Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great and The Portable Atheist) and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (The Broken American Male: And How to Fix Him and Shalom in the Home) engage in a spirited and contentious talk about the existence of God. Neil Gillman, Jewish philosophy professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was the moderator.
In the debate, Rabbi Boteach disputed Hitchens’ claim that an Israeli rabbinical court ever made a ruling that strict observation of the Sabbath cannot be broken to save the life of a non-Jew. Hitchens wrote to 92Y to follow up on the challenge and Rabbi Boteach has responded. Both have requested that the exchange be published here.
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I am writing on a point of principle and a point of information. I quote from the opening page of Chapter 1 ["A Closed Utopia?"] of Dr. Israel Shahak’s book Jewish History, Jewish Religion (Pluto Press 1994):
This book, though written in English and addressed to people living outside the State of Israel, is, in a way, a continuation of my political activities as an Israeli Jew.
Those activities began in 1965-6 with a protest which caused a considerable scandal at the time: I had personally witnessed an ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to have collapsed in his Jerusalem neighborhood.
Instead of simply publishing the incident in the press, I asked for a meeting with the members of the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, which is composed of rabbis nominated by the State of Israel.
I asked them whether such behavior was consistent with their interpretation of the Jewish religion. They answered that the Jew in question had behaved correctly, indeed piously, and backed their statement by referring me to an authoritative compendium of Talmudic laws, written in this century. I reported the incident to the main Hebrew daily, Haaretz, whose publication of the story caused a media scandal.
As you may remember from the event at the 92nd Street Y on Wednesday evening January 30th, I was challenged by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to provide a source for an assertion I had made on Orthodox teaching in this respect, and promised by him that he would buy 100 new copies of my book if I could materialize my point. I hereby submit this excerpt, and beg three things of you:
1) That those who subscribed to the broadcast version of the debate are made aware of my response.
2) That Rabbi Boteach is likewise made aware of it (I have no channel of communication to him).
3) That one of you agrees to act as arbiter until the task - surely quite easy - of consulting the relevant Haaretz files has been completed. I think the burden here now rests with Boteach, though I shall meanwhile institute some inquiries of my own.
I take this opportunity to say that it is always a distinction to be invited to appear on your platform.
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Thank you very much for your email which I only received this morning. And, let me thank you for agreeing to the debate the other night. Your email divined my own weekly article on the subject (Jerusalem Post: “Christopher Hitchens and the racist Jewish court”) which was written Saturday night and Sunday. After you mentioned that Shahak was your source, I investigated the incident. As you surely know, Lord Immanuel Jacobovits, one of the world’s leading medical ethicist’s and the highly respected late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and member of the House of Lords, exposed Shahak’s letter as a fraud a year after it was written. I enclosed my article on the same. Interestingly as you will see, Shahak does not mention name of the Rabbinical court (there are hundreds of Rabbinical courts in Jerusalem). Less so does he cite a single source within Talmudic law, because he knows the Talmud says the exact opposite, that the Sabbath is desecrated to save the life of a non-Jew. Even if Shahak were to be a source, and Shahak, as you know (he was a close friend of yours) has made many sourceless defamatory allegations against Jews, such as my article says, your book still says that, “many” Rabbinical courts say that Jews must not save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. I ask you to please therefore cite another source which would justify your statement of “many.”
Shahak refers to a single incident, and even then, not one where the Sabbath would even be desecrated. There is no prohibition in allowing one’s phone to be used on the Sabbath, as you no doubt know. The prohibition is using it yourself. And, second, after reading my article on the subject, would you please respond? I, too, asked that the readership of the 92nd Street Y please be made aware of my article on the subject, and of Christopher’s email citing Shahak as the source, and my comments on the same. I welcome the appointment of an arbiter and I agree that those who watched the debate around the world should be made aware of my article and Christopher’s email. And, I will await Christopher to bring more sources to justify the “many” he cites.
Wishing you all the best.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach