Harold Kushner: 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award

I was once invited to speak at a synagogue in the Boston area and the Rabbi, a friend and colleague of mine, introduced me by saying that when he goes into a bookstore looking for one of my books, he never knows what section to look in: Religion? Judaica? Psychology? Self-Help? He said that if it were up to him, he would create a special new section for my books and call it Wisdom.

I thought that was a very gracious thing to say, and it set me thinking about what exactly is Wisdom? There is a story in the Bible that gives us a clue. In the third chapter of First Kings, King David has died and his son Solomon has succeeded him. God appears to Solomon and says, “Your father served Me well and as a courtesy to him, to help you take his place, I will grant you one wish. Anything you want, you can have.” The Bible describes Solomon saying, “My first thought would be for a long and happy life. But animals live a long, happy life and I want more than that. My second thought would be for success, but I’ve known too many successful people whose lives I would not envy. So I will ask God for wisdom, for a wise heart to know good and evil.”

Later in the chapter, you remember the story of how two women come before Solomon. Each has recently given birth, one of the babies died, and each woman claims that the living child is hers and the dead one belongs to the other. Solomon says, “Since there is no definitive evidence one way or the other, we’ll cut the child in half and each of you gets a half.” One of the claimants bursts out, “No, let her have him and let the child live!” And Solomon recognized her as the true mother.

How did Solomon know that? He had never been a mother. He had never been a woman. How did he know that that was how a mother’s heart worked? If you don’t get it as a special gift from God, you gain that sort of wisdom from reading books.

How does a man learn what the world looks like through the eyes of a woman? How does a young man appreciate what it feels like to be old? How can a healthy person understand what it’s like to be seriously ill? The best way is to get that from reading books. Books expand the soul as virtually no other activity does, and that is why in our tradition, we recognize that books have the capacity to be sacred objects.

This award means a lot to me because it comes from the Jewish Book Council, but also because it is a recognition of the books I’ve written. When I was forty-five, I started giving fewer sermons and began to write books. I did it partly because I thought I had something important to say. I did it partly as a hedge against mortality. But I also did it because I had been raised to see a book as a very special thing. All of you present this evening, if you have written a book, edited a book, promoted a book, I know that you share that sense of what makes a book special, and for that reason, you all have a share in this celebration.

Harold S. Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, where he resides. He has been honored by the Christophers, a Roman Catholic organization, as one of the fifty people who have made the world a better place in the last half century, and by Religion in American Life as the clergyman of the year in 1999. He is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and eight other books.