CS Lewis, Elul and the Shofar

Somebody you know has read The Screwtape Letters. He or she may not admit it, however, because reading the work of the most successful Christian apologist in the twentieth century will not win friends in some circles. Those few who will weigh in on Lewis are more likely to comment on the Chronicles of Narnia, the children’s fantasy series, a few of which turned into movies around a decade ago, alarming some parents who thought that their children would subliminally absorb Christian theology. (No risk. The themes were only detectable to those who were already exposed to them.)

Screwtape is another matter. It will no sooner become a movie than (lehavdil) Mesilas Yesharim will become a Netflix series. Screwtape is actually a mussar work – and some of it is very, very good.

The short book’s whimsical premise sells itself to the reader. A senior official working for the Father (the Devil ) offers advice to his nephew, a neophyte working for the same outfit, in the form of a series of letters. Screwtape provides the sage voice of experience to help Wormwood keep his “patient” out of the clutches of the Enemy. The latter really loves human beings, those puny despicable creatures, which infuriates Screwtape even beyond the call of duty.

An effective vehicle like humor can take care of transportation, but there had better be some cargo in the back of the truck. Lewis does not disappoint. He was a gifted wordsmith, and his prose sparkles. He had many insights on how good intentions could be stopped dead in their tracks; how pride can eviscerate connection with G-d; how attaching oneself to cultural trends or snobbish intellectuality can derail religious striving.

Lewis did not invent the idea of using an interesting literary device to make his point. Chazal do this all the time in many midrashim. Earlier in time, our mesorah has it that Shir Hashirim is an allegory; one opinion has it that the Book of Iyov is allegorical as well. And think of the success of the mesholim of the Dubno Magid and the Chofetz Chaim. Fictionalized exchanges of letters also appear often enough in our Torah literature, including the earlier edition of Mesilas Yesharim and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters.

I can think of several reasons why such devices were employed. Sometimes, an idea is so subtle or complex that it can only be grasped through the concrete example of an allegory or story. Sometimes, the listener might become defensive if spoken to directly. He must first absorb the message on neutral turf before he is ready to apply it to himself. Think of Nosson ha-Navi confronting Dovid after the incident with Batsheva. A story can transmit a message before the listener can get defensive.

At other times, the listener might have no problem comprehending, but will not be interested in paying attention in the first place. To address this, an author can use some inventive device – like the Screwtape premise – as bait. If readers take it, they stay with its development to see how long the author can make it work, absorbing the moral points along the way.

Lewis, for all his talent, recognized that conventional preaching would not work for most of his audience. The “moderns” for whom he was writing – most of whom had soured on conventional religion – were not going to respond to the fire-and-brimstone preachers of the past, or to direct, unvarnished exhortations. A good part of his writing had to be disguised as fantasy fiction.

What’s surprising is how often we, in our community, can respond to a message without embedding it in an allegory or story. Sometimes, the vehicle can even become a distraction. Kedushas Levi at the beginning of Devarim observes that the last of the five chumashim offers very little narrative. His explanation is intriguing. The earlier chumashim, he argues, used stories to convey profound messages. Each story had some manifest meaning, but served as a moral Trojan horse, carrying with it many levels of latent meaning. Forty years after receiving the Torah and pondering it in the Wilderness, a new generation was sophisticated enough that they did not need the sugar coating to swallow the message. They could respond to Moshe telling it like it was.

And so it remains, at times, today. While so many have lost the ability to read more than 140 characters at a time, or heavily depend upon emojis and memes to express themselves, we remain a People of the Book. We can still respond to the power of words – even the undisguised truth, served straight-up.

Before that happens, however, many of us still require the bait, the attention-grabber, to attract our interest. Here we are in Elul. The daily sound of the shofar does for us what Lewis’ devil-device did for his readers: it turns our heads, and suggests that we stick around for the impact of words that we ought to be pondering deeply. When the Rambam (Teshuva 3:4) tells us that the shofar tells us, “Wake up! Wake up, you slumberers from your sleep,” he might not mean only that the shofar itself commands us to do teshuvah. He might mean that we awaken our ability to listen to words of teshuvah that will be spoken to us during this period, and give them our full attention. How many of us will be looking once more at the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva, and find them as powerful as they were the first time we studied them? How many of us have turned to Chovos Halevavos, or Shaarei Teshuvah, or Mesilas Yesharim during this period?

The avodah of Rosh Hashanah is the recitation of malchiyos, zichronos, and shofros, the three all-important sections in the Musaf Amidah. We may have filled our reading during Elul with stories about teshuvah and great tzadikim, but in the clutch, we read to ourselves a three-part protocol that drives home who Hashem is. We affirm with new clarity and commitment that He is the absolute Master of everything. There are no competitors to Him, and no limits on His power. We cut ourselves down a few notches. But next we speak of His remembering, meaning that He made Man important. He leaves room in His world for the Man to be a doer, and to make a difference. Man’s deeds are so impactful that G-d weighs, evaluates, and reacts to them. Finally, we remind ourselves that with all His power, He remains close to Man. He reveals Himself to Man in dramatic moments of history, all trumpeted to large audiences.

Here, too, we first rivet our own attention through an external device. Once again, it is the shofar. It can be understood on so many levels, but the one that comes to mind is that of Rav Kook (Olat Rayah, vol.2, pg 338). No aveirah, he argues, starts in a vacuum. Every aveirah, rather, begins with a deficieny in yir’as Hashem and ahavas Hashem. Those deficits harm our midos, our character traits; the imperfection of those midos ultimately cause our active sin. Teshuvah for the aveirah without addressing the cause means treating the symptom, rather than the disease. The day itself is one of healing, because it allows rebirth. Before we can avail ourselves of that opportunity, we sound the shofar, which, in his words, is מעורר מגלה וקובע אהבה ויראה – awakens, reveals, and fixes within us love and reverence of Hashem.

When we stop to pay attention to the shofar, we find already within ourselves a pure source of love and fear of Hashem. We can go on from there to capture the potential of the day, through the avodah of Musaf.

As we find this love within us, so may HKBH find that love for us, and grant us all a year of aliyah, peace, health and prosperity.

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16 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    RAL ztl was a strong proponent of reading The Screwtape Letters, which he rated as one of the great mussar works of the 20th century.

    that work and particularly the works of other non-jews on the mishnah, areas of halakha or various sugyot / mesechtot forces you to think carefully about what chazal meant by chochmoh b’goyim ta’amin, torah ba’goyim, no ta’amin. this is not the place to discuss where such careful thought might lead you.

    • Bob Miller says:

      This just goes to show that we and our Torah message have had a positive cumulative impact on the thinking of some non-Jews, who may or may not realize this. Creating this impact in the wider world is one of our big jobs on earth. Much of this impact has taken place during our current long exile.

      We still need to be vigilant to reject any false ideas specific to other religions that are embedded in their communications and published works.

    • DF says:

      Several of us in NIRC circles (early 90s) read it. It’s a good book, and not too long. But there are many good books from Christian writers. We don’t like to admit it, but the truth is, one can be extremely learned, and be completely at home in Hebrew and Aramaic, but nothing compares to reading something in one’s mother tongue, the language in which one thinks. Somebody captured this in brilliant form, in explaining how he only properly understood a midrash, even though he knew perfectly well what every single Hebrew word meant, when he saw it in front of him in English. He said:

      “As a picture is worth a thousand words, an English word is worth a thousand other words.”


  2. Nachum says:

    The Gra felt the same about Yonah as he did about Shir HaShirim and Iyov. That is, Yonah (who’s mentioned in Melachim) and Shlomo (ditto, of course) existed (and there was definitely an independent legend of Iyov, whether or not he existed), but the books about them are allegories.

  3. Raymond says:

    When I think of the shofar, I also think of still another image, namely the Sacrifice of Isaac. I think of how obedience to G-d is so important, that Avraham was even willing to sacrifice his own beloved son for its sake. And I think of the idea of the Temple sacrifices themselves, how it could have been us who were sacrificed rather than the animals we are sacrificing in our place. Quite a scary image, yet very powerful.

  4. Uncle Screwtape’s letter about the various sorts humor and their utility is one of my favorites, and gives a perfect definition of leitzanus, which he calls “flippancy”:

    But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know…

  5. Yehudah says:

    Lots of innuendo from dr. Bill lately. How about just flat out telling us what you believe torah bagoyim al tamin believes, so that when we read your opinions we will know if they emanate from the mind of a mamin.

    • dr. bill says:

      i wish i could, but it is a bit too complicated. the terms torah and halakha may not have had the same implication across the many, many centuries of talmudic literature. i once discussed this at length centering on the mishneh at the end of the third perek of avot. i found an insight from the Grash on chazal’s use of various terms a key to what i assume. i forget on which tosefta he was commenting.

      but to put your mind at rest, a non jewish insight in our canonical texts can be very useful. but being very useful to one studying does not necessarily make it “Torah.”

      • Weaver says:

        “Torah bagoyim al tamin” is obviously lav davkah – you know, like when Abarbanel incorporated Christian writings into his peirush in chumash or Rav Breuer saying one should say “amen” after reading Immanuel Kant, as well as the countless philosophical and hashkafic ideas adapted from Christian/Muslim/philosophical sources. It’s also just one aggadic saying; the entire Judaism doesn’t hinge on it.
        If “the goyim” can split the atom and make advances in theoretical physics, I’m pretty sure they can also make an elementary inference from a Rashi using high school level logic skills (what passes for a “shmuess” these days).
        “Torah bagoyim al tamin” is now mainly used as a defense mechanism, a way to dismiss ideas without having to seriously consider them.

    • Weaver says:

      “Torah bagoyim al tamin” is obviously lav davkah – you know, like when Abarbanel incorporated Christian writings into his peirush in chumash or Rav Breuer saying one should say “amen” after reading Immanuel Kant, as well as the countless philosophical and hashkafic ideas adapted from Christian/Muslim/philosophical sources. It’s also just one aggadic saying. The entire Judaism doesn’t hinge on it.
      If “the goyim” can split the atom and make advances in theoretical physics, I’m pretty sure they can also make an elementary inference from a Rashi using high school level logic skills (what passes for a “shmuess” these days).
      “Torah bagoyim al tamin” is now mainly used as a defense mechanism, a way to dismiss ideas without having to seriously consider them.

      • dr. bill says:

        there are many other examples of use by various gedoalai olam of non-jewish ideas in various contexts. one of the most radical was RAL ztl and his use of a non-jewish source to better perform a mitzvah.

        your last comment understates the problem; academic works on the history of the talmud or halakha, and kal ve’chomer beno shel kal ve’chomer, jewish history in biblical or second temple times, written by a traditional jew or non-jew are rarely even read. a number of years back a centrist orthodox organization published a historical piece using “facts” on the second temple era already questioned in the time of rishonim. when i mentioned that to the rabbi responsible, he told me that no one mentioned that.

      • mycroft says:

        Using Seder Olam for actual dates is very dangerous. Tanach agrees to the day in most of what is in the Babylonian chronicles. I have heard RHS in a shiur refer to length of bayis sheni-he was not using Seder Olam chronology.
        There is a religious professor of Jewish history specializing in Second Temple period at Hebrew U. Prof Dan Schwartz.
        I wish there were more that I knew of for crucial period of our history.

      • dr. bill says:

        mycroft, i think that what i heard attributed to the late rabbi Schwab is interesting. i heard that he wrote that we know little about those 150 or so years that differ between seder olam and normally assumed duration of the persian empire in order to create a period of discontinuity creating the need for emunah.

        i assure you that what we know of the period from the destruction of the first temple to the Maccabean period is very spotty. the only sources are from sources that were never part of our mesorah.

        if you think there is argument about the talmudic period, the 600 preceding years are subject to even more fundamental dispute.

        i have read a number of books and articles, but feel completely ignorant. ironically, the three people who have a reputation that includes expertise in this period, are all practicing traditional jews, albeit what many to their right call orthoprax.

        during my time in the Rav ztl’s shiur almost 50 years ago, a gentleman older than the Rav walked into class and took a seat in the back of the room. i believe no more than 2 other talmidim recognized this expert in the second temple period; one of those 2 talmidim passed away a few years ago. his books are no longer seen as reasonable conjecture.

        i read a book/article occasionally but i find there are better uses of my time and i suspect yours. a gmar tov

      • Bob Miller says:

        How familiar are you with the whole range of shmuessen nowadays?

  6. yisroel miller says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein! With some minor editing by someone in our machaneh, the Letters (and also “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”) could be published as “The Soton’s Shiurim” and become a text on recognizing some of the daily working of the Yetzer Hora.

  7. Paul Shaviv says:

    As has been discussed online from time to time, there is a curious Jewish connection to C.S.Lewis. His wife, Joy Davidman, about whose death from cancer he also wrote profoundly, was an American Jewish woman. She had two sons by a previous marriage. One became a very Orthodox Ba’al Teshuvah as a teenager in Oxford. C.S.Lewis made part of his home kosher for the boy, and accommodated all of his religious requirements. His son went to yeshivah, and for a time became a Satmarer! Later, he abandoned observance. He was a brilliant, if eccentric, individual. We shared a Rosh Hashanah meal in Cambridge exactly fifty years ago. (The third partner in the mezuman was another, now internationally famous personality.)

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