The news of the death of Christopher Hitchens brought with it a deep sadness and I instantly recited the Jewish prayer upon hearing of the passing of a friend, “Blessed is the True Judge.”
That instinctive religious action captured the paradox of our unpredictable friendship, born in battle in four public debates – stretching from 2004 until 2010 – on God, faith, evolution, and religion, but solidified over food at kosher restaurants, kosher wines, and, of course, healthy swigs of whisky.
We were planning, over the last few months, to do another debate on whether the Jews are the Chosen People, a subject that held a particular interest for him given his discovery that he was Jewish only when he was in his 20s.
Back and forth we went, trying to find a time that might suit him as he awaited the literal return of the voice he had lost to his treatment against esophageal cancer. His mother had also told him that she planned to move to Israel where the Jews were making the desert bloom, a move that was never carried out due to her tragic suicide.
I once asked him, given his mother’s growing attachment to her people, what it would have meant to him for her to live to see the substantial Jewish intellectual following he would one day amass. He told me it would have made him very happy to see her proud. He further shared with me how, amid his passionate atheism, he took pride in his Jewishness because of Jewry’s immense emphasis on learning and scholarship, and being the “people of the book.”
When I first heard that Christopher was ill, I urged people of faith to pray for him. I subsequently asked him if that offended him. He said that he was deeply flattered, even as he was sure there was no one to hear those prayers. But pray we did, a great many of us, because there was something immensely likeable about him that endeared him to friend and foe alike.
You could not help but develop an affection for him due to his warmth, wit, and, bizarre as it may sound, humility. Unlike such bitterly antagonistic atheists as Richard Dawkins, Hitchens may have had a problem with God, but he had no such problem with His children. He was one of the world’s most strident and eloquent defenders of human freedom, going so far as to break with the left-wing intelligentsia in strongly supporting the invasion of Iraq to protest Saddam’s brutalization of his people. Indeed it is immensely ironic – or if you’re more inclined to faith, providential – that he died on the very day the United States announced the end to the nine-year war in Iraq, a conflict that he brought his unparalleled eloquence to defend because of his hatred of tyranny in all forms.
Hitchens continued that trend by using his mighty pen to inveigh against any political regime he perceived trampled on the innocent. As an essayist, he had no equal. As a debater, he had few who could better him. One entered into the verbal arena with him with the keen knowledge that it would be a fight to the death.
For all his fame, he evinced an accessibility that made him unique. Write him an e-mail and, after a day or two, he would invariably write back, not just a line but many paragraphs. And there was always some unique turn of phrase that brought a smile.
Not that it was always like that. After publishing “God is Not Great,” I detected a hardening in him against people of faith that I found out of character. In February 2008, we debated at the 92nd St. Y over the existence of God. The video has now been viewed by nearly three-quarters of a million people.
He had written in his anti-religious screed that Jewish courts in Israel had ruled that a Jew may not save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. I publicly pledged to buy 100 copies of his book for 100 rabbis if he could cite even a single such instance. He quoted a source that later turned out to be a famous fraud perpetrated by academic Israel Shahak. I was incensed. I wrote Hitchens that as someone who always prided himself on the truth, he had to correct the false information he disseminated. He wrote back that he would amend the assertion in the book’s next printing, and our relationship cooled.
But while the announcement of his esophageal cancer did not soften him on God, it did soften him on people of faith, surprised as he was at the huge outpouring of support and prayer from people of every religion. We agreed to stage a public discussion on the afterlife which took place before 1,000 people at the Cooper Union in September 2010, the night before Yom Kippur. The debate saw an entirely new exchange between Christopher and myself, one in which we did not seek to eviscerate each other’s arguments so much as soberly and respectfully discuss one of life’s most profound mysteries.
I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens will have an afterlife. As one of the most original and provocative writers of his generation, his words will continue to mesmerize, incite, confound, and entertain. As an atheist who challenged America’s deeply held religious convictions, he will continue to serve as a thorn in the side of those who believe that religion requires no rational defense. And for those of us who were privileged to know him, he will be remembered as a warm and engaging presence who, ever the iconoclast, was never afraid to swim alone against strong social currents.