On Wednesday night, the 92nd Street Y took a leap of faith and hosted a debate between avowed atheist and God-hater Christopher Hitchens and Kosher Sex author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. I say "leap of faith" because it was the 92nd Street Y, bastion of liberal Judaism, inviting the implacably atheistic and devastatingly intelligent Hitchens in to debate the existence of God — and gave him the easy side. "The burden of proof is not with me," said Hitchens calmly at the outset, and though he went on to eviscerate organized religion (and specifically the tenets of Judaism) he really didn't need to, because his argument was won right there — because his opponent could come up with nothing to counter it.
While it's true that Hitchens had the easy side — whatever "proof" a rabbi could offer of God (the stars, sun, incredible mysteries of the human body, how someone who looks like Mystery is giving lessons in scoring chicks) could never be incontrovertible enough for such an exacting logician (Iraq war arguments notwithstanding), Boteach offered up exactly....nothing. Worse than nothing, actually, because his remarks amounted to time-wasting bloviations, attacks on Hitchens himself (always a telltale sign when someone's flailing: Attacking the writer rather than the writings), and shameless name-drops about when he was at Oxford (plus one non-sequitur mention of Kosher Sex). He also made some stunning scriptural errors for a Rabbi (saying that "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was a universal commandment that the Jews followed throughout the Bible, leaving aside all manner of indigenous peoples vanquished once they entered the Holy Land; offering up an odd formulation of the notion of the "Chosen People" that didn't acknowledge the bedrock covenant with God — though he used it elsewhere to justify circumcision, again poorly, especially as Hitchens wondered why God would care what we do to our genitals or those of our children). Hitchens countered all of Boteach's non-arguments effortlessly, at one point commenting almost pityingly that Boteach was doing his job for him. It was, in a word, excruciating.
You can see a video excerpt here, but if you want to know how appallingly short Rabbi Boteach fell in attempting to counter Hitchens, look no further than the scathing commentary from the assorted writers in attendance over at Jewcy. A sampling:
Phoebe Maltz: "I found myself wishing the rabbi could make one coherent point."
Jeff Bercovici: "Hitchens wiped the floor with Boteach to such an extent that it was actually Hitchens who lost, in a sense, just by showing up. Lost stature, that is. He should be debating his equals, not publicity-hungry TV rabbis."
Daniel Radosh: "After the way Hitchens treated Boteach, it was a little hypocritical of him to chastise God for condoning bloodbaths."
Rachel Sklar (me): "In the cab on the way home, we coined a new phrase: 'To Shmuley,' denoting the making of pathetic, unsupported non-sequitur arguments and the taking of flailingly weak intellectual positions, with a dash of name-dropping bluster thrown in for good measure. *
We didn't speak to anyone who thought otherwise. Afterward, the line to get Hitchens to sign books was long and slow moving (see video below); a plaintive 92nd St. Y employee would occasionally call out to see if anyone was there for the Rabbi (and moderator Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who was clearly getting exasperated with Boteach himself). At one point the same employee tried to speed things up. "To speed this process up, we ask you to turn to the page of the book that says "God Is Not Great," she said. "I never thought I'd be saying that as a director of Jewish faith."
For my part, I was thoroughly impressed with Hitchens and lined up to have him sign my book, introducing myself politely. Actually, it was my second time meeting himi — third if you count being on Scarborough Country together as having "met" — but it wasn't the time for quibbling over details, so I just asked him to sign my copy and didn't mention this. Well, mostly.
I'm taking that as a concession — or certainly as much of one as I'll ever get. Which, frankly, is more than Rabbi Boteach got. Close-up of my inscription below; see Jewcy's account here.
*I left off the end of the comment, where I make the same pun I do in this headline. Is it plagiarism if you steal from yourself?