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About Nothing

The invented Seinfeld winter holiday Festivus, like the late Christopher Hitchens, demands a religion-like dogma  around nonbelief

Liel Leibovitz
December 20, 2011
Yarmulke with Happy Festivus embroidery.(DRosenbach/Wikipedia)
Yarmulke with Happy Festivus embroidery.(DRosenbach/Wikipedia)

There is no more satisfying cri de coeur for an atheist than to expose a person of faith as a charlatan.

I was getting ready to sink into a column about the “Festivus” episode of Seinfeld—in which Jerry and the gang observe a holiday invented by George’s father and dedicated to celebrating all that is contentious and irking about the holiday season—to illustrate this theme when the Net started humming with news of Christopher Hitchens’ death, and I was moved to liberally pour myself a glass of rye whiskey and toast the deceased. Like so many of Hitchens’ eulogizers, I mumbled to myself that while I disagreed with many of his convictions, his uncommon ability to use his intellect as a scalpel rather than a hammer when arguing a point, to paraphrase Harry Shearer, made him worthy of begrudging respect.

I downed the rest of my drink, poured myself another, and watched as Jerry Seinfeld and the gang reveled in the Spartan holiday of Festivus and its fabricated traditions—the aluminum pole, the feats of strength, the airing of grievances. But the mind wandered back to Hitchens; seeking distraction, I reached for my copy of his atheistwrit, God Is Not Great. Here, to choose but one passage at random, is what it has to say about religion’s metaphysical claims: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge.”

It wasn’t just the assertion that the educated and evolved mind had no recourse but to abandon faith and seek instead some steelier view of life that made me angry. Nor was it just the personal slight I felt as someone who, without reservations or remorse, worships a mighty god. These are both rational arguments, and they had little to do with the fury frolicking in my gut; what provoked my demons to dance was the realization—by no means new, but startling each time—that Hitchens’ bluster was itself every bit as dogmatic.

Consider, for example, his now-famous televised tirade on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s passing: The accent is Balliol, the cadence is measured, but the rhetoric is timeless American fire and brimstone. Squint your eyes just so, and it’s easy enough to imagine that Hitchens is seated not in Anderson Cooper’s studio but in a tent revival somewhere, warning sinners of the wrath of the vengeful god of reason.

Hitchens, of course, isn’t the first atheist to embrace the absence of divinity as an article of faith. As today marks the first night of the Festival of Lights, let us get into the holiday spirit with a Hanukkah-themed poem, titled “We Are Carrying Torches.” Written in the early 1930s by Aharon Ze’ev—a poet who would eventually become the Israel Defense Forces’ first chief education officer—the poem riffs on the holiday’s miraculous mythology to make a stark statement against faith. “No miracle happened to us, we found no can of oil,” it reads. “We quarried the rock until we bled. Let there be light!”

The subtext isn’t hard to decipher. A proud Zionist and nonbeliever, Ze’ev believed it was men, not God, who charted the course of human events. The Jewish state shares his sentiment—the poem, set to music, is sung each year in the official national ceremony celebrating Israel’s Independence Day. And yet, like Hitchens’ protestations, Ze’ev’s poem, too, is just another gospel—the only language Ze’ev had to assert man’s existential freedom is the language of that good old religion and the imagery of Hanukkah. The Marxist Zionist atheist Ber Borochov followed a similar path when he denounced God but did so appropriating the Haggadah and celebrating its Wicked Son as a paragon of secular skepticism.

Seinfeld pulls off a similar trick. Just as atheism is really religion in darker shades, the show about nothing is really a show about something grim. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Festivus” episode, which begins with the Hanukkah party of a dentist who converted to Judaism for the jokes, proceeds with a scheme to replace holiday gifts with contributions to fictitious charities, and ends with the dour holiday for the rest of us. That all these plot lines are concerned with religion is not accidental. Seinfeld’s Manhattan is far from a cosmopolitan playground: It is a little island crammed with nasty little people who wave their empty pieties around like pointy sticks, eager to injure each other.

Like Hitchens and the early Zionists, Seinfeld, too, took pride in its wit and irreverence in exposing the fraudulent fools who hide behind religion’s tall walls. Hitchens had Falwell; Jerry has Tim Whatley, the dentist whose reasoning for converting to Judaism is dubious and whose gift-giving practices are Madoff-esque. That Falwell and Whatley were indeed charlatans—I fully subscribe to Hitchens’ assessment of the man who blamed Sept. 11 on gays and the ACLU—matters little. What matters is what we’re left with after the laugh track dies down. And what we’re left with is Festivus.

Now a burgeoning holiday—House Minority Leader Eric Cantor celebrates it with a fundraiser, and former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle placed an aluminum pole in the executive mansion—Festivus is the apex of a particular brand of secular humanism that replicated the structures of religion but replaced magic with mirth and called it a triumph of the enlightened spirit. G.K. Chesterton—according to Ian McEwan, the subject of Hitchens’ last piece—warned against such phenomena when he railed in his Orthodoxy against the modern intellectual urge to convert the stirrings and mysteries of religion into easy sentiments, jokes, or clichés. He would surely have been appalled to see “tikkun olam,” say, turn from a specifically theological tenet to a worn-out catchphrase, indistinguishable from any other sort of feel-good charity and, without its divine underpinnings, meaningless. And he would, most likely, have been dismayed to see the moronic Festivus, a fabrication that robs ritual of its majesty, reduces it to a punch line, and calls the truth that which is merely a failure of the imagination.

Seinfeld, of course, is a sitcom, and as such is not obligated to do much more than amuse. But its cultural prevalence indicates that its views are widely shared and that, for many, Festivus is the only feasible alternative to Falwell; the choice is between mindless fundamentalism and equally mindless nihilism.

It’s a sad worldview. It’s also profoundly un-Jewish. When faced with the breakdown of religion—which Jews had to do a month after the inception of their organized faith, when those congregated at the foothills of Mount Sinai built themselves a Golden Calf—we do not mock or reject but lament.

Leonard Cohen, the closest thing we have to a prophet and a source of comfort to Hitchens in his final months, captured this obligation perfectly. “As I grew older,” Cohen wrote, “I understood that instructions came with this voice. And the instructions were these: … Never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”

To which we all, those who believe in God and those who do not and those for whom the question is inconsequential, should respond: Hallelujah.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.