What do you get when you pit Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in debate against two smart and liberal rabbis? A debacle—for the rabbis, of course. In a comment on yesterday’s post about Hitchens, Heber Gurrola revealed that the “afterlife debate” between Harris, Hitchens, and rabbis David Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson is now online at Purim, the Jewish Television Network.
The debate was held on February 15th at the Witzin Center at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and was moderated by Rob Eshman. The topic, “Is there an afterlife?,” was particularly poignant given that three of the participants—all but Harris—had had cancer, with two of them (Hitchens and Wolpe) in remission.
You can watch the debate here, and I recommend your doing so. It’s an hour and 37 minutes long, but you won’t be wasting your time. It is, at times, hilarious, and the clash of intellects immensely stimulating. Pour yourself a drink and think of it as an erudite but entertaining movie. SPOILER ALERT: the afterlife gets pwned.
Don’t expect to find good arguments for an afterlife—these are “modern” rabbis, and their capacity for waffling and turning religious “truths” into insubstantial metaphors was astounding. Trying to pin them down about what they think the afterlife really is was a futile endeavor. When asked whether the afterlife is a place, Wolpe responded with a deepity: “The sages are not in Paradise, but Paradise is in the sages”. One rabbi even asserted that when he says he’ll meet his grandmother after death, he really means that as a metaphor.
Silly Rabbi–don’t you know that tricks are for kids?
On the rabbinical side, Wolpe was particularly eloquent and learned, but he and Artson were trounced by Harris and Hitchens (of course, I’m hardly unbiased here, even though I’m a cultural Jew). As always, Hitchens gave a sterling performance despite his illness, putting the rabbis in their place time after time and refusing to let them get away with assertions like, “Oh, religion doesn’t believe that stuff any longer,” or “The hope for an afterlife gives us solace and direction.” The man is a tiger on the platform. Sam showed his characteristic dry wit, and was the good cop to Hitchens’s bad one. Do watch it.
Oh, and Landon Ross, who went to the debate, gives a pretty accurate summary at The Rational Ape.