In a previous blog I covered Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debating Christopher Hitchens in New York. There has been a series of letters between Richard Dawkins and the Rabbi and I thought it might be illuminating to have them reposted here:
The first is an open letter By Dawkins to Boteach 2 May 2008 from the Richard Dawkins Forum:
Somebody posted on RichardDawkins.net an article by you in the Jerusalem Post, entitled ‘The debate Richard Dawkins chose to forget’. The same article is prominently advertised at the top of your own home page, with the additional legend, ‘Watch it exclusively at Shmuley.com’.
Your article begins as follows:-
A friend recently called my attention to the official Web site of Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, where, as a way of assailing me, he denied having ever debated me. “Boteach organized debates, with himself as chairman, and I sometimes took part in debates with the outside visitors that he imported, for example Robert Winston. Boteach was a surprisingly impartial chairman, but he was always just a chairman, never a debater in any of the debates that I attended.”
What an extraordinary thing for you to say. If I had wanted to “assail” you, why would I do it by denying ever having debated you. What is so ‘assailing’ about a lapse of memory? And if I wanted to ‘assail’ you, why would I compliment you on the impartiality of your chairmanship?
That is a particularly bold untruth
Bold? Bold? What is bold about that? It is not as though I was accusing you of murder. I was simply saying that, as I thought, you were always the chairman in the many debates in which we both took part. Being a chairman, especially an impartial chairman, is nothing discreditable. Why would you take it as a ‘bold untruth’ and as ‘assailing’?
Our debate, which took place at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford on October 23, 1996, attracted hundreds of students and featured, on the atheist side, Prof. Dawkins and chemistry Prof. Peter Atkins, and on the religion side, me and Prof. Keith Ward, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity.
It is of course perfectly possible that I have simply misremembered such a trivial detail. I do remember taking part in several debates in the Gulbenkian Theatre in the Law Library at Oxford, at which you were chairman, and one in London. I certainly remember having several debates with Keith Ward, including at least one under your auspices, and I have frequently shared a platform with Peter Atkins. I find it easy to imagine that I could have forgotten your participation. But I would be hugely surprised if I forgot a debate in St Catherine’s College, because the Lecture Hall in St Catherine’s is far smaller than the Gulbenkian and the whole atmosphere would have been memorably different. I suspect that you may be mistaken, and the debate you are talking about may have taken place in the Gulbenkian Theatre like all the others. But as to your participation in the debate – if indeed it really matters – this could easily be settled simply be looking at the tape, which you say is available on your website.
It was with some eagerness that I turned immediately to Shmuley.com, looking forward to the pleasure of listening to your partial opinions rather than the equal pleasure of your impartial chairmanship. Alas, I couldn’t find it. Please post, either here or on your own website, the u.r.l. where we may listen to this debate. Please don’t just vaguely say it is there somewhere. Please give us the exact clickable u.r.l. of the full recording of the debate which you allege took place in St Catherine’s College. I am genuinely interested, genuinely frustrated that I cannot listen to it. Please post the full u.r.l.
Now, I come back to the question of why you seem so steamed up about what is, at worst, a trivial lapse of memory. Why would you bother to use a strong word like ‘deny’? Why insert the phrase ‘chooses to’ before the word ‘forget’? Presumably because of a remark I made on my own website about you:-
Somebody else wrote in to the Forum as follows:-
Boteach was terrible. He couldn’t even make a good case, let alone a successful joke.
Is there more than meets the eye? How did he get to be a Rabbi at Oxford? Why did Dawkins debate him 4 times?
How did he get to be a Rabbi at Oxford? Easy. He moved from America to a house in the city of Oxford and set himself up as a rabbi. He persuaded students at Oxford to set up an unofficial Jewish student group, which he supervised and financed (he had considerable financial resources, which seem to have come from a Jewish organization in New York). He never had any official standing at the University of Oxford at all.
Why did I debate him 4 times? I didn’t. He organized debates, with himself as chairman, and I sometimes took part in debates with the outside visitors that he imported, for example Robert Winston. Boteach was a surprisingly impartial chairman, but he was always just a chairman, never a debater in any of the debates that I attended.
Now, Shmuley, what I suspect is this. You resented the first paragraph of my remarks, where I said that you had no official standing at Oxford University. You would have liked to reply to that, but you couldn’t because you know perfectly well that, despite frequent pretensions, you had no official standing at the University of Oxford during any of the 11 years you lived there. You were not “Rabbi of Oxford University” as is stated on Beliefnet.com, of which you are a columnist, and on the publicity for your books. You couldn’t respond to the part of my remarks that really hit home. So instead you latched onto my second paragraph where, in what was at worst a trivial slip of my memory, I said that you had always been chairman in your debates, never a debater. You yourself made an equally trivial error when, in your debate with Christopher Hitchens, you said that you had debated me at Oxford “on several occasions”. Even by your account in the Jerusalem Post you only debated me on one occasion. And I suspect that, if you look back at your own records, you will find that we never had a debate in St Catherine’s. But my point is, WHO CARES? What does it matter? It is no big deal exactly how many times you were chairman and how many times you were a debater. It is no big deal whether a debate took place in St Catherine’s at all.
Dawkins and I were quite friendly at Oxford. He not only participated in approximately five large debates that I organized but even came to my home for Sabbath lunch after I invited him to meet the renowned philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, whom I thought would enjoy meeting a noted zoologist. Dawkins was always amiable and gentlemanly toward me as was his lovely and beautiful wife Lalla. So why has Dawkins suddenly attacked me? And why did he offer me such a cool reception when we shared a stage last summer at the University of Toronto for yet another debate at the IdeaCity Convention, where I responded to his criticisms of religion (the video is available on YouTube)? Whatever the reason, no doubt a man as honorable as Dawkins will correct the error about the debate he alleges never took place and apologize.
All perfectly correct, Shmuley. We were friendly at Oxford, and my feelings towards you remained nothing but amiable when we met in Toronto. I am simply flabbergasted that you should say I offered you “a cool reception”. Contrary to your own account (
), the Toronto event was not a debate between us. We were both lecturing at Idea City, and we happened to be in the same session, me a couple of talks before you. You were sitting in the row in front of me in the audience while we listened to the speaker who was immediately to precede you. I handed you a very cordial note, in which I apologised for the fact that, because I had a plane to catch, I would unfortunately have to miss your talk. You acknowledged the note, and I think we shook hands. I then quietly left the auditorium to catch my airport taxi.
As it happened, my taxi was late. While I was waiting for it, I was able to hear your speech, relayed over a loudspeaker in the foyer. I was astounded by what I heard. Gone was the urbane, humorous, polite Shmuley that I had known at Oxford, and with whom I had had lunch. What I heard over that loudspeaker was a shrieking rant, delivered with an intemperate stridency of which Hitler himself might have been proud. [emphasis added]As I listened, I was shocked by your lamentable, but vocally confident ignorance of Darwinian evolution. And even more shocked by your shrill and vicious attack upon me. You were shrieking invective, in the belief that I was on my way to the airport. Had you prepared your ranting attack in advance, or did you extemporise as soon as you read my note? Had you somehow managed to convince yourself that this really was a ‘debate’ between us, even though I was not present? Are you, perhaps, in the habit of fantasizing about debates that never took place? Either way, you were giving me ample reason to be cool towards you – after Toronto. But, when we actually met in Toronto, I had no idea you were going to attack me, and my attitude towards you was the very opposite of cool.
If we really did have a debate in St Catherine’s I am happy to apologise for forgetting it, although I don’t think it is much to apologise for. I hope you will look in your heart and decide whether there is anything you should be apologising for.
With best wishes
The reason for the bold emphasis on Hitler is because that was the thrust of how Boteach responded on 4 May 2008:
May 4, 2008
Dr. Richard Dawkins
University of Oxford
I am in receipt of your open letter of May 2.
An ancient Rabbinical teaching says that one should respond to points in the order in which they are made. And that was my plan until I came across the part of your letter where you compare my speech at the IdeaCity convention to Hitler and say he would be proud of me.
Perhaps it was providence that your letter was posted on your website on World Holocaust Remembrance Day. Are you really so callous? Have you developed such uncontrollable loathing to people of faith that you would equate a Rabbi who was your friend and who hosted you at his home and at so many public forums and debates to a monster who killed six million Jews and bombed the people of England mercilessly?
Surely, you are aware that British academia has become a world epicenter of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment. You are familiar, I am sure, with the shameful story of your colleague, Oxford Pathology Professor Andrew Wilkie, refusing to accept an Israeli doctoral applicant because he served in the Israeli army, or the shocking and disgraceful decision by the British Academics Union to bar fellow Israeli academics from academic conferences in the UK.
And now you would add to this infamy by comparing me to Hitler? Really Richard, I mean no disrespect and once knew you to be a very genial and decent man, but Hitler? Have you lost your mind? Your loathsome comment brings you, Oxford University, and Charles Simonyi who endowed your chair into disrepute and you should issue an immediate apology.
Time for a reality check. The forum of which you speak, The IdeaCity Convention in Toronto, is one of the world’s leading media forums. They invited us to argue our ideas about atheism and religion on a stage in which I spoke directly after you. I sat right next to you. When you saw me you barely said hello, and then, just before you spoke, you gave me a card explaining that you would not be staying for my response to your comments. Amid your casual dismissal of me, I started my presentation by referring to you as ‘”a true intellectual, a very fine man, and extremely humble.” I added that we had been friends at Oxford and had debated on religion and evolution. You claim my rebuttal was “a ranting attack,” yet anyone who watched the video will see that the audience laughed over a dozen times – go and count them – during a twenty minute presentation. While you listened to me and heard Hitler, the celebrated convener of the conference, Moses Znaimer, wrote to me on July 23, 2007, “With your terrific contribution to [the conference] still ringing in my ears, I’d like to send you my formal thanks… We’ve had great feedback about the conference as a whole and you are certainly one of the top reasons why.” Press reports of my speech which are available online were similarly laudatory. Indeed, when it was over two Canadian TV companies were so enamored of my presentation that they approached me to discuss hosting a TV series. And contrary to your comments that I decided to attack you after I had learned that you were leaving to the airport, I was actually quite disappointed that you did not stay, and was relieved to hear from the conference organizers that you had stood glued to my comments on the outside speaker.
I consider the speech I gave at IdeaCity to have been a fine rebuttal of your dismissal of faith and encourage the readers of this open letter to please view it on YouTube, or my website home page, where it has been available for close to a year. Perhaps, as a scientist who respects fact over fiction, you too should have viewed it, Richard, before you decided to take the incomprehensible step of comparing a Rabbi whom Newsweek just chose as one of the ten most influential in the United States to Hitler. I am well aware of the fact that you believe religious people to be “know-nothings,” weak-minded illiterates who require a myth to get through the travails of life. Some would regard such condescension as elitist arrogance. You have a right to be egotistical. But you have no right to compare a Rabbi who refutes your arguments to the most demonic murderer that ever lived.
As to your point that the video of the Oxford debate, which you denied ever happened and which your atheism side lost, is not on my website, please look on the left-hand column of my home page. Significant portions of the debate have also been posted on YouTube.
Now, to respond to your other allegations point by point, you say that you were not assailing me in your posting. And then, a line later, you say that I was never affiliated with Oxford University and that I misled attendees at one of my lectures when I claimed to have debated you. You were attacking and attempting to discredit me, Richard, so let’s not play games.
The organization I ran for 11 years at Oxford, the L’Chaim Society, was one of the largest student organizations in the University’s history, which is why you agreed to participate in approximately five of our large debates. It was an official University Society for most of the time I was there, with Dr. Joshua Silver, your physics colleague from your very own College, New College, serving as its senior member. As you also know, Richard, far from our organization simply setting up shop, as you put it, we had a huge impact at the University, had thousands of student members, regularly hosted large joint events with the Oxford Union, and hosted some of the most influential people in the world, including luminaries like Mikhail Gorbachev, Prof. Steven Hawking, and Elie Wiesel, which is why, I would assume, you were honored to lecture for us on so many occasions, both in Oxford and in London.
As to your allegation that I was never the official Rabbi of Oxford University, you are correct. How could I be, when the University does not recognize any official chaplain of any religion outside the Church of England? As you know, unlike the United States where we have separation between Church and State, in England there is an official state religion and therefore, as it was explained to me when we sought official chaplaincy status, all the chaplains at the respective Colleges are Church of England. Indeed, even the huge Catholic chaplaincy, we were told by University officials, has no official University status and neither do the Muslims. Indeed, sadly, Jewish students were not even allowed into the University until 1856, and the first Jewish dons (lecturers) were not allowed until 1871. This was a subject of conversation that often passed between me and Sir Isaiah Berlin who was arguably the first highly visible Jewish don in the University’s history and a dear friend to me in the time that I was at Oxford.
Indeed, this kind of religious discrimination against Jews was sadly commonplace in the UK, where Jews were expelled in 1290 and were not allowed back until Oliver Crowell welcomed them in 1655. In more modern times, when I first applied to enter the London Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ competition, we were told it was open only to Christian clergy. But after I, and a number of other Rabbis, petitioned to be admitted, the competition was broadened and indeed I won and became the London Times Preacher of the Year just days before the Millennium in 2000. Perhaps, as a man of liberal ideology, Richard, you will use your influence at the University to have them recognize an official Jewish chaplain in due course and I would view this as ample atonement for your outrageous Hitler comment.
Turning to your point that Beliefnet, which is only one of the many places where I publish, advertises me as the Rabbi of Oxford University, if you look at any of my official biographies, such as those on my books or on my website, they all say that I was Rabbi at Oxford University and indeed, for most of my time there I was the only Rabbi in residence. Obviously, I cannot be held accountable for what others write about me. But let me use your attack against me to share with you a famous teaching of the ancient Rabbis: always do your best to judge people favorably, trying to find merit rather than jumping to negative conclusions. You yourself have been strongly criticized for what others see as an attempt to conceal the true nature of your professorship at Oxford, the details of which remain unclear. Many publications refer to you as ‘Professor’ Richard Dawkins, even though, as your critics maintain, leading Universities regularly deny to any Professor who played a role in acquiring the funding for their own chair the use of the title. Your critics may be wrong here, Richard, but they cite the fact that the Oxford University Hebdomadal Council Decree of 6 November 1995, establishing the Charles Simonyi Professorship, says that you hold a “post” rather than a “professorship.” They write that since your post was endowed by Charles Simonyi and the terms of the gift allowed you to bypass the peer review promotion process customarily required for a professorship, it will become a “professorship” only when a subsequent beneficiary is promoted to the position based on a peer review election process, which, they maintain, was not conducted for your receipt of the post. Now, you defended yourself in a posting on your website, dated Sept. 28, 2006, and wrote that you were “elected to the Charles Simonyi Professorship.” But that does seem to directly contradict the Hebdamadol Council decree cited above which expressly says “Notwithstanding the provisions of Ch. VII, Sect. III (which discuss the election of a professor to the post), the income from the endowment shall be applied in the first instance to fund a post in the Public Understanding of Science to be held by Dr C.R. Dawkins, Fellow of New College.” It seems, so your critics contend, that your appointment was a condition of the grant rather than the product of an election, and since it may be that you are falsely maligned in the matter, your clarification as to the true nature of your professorship, whose official location is the Museum of Natural History, is welcomed.
Now, I don’t expect our readership to understand all the vagaries of official Oxford accreditation, which seems murky enough. But I raise this point to tell you that, before you go and launch an unprovoked attack against me and my role at Oxford, you should practice what the sage Hillel taught and treat others the way you yourself want to be treated. You don’t want people questioning your right to use the title ‘Professor.’ So give others the benefit of the doubt just as you wish the same to be done for you. As public figures, much is written about both of us over which we have little control.
So here we are. You and I did debate. You lost that debate, which is no big deal because, as we both know, debates are more about entertainment than serious scholarship and, as we Americans have seen in our presidential primaries, one day Hillary Clinton will win a debate, and the next day Barack Obama will. I take no pride in saying you lost, and indeed, until you denied that the debate ever took place, I had not before harped on the outcome.
Unlike you, I see no deep fissure between science and religion. The Biblical story of creation relates that a supreme intelligence gave rise to the world in a manner that would easily accord with evolution, beginning with inanimate matter and slowly ascending through the vegetable, animal, and human spheres. What perhaps separates us is that you believe all this happened through random mutation and natural selection, and I instead focus on the mathematical improbability of such complex life ever arising spontaneously and without guidance.
Since we were once friends, and since we both have a responsibility to act justly and humanely, I propose a follow-up to our debate, either here in the United States or in the UK, to focus on your recent book on atheism and whether G-d is necessary for morality. Since, in your letter, you mention my “lamentable but vocally confident ignorance of Darwinian evolution,” no doubt you will make mincemeat of me and even the score. I would appreciate if you would propose dates that are suitable. When we meet face-to-face, you will find in me someone who wishes to rekindle our friendship, and who, well before the Toronto debate, contacted you many times to meet up when I visited the UK but received no response.
Finally, as to your comment that “gone was the urbane, humorous, polite Shmuley that I had known at Oxford,” if I have given offense to you in any way, I apologize. But may I ask you, Richard, to please reflect on whether or not it is you who in truth who has changed in the intervening years since we were close in Oxford in your posture toward religion and religious people. Despite your many rants against religion, especially since the publication of your book, I have never attacked you and certainly have never compared you to Hitler. It seems you have become aggressive and intolerant, dismissing people of faith as “fundamentalist hypocrites,” “hillbillies,” “vulnerable to subversion,” and “suffering from a delusion.” Of the distinguished Keith Ward, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity and my partner in the debate against you, you wrote to a national newspaper, as he details in an upcoming book, that he should resign since Theology is not a subject.
Now Richard, if you can dish it out, you have to be prepared for us religious boobs to defend our pitiful selves when attacked. And the correct response is not to accuse us of being Hitler when we bring intelligent rejoinders. Rather, I would advise you to behave scientifically and to respond to us on the merits of our arguments. Indeed, I welcome a strong critique of religion and believe that it must always, as Maimonides put it so beautifully, ’embrace the truth regardless of its source.”
As I have always written and maintained, especially in my book “Moses of Oxford” where you are discussed at length, I respect you and wish to be your friend. But please refrain from ever again trivializing the deaths of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of your brave countrymen by comparing those who disagree with you to Hitler.
I wish you and Lala G-d’s blessings and hope to see you soon.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
We now come to Richard’s reply on May 8 about his Hitler comparison:
I did not say you think like Hitler, or hold the same opinions as Hitler, or do terrible things to people like Hitler. Obviously and most emphatically you don’t. I said you shriek like Hitler. That is the only point of resemblance, and it is true. You shriek and yell and rant like Hitler. Not all the time, of course. You also tell very good jokes, and tell them brilliantly. You deservedly get lots of laughs, as a good comedian should. But throughout your speeches you periodically rise to climaxes of shrieking rant, and that is just like Hitler. Incidentally, Dinesh D’Souza yells and shrieks in just the same way. I suppose it impresses some people, although it is hard to believe.
Anybody who has something sensible or worthwhile to say should be able to say it calmly and soberly, relying on the words themselves to convey his meaning, without resorting to yelling. Hitler had nothing but nonsense to say. He spoke nonsense about race, nonsense about history, nonsense about Jews. If one speaks nonsense in a calm and sober voice nobody listens, so Hitler yelled his nonsense at the top of his voice and, unfortunately, people listened — stupid, ignorant people. You have sensible things to say about sex and love, and you have no need to yell when you are talking sense. Unfortunately, when you turn to the subject of evolution, you don’t know what you are talking about, so you yell and shriek to make up for it. Maybe yelling and shrieking works with an ignorant audience. It apparently worked for Hitler, but that is not a happy precedent. You should know better. Go and read some books about evolution, learn something about biology, and you’ll then find that you can talk about it in a calm and civilised voice. You’ll find that you won’t need to yell and shriek like a madman, and you’ll be all the more persuasive for it.
Just a piece of friendly advice
All good wishes