Christopher Hitchens: A rabbi remembers a friend and fellow debater

In his brilliant history of early modern England, “The Ends of Life,” historian Keith Thomas quotes a translator named George Petrie who wrote in 1581, “The only way to win immortality is either to do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.”  Christopher Hitchens is, by this reckoning, twice immortal.

On the page his words leapt to life.  Can you imagine a more subtle, devastating takedown than his famous comments on Jerry Falwell? “If someone gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox.”  The infuriating thing about debating Hitchens was that such ripostes were not the fruit of long, diligent thought. He thought in epigrams, and even in conversation there were quotable lines expressed in his deep British voice, his “instrument,” as he called it, given heft and tone by years of oratory, scotch and cigarettes.

The difficulty in debating Hitchens was not only the readiness of his wit and the range of his reference.  Alongside his learning was an unusually rich experience of life.  He was filled in equal measure with adventure and erudition.  He had traveled to most of the dangerous (as well as glamorous) spots in the world and could give you pointers not only on the government, but the best bars in every city from Paris to Port au Prince.  After a dinner of drinking others under the table, he could rise, knock off a 2,000 word essay on the fiction of James Joyce, and then retire for what remained of the evening.  His was a prodigious, unflagging energy sprung from deep gifts.

We had vigorous disagreements, to say the least.  Not only in our debates, where we wrestled over the reality of God, the worth of religion and the possibility of an afterlife.  I also recall pressing him on his long-standing opposition to Israel.  As he got older and became a staunch opponent of militant Islam, his stance toward Israel softened, but Hitchens was not a man for backtracking.  Even his late discovery of his own Jewishness (which “delighted” him) did not change his hostility to the one place on earth that otherwise – as I tried to point out to him without effect—embodied the values he held most dear.

But I have wonderful snapshots of his charm and kindness: urging me to drink beer before our debate (“it’s only water…”), warning me before we stepped on stage that he would never compliment me in public, instructing me in a long car ride on the fine points of different scotches, the skill of P.G. Wodehouse, and a steady stream of stories about the famous and infamous. The flow of Hitchens talk was unstinting, and he did not “save” his best stories, since the reservoir had no bottom.

Hitchens won my daughter’s heart with his first introduction to her when she attended the debate in Los Angeles moderated by The Jewish Journal’s editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman.  He bent down to greet her (she was then 11), stuck out his hand and said “Hitchens here.”  She felt instantly that he was unique.  Of course, I, as her father, listening to him proclaim during the debate that the only prayer he ever offered was for an erection, hoped that the introduction – and not the priapic theology—would be her lasting impression.

I have one keen regret.  Hitchens and I had planned to visit Concord together after our Boston debate, and it would have been a feast to see the graves of the Transcendentalists, of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott and the others, with a lover of literature who was at the same time unalterably opposed to the reality of the unseen.  He had never visited and was eager to go.  But his daughter’s graduation coincided with the only day I could visit, and so I went alone and sent him pictures.

The world was more colorful and better critiqued when we had Hitchens scathing wit to scour our less-careful pronouncements.  (I recall watching him once on TV, when a defender of Hillary Clinton said, after a Hitchens assault, “Well that’s your opinion.”  Hitchens instantly replied, “Well of course it is. It would be fatuous to invite me on to spout YOUR opinion.” Ouch.)  He will be missed. 

Rabbi David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings on

Exodus Revisited

Life was interesting for Rabbi David Wolpe in 2001.

It’s not every year that a man has an ad taken out against him in The Jewish Journal by six well-respected rabbis, accusing him of "threaten[ing] our spiritual continuity by attempting to diminish our faith and sever the roots that bind us to it," and also gets named by The Forward as one of the Top 50 most influential people in the Jewish community.

During the past year, Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has been both vilified and lauded for his Passover sermon in which he questioned the truth of the Book of Exodus, as most of his congregants, indeed most of the Jewish world, had come to know it. His statements were recorded by Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe, who quoted Wolpe as saying, "Virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."

To say such declarations did not sit well with the rabbi’s Orthodox brethren is an understatement. The controversy evoked by the Los Angeles Times article about the sermon crossed not only interdenominational boundaries locally, but drew strong responses from across the United States and in Israel.

Many congregational rabbis were actually grateful. Instead of the usual, "We were taken out of Egypt and therefore must help the poor, homeless, suffering world Jewry…" sermons they try to make compelling year in and year out, suddenly there was a topic to dive into with gusto.

If indeed, the Exodus did not happen as stated in the Torah, what does that mean for the Passover seder, for the veracity of the Torah, for Israel and Judaism?

The debate raged among everyday congregants and world-renowned scholars. It spilled onto the pages of Moment magazine, in which Wolpe responded to an attack by Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review, who in turn rebutted Wolpe as follows:

"…The only aspect of the Biblical account that Rabbi Wolpe legitimately questioned on archeological grounds was the claim that 600,000 Israelite men (plus women and children, for a total of 2 or 3 million) crossed the desert. This is a gross exaggeration, I agree. But if Rabbi Wolpe had simply said this straight out-and-out, his sermon would not have garnered the publicity it did."

Even as recently as a few weeks ago, New York Times reporter Michael Massing made a point in his article about the Conservative movement’s new chumash, Etz Hayim, to bring up Wolpe’s "litany of disillusion" about the Torah.

In truth, Wolpe said that he was only stating what Orthodox Jews had always claimed Conservative Jews believed.

"Part of the outrage was artificial, because the Orthodox have said for years that Conservative Jews treat the Torah as a human document," Wolpe said. "We do, and I said it, and they said, how dare you say such a thing? So that was part of it."

Wolpe said his primary motivation in writing the sermon, was that he wanted to avoid the tendency of many rabbis to hide their knowledge and opinions from their congregants, believing that they would not be able to handle the information.

"A nationally important rabbi with whom I spoke after the sermon said to me, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t wish to treat my congregation as children.’ To which he said, ‘But they are children,’" Wolpe recalled, shaking his head.

"I think that is how a lot of rabbis think of their congregants," he continued. "I have had many rabbis say to me, I won’t bring you to my congregation to discuss this because it would undermine my religious position. That to me is a species of intellectual timidity that is unfortunate and even destructive."

Following the sermon and subsequent press, Wolpe said he got a call from a woman in Palm Beach, Fla., who told him that a couple of years ago she went to Israel on an archeological dig, and the archeologist said to her the same things that Wolpe said in his sermon.

"She said, ‘I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. But now it’s two years later, and my faith has deepened, so stick with it,’" the rabbi reported.

"I didn’t want my congregants to hear about this first at UCLA and to come back to me and say, ‘Rabbi, either you’re ignorant or you’re hiding. Why didn’t you tell us about this?’ I wanted them to know you can know this and still be a faithful Jew," Wolpe said.

Although the rabbi’s intentions were good, his characterization of belief in the divine origin of the Torah as blind faith angered some colleagues, particularly those in the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City, said after listening to the tape of Wolpe’s sermon that he felt compelled to confront the rabbi.

"I told him I took umbrage with the implication that Orthodox belief is blind belief; that it is an infantile stance, while those who believe in biblical criticism are the intellectuals, the enlightened ones," Muskin said. "To say that the Orthodox belief is that of the Dark Ages is just fallacious.

"We have been dealing with the same questions [as Bible scholars] for centuries, from the writing of the Talmud to the present day," said Muskin, who was part of a panel discussing biblical criticism March 20 at Valley Beth Shalom.

Over time, the controversy has died down somewhat. Muskin said he did not believe the incident created any lasting rift between Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles.

Wolpe noted that "all the dire predictions about what this would do to my synagogue were wrong. We still get over 1,000 people every Shabbos morning, and to my knowledge, not a single family resigned over this issue. I think that’s because even though many were challenged, they know that we don’t keep our children Jewish by keeping them in the dark."

Even congregants who dispute Wolpe’s point of view said that for the most part, the congregation stood by the rabbi.

"There are those who disagreed and those who stopped coming, but I don’t know anyone who has left the synagogue," said Sean Nass, a Sinai Temple member.

Nass was present for the initial sermon and said it was "jolting, to say the least." He said he was brought up in Iran to see the Torah as the link between God and humans.

"Then here you are all of a sudden with a prominent rabbi saying the link is deeper than the Torah, that you have to have deeper faith," he said. "It was very unsettling."

Nass, who is enrolled in Wolpe’s class, "Beyond Exodus," that expands on the ideas raised by last year’s sermon, said he believed that the rabbi’s only mistake was in his approach to the material.

"Rabbi Wolpe fell into a trap," he said. "His problem is he is brilliant, and sometimes when brilliant people talk to the masses, what they say could go over the masses’ heads. I think if he had built up to [these ideas] over five or six sermons, he wouldn’t have met with such a strong reaction."

Wolpe concluded that on a personal level, standing up and stating his beliefs has been a powerful experience.

"Churchill said, after the Boer War, ‘There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.’ I sort of feel the same way, that it was very bracing to see that all this could happen, and when it was over, I was still here," he said. "If it happens again, I’m not afraid of it."