people think of Rabbi Harold Kushner – the Conservative rabbi who passed away Friday at age 88 – they often associate him with the best-selling 1981 book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And correctly so. That was a wonderful example of sharing Jewish wisdom with the larger world. If that had been his only teaching, Dayeinu – that would have been enough of a career accomplishment.

While I did read that book years ago, it’s not how I think of him as a teacher. That’s because I am grateful to learn from him in a very real way every single week – and you might too without even realizing it.

He was the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash commentary below the line (Drash). So if you are ever in shul following the Torah reading with the Humash, and your eyes wander to the bottom of the page, you are reading Kushner. These comments and insights share timeless treasures from the Torah verses. These short sentences instantly help us understand sometimes cryptic passages and stories. And they add holiness to those precious words.

Here is but one example from this week’s reading, Emor. The topic is the role of priests and how to maintain their ritual purity. The Torah says “and you must treat [the Priests] as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy” (Lv. 21:8).

Let me quote Kushner’s comment on that idea: 
“Rabbis and cantors are no different from other Jews. They have no special powers; no obligations devolve on them that do not apply to all Jews. ‘Ten shoemakers can make a Minyan but nine rabbis can’t.’ Nonetheless, they are considered Klei Kodesh – instruments of holiness – because, through their knowledge and teaching and by life, character, and commitments, they show the way to a life of holiness.”

Rabbi Kushner was a mensch and certainly did not intend to glorify himself with those words. But those same words certainly apply to him. Many of us – plenty of rabbis included – have followed his lead to a life of holiness.

While he has sadly passed away, his words endure forever for they are printed for all of us to read. I and many other Jews who read the Humash every week will continue to learn from his wisdom without end.

May his memory be a blessing.