Jewish Lewis Fans by Clara Sarrocco
Clara Sarrocco on a Rabbi's Love for Mere Christianity
"I have met with little of the fabled odium theologicum from convinced members of communions different from my own. Hostility has come more from borderline people. . . . It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice."
These words were written by C. S. Lewis in his Preface to Mere Christianity. One usually thinks that by "members of communions different from my own," Lewis meant Christian communities, but he doesn't tell us this. His invitation is to members of all communions who are seeking that Someone by different routes.
In Surprised by Joy Lewis tells us how, as a young man, he discovered George MacDonald. He was waiting for a train at Leatherhead station one cold October evening, and "turning to the book stall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a Faerie Romance, [by] George MacDonald." From that time on, Lewis avers, MacDonald "baptized his imagination."
When another unsuspecting traveler on the road to Lewis's "Someone," Rabbi Mayer Schiller, was asked how he came upon C. S. Lewis, he replied:
On Christmas Eve, I was coming home from a New York Rangers hockey game . . . and stopped in the bookstore that was then in the Port Authority bus terminal. While browsing, I picked up Mere Christianity and was captivated by it. I bought it and read it all the way home on the bus.
Separated by almost half a century and thousands of miles, both C. S. Lewis and Rabbi Schiller walked past "watchful dragons."
Who is this Rabbi Schiller, who, while holding onto his Jewish faith, yet appreciates one of the most Christian of writers? Mayer Schiller was born in Brooklyn in 1951 and given the name Craig. His family, while ethnically Jewish, did not have a deep religious identity. But by the age of twelve Mayer felt a strong religious calling. He made the decision to accept Orthodox Judaism and eventually became a member of the Hasidic community.
He is married with children and grandchildren and has taught Torah and Talmud at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan. He also coached the Yeshiva boys' hockey team, leading them to six straight championships in the 1990s. It was a sight to see Coach Schiller gliding across the ice in his traditional Hasidic garb. In an online comment posted on November 6, 2014, one former student wrote: "This Rabbi is a legend. A great teacher as well; I had him in high school."
Rabbi Schiller describes his journey in his book, The Road Back: A Discovery of Judaism Without Embellishments (Feldheim Publishers, 1978, with a Forward by Rabbi Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University). In it he urges Jews to return to their ancient religious heritage of Torah Judaism. He has also written numerous articles, participated in many interviews, lectured widely, and was featured in a highly acclaimed PBS documentary, A World Apart. The Jewish press wrote of him: "Among leading Torah Umadda advocates, one personality in particular piques the curiosity of a visitor. For while Rabbi Mayer Schiller's words evince culture and sophistication, his garb belongs to the insulated Chassidic world."
Good Jews & Good Christians
Not only has Rabbi Schiller steeped himself in Lewis's writings but he is also a great admirer of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Of these two he wrote in The Road Back:
After that first night [reading Mere Christianity], I quickly made my way through the Lewis books. This led me to Chesterton and . . . Belloc, whom I also love dearly. GKC brings us to God on the days when life is bright and sunny. Belloc helps us on the days it seems dark and bleak.
In clarifying how these Christian writers can be a part of his Orthodox Jewish life, Rabbi Schiller remarks: "Take The Problem of Pain, combine it with A Grief Observed, and you've got a primer of how people of faith should navigate the experience of suffering in God's world. I always felt that it was a good thing for Christians to be good Christians."
With respect to the judgment of God, Schiller cites a passage from Reflections on the Psalms, in which Lewis wrote:
[God's] Judgment is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it. . . . The ancient Jews, like ourselves [Christians], think of God's judgment in terms of an earthly court of justice. The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for resounding triumph with heavy damages.
But Schiller sees both attitudes in both Jews and Christians. A good Jew also puts himself in the dock, and a good Christian sues not only for God's mercy but also for his justice.
Lewis Appreciation Among Jews
Schiller also sees it as his calling to bring C. S. Lewis to his co-religionists. He notes that he is forever defending non-Jews and their faith to his fellow Jews. He grants that there is always a danger in recommending any work that shows an alternative worldview, such as Mere Christianity, but he also believes that one must depend on the maturity and knowledge of his audience. He knows of a small number of Orthodox Jewish scholars who share his interest in Chesterton and Lewis. Among them are his friend, Rabbi Mark Gottlieb; Professor Shalom Camry of Yeshiva University; and Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, head of Yeshivat Gush Etzion in Israel.
The Screwtape Letters is probably the most popular of Lewis's books among Orthodox Jewish scholars and students, closely followed by The Great Divorce. Schiller feels that since he himself was always taken by traditionalist themes, Lewis's orthodoxy has allowed him to grasp where Lewis was coming from, and Lewis's works would always have an appeal for him. And not only the apologetic works: The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy also attract him, particularly The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and That Hideous Strength. He has also commented that he would place The Problem of Pain and Miracles as antidotes to the writings of Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Mauriac, and Graham Greene because of Lewis's sense of salvation amid the seeming hopelessness of the real world.
A Bridge Between Jews & Christians
Rabbi Schiller dedicated his second book, The (Guilty) Conscience of a Conservative (Arlington House Publishers, 1978) to the Catholic activist and writer L. Brent Bozell Jr., founder and editor of Triumph, a now-defunct orthodox Catholic magazine. In that book, Schiller writes:
The average Catholic, Protestant or Jew does not care . . . about "reforming" or "updating" his faith . . . the field is open for serious conservatives to seize the hour and capitalize on public dissatisfaction with liberal religion. Unfortunately . . . the layman only knows a liberal clergy without faith and a conservative clergy without compassion.
Schiller thinks C. S. Lewis is someone who can help conservatives "seize the hour" because he sees Lewis's writings as being free of the liberalism and relativism that dominate our times. He also observes that Lewis is full of joy, zest, kindness, humility, and accessibility. Reading him gives many of us the encouragement we need to persevere as faithful individuals, families, and communities.
One of Rabbi Schiller's ambitions is to write a book to help improve the Orthodox Jewish relationship with the non-Jewish world. He sees Lewis and Chesterton as a bridge to that world. As he writes:
Having read Lewis and Chesterton and studied their lives, I know how truly beautiful good Christians can be. I wish that every Jew might realize this simple fact. I've spoken to and known pious Christians. . . . I've received warm welcomes . . . and I know that hatred of Jews simply does not exist in those circles.
For those of us who love and admire C. S. Lewis, Rabbi Mayer Schiller has revealed a new aspect of Lewis's universality, and belied the "fabled odium theologicum."For in the confraternity of believers, there is neither "Jew nor gentile . . . you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). •
Clara Sarrocco has been a longtime member and secretary of the New York C. S. Lewis Society. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Lewis, and has taught courses on his writings. She is also the executive director of both the Council on National Literatures and Griffon House Publications.
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