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  • Yehoshua Paul

1942 - The Screwtape Letters

1942. The Nazis formulate "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. The Belzec extermination camp begins operations, the Sobibor extermination camp begins operations, gas chambers are added to Treblinka, where Janusz Korczak and the orphans he care for are killed, and in Auschwitz-Birkenau it’s business as usual.

The Polish government in exile sends copies of The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland, the first official report on The Holocaust to 26 governments. For the most part it is disbelieved.

Many risk their lives to do what they can to help the Jews. In Amsterdam, Anne Frank and her family are hidden in an attic. In Poland, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Filipowicz set up the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews. Kossak-Szczucka also publishes a protest against the mass murder of Jews.

But many, too many others participate in the cruelty, or remain indifferent to what they see. These include Oskar Gröning, an SS guard who when arriving at Auschwitz, and seeing an SS soldier smash a crying baby’s head against the wall, tries to quit. He feels that if the extermination of Jews is really necessary, it should be done within a proper framework, and the lack of orderliness surrounding the killing troubles him. His request is denied, and eventually he becomes used to the routine by rearranging his life so he doesn’t have to witness what is really going on.

This type of indifference to cruelty does not happen overnight. It takes many years to build up and is comprised of many small temptations that corrupt the spirit, and draw the person further and further into evil’s fold. C. S. Lewis explains this process in The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters in which a senior demon instructs a lesser demon on the finer points of temptation.

Jews on selection ramp at Auschwitz, May 1944

Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963) was a British writer and Christian apologetic, best known for his classic children’s literature series, the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien. They both served on the English Faculty at Oxford University, and they were both active in the Inklings, an informal literary group.

Tolkien was one of the people who influenced Lewis into returning to Christianity. Lewis had been an avowed atheist ever since he was 15, “angry with god for not existing.” However, in his early thirties, arguments made by Tolkien and the book The Everlasting Man By G. K. Chesterton brought him kicking and screaming back into the fold. Although, much to Tolkien’s disappointment, Lewis became an Anglican, not a Catholic.

Lewis’ Christian beliefs are deeply felt in his writing. The Chronicles of Narnia contains many Christian ideas that were intended to be easily accessible to young children (as well as borrowing from Greek and Roman mythologies). His Space Trilogy was written in response to what he thought were dehumanising trends in contemporary science fiction. And in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis uses reverse psychology to address issues of temptation and how to resist it.

These fictional letters were written by the senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, an inexperienced tempter. Wormwood has been charged with slowly guiding his “patient” towards “Our Father Below” and out of the hands of “the enemy” (Jesus). Screwtape uses these letters to explain to his nephew how the machinations of the human mind in order to be able to better manipulate “the patient”, and also how “the enemy” thinks. For example, humans are used to living with multiple incompatible philosophies bouncing through their head, and they don’t weigh arguments according to whether they are true or false, but rather according to which jargon they line up with. If Wormwood wishes to get the patient to subscribe to materialism, he should have him think of the arguments as “strong, stark or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future”, and not try and weigh the arguments according to their truth value. In another letter, after the patient converts to Christianity, Screwtape explains how to corrupt his spirituality by having him look at Jesus from a historical perspective, which can be used to adapt Jesus to whatever set of values is currently fashionable. The letters are written in a very satirical form and they got me thinking.

Lewis’ had a very ecumenical approach towards Christianity, which meant he tended to focus on what all the different streams had in common rather than on what set them apart. This expresses itself in these letters which focus on the principles of faith rather than the minutiae of doctrine, and much of what he writes is relevant for any person with religious convictions, regardless of whether they are Christian. For example, in one of his letters, Screwtape complains that the patient is associating with people who are merely Christian, rather than people whose state of mind is ”Christianity And. You know – Christianity and the Crisis of Christianity, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform." This resonated with me when I thought about all the different trends and streams just within Orthodox Judaism, such as Mizrachi, Chardal, National-religious, Dati-light, Religious on the spectrum, or ex-ex-religious. It’s not just that you’re a Jew anymore. We need to also know the size of your kippa which Yeshiva you went to, what you think about the Chief Rabbinate, your stance on private kashrut, alternative wedding ceremonies, animal cruelty and settlements - and sadly sometimes these "Ands" define us more than our common roots.

The Omer today is kingship in foundation. These attributes are very relevant when thinking about the outlook of a person of faith. Believing in Hashem requires a certain level of submission, an acknowledgement that you are not the center of the universe and that your life is not your own, but was rather given to you as a temporary gift. People who accept this have an easier time accepting Hashem’s rule, even when it is difficult to bear, and it also helps towards accepting others because when you don’t place yourself at the center of your own universe it is easier to let others in. When there is only room for you then all others you dislike become less worthy, and at the extreme, less human, which means that it’s okay to exterminate them. This was part of the corruption of the Nazi foundation. There was no one above the Aryan’s and everyone else was lesser, and corrupt foundations are doomed to crumble. I just wish it could have happened sooner before they had a chance to kill six million of our people, However, I also have to accept that I have absolutely no idea what Hashem’s plan was. And that’s where the faith comes in.

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