The famous (or infamous?) atheist thinker’s distinctly Jewish style
There is something fundamentally Jewish about Christopher Hitchens’ legacy of debate, intellectualism and moral exploration. It doesn’t take much to see a parallel between his confrontational, often enraged discussion style and the general tone of the Judaism’s prophetic books—especially on questions of ethics and morality. Let’s acknowledge from the outset that Hitchens’ impact was felt by all who crossed his path. He would not have appreciated the imposition of a narrative with spiritual undertones upon his words, choices and platforms. Nevertheless—with all his question marks, conflicts and contradictions—Hitchens embodied a fiery, secular Judaism with totality of spirit.
When I was first leaving the Pentecostal Christian lifestyle that characterized my early years, there were few thinkers as powerful to me as Hitchens. One of the most celebrated—and reviled—authors of his time, Hitchens was an outspoken opponent of religion, a controversial political thinker and something of a humanitarian. Hitchens’ role as a ferocious debater and frequent talking head on a variety of punditry programs made him an atheist messiah to some—and a false prophet to others. Even those in the realm of Secular Humanism found his role as an unintentional figurehead of the New Atheism movement polarizing.
If there is anything to be said about being a terrified little Pentecostal boy who turns his back on his upbringing to pursue secular studies and—eventually—converts to Judaism, it’s that voices like Hitchens’ are essential. They’re essential because they articulate the inner anxieties of burgeoning heathens, a class of people I once belonged to. As if to say, “It’s OK to be unafraid of dogma and fear-mongering,” Hitchens blasphemed with a confidence that would make the devil blush.
By that same token, he could be off-putting in his warmth, known for his good humor and fine taste in alcoholic beverages. He was at once both a vulgar man and a man of culture, an intellectual who stood in the balance between those extremes. At times he was unaware of how strange his maintenance of these tensions was to others. His speeches and debates were invigorating; he approached all opponents with equal verve.
Damn the fact that he spent most of his life critiquing religion, sparking a reformation of how secular society sees spiritual institutions. Watch any debate of his—but especially his tag-team with actor Stephen Fry on the morality of the Catholic Church—and you will see his Yiddishe neshamah (Jewish spirit), possess him, endowing him with a Jacob-like precociousness. He wrestled with the legacy of Jesus, Mary and all the apostles with a wry smile and a confident stance that belied his enviable self-control.
After I converted, I compiled my own siddur, filled with traditional prayers, poems and quotations from thinkers who inspired or provoked me in ways consistent with the words of the sages. Hitchens, among others, was one of those thinkers, and a few of his thoughts wound up somewhere in my pages. As a naturalist, I didn’t feel any tension in blending the words of a free thinker with the words of the Psalms. In fact, it seemed right.
Hitchens himself seemed pleased to discover his own Jewish heritage in his later years, by way of his grandmother. The matrilineal descendant of Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Hitchens was a frequent critic of Zionism, though not because of any subconscious self-hatred. He saw Judaism’s emphasis on dialectics positively and had kind words for the Jewish enlightenment. While not an endorsement of the faith itself, it was as if he was happy to be a product of a people so philosophically discontented, so endlessly searching for truth. Even in his heresy (so-called), he was a Jew.
Perfectly embodying this Jewish struggle with truth was Hitchens’ debate with celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Goading Boteach along, Hitchens showed no love for the sacred, elevating his own humanism to an almost religious intensity and implying that Boteach and other theists are simply “wish-thinking” or delusional in their belief in a god. Hitchens forecasted the end of our own planet due to forces outside of our control—“Fucking soon, ladies and gentlemen!” It’s powerful stuff, and embarrassing for Boteach, like most who try to hold their own against Hitchens; classic Hitchens.
Without Hitchens around to swill liquor and laugh at our hypocrisies—his own included—the world is dimmer. Maybe it’s the gathering snow outside my window. Knowing the rogue who so fiercely challenged me to question everything and savor all isn’t off somewhere infuriating somebody makes everything less colorful.
Torn about saying kaddish for Hitchens, I’ll respect his own atheism and leave God out of it. Even so, I owe a debt to Hitchens for his never-ending challenge to others to think freely and according to one’s conscience, to question everything, and to be unafraid of the threats of dogma. In part because of this radical Jew, I found a satisfying, meaningful life of my own and the liturgy to express it.
Baruch Hashem? Hitchens would say that’s pushing it.
John Wofford is a New Voices blog editor and a junior at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich.