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Shmuley and Christopher

A rabbi and an atheist walk into a room …

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Christopher Hitchens last night(Terri Kayden)

It’s no secret that there are plenty of Jews who are atheists. (In fact, it’s the basis for a number of decent jokes.) It’s also no secret that if you’re the sort of atheist who likes the idea of participating in a set of deeply human rituals that have been celebrated continuously for thousands of years, it’s nice to be a Jew. Especially, as it happens, at this time of year: The confessions of the Ashamnu aren’t about admitting your failings to anyone but yourself, and it’s entirely possible to chant Avinu Malkenu, and mean it, without depending on some more or less Christianized notion of a bearded God sitting in judgment with a big registry book in front of h/Him.

And when it comes to death, neither God nor heaven (nor hell) is prerequisite to the principle that “from dust you come, and to dust you shall return.” Which is why it’s so puzzling that the celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach felt that last night, erev Erev Yom Kippur of all nights, would be a good time to debate Christopher Hitchens, devoted atheist and Tablet Magazine contributor, about whether there is an afterlife. After all, their three earlier match-ups went very poorly for the rabbi; Boteach even admitted recently that the best he could hope for was to get Hitchens to admit that organized, God-fearing religion might have some net benefit for humanity, even if the premise of a supreme being is just made-up hoo-ha.

Hitchens, as we all know, was recently diagnosed with cancer—advanced esophogeal cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes, to be specific, which Boteach, in a misguided effort at being kind, referred to as Hitchens’ “ailment.” But Hitch, being Hitch, sauntered out onto the stage at Cooper Union’s Great Hall wearing a beige suit, tailored to his newly chemo-svelte frame, and smiling beneath his new cue-ball dome. He carried a bottle of water, and a plastic cup filled with brown liquid that probably wasn’t medicine.

After the rabbi gave away the farm—his opening gambit was to argue that the Jewish concept of “afterlife” isn’t about the eternal soul, but about the undeniable fact that one’s existence persists in the memory of those who remain alive—Hitchens chastised Boteach for being just “another Jewish secularist.” Then, visibly bored by Boteach’s relentless name-dropping of cardinals and popes and Oxford dons, Hitch went on to denigrate the Catholic Church as an irrevocably corrupt institution that moreover proves how corrupting organized religion can be. (Not just Catholics: Don’t forget this guy.) In other words, very little was ventured, and nothing gained.

So why were the rest of us there? Some, including one Hitch devotee who flew all the way from Chicago to be in attendance, just wanted to witness the spectacle of a dying man’s swan song—this dying man’s swan song. Presumably a few of the Yeshiva University types were there hoping for a magnanimous acknowledgment that religion can, at least, be a comfort. I’ll admit I went hoping for something else: A clear, Hitch-y defense of why the Jewish atheist, unencumbered by concerns about the afterlife—which is to say, of God’s severe decree—has no need to fear death. But that question, sadly, went unasked, and unanswered.

Related: My Purpose in Debating Christopher Hitchens on the Afterlife [Huffington Post]
Topic of Cancer

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Neshama says:

Hardly Hitchens’ swan song: he’ll be at the 92nd Street Y in a couple of weeks, debating Tariq Ramadan on “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” which will no doubt be a much higher brow affair than this one, more interesting, more provocative and more ultimately meaningful.

“A clear, Hitch-y defense of why the Jewish atheist, unencumbered by concerns about the afterlife—which is to say, of God’s severe decree—has no need to fear death. But that question, sadly, went unasked, and unanswered.”

Are you serious?
Hitch doesnt need to fear God’s wrath, because there is no God, haven’t you picked up on this by now?

To Bob, he is not suggesting fearing God, but only death, that’s the point. If one takes away concerns about the afterlife is there a way to avoid the fear of annihilation and to face death with dignity? Hitchens HAS spoken about this before but it is a subject worth revisiting as those with faith pity those of us who see nothing at the end of it all, and it needs to be spelt out.


god is absent
we are absent
can you imagine
if we were present
that would be
such a present

steve ben israel..2010

A.L. Bell says:

I’m not clear what the context here was. If Boteach and Hitchens just wanted to put on a good show and make some money for Cooper Union, good for them.

But I wonder what the people in the Talmud, etc., really say about making an intellectual argument to intentionally change the religious views (as opposed to the behavior) of someone who’s dying.

If Hitchens were behaving horribly to people because of his atheism, then maybe clergy would have an obligation to say something about the bad behavior, at least, but, given that Hitchens is behaving well and has the intellectual resources to know where to get a bible if he wants one, it seems as if what he believes ought to be between him and G-d.

It also seems to me that the ability to have faith in G-d may be a gift from G-d, and that arguing with someone who does not have that gift is like mocking a deaf person for being deaf.

Ashley Duncan says:

A.L. Bell – the final paragraph of your comment is rather curious. On the contrary, it seems to me that arguing with someone who has a belief in a god is like mocking a delusional person for believing in unicorns.

Nick Andrew says:

A.L. Bell — Hitch disagrees with your assessment that “the ability to have faith in G-d may be a gift from G-d”.

As he said in this debate, playing the part of a religious person, “I’m a man of faith. That means I will believe practically anything, based on no evidence whatsoever”. He’s right. The religious have no evidence that their god exists; the vast edifice of religious thought through the ages has been built on a myth.

Seen with that clarity, “faith” looks less like a gift and more like an affliction.

I’ve said that least 1419806 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Shmuley and Christopher

A rabbi and an atheist walk into a room …

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