Man or Beast

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It is hardly surprising that one of the most outspoken evangelists of atheism would have less-than-kind words about a man who empowered religion in American politics. But writer Christopher Hitchens went even beyond his usual eloquent obnoxiousness by commencing his comments in Slate about the late Jerry Falwell by asserting that “the discovery” of the Baptist minister’s “carcass” has significance mainly for “credulous idiot[s].”

The word chosen by the petulant writer to refer to Reverend Falwell’s mortal remains is telling. As a self-declared and proud “antitheist” whose most recent book carries the subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything,” Hitchens has no reason to view human beings as different from animals in any essential way. It is a stance that can lead to things like Princeton ethicist Peter Singer’s support for killing severely disabled babies and the unconscious elderly. As Professor Singer has explained: “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.” If antitheist Hitchens asserts some inherent human specialness, he is not only insufferable but inconsistent.

Reverend Falwell, by contrast, made his reputation by forcing the American body politic to consider that the human sphere, by virtue of a Divine plan, is uniquely, meaningfully different from all else on earth. The idea that men and women possess a spark of the Divine, that our lives hold the promise of holiness, is the beta-point – after the alpha affirming God – of religious belief.

Which is why Falwell, who coaxed religious Americans to raise a voice they hadn’t known they possessed, focused largely on issues that spoke to the holiness of human life. Like the preciousness of even its potential, and how the act able to create new human beings should be regarded as something more than a meaningless equivalent of its analogue in the animal world.

Predictably, such ideas make people like Hitchens crazy. The writer was rendered apoplectic by the reverend’s daring to voice opposition to the societal sanctioning of feticide, or of intimate relationships considered immoral by traditional Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist believers alike. Hitchens decried the “puddl[ing]” of the reverend’s “sausage-sized fingers into the intimate arrangements of people who had done no harm.” Hitchens’ hatred is so fervid it extends to Falwell’s very digits.

Nor is the cantankerous Divinity-denier content to just damn the late reverend (so to speak; Hitchens, of course, denies any ultimate reward or punishment). He insists on smearing him, too, with the tar of anti-Semitism.

Associating the Moral Majority founder with an assortment of unsavory characters on the sole basis of their common commitment to Christian belief, Hitchens sneers that Falwell must have hated Jews. The tar, though, doesn’t stick. I don’t know what Falwell may have held in his heart of hearts, but a verdict of guilty on a charge of Jew-hatred needs something more than guilt by the remotest association.

Ah, though, Hitchens points out, Jews are “unsaved” in the reverend’s theology.

Well, yes, some Christians’ beliefs entail a rejection of Judaism. Jewish belief, no less, rejects Christianity (at least for Jews). Theological affirmations, however, need not bespeak animus.

It is odd, in any event, that an atheist would be so exercised by a Christian’s belief about the spiritual merit, or lack thereof, of non-Christians. It certainly doesn’t bother this Jewish believer (who, well, believes he knows better).

I am not oblivious to how religions can beget – and have begotten – hatred and violence. Nor am I certain that there is no future (or even present) for Christian Jew-hatred. There are, after all, rabidly anti-Semitic groups in the American heartland that claim a Christian mandate for their hatred. Nor, to be honest, can I help but wonder what prejudicial lusts might yet lurk in the heart of former president Jimmy Carter and other similarly myopic defenders of populations pledged to drive Jews into the Mediterranean.

But the vast majority of contemporary Christians – including even those like Falwell who believe Jews can get to heaven only by becoming Christians – do not menace members of the tribe these days; and I respect a Christian’s right to his belief just as I wish that he or she respect mine to my own.

And so, while, as a believing Jew, I was not a Falwell-follower and was not always enamored of some of his pronouncements , he deserves credit not only for his support of Israel against her sworn enemies but for his determination, whatever else he may have said or believed, to call attention to the idea of the Divine.

Some, in the spirit of the Yiddish proverb that describes the best of worlds as one filled with “religious Jews and irreligious Goyim,” might prefer a horde of Hitchenses to a flock of Falwells. There is ample evidence, it cannot be denied, for the spawning of evil in the name of faith.

But let us also recall some historical wages of Godlessness – like Stalin’s “Great Purge” or Mao’s massacres or the Cambodian killing fields. And so, I am not convinced that the proverb has it entirely right. While religion can, and often is, misused, there is much to be said for a society pledged, however imperfectly, to the Divine, over one that regards human beings as nothing more than quickened carcasses.

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23 Responses

  1. Noam says:

    Referring to dead people as carcasses in this day and age is certainly repugnant and an attempt to minimize the person’s importance and/or humanity. However, it is not without precedent. In fact this past week’s parasha refers to carcasses of people three times(translated specifically by Ibn Ezra, confirmed by both Herz and Artscroll).

  2. One Christian's perspective says:

    Dear Noam –

    Thank you for your heartfelt comments.

    Please understand that all Christians are my brothers and sisters in Christ; we have a Spiritual bond that is different than one from natural birth and it is very often much closer. I can’t explain it but it is nontheless there.

    What I was trying to say, perhaps, not very well was that it is truly a misunderstanding to think a mere human can convert another one. This conversion as some call it is actually a new birth but one by the Spirit of G-d. There is always a heart change. Being a pagan for decades and living selfishly and following my own desires, I realized – like an on-going observation being played out daily – that my attitude toward G-d and men had taken a sudden turn for the better. My desire was to now love both and this was immediatedly followed by an overwhelming hunger to really learn and know all about G-d and to understand his Word and to bring Him joy.

    Sharing the Gospel is a biblical command given directly by Jesus to all his disciples. The NT doesn’t make it any clearer than that. It is also a heartfelt desire because we truly want others to have the peace, joy and the hope as we do.

    What is wrong is to try to force non-Christians to be like me by any human means possible. Does that action display love or respect ?
    No ! And it doesn’t even reflect a sound biblical basis and understanding of what G-d has done in my own heart and life. I did not change myself; why would I think I can change the heart of another ? That is arrogant, prideful, disrespectful……and self-serving. And not G-d glorifying.

    Having a changed heart and a love for G-d comes first but learning how to walk with the new heart takes a lifetime of practice and on-going struggle to cooperate with G-d’s Spirit. It is hard because the new heart is still wrapped in flesh that wants its own way not G-d’s way.

    My younger sister and I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. We were each other’s comfort and security and peace and . We also became lifelong intimate friends. That is….until the day I shared the joy of my faith with her. Her rejection was totally unexpected and very painful on both a personal level and a spiritual level. You see Noam I truly understand your anger because I have felt it albeit from my own sister.

    The hard lesson I learned that day was that to love another means I need to respect that person and their beliefs ..even if I don’t agree with them.

    You didn’t offend my Noam. I did it to myself.

  3. Noam says:

    Dear One Christian-

    I wrote specifically that the Falwell Christian view was to convert Jews. Certainly there are many other denominations of Christians who do not feel a religious obligation to convert jews. Those denominations were not the subject of my comment.

    As far as the Noachide laws, Jews believe that non-Jews are bound by them. However, until there is a government run according to strict Jewish law(which essentially means that until the Messiah arrives) it remains only a belief, with no associated action. Therefore, non-Jews face zero threat from Jews, even if they do not keep the Noachide laws.

    I was not intending to tar with a broad brush, and I certainly did not mean to offend you. The target was the Evangelical Christian world.

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    ” OTOH, in regards to your live and let live view, I would tend to ask why then are Jewish folks trying to convert gentiles to become Noahides ? Isn’t this a bit like the other side of the coin? ”

    I am willing to stand corrected, as I have only just begun to read some of the information available, however, I think that support by Jews of Noahide groups, is generally much less intense than the activities of any missionary group towards it’s non-members, and even less intense than one finds when Jews speak about their own religion to unaffiliated Jews, or to Jews of another group(within or without the same stream of Judaism).

    There is the realistic acceptance that most adherents of the world’s largest religions aren’t, in a lifetime, going to leave their own faith and join a Noahide group. However, people can serve as advisors to these groups, and the groups themselves can advertise the strengths of their beliefs and make literature available, without necessarily knocking on doors, or in any way violating “live and let live”.

    There is actually an interesting recent interview on OU Radio with a former Baptist pastor and leader of the First Covenant Foundation, a Noahide group, as well as with a Jewish attorney, who helped start the group. About 24 minutes into the mp3, the reverend tells that when he himself was searching, at some point, he approached a rabbi who was to become the group’s adviser, as opposed to vice versa.

  5. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    I had to re-read my essay to ascertain it was the same one that elicited some of the comments above. It seems to be, though, and so I’m a little puzzled. Nowhere did I hold Mr. Falwell up “as a role model” or “eulogize” him in any way. I simply noted that he “made his reputation” championing the idea that there is Something beyond the human sphere, and that he “coaxed religious Americans” to raise their voices. Those are simple facts.

    I did note that the charge of anti-Semitism lobbed by Hitchens against the evangelist were unfounded. That too, though, is a fact. That Falwell believed that Jews are unsaved (or even that the “antichrist” is a Jew) does not make him an anti-Semite. An anti-Semite is someone who professes or acts upon his hatred of Jews as a group. If Falwell was an anti-Semite, no evidence to that assertion has, to my knowledge, been put forward. As to his racist past, it is a distant one (just like that of some members of Congress) and one that he most certainly did indeed publicly disown, many decades ago, and regularly since then. His change of heart has nothing to do with teshuva (I don’t know that racism is a sin in any event; not every mistaken belief is a sin). Anyone can change his opinion, and when such changes are for the better, it is exceedingly small-minded and ungenerous to refuse to accept the new profession of belief.

    All of which is really beside the subject of the essay. That would be Hitchens, or more precisely, the point of view he champions, that people are in their essence nothing more than animals. I don’t think my contention that his point of view is wrong, or even dangerous, should ruffle any feathers.

    As to my alleged preference of a nation of Jihadists over one of skeptical atheists, well, no, I would much prefer the latter. But neither one was a subject of my words. I simply noted that antitheists (not skeptics) like Hitchens are dangerous in their own right, and that religious Christians (and yes, religious Muslims – Jews lived among them for centuries in relative peace) need not present a threat to us, and have the idea of humanity as special in common with believing Jews. I believe that is not only true but something that believing Jews should make known to non-Jews.

    One last point about Mr. Falwell. While it is indeed a law of human nature that “Esav hates Yaakov,” I think it is quite clear that that Rabbinic statement refers to particular non-Jews, not all non-Jews, and not all Christians. Nor did the Talmudic rabbis ask us to respond in kind. Whatever one may choose to think about the late evangelist, I don’t think that expressing the sort of anger and hatred evident in some of the postings above reflects well on us as a community.

  6. One Christian's perspective says:

    Jerry Falwell wished the best for Jews. However, the best he wished for us was that we all convert to his religion. There is a huge difference between the Jewish view of Christianity(at least according to the Meiri and most non-Chareidi moderns) and the Falwell Christian view of Jews. We have a live and let live view(within certain boundaries). They have a RELIGIOUS obligation to convert us. The fact that they are not forcing us to convert is more due to a lack of power and opportunity than a feeling of love, friendship, and acceptance. Anyone who feels otherwise is sadly misguided and pollyannish.

    Comment by Noam

    Ouch !
    I can understand how past history and observations forms perceptions. I understand this well even in my own life history; perceptions may not be totally accurate or truthful. Christians, even if they actually thought so, can not convert anyone. That concept is like making someone sit in a garage hoping they will become a car. It just doesn’t work and it was never intended to be done this way ! The Reformation brought about dramatic changes as well as sorely needed correction to unbiblical ideas of a works salvation. From this came the path known as the 3 Solas of salvation – it is by: Grace Alone, By Faith Alone, Through Christ Alone. Man has a small part of sharing the gospel but it is arrogant to think man actually has the ability to change hearts. We can’t change or fix our own, let alone someone else’s heart. This is G-d’s work.

    Authentic Christianity isn’t something one is born into or something one becomes because of ancestorial beliefs or practices and never by force or deceptive practices or fraud or making someone feel guilty.

    I respect your view and your position that you wish to remain Jewish and I sincerely hope I haven’t offended you with mine.

    OTOH, in regards to your live and let live view, I would tend to ask why then are Jewish folks trying to convert gentiles to become Noahides ?

    Isn’t this a bit like the other side of the coin ?

  7. Noam says:

    Let us not forget that Jerry Falwell also announced that the anti-Christ was alive, well, and a Jewish man.

    Jerry Falwell wished the best for Jews. However, the best he wished for us was that we all convert to his religion. There is a huge difference between the Jewish view of Christianity(at least according to the Meiri and most non-Chareidi moderns) and the Falwell Christian view of Jews. We have a live and let live view(within certain boundaries). They have a RELIGIOUS obligation to convert us. The fact that they are not forcing us to convert is more due to a lack of power and opportunity than a feeling of love, friendship, and acceptance. Anyone who feels otherwise is sadly misguided and pollyannish.

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    Ori,
    The question is whether we give non-Jews the benefit of the doubt in the same way that we give our fellow Jews. It seems that Chazal have different criteria for the two. If you try to unify the criteria and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, you have to give a rationale for it according to sources. Just having a wish for fairness and to be kind to our allies is not enough.

    Comment by Yehoshua Friedman

    What about the command to love your neighbor (or the stranger living amony you) as yourself ?

  9. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    To: Charles Hall

    Tshuvah should be accepted whenever it comes.

    I agree, if it’s really teshuva. It’s too bad (and convenient) that his “conversion” occurred when his views on race were no longer politically expedient.

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Ori,
    The question is whether we give non-Jews the benefit of the doubt in the same way that we give our fellow Jews. It seems that Chazal have different criteria for the two. If you try to unify the criteria and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, you have to give a rationale for it according to sources. Just having a wish for fairness and to be kind to our allies is not enough.

  11. SM says:

    Public racism equals public teshuva. Private recantation doesn’t equal teshuva. Falwell should have spent as much time denouncing racism as he spent espousing it.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, the views of Hitchens, Stephen Gould and the other militant atheists show an amazing lack of knowledge and familiarty with TSBP. For those interested in seeing how a Rishon would address such a critique, look at the drasha of the Ramban entitled “Toras HaShem Temimah” that is printed in Kisvei HaRamban.

  13. Joe Green says:

    But it is only fair to mention that Rev. Falwell renounced his segregationist past later in his life. Tshuvah should be accepted whenever it comes

    I agree that it is fair to mention that Falwell renounced his segregationist past, (though its also fair to wonder if this change was politically motivated.)

    However, the obituaries published at Cross Currents (two(!)(So far.) have not told us that he “renounced his segregationist past.” The reason: The mourners (Rabbi Shafran and Rabbetzin Katz) have not mentioned it at all! Its fair to ask why they are averting their eyes.

    The opening act of Falwell’s career is relevant in an obituary that seeks to be something other than a whitewash. It is especially relevant in a sentance that seeks to tell us how he made his reputation, a sentance such as this: “Reverend Falwell, by contrast, made his reputation by forcing the American body politic to consider that the human sphere, by virtue of a Divine plan, is uniquely, meaningfully different from all else on earth.”

    As noted by more accurate chroniclers of Falwell’s career, the reverend “made his reputation” by preaching that segregation and anti-black bigotry were part of the divine plan. At first, the only human sphere he carerd about was the white human sphere. And, I rather doubt that a man who had first reached public attention by rejecting the Jewish parts of the human sphere would ever be quite so warmly embraced by the members of this blog. Even if he did eventually renounce his anti-Semitic past.

  14. Ori Pomerantz says:

    SM, how would you expect Falwell to do teshuvah other than recant his wrong position? He can’t pay restitution – there have been too many people effected by racism, and no way to quantify how much damage he personally did. Shouldn’t we judge him favorably and assume that his recantation came from heartfelt tshuva?

  15. Charles B. Hall says:

    To Lumpy Rutherford:

    I was never a fan of Rev. Jerry Falwell, who did support the segregationists during the 1950s and 1960s who closed public schools in Virginia rather than allow integration. As a Democratic Committeman in two Virginia counties during the 1980s, I personally worked in opposition to his influence. But it is only fair to mention that Rev. Falwell renounced his segregationist past later in his life. Tshuvah should be accepted whenever it comes.

  16. SM says:

    Given Hitchens’ views on Israel and his refusal to acknowledge he is (supposedly) Jewish this is simply yet another instance of the unspeakable in hot pursuit of the uneatable.

    Falwell believed in God. Not ours but one who supported us. We need to acknowledge that. On the other hand he also had a whole set of beliefs which were offensive to many and which we would not share. Why is CC eulogising him again?

    Racism – which Falwell apparently recanted late in life focuses on anything BUT the sanctity of human life. Recantation is something but it’s not teshuvah – of which we have no evidence. So, enough already!

    Shavua tov.

  17. LOberstein says:

    Is it true that Hitchins has a Jewish mother? I think I read that somewhere. Maybe Hitchens is the Rush Limbaugh of atheism, by that I mean that he gets his fame and fortune by being outragious. If he is not being cynical, then he has some emotional problem that is boiling over, normal people don’t get so worked up about Falwel’s death.

    As far as Falwell being an anti-semite and a racist, it might be true that he made such statements but he may have mellowed over time. We Jews are bereft of friends, we need all the friends we can get. So, we can accept help from Christians who love the Jews like Rev. Hagee, as long as we don’t delude ourselves and let our guard down.

  18. A True Believer says:

    The choice is not only between religion and atheism. The is also a choice between religion and religion. If there is only One True G-d, it follows that there is only one true religion; all the others must be false or at least partially false. I will confine my next remarks to the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam ,and Judaism. Christianity claims that both it and Judaism are true religions. Islam claims that it, Judaism and Christianity are true. Judaism claims both Christianity and Islam are false religions and that Judaism alone is the one and only true monotheistic religion. All those who are unsure of which religion is true are obligated to study all threreligions and decide personally which one rings true. Poor, pitiable Christopher Hitchens presumably has studied all religions and concluded that they are all false. No wonder why he is a miserable, depressed, alcoholic cynic. We too,would feel the same way if we believed that life is meaningless and the result of series of purposeless evolutionary accidents.

  19. Rabbi Zvi says:

    >Why would anyone, especially a rabbi, want to hold this man up as a role model?

  20. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    Jerry Falwell was a vile racist who believed that segregation was Divinely ordained. Why would anyone, especially a rabbi, want to hold this man up as a role model?

  21. One Christian's perspective says:

    I would venture to say that there are far more people in the world who believe in the Divine than those who don’t – i.e. atheists. However, of that population, I would also venture to say that few “put their trust in G-d in all things at all times”. There is a spark of unbelief in most – if we are honest. And that isn’t because G-d moved; we did.

  22. Holy Hyrax says:

    While religion can, and often is, misused, there is much to be said for a society pledged, however imperfectly, to the Divine, over one that regards human beings as nothing more than quickened carcasses.

    Ok, so you are admitting that religion can be used for bad and HAS been used for the worst evil in the past 2000 years AND we are saying that Godlessness has also caused the worst atrocities around… then by what virtue are you saying that is better for a society to be pledged to the divine?

    So far, history has shown both ways have caused horrible outcomes.

  23. Gershon Josephs says:

    “there is much to be said for a society pledged, however imperfectly, to the Divine, over one that regards human beings as nothing more than quickened carcasses”

    So you would prefer a nation of Islamic Jihadists, proclaiming their undying love for Allah, over a nation of skeptical Atheists? I doubt it. I really don’t understand why you continually associate ‘belief in the Divine’ with morality and good behavior, when the current situation with Islam has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that such an association is false. Clearly, communities, nations and groups need to be judged on the basis of their morality, and from our Jewish perspective, on their level of anti-semitism. Unfortunately, ‘belief in the Divine’ does not seem to be a factor which helps either way, as our long and bitter history has proven time and time again.