I wish I had been there for this one: Jewish mega-philanthropist and avowed atheist Michael Steinhardt faced off in New York against renowned talmudist Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (who happens to be heading up a new effort to revive the ancient Sanhedrin).
Michal Lando of the Jerusalem Post gives the blow-by-blow:
…[M]oderator Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, pressed both participants to explain why there was even a need for Jewish continuity.
Steinhardt argued that the Jewish people should continue in order to preserve “Jewish values,” which he distinguished from Judaism’s religious aspects. “The overwhelming number of Jews alive today have no serious interest in their religion,” said Steinhardt. He said that could change if Jewish values were substituted for “that which is called religion today.” He mentioned education and tzedaka (charity) as examples.
Steinsaltz tried to reframe Joel’s question. He rejected the notion that Jewish survival was important because of what Jews have to offer the world. “Do we have to continue in order to do something, or can we continue as other beings [do]?” asked Steinsaltz.
The reasons to work for the continuation of the Jewish people, he said, could be compared those given for saving the dolphins. “Everybody should see that here is a species that seems to be endangered, so you should give it a better chance to survive.”
Steinsaltz said, as he has before, that the Jews were neither a nation nor a religion - they were a family. “We want to survive, first and foremost, because our family is a family… I don’t need to give any arguments that we are a light unto nations,” he said.