I recall back in my yeshiva days, the term godol, great one, was reserved for people like Reb Moshe Feinstein, a genius even among geniuses we were told, and also Reb Aryeh Kaplan, reputed to be an illuy and perhaps a lamed vuvnick, one of those secretive 36 people without whom the world would cease to exist. I recently came across a YouTube video of Reb Kaplan being interviewed and I was shocked. He was talking utter nonsense about the creation of the world; if any other religious cult’s member was espousing similar ideas every yeshiva guy would die laughing.
The kaballah crap Kaplan was asserting is objectively no less hilarious than any ancient myth that, if repeated today, would also have every yeshiva guy on the floor. I am aware that many brilliant people believed in many silly things. Isaac Newton died searching for a magic stone that turns things to gold, for example. But Newton at least demonstrated his genius despite his foolish ideas. I haven’t seen the same for these godolim. In fact every time I am told of this genius in Monsey or that illuy in Montreal, I always feel not only disappointed but shocked at how these people have charmed their ilk into buying into the genius routine.
Last night we lost a genuine godol. A legitimate great one. Whether you agree with him or not, only a fool would attempt to argue away the greatness that was Christopher Hitchens. No other Atheist debater, not Dawkins, not Dennett, not Harris and not even Sagan had the respect and admiration of his fans as well as his detractors. As I did back in yeshiva when Reb Moshe died, I feel a void, but this time around I’m not an uneducated, credulous yeshiva student who is going by what people tell him.
About a year ago I was told that Christopher Hitchens was speaking at the New York public library. I can listen to Hitchens speak all day, and often do. A simple click on a YouTube video of his will inevitably have me up ’til 5am saying to myself "OK, I’m clicking on just one more Hitchslap video and that’s it." So I went, early, to get a good seat.
I’m not exactly sure what happened but several moments before he was set to come on stage I got into something of a screaming match with someone in my party. Not wanting to (continue to) make a scene, we took it to the hallway. My shouts were quieted by a familiar voice saying, "Hey hey hey, relax big fella." I turned around and there he was, Hitch himself. My hero…and I don’t fling that word around casually. A whisky glass in one hand and a camera crew following him.
I looked at him and blurted out, "Ohmygod, I love you, I grew up a Hasidic Jew, I did a complete 180, I have dedicated my life to freeing others from the shackles of religion and you are my inspiration, please, I know you’re goin’ on stage, but I need a picture." He looked at me and said, "Take those fuckers down," and not only obliged but gave me a shot of whisky as well. I took a picture and honestly don’t recall a single word he said that evening, I was too giddy playing back in my head what had just transpired. It is a picture I shall always treasure, and it very well may be one of the last photos of Hitchens in that condition. The following morning he was hospitalized and the skeptical world was never the same. I feel comfortable saying that the world is a worse-off place than it was a day ago.