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Christopher Hitchens vs. Rabbi David Wolpe

Elliot Gertel
June 18, 2015

A Cultural Milestone on the Jewish Internet

by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

hqdefaultAMERICAN JEWS already possess a vast internet video treasure-trove of Jewish culture and thought, whether under synagogue auspices or not. I was recently moved to explore some of the video offerings of New York’s Temple Emanu-El and discuss what they say about American Jewish culture. In the course of that exploration, I discovered another event, preserved on internet video, that also took place at Temple Emanu-El, but under the auspices of New York’s Jewish Week. I am referring to a sweet November 2008 debate between Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) and Rabbi David J. Wolpe — one of three debates they had preserved on video, the other two having occurred at Harvard University Bookstore and in Los Angeles. In all three, Hitchens pitched atheism, and Wolpe argued for faith in God.

At Temple Emanu-El, Hitchens started the proceedings by complaining about religion in general and Judaism in particular. He affirmed at the outset that his mother’s ancestors stood at Sinai and were told that stealing, murder, and perjury were not kosher. (His mother was Jewish, though she did not like to advertise it.) But he regarded it as an insult to humanity for people to have to be told that, since God is not necessary to convey or preserve basic ethics. Religion, according to Hitchens, offends human intelligence by claiming that people would not know right from wrong without it. Hitchens insisted that people don’t need religion to act morally.

Hitchens was willing to concede that, although a “mythical story,” the Exodus narrative was an important expression of the human yearning for freedom. The problem, he insisted, is that religion enables totalitarianism to thrive. As he added at Harvard Bookstore, people create God out of their fear and their wish to be loved — that is, out of the very part of the human psyche that craves dictatorship and totalitarianism. Theocracy, he warned, leads to tyranny.

I couldn’t help thinking of Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg’s comparison of Biblical with other ancient Near Eastern law. In the latter, the gods let the kings make up the law; in the Bible, God stipulates a far more objective standard than that of kings. Yet Hitchens saw nothing but tyranny in Biblical literature. He complained about the Biblical view of a God who knows all our thoughts. The monotheistic God, he said, can exact punishment even after you’re dead, which makes that God worse than a Korean dictator.

Rabbi Wolpe responded by addressing Hitchens’ concern that religion claims that people needed to be told what is good. Wolpe pointed to the Biblical Cain, who seems to sense the gravity of murder on his own. Moral rules given at Sinai, said Wolpe, were not regarded as humanly inconceivable. The purpose of Biblical law was to provide a basis for morality that transcends societal rules. (He might have added that many religious thinkers through time have acknowledged that there could be “natural” morality alongside revealed morality.)

Yet Wolpe rightly was not anxious to concede an overriding arc of human goodness. He argued that Rodgers and Hammerstein got it wrong when they wrote that hate has to be "carefully taught," for it is goodness and right that have to be carefully taught. If generosity comes naturally to some, then reluctance to share or to welcome the new kid on the block can come just as naturally. In a godless world, you have to put all your trust in human goodness, and that is a scary prospect. Though religious extremism is a major threat to the future of the human species, religion itself provides the only principle on which all human beings can in theory agree on the universality of goodness. God gives supreme value to all human beings, and in a worldview other than that you may have to perish so I can survive. So argued Rabbi Wolpe.

Hitchens protested that if we are indeed created in the “image of God,” why are there so many psychopaths and Nazis? And if the Bible is such a sacred book, so necessary to the triumph of good, why does it prescribe the death of witches, of homosexuals, and of enemy combatants? Why does it allow for slavery? Wolpe was quick to point out that the Bible also played a role in ending slavery.

There is a lot in Jewish and Christian scriptures, Hitchens maintained, that doesn’t appear to be divinely-inspired. Nor does cosmology point to a compassionate God: Scientists predict that millennia from now, humanity can count on the oceans boiling and cooking people alive or gliding galaxies crashing into us. What kind of caring, loving, designing authority would plan the world that way?

In fact, the prospect of the world coming to an end has never posed that much of a threat to religious people, who regard life of any length as a divine gift. Many generations of Jews, beginning at a very young age, have had no problem chanting the “Adon Olam” hymn, which joyously affirms God’s reign, alone, after all creation has run its course.

Hitchens got his concerns across, but Wolpe made some good points about the limitations of Hitchens’ emphasis on human goodness. For me, however, the session at Temple Emanu-El was distinguished less by the philosophical debate as by what the evening meant for Christopher Hitchens and for other atheistically-inclined Jews. What was most fascinating about Hitchens’ rhetoric and demeanor was not so much his denials as his affirmations.

HITCHENS STARTED OFF by doing a very Jewish thing. He declared what he thought to be good and bad about Judaism. He actually said that it was “mostly good” in that it allowed for Marx, Freud, and Einstein. He said that he was touched by the way a destroyed synagogue was repaired by a tenacious community he had visited, even though he said later that he prefers Athens to Jerusalem.

Indeed, throughout the evening Hitchens did many a Jewish thing. He kept comparing synagogues: New York’s Emanu-El and the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, which he described as “Herzl’s shul,” in terms of size and beauty. And he was in shul, with hundreds of Jews in attendance. He was arguing about God and Torah. He seemed to enjoy being there.

He also spoke about how his family does Jewish things. He made a point of saying that he requires his daughter, whose mother is Jewish, to sit through a short Passover seder so that she learns about Jerusalem as well as Athens. (He was proud that the traditional seder is patterned after a Greco-Roman “symposium.”)

He said that he admires the restraint of traditional Judaism in matters of proselytization. Was he glad that traditional Judaism has not been shy about claiming the children of Jewish mothers, like him?

There was a strong third presence in the Hitchens-Wolpe debate — namely, the magnificence and majesty of the bimah in the sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El. The glorious painted carvings and touches, the imposing menorot, could not but catch and delight the eye. Hitchens was obviously affected by the beauty around him, and at times spoke in rather reverential tones, not only about the splendor of the architecture but about other things. In response to Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt’s question about what he would regard as a good argument for faith, Hitchens conceded that the argument for a Divine designer has to be confronted. True, he was quick to add that the universe does not prove the existence of a designer, certainly not a caring deity.

Clearly, Hitchens admired architectural designers. He waxed rhapsodic about the Parthenon, about which he said he could talk for hours. But he was quick to observe that since it was inspired by the goddess cult of Paris Athena, one had to separate it from its religious origins. Was that how he viewed Temple Emanu-El, as well?

Hitchens did make a point of highlighting the “important task” of separating the numinous, transcendent, beautiful, and aesthetic, from the superstitious and the supernatural. He chose to describe the Emanu-El sanctuary in a Harry Potter context, comparing it to the dining room of Hogwarts School. Surely he enjoyed shocking his audience, as a comparison to the halls of Oxford and Cambridge, institutions rooted in the Hebrew Bible, would have been more apt.

Hitchens warned that credulity in one area, religion, would lead to soft thinking in other disciplines. He admonished his audience: “If you can believe that, then you can believe absolutely anything.” Yet he was willing to surrender free will, which he regarded as “not important” because people have to act as though they have to make choices, even if they accept determining factors that limit free choice. In the Harvard debate, he extolled “extraordinary randomness.” But I have noticed that, in time, New Age doctrines like “synchronicity” and “destiny” tend to fill the vacuum left by overthrown religious belief, proving the inverse of Hitchens’ strictures: “If you can’t believe that, then you’ll believe in something else.”

I’d like to think that Hitchens was overcompensating a bit in his qualifications regarding how to talk about any temples because the debate at Temple Emanu-El meant something to him. Here he was, front and center, participating in a massive Jewish communal ceremony, a debate about religion, and here he was, very much a part of the “priest-craft” of that event (to use an expression that Hitchens used in another context).

Indeed, the more Hitchens tried to qualify his appreciation for sundry shrines originally rooted in religious cults, the more he proved his qualifications as a confirmand of sorts. And in many ways, the debate at Temple Emanu-El was his “confirmation” ceremony. He acknowledged, after all, that his mother’s ancestors stood at Mount Sinai. He referred to the Ten Commandments by arguing whether they are necessary for morality. He was part of a large minyan that night. He fought for his place at the table and took ownership of the event — and of his seat on the bimah.

Hitchens would have made a good confirmand in that he was constantly learning and picking up on Jewish concepts, if only to argue with them. In Los Angeles he said that he liked the old Jewish idea (with its roots in the Abraham saga) of arguing with God. Rabbi Wolpe reminded him that he would have to believe in God for that privilege to kick in. It was a good line; the audience loved it. But I wish that Hitchens had had a chance to address it. He did reveal that he was not familiar with the traditional Jewish concept of “partnership” with God. I’ll always wonder what he might have done with some of the concepts of which he had not yet heard.

For Hitchens, the Emanu-El debate was not only a confirmation ceremony of sorts, but a touching self-accounting at what may also be regarded as a modern-day Jewish “heresy trial,” which exonerated both Hitchens and some of the very Biblical passages that he had criticized. This “heresy trial” took the form of a debate because of the precedent of Biblical stoning laws which Hitchens had decried. Those laws, for everything from adultery to homosexuality to witchcraft to the wayward son, removed the punishment of anything deemed a social ill from an avenging mob to a religious court and, ultimately, to a debate in a synagogue. There were still mobs attacking alleged witches and their children in 1997 Russia, and this persists in other parts of the world.

Rabbi Wolpe made some of his best points during the Harvard debate. He noted that most religious conflicts are not about religion, but rather over land and riches. He cited an entry in the Encyclopedia of War that concluded that out of 1,763 identified conflicts, only 123 were religious wars. Religious people fight because they are people. The Talmudic rabbis spoke accurately, it seems, of the powerful yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, within each of us from birth, which they contrast with the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, which is weaker without training in the discipline of the commandments.

I found annoying, however, Wolpe’s tendency to defend the value of religion with “scientific” studies about how religion leads to greater health and happiness for its adherents and directs them to a level of altruism that they might not have otherwise achieved. At best, such claims are anecdotal. One can argue that the purpose of prophetic exhortation and of ritual alike is not to raise the health quotient but the holiness quotient of the people. Even Hitchens started playing Wolpe’s game during the Los Angeles debate, when he posited that people would never worry if there were really a God!

AT TEMPLE EMANU-EL, Hitchens determined the direction of the debate. At Harvard, Wolpe set the tone by asking: Is the universe constituted only by stuff, are we only synapses, or is there something immaterial? Why is there is something rather than nothing? Does this point to a deeper meaning to life? Can free will be affirmed without God? Without an immaterial realm, how can there be a directed choice which is not random so that human beings can rise above instinct?

At Harvard, as at Temple Emamu-El, Hitchens acknowledged that human beings have an interest in — need for? — the transcendent, adding that he wouldn’t trust people who were not so disposed. He insisted that such sensed transcendence would not need to be supernatural, but would derive more from awareness of landscape, light, love, or the transiency of life. His notion of the transcendent reminded me of Erich Fromm’s “x experience” or “universal religious attitude.”

By and large, the approach to God provided at these debates by Rabbi Wolpe was that of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) — namely, that religion begins with wonder at nature, at Scripture, at the transformative power of Jewish ritual, or at the thought that something out there feels for us and wants us to feel something in return. Heschel insisted that in any of these ways we can become aware, by quickened intuition, of a “meaning that is beyond the mystery,” an awareness of the “transcendent worth of the universe,” especially of human beings.

To Heschel, “mystery” is not the not-yet-known that might be resolved by diligent scientific inquiry, but the possibility that there is a meaning, and even a demand, behind the facts of the universe, no matter how much cosmology we think we may understand and appreciate. Heschel insisted not only that God is other than the universe and its mystery, but that to relegate God to being-as-such is an insult and danger to humanity. God must have at least as much pathos of compassion and righteous indignation for justice as people can sometimes muster, or there can be no transcendent source of justice and concern.

Heschel’s approach to God, as advocated by Rabbi Wolpe, may be regarded as “maximalist,” given the non-supernatural type of transcendence to which Hitchens gave some support. Indeed, without realizing it, Hitchens broke ground for secular Jewish appreciation of the God-idea of German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). Cohen began with the premise that Jews have an idea of God as divine unity, a rational idea like any concept, mathematical or otherwise. Cohen identified the God-idea as the “idea of truth” which alone balances nature and ethics and provides an ideal for human action.

If that God-idea indeed corresponds to divine reality, Cohen asserted, then such a divine being or spirit (Cohen uses both terms) would, as “unique being,” be the world’s creator — or better, according to Cohen, “renewer.” The spiritual work to which Cohen directed his readers, at least in his later work, was to “correlate” with the God-idea, bringing its being and becoming into the human experience, by cultivating repentance (through which one finds individuality in striving for ethics) and love of fellow human beings (which inspires one to work for the collective good). Cohen regarded religious practices like Sabbath observances as fostering social equality and other ethical ideals.

Hermann Cohen provided a “bottom line” or “minimalist” God-faith by characterizing Judaism as advocating a God-idea that brought transcendence and even eternity to ethical living. The notion of a God-idea may prove attractive to people who are agnostic about the reality of a divine being, but who regard such an idea as having had value in Jewish culture. Hitchens’ invocation of the transcendent, or Fromm’s “x experience,” could well fit in with such a concept, perhaps as a mystical experience of sorts added to it. Some might prefer the mystical experience of the transcendent (without talk of God or “spirit”) to the God-idea. Others may wish to “correlate” them, to use Cohen’s term, or to decide to correlate them in the future, or not at all.

Personally speaking, although a “maximalist” myself, I thank God for debates about God, and for how various options enhance Jewish culture, including outlooks perceived to be polar opposite. These videos, particularly the Temple Emanu-El debate, deserve to be seen and discussed.

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.

Watch the debate at Temple Emanu-el on YouTube: