Rabbi Avi Shafran: Man or Beast


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editorial.jpgIt 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 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.

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 tzelem Elokim, that our lives hold the promise of kedusha, is the beis-point – after the aleph affirming a Creator – 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 Falwell’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 religious leader’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 condemn the late religious leader to eternal castigation (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 Falwell’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 many 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 Klal Yisroel these days; and I respect a Christian’s right to his belief just as I wish that he 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 saying that describes the best of worlds as one filled with “frum Yidden and freieh 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 G-dlessness – like Stalin’s “Great Purge” or Mao’s massacres or the Cambodian killing fields.  And so, I am not convinced that the saying 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.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


  1. Peter Singer, a Jew whose parents escaped the Holocaust, also advocates “romantic relationships with non-human animals”. What better evidence that without Torah to guide us the human race would be completely lost to depravity!

  2. As an atheist and ‘ethicist’ he should be reminded that without G-d there is no morality and I can kill him in the most henious way and there is nothing wrong with such an act. These liberal freaks can’t understand logic. Ignore them.

  3. With all respect, drfeivel, I don’t think this can be written off as politics. There are many who would be considered politically liberal who are otherwise fervent supporters of Torah and morality. It was such, once, that to be liberal meant to believe, for example, that blacks should have the same rights as others, or that the individual should be protected from abuse by the government.

    We should be asking ourselves why the situation is such that we would throw our lot in with those who care only about money and power, and why those who once shared ideals of justice and fairness now must bow to perverts and atheists.

  4. “It was such, once, that to be liberal meant to believe, for example, that blacks should have the same rights as others, or that the individual should be protected from abuse by the government.”

    Ah, Yoel, if only it were still as such. A pity for the downslide.

  5. yoel – it might have been a democrat sitting in the whitehouse however it was the Repulicans that voted for the civil rights act that allowed it to pass NOT the democrats – in fact al gore the elder, voted NO!

  6. Yoel: It was actually the Southern Democrats, led by Al Gore Sr, among others, that were against Civil Rights legislation. It only became a democratic (liberal) issue, when LBJ created the welfare state which allows some to get free money without doing basically anything, that caused the blacks to migrate over to the left. After all, it was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
    Robert Byrd, (D-WV) a liberal icon, was a former heavy hitter in the KKK. Strom Thurmond, one of the old Republicans who died a couple of years ago, is frequently given as an example of Republican Racism, based on his platform running for president in 1948. At the time, he was a Southern Democrat. ONly later, after having a change of heart, did he switch to become Republican. It was passed primarily by Republicans.

  7. Yoel – the term liberal was originally (in the 19th century) used to describe one whose politics were in favor of freedom from government. This is most in line with what is today called the conservative viewpoint (by definition; though not as touted by some elected officials who ran as conservatives) which supports the idea that government should limit itself to areas where private business or free market cannot succeed.

    The point is it doesn’t matter what liberal used to mean. When someone uses it today we know what it means.

  8. Hi Illin, I was waiting for you.

    Morality: As Jews, we define morality as that of the Torah. Including the Noahide commandments. No other definition of morality carries weight, for all of humanity.

    Those of us who are “educated” (is this really education? I’m afraid this study is an abhorrent waste of time, even if I am one of the “educated”) may learn of those who have other concepts of morality, but in fact, this simply does not exist, other than in the imaginations and pen of confused minds.

    Illin, please be careful. You cannot give legitimacy to that which is beyond the pale of acceptability according to Judaism. Judaism is not a religion. It does not vie for “truth status” amongst other religions, philosophies, and assorted movements.

    Judaism represents your very essence, the essence of the entire world’s existence, and the relationship between G-d and you, your neighbors, and every breath of life and existence found on this planet and all else.

    I know how hard you try to keep an open mind. Please be careful that this open mind does not degenerate into Sheker and emptiness. You stand for something. Stand strong for Emes.

  9. Illin,

    I definitely agree with some of your comment- that of some who might refrain from murder despite a lack of true morals.

    “As for education, G-d did not give us the capability to understand the world around us for us to not use it.”

    With discretion. To use our capability wisely. We have abilities for many things, and Torah guidelines help us use these discriminatingly. Much of (but not all!) education is not a black and white area, and we use our G-d given wisdom, humbleness to ask for guidance, and a sensitivity toward holiness to determine the propriety of any area of secular study.