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Farewell to Charles Krauthammer

June 22, 2018 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The great political commentator was articulate, brave and dignified, and an outspoken champion of Israel.

Charles Krauthammer, who died this week at age 68, was called the most influential political commentator in America, with a weekly column syndicated to 400 publications worldwide. Less than two weeks ago, Krauthammer published a poignant "farewell letter" describing aggressive, rapidly-spreading cancer. "This is the final verdict," he wrote. "My fight is over."

For 30 years, Krauthammer stood out as the consummate intellectual – calling out hypocrisy, standing up for justice, and displaying sophisticated intellectual coherence irrespective of political alignment or social acceptance. As Krauthammer described, "the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking."

Talmud study sharpened the analytical skills that made him an intellectual powerhouse.

Krauthammer was trained from a young age in the rigors of honest debate and critical thinking. He attended Orthodox day school, studying traditional Jewish texts for half the day and becoming fluent in Hebrew. His father, an observant Jew, strongly encouraged Talmud study, and while his classmates were out playing baseball, young Charles endured many extra after-school study sessions. Yet this ultimately sharpened the analytical skills that made him an intellectual powerhouse.

Krauthammer's curiosity knew no bounds, and after one year of graduate school at Oxford, he switched to Harvard Medical School and became a psychiatrist. He later combined these two dichotomous disciplines – the precise, scientific study of medicine, and the expansive, creative study of philosophy – to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator who offered trenchant analysis on every facet of modern American life.

Fateful Dive

Most remarkable of all, Krauthammer achieved this as a paraplegic consigned to a wheelchair.

While at Harvard Medical School, Krauthammer and a friend skipped class one day to play tennis. On the way back, they stopped at an on-campus swimming pool to cool off from the rigorous exercise.

It was a freak accident. Krauthammer dove off the board and hit his head on the bottom of the pool. Though his head was unscathed, he'd fallen at the precise angle where the entire force of impact transferred into his cervical vertebrae – severing the spinal cord.

As Krauthammer lay at the bottom of the pool, unable to move his limbs and swim to safety, he instantly understood the medical consequences: permanent paralysis from the neck down.

His friend, thinking it was a joke after some hesitation, dove in and saved him.

As the ambulance carted Krauthammer away, his two books left at poolside were Anatomy of the Spinal Cord, and Man's Fate by Andre Malraux.

Unemotional by nature, Krauthammer distanced himself from the incident and it never impeded his accomplishments. He spent the next 14 months in the hospital, flat on his back, staring up at a specially-designed Plexiglas table where the nurses placed his medical textbooks face-down for him to read.

Krauthammer had no measure of self-pity or complaints about his fate.

Krauthammer went on to graduate near the top of his class, to marry the woman of his dreams, and to establish a stellar media career. And despite the ordeals of getting dressed, eating, bathing, driving and writing, Krauthammer had no measure of self-pity or complaints. His collection of essays, the massive bestseller Things That Matter, did not once mention his disability.

Krauthammer won the Pulitzer Prize the first year his column was syndicated. Since the prize is never given in a category to the same person twice, he quipped: "You want to win it once before you die. So if you can win it in your first year, you’re relieved of the anxiety every year. Also, you’ll know how the first line of your obituary will read. Those are the two major advantages.”

Winning the Pulitzer also gave Krauthammer the opportunity to "repay" his father for investing so loyally in his future. At their very last visit together, Krauthammer presented his father with the Pulitzer Prize he had just won.

Defending Israel

Krauthammer began his career in Washington DC as a speechwriter for Democratic vice-presidential candidate Walter Mondale. He then switched sides as a conservative, putting in lengthy stints at The New Republic, Time magazine, the Washington Post, PBS, and Fox News.

Through his writing, Krauthammer influenced government policy. In the 1980s, his essay "The Reagan Doctrine" was adopted by the U.S. President as... the Reagan Doctrine.

Krauthammer was an outspoken champion of Israel, consistently siding with the justness of the Jewish cause – exposing the truth about Gaza, pinpointing Palestinian leadership as the main obstacle to peace, and calling the 2015 Iran deal "the worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history."

Krauthammer bemoaned the hypocritical double-standard of morality as applied to Israel:

Why is it that of Israel a standard of behavior is demanded that is not just higher than its neighbors', not just equal to that of the West, but in fact far higher than that of any Western country in similar circumstances? Why the double standard?...

When other people suffer – Vietnamese, Algerians, Palestinians, the French Maquis – they are usually allowed a grace period during which they are judged by a somewhat lower standard. The victims are, right or wrongly (in my view, wrongly), morally indulged. A kind of moral affirmative action applies. We are asked to understand the former victims' barbarities because of how they themselves suffered...

With Jews, that kind of reasoning is reversed: Jewish suffering does not entitle them to more leeway in trying to prevent a repetition of their tragedy, but to less. Their suffering requires them, uniquely among the world's sufferers, to bend over backwards in dealing with their enemies...

It is perverse to argue that because this particular nation-state is made up of people who have suffered the greatest crime in modern history, they, more than any other people on earth, have a special obligation to be delicate with those who would bring down on them yet another national catastrophe.

Jewish Life

Krauthammer called Torah study a "wonderful, intense, and rich tradition" and was influenced by the study of Maimonides. “I got a rigorous Jewish education. I know what it is to be a Jew," he said. "There’s a difference between being nominally Jewish or sentimentally Jewish, and being grounded in Jewish learning."

On issues of faith, Krauthammer liked to point out that the greatest minds in history – including Aquinas, Augustine, Newton, and the U.S. Founding Fathers – believed in God. He would quote Sir Isaac Newton comparing the human capacity to understand the awesomely mysterious universe to a snail on the ocean shore trying to work out the tides through physics.

“Einstein had this sense of this fantastic mystery lying behind ordering and creating beauty in nature," Krauthammer said. "He was so struck by the elegance of nature. His ability to put the ultimate mysteries of science into a single line, E=MC2, indicates a kind of harmony in the cosmos which cannot be accidental.”

Krauthammer railed against atheism as violating every principle of rational logic.

Krauthammer had a complicated relationship with God, claiming to have sought but not found. Yet he railed against rejectionism of God: “Of all the theologies or anti-theologies, I think atheism is the least plausible of them all," he said. "It’s not only the irrationality, but it’s the coldness, the soullessness of atheism that strikes me. [It] violates every principle of our own logic... You always go back to the 'origin' question."

Krauthammer called the Western Wall "the most sacred space on the planet... the center of the intersection of the Divine and the human.” Standing on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, he said: “You look out on the Judean desert, and you can... feel the spirituality, the connection with the Transcendent that must have occurred in those places.”

Profiles in Courage

In typical fashion, Krauthammer treated his death with emotional dispassion and unflinching acceptance of reality. His gracious "farewell letter" stated unambiguously: "I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life – full and complete."

Charles Krauthammer is a profile in courage – he overcame incredible adversity and left no bitter bone in his body. Regardless of whether or not you agreed with him, we owe Krauthammer our gratitude for standing up for Truth at a time when it is in desperately short supply. "You're betraying your whole life if you don't say what you think, and you don't say it honestly and bluntly," he said.

Krauthammer was a proud Jew who gained widespread admiration for his integrity, wisdom, grace, bravery, sophistication, dignity, honesty, and unabashed articulating the truth in ways we wish we could. Charles, you will be sorely missed.

Watch Charles Krauthammer speaking about his Jewish upbringing, the Talmud, Zionism, and faith:


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