By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This Sunday evening, August 22nd, Christopher Hitchens will appear on my radio show on 77 WABC in New York City to discuss his memoir, Hitch 22. It will not be our first meeting.
Hitchens and I have had three fiery, take-no-prisoners debates about G-d and religion. Millions of people have apparently watched them on YouTube. The first, at Makor, was the one I enjoyed the most. It was hard-hitting, but ended friendly. The second, at the 92nd St. Y, was cantankerous and at times almost brutal. The third, in Puebla, Mexico, followed that trend.
I was upset at Hitchens after the last two debates. I felt that subsequent to his publication of his screed against religion, G-d Is Not Great, he had become radicalized in his attitude toward religion. After the first debate we went out for dinner at a kosher restaurant. After the second we took a few photos together and that was it. Each of our partisan followers went to work spinning the debate according to their belief or lack thereof.
But when I heard that Hitchens had esophageal cancer and might even be dying, I was extremely sad and immediately began to pray for his health and recovery. I wrote to all my friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter to do the same. Hitchens would tell me not to waste my time, that no one is listening. But I know that G-d above has a special place for Hitchens, amid his status of being an avowed enemy of the faith.
The reason? Because when the whole world excoriated the United States for its invasion of Iraq, he was almost the only one of the leading liberal writers that championed the cause. Not because he supported Bush, or loved America. But because the one thing Hitchens has always been passionate about is his hatred of tyrants and his compassion for their victims. Hitchens has used his pen with unequaled eloquence as a sword to defend those being brutalized by despots. The most assured way of loving G-d is to love His children, and Hitchens has been a consistent and eloquent defender of innocents throughout his life.
Hitchens criticism of religion is, of course, sometimes accurate. But by and large I find his attacks on religion to be his weakest advocacy, lacking his usually robust intellectual rigor. He can sometimes come across as an atheist fundamentalist and be as close-minded as the most extreme religious extremist.
But notwithstanding our staunch disagreements on religion and faith, Hitchens is, quite simply, a pleasure to read. His prose have an unequaled elegance and he just might be the greatest living essayist in the English language. If he writes a new column, I have to read it. Which is why we all so want him to live. Eloquence and courage of his caliber is a potent and rare mixture. He sometimes has me pulling my hair (beard) out. But I love reading him. He is always entertaining, always iconoclastic, and always a contrarian. As someone who has been a fierce individualist throughout his life, I salute Hitchens’ daring to be different. Our society tends toward conformity. It’s terrifying to be out there on your own, different, isolated, alone. But Hitchens has trailblazed a solitary, yet fascinating path.
So, let’s conclude with a question. Can a man who spent his life thundering against religion as something fraudulent and dangerous be a hero to the faithful? Since Hitchens is Jewish, as am I, I must answer from the benefit of our tradition.
Judaism does not judge people by their faith, but by their actions. It does not look primarily at what people say but at what they do. Hitchens has been a courageous voice for the voiceless and has championed the cause of the persecuted. No doubt he has earned divine favor for doing so, and yes, we who espouse a belief in G-d can look up to his courage in speaking truth to power and walk in those footsteps.
G-d surely has his hands full with Christopher Hitchens, but He has a soft spot for him nonetheless. I just hope G-d doesn’t end up liking Hitch too much for fear that he will yank him up to the heavens way too soon, when we still want to spend a lot more time with him here on earth.
We pray for your healing Christopher and trust you will fight your illness with as much gusto and verve as you have fought everything else in life, and we all hope for your recovery and triumph.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts ‘The Shmuley Show’ on 77 WABC in NYC. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the author, most recently, of ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.