Great Moments In Egomania: Christopher Hitchens Debates Shmuley Boteach


Last night, we journeyed up to the 92nd Street Y to see Christopher Hitchens debate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the existence of God.

It was the most cringe-inducing thing we’ve seen in a long time. Hell, it was something straight out of Curb Your Enthusiasm. We watched a clergyman, publicity hound that he may be, get verbally disembowelled by The Hitch.

Thoughts, notes and highlights after the jump.

Now, the first thing to understand is that this debate was as mismatched as it can get. Hitchens, for all his enfant terrible reputation and cultivated public persona, is a serious scholar and journalist. Despite his miscalculations when it came to Iraq and all those look-at-me-I’m-a-rebel! jabs at Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, Hitchens is still the author of essays on international politics, history and religion that will be read 50 years from now.

Meanwhile, Boteach — an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, comes out of the same media tradition as Christian personalities like Creflo Dollar, Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. He’s a man of the cloth who counts Michael Jackson and Uri Geller among his past professional collaborations. Boteach has books to his name like Kosher Sex and Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments and hosts the cringe inducing TLC program Shalom in the Home. Slate’s Benjamin Soskis once accused Boteach of promoting a religion “grounded in utilitarian justifications and stripped of inconvenient legalisms” — in other words, a Jewish version of the Christianity lite of Osteen & company.

There are a lot of believers whom we would like to see debate Hitchens. Religious historian Karen Armstrong, for one. Rabbi Michael Lerner for another. Religious porn blogger Luke Ford. The erudite Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Hell, even Catholic League honcho William Donahue. But we had to settle for Boteach.

The debate itself was 90 minutes of watching Hitchens verbally disembowel Boteach. The good Rabbi… Well, he argued that Steven Jay Gould denied the theory of evolution (!) and that by embracing atheism, Hitchens was embracing Jack Nicholson‘s idea that all mankind wants is meaningless sex. Boteach even quoted a back issue of Entertainment Weekly in an auditorium filled with some of New York’s most prominent academians and public intellectuals. Boteach made a big deal out of quoting Wikipedia, attacked Hitchens on Iraq and went on and on like a televangelist. Not to mention that Boteach endlessly bought up the fact that he was a rabbi at Oxford. For all his mentions of the University, one would think he was a student there. He wasn’t — he was merely Chabad-Lubavitch’s representative there.

Not that Hitchens was perfect. On-stage, he appeared to sweat more than Richard Nixon in the 1960 debates, his quotes and science were occasionally off-base (Hitchens stated that Cro-Magnon man was a distinct species from Homo Sapiens Sapiens and misplaced the location of the Creationist Museum) and he had a tendency to go for cheap shots. But, unlike Boteach, he stayed on message. That’s how he won.

Towards the end of a relatively calm question and answer section, Hitchens and Boteach both went off-base into a five minute shouting rant over the Old Testament’s Amalekites and Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein. Both of them went into a rant that involved everything from FDR to Hiroshima to Karl Popper to Israel Shahak. It was good.

Then we had some drinks and went home, hoping the Hitchens/Boteach shouting match would make it onto YouTube the next day. It didn’t.

(Image via 92nd Street Y)