A Rabbi on What It Was Like to Debate Hitchens: Imagine Getting in the Ring with Ali

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 3:09 PM

A Rabbi and Hitchens Walk Into a Bar…

I debated Hitchens six times. Here’s what it was like.

Christopher Hitchens
It was never easy to win a debate against Christopher Hitchens

See Slate's full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate's complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

My first moments with Christopher Hitchens were interrupted by a man who pointed out that on the back of my book on faith, a reviewer was quoted saying “even Christopher Hitchens might find his heart warmed.” So, the man asked Hitchens, was your heart warmed?  Hitchens regarded my book as an enforcer from Men in Black might look at a particularly repellant alien. “Oh no,” he said, “my heart is far too reptilian for that.”

Christopher Hitchens was that rarest of polemicists—even his disgust had delight. As he pronounced anathemas on you and your kind, the smile peeked out beneath the sneer. His bearing was like Muhammad Ali in the early days: gleeful contempt for the opponent was sort of a game—a high-stakes game, but a game nonetheless. Apart from his occasional abrupt rudeness to a questioner he considered bumptious or untutored, Hitchens threw himself into combat with infectious gusto.  Arguing with him did not involve meeting the punch you knew he would throw, but the hopeless task of combating the unexpected uppercut, the stinging apercu offered in his British baritone.  Hitchens evoked laughter the way master comedians do, even before speaking. His throat clearing was like the unbuttoning of a stripper’s overcoat, promising delights to come.       

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As every Hitch fan knows, it was not the range of reading alone but the astonishing recall that made Hitchens so formidable in combat. You could catch him out—he was often careless with details, especially about religion—but supplementary citations would cascade, overwhelming the solitary crumb of history you had industriously unearthed for the moment.  I made the mistake once of mentioning that Evelyn Waugh—great writer, nasty man—had said that his Catholicism made him better than he would otherwise have been.  I was then buried under an avalanche of Waugh—his misdeeds, his pronouncements, the depradations of Catholicism throughout the centuries culminating in his vile Waughness.  Afterward, ruefully, I said, “I will never give you the gift of Waugh again.” He smiled, because it didn’t matter.  I could have said something about !Kung culinary habits and been similarly assailed by his travels in the Kalahari and how he helped the !Kung salt their meat.       

He won my then 12-year-old daughter’s heart when they first met by bending down, putting out his hand and saying “Hitchens here.” Granted, during that debate he mentioned that his only prayer had been for an erection, but I like to think she retained only the first impression.

After our debate in Los Angeles, Christopher (never “Chris”—a mistake that would evoke either annoyance or a circumcision joke about snipping his name) and I took a car to San Diego. During the two-and-a-half hour ride, he spoke at length about scotch (Black Label is the perfect blended; red was beneath notice, and blue too costly for the upgrade); P.G. Wodehouse (complete with copious quotations), Anthony Powell; whom I had been reading (too neglected in America, a toff but a perceptive one); and those religious antagonists whom he esteemed and those whom he did not. He would talk about anything but religion with me because he wanted to ”keep it fresh.”

Needless to say, there are many ways in which I think Hitchens was wrong, sometimes reckless in scattershot attacks, too flip or glib or ready to buy the certainties of today’s science.  But what a loss.  What a rare constellation of gifts and courage and learning he brought to this world. Once in Boston, half an hour late, cigarette in one hand and red wine in the other, he crossed the lobby of the hotel, spotted me and said “Hello, darling.”  There was a slight smile on his lips and a rhetorical killer look in his eye.  I knew it would be a long evening.

See Slate's full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate's complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

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