Afterlife as an Afterthought
Last night, I attended a debate sponsored by the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism or more colloquially, “Jew U”) ostensibly on the question “Is There An Afterlife?”; I style it a “debate” although it was more of a moderated conversation. I went because two of the four debaters were Sam Harris andChristopher Hitchens. Pitted against these two atheist celebrities were two rabbis – David Wolpe of Temple Sinai, the very impressive edifice in Westwood near Beverly Hills, who seems to be the rough equivalent of Rick Warren in Jewish circles; and Bradley Shavit Artson of Jew U, a leader in rabbinical training and also something of a notable personage in his own right.
First a word about the format, which I thought was excellent. The debate was before a packed house in the Wadsworth Theater near UCLA. All four panelists and the moderator were seated in wide, comfortable chairs; the chairs were arranged in a gentle arc. The format did a lot to render the format of the event clearly along the lines of a conversation. The moderator asked questions pointed at each panelist to lead to debate, and the panelists spoke for about five minutes each in response to the questions; they interacted with one another, again in about five-minute bursts. They were staggered together: from left to right, we had the moderator, Hitchens, Wolpe , Harris, and Artson. Hitchens and Wolpe, and to a lesser extent Harris, were guilty of “Crossfire”-like interruptions, although it was nearly half an hour into the discussion before the panelists interacted with one another. The moderator wisely did not try to control these outbursts because they produced productive conflict. There seemed to be something of a rule agreed upon in advance by which the panelists referred to one another by their first names, which lent an air of informality to the structured discussion.