Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rav Dessler: In or Out?

In the first part of my book The Challenge Of Creation, which evolved from my earlier book The Science Of Torah, I develop the idea of how the system of natural law is immensely significant and valuable from a rationalist Jewish perspective. One of the authorities that I invoke in support of this approach is Rav Dessler:
Rabbi Dessler explains that there are different levels of appreciation of God’s control of the world. The lowest level, on which many of us find ourselves, is that we profess to recognize the truth of it, but do not really do so at heart. The litmus test of this is whether we live our lives any differently. We might say, “God sustains us,” but we wouldn’t dream of actually entrusting Him to handle any of it. Because the person in this position does not really recognize God’s control of the world, he will be treated strictly according to natural law, with no suspensions of it ever made for him. (It is in comparison to such a person that Rav Yosef praised the man who experienced the miracle of being able to nurse his child.)
A higher level is to recognize that God can do with nature as He pleases. A person at this level, however, might be distracted from this viewpoint if he never sees providence overriding the ordinary course of nature. He needs occasional proof that God controls his destiny. Such was the level of the man who miraculously nursed his child, which was why Abayey commented that it didn’t place him in the best light. Another reason why this is not the highest level is that it still perceives nature as a tool—an extension of God, something one level removed from Him. This also implies a deficiency in God’s abilities, as one only uses a tool if one can’t do the job oneself.
The highest level is to see nature not as a tool of God, but as a representation of God Himself. It is not that matters are controlled by nature, which in turn is controlled by laws, which in turn are powered by God—God is present at every stage of the process. This is not, Heaven forbid, to imply a position of pantheism, or Spinoza’s position that God is nothing more than a synonym for the laws of nature. It is not that God is really nature; rather, nature is really a concealed representation of God. He is not using tools.
(Adapted from Michtav Me-Eliyahu vol. I pp. 197-203)

But does Rav Dessler have a place in a presentation of the rationalist approach? There is a newly published book, Modern Orthodox Judaism, by the late Rabbi Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, whose excellent studies of mezuzah and netilas yadayim can be found linked on the side of this website. In a footnote on p. 31, he describes Rav Dessler's "anti-science position" as follows:

Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause—and—effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206). For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue. Similarly, serious financial initiative is unnecessary. The diagnostic skill of the physician (Mikhtav, III, p. 172), the financier’s business acumen (Mikhtav, I, p. 188), ostensibly critical factors in the effectiveness of their efforts, are only illusory causes, argues Rav Dessler. Admittedly, he concedes, one must “go through the motions” of practical activity (the notion of hishtadlut, Mikhtav, I, pp. 187-88) - visiting a physician, making a phone call for financial support - but such is necessary only as a “cover” for the direct Divine conduct of human affairs, which men of faith are challenged to discern. Recognizing the immediacy of the Divine hand behind the facade of human initiative is the ultimate test of faith. One should be engaged in practical effort only for the purpose, paradoxically, of discovering its pointlessness! Therefore, asserts Rav Dessler, to the degree that a man has already proved his spiritual mettle, his acknowledgment of Divine control, could the extensiveness of his “cover” be reduced. Or, alternatively, to the degree that a man is not yet sufficiently spiritually perceptive - wherefore pragmatic initiative might “blind” him to Divine control - should he limit such recourse. Accordingly, b'nei yeshiva are implicitly discouraged from any serious financial initiative - or involvement across the board in any area of resourceful effort, be it technological, political, etc. - since the circumstances of life are, in reality, a spontaneous Divine miracle. (Note Rav Dessler’s necessarily strained interpretation of Hullin, ad loc. and Niddah, ad loc., where one is advised by Harzal to survey one’s property with regularity, and to “abound in business.” in the pursuit of wealth! — Mikhtav, I, pp. 200-01).
Rav Dessler’s position cannot draw support from the doctrine of Ramban, although he
assumes such an identification (ibid., III, pp. 170-73). While Ramban defines the ultimate providential relationship of God to Israel as one of ongoing miracle, he essentially never denies the reality of natural law. Israel, Ramban argues, through its fulfillment of mitzvot, is ideally able to transcend nature and engage God in the special faith—miracle association. In actuality, Ramban in fact concedes, such a relationship with the Divine does not generally prevail today, so that one must live, as a rule, in response to natural law. Thus he legitimates medical practice - he himself, after all, was a physician - not as a “cover” for some outright miracle deceptively operative behind the scenes, as Rav Dessler would have it, but as a genuine recourse to an efficacious discipline. (See Ramban, Commentmy, Lev. 26:11; Torat ha-Adam, in Kitvei Ramban, II, pp. 42-43.) For Rav Dessler, the “natural agency” of medical treatment (III, p. 172), which, admittedly, those of low—faith level must necessarily pursue, is not an effect of natural law as Ramban recognizes it, but, once again, a deceptive expression at every moment of the spontaneous Divine will (see his own reference [ad loc., p. 173] to his basic definition of “nature” in I, pp. 177-206).
Rambam, of course - in contrast even with Ramban - rejects as patently absurd the notion that faith healing, a disregard for nature, could ever prevail as the will of God (see his Commentary to Mishnah, Pesachim 4:10).

Is his understanding of Rav Dessler's position correct? And if so, should I therefore remove my discussion of Rav Dessler's position from my book? This is immediately pertinent, because I am currently preparing a new edition of The Challenge Of Creation. Due to unfortunate problems with my previous distributor, I have to switch to a new distributor and re-do the book from scratch - sponsorship opportunities for the book are available and assistance would be welcomed!


  1. How did your Rebbe Rabbi Aryeh Carmell understand Rav Dessler's stance?

  2. I got about halfway through Mikhtav Mi-Eliyahu before I quite because I was frustrated with his anti-rationalists attitudes. On the other hand, I was reading the essays in the first place because he is often an original and engaging thinker, and I have incorporated some of his ideas into my own personal hashkafa. So I can see both sides of it.

  3. "Is his understanding of Rav Dessler's position correct?"
    I think so. I don't understand how else you would read him. How is your explanation different to R Gordon's?

    "And if so, should I therefore remove my discussion of Rav Dessler's position from my book?"
    You present many anti-rationalist positions in your book which you go onto reject. I'm unclear as to why you decided to include R Dessler in the book and are now considering removing it.

  4. It is odd that the article does not mention the forerunners of Rav Dessler's position:

    The Chovos Halevavos:
    הסיבה לא תוסיף לו בחוקו ולא תחסרהו ממנו מאומה אלא בגזירת האלקים יתברך

    And, openly, the Mesillas Yesharim:
    לא שההשתדלות הוא המועיל אלא שההשתדלות מוכרח

  5. See Michtav M'Eliyahu Vol 4. Letter 31(b)note 4. (page 355-356 in my edition). Rav Carmel (the editor) gives an oral account of Rav Dessler's position on chazal contradicting "metzius" (the scientific facts)...it appears that he holds that we must (reverently) attempt to see things from their perspective to give them the benefit of doubt.

    For example, chazal say, (chullin 52b and 53a) that (large)cats have poison ducts in their claws which spurt out poison while mauling other animals, which will have halachic repercussions. Rav Dessler says [how i understand him] that even though we now know that the (large) cats do not have poison ducts in their claws, chazal made their assessment based on observation. However, after further investigation it is apparent that actually many of the (large) cats have meat residue in their claws from prior prey. This residue could be weeks old and full of poisonous bacteria. It is this bacteria, from previous prey, which gets injected into the new prey when the cat extends their claws. Chazal, reasonably, interpreted this as a poison (such as venom), but in actuality its nothing more than decayed meat full of bacteria.

  6. Not being a rationalist, is not a reason to delete his view. His views are still engaging, and well thought out.

  7. Is R. Gordon "late?" His blurb on Urim says he lives in Jerusalem.

  8. koillel nick - the question is whether it is accurate to invoke him in support of the rationalist approach.

    Eric - he passed away recently.

  9. @Rabbi Slifkin,
    I don't think almost anyone is a pure rationalist or anti rationalist. Most Great scholars fit somewhere in between, with certain rationalistic bends and certain non rationalistic bends. We can cite Rav Hirsch as a source about mudmice, yet his approach to taame hamitzvos is as far from rationalism as one can get. Ramban seems to have one foot in each camp. He usually is not much of a rationalist, but every once in a while he throws me off guard. Even Rambam of the most rationalist of Rishonim, may have accepted more than one legitimate approach to Judaism.
    I'd say keep each discussion individualized.

  10. @Rabbi See Ramban's comment about science Bereishis 9:12

  11. This discovery of Rav Desslers true anti-science views is really old news.

    I found this on the net from June 2006 critiquing the "Science of Torah":

    In Part One: Science; Section Two pages 60-61, Slifkin paraphrases Rav Dessler's essay on "Miracles and Nature." But let us read what Rav Dessler really says about nature. The following is what he says at the very beginning of that essay: (Translation is from "Strive For Truth" Vol. 2 page 240)

    The world has no other cause but the will of Hashem. His deeds and His conduct of the world are the immediate consequence of His will. What He wills comes into being without the need of any intermediary. We call God's act a "miracle" when we wills an occurrence which is novel and unfamiliar to us... We call God's acts "nature" when He wills that certain events should occur in a recognizable pattern with which we become familiar.

    This familiarity presents us with a challenge. We can choose to recognize that these events too have their sole and immediate cause the unfettered will of Hashem. Or we can imagine that Hashem has delegated certain powers to "Nature", and that within the realm of Nature man too has the ability to influence events by the process of cause and effect. THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF "NATURE" IS THUS NOTHING BUT A TEST FOR THE HUMAN BEING. NATURE HAS NO OBJECTIVE EXISTENCE; IT IS MERELY AN ILLUSION WHICH GIVES MAN A CHOICE TO EXERCISE HIS FREE WILL: TO ERR, OR TO CHOOSE TRUTH."

  12. My advice is never to remove a section from a book in a new edition. If you must, add a little section explaining or disclaiming it. Readers do not want less, not to mention that you will be causing unneeded chaos when it comes to referring to the book in the future. True, the same thing happens with adding material - but that can't be prevented.

  13. Judging from the citations given, I would not classify Rav Dessler as a rationalist. He appears to be combining and modifying the rationalist approach of the Rambam towards providence and the largely mystical approach of the Ramban. In the end, his view of nature as a divine manifestation - albeit, hidden is problematic from a theological standpoint. While he certainly doesn't support treating natural objects as worthy of worship, attributing an aspect of divinity to them gets uncomfortably close to pantheism. Moreover, the idea that true belief in the total divine control over anything affecting the life of the believer results in such control, runs into the issue of 'tzaddik ve'ra lo'. I wonder if his desire to foster an 'only torah' approach to life has lead him to this stance?

  14. How can one discuss Rav Dessler's position on the connection between Hishtadulus and Bitachon without mentioning the development of this concept in the Jewish thought in general and in the Mussar movement in particular? Maybe that would prevent things like calling MME a "radical departure" from anything.

    Also, you should establish clear criteria about who is "in" and who's "out" of the Rational Judaism. Otherwise, we have to guess...

  15. If you believe his reasoning in argument you cite to be correct and in now way contingent on his more "problematic views" then it would be ad hominem to reject or exclude them because of his other views.

  16. Rationalism and anti-Rationalism in the religious context are just two sides of the same coin. To be a rationalist is to focus on the explainable phenomena in the world and marvel at God's greatness for creating such greatness. Anti-Rationalism looks at all the things that happen by chance, sees that there can not be any systematic explanation for the things he sees in this world, and sees the greatness of God.

    Rav Dessler focuses on the randomness of the world and argues that the randomness can actually be channeled by religiosity. Rationalists would argue that religiosity must be its own reward.

    If Science can explain 99% of the world, is it anti-science to say that a person should choose to live their life in the 1%?

  17. i saw some of the stuff you wrote about the zimzum. It turned my stomach.

  18. Meir says
    All these 'explanations' of emuna and bitachon seem to be nothing more than excuses to live off others.
    Hishtadlus has adopted a new meaning, which today means collecting. They all term this manna from heaven but being dropped to the rich mans door for him instead of his own.
    I abide still by the simple concepts where the meaning of hishtadlus still means working yourself for your living. Thanking hashem for providing you with customers after praying to him etc. If hashem wanted us to live 'higher' than the 'teva' he could have kept us in the desert. That was never his intention.

  19. Accordingly, b'nei yeshiva are implicitly discouraged from any serious financial initiative - or involvement across the board in any area of resourceful effort, be it technological, political, etc. - since the circumstances of life are, in reality, a spontaneous Divine miracle.

    Rabbi Dessler says we should earn a living and attribute our success to G-d. This is not the same as scrounging off others. Those who use Rabbi Dessler as an excuse to scrounge are distorting his words.

    There is a source which says King David chased his enemies and beat them. Chizkiyahu went to sleep and an angel killed them. King David was greater. In spite of his own personal effort he still acknowledge his success came from G-d. Chizkiyahu was no scrounger, but this source shows the value of making our own effort.

  20. I know that this is not directly on topic - but , in the spirit of Peasch, a plague on both your houses.
    Let's start with Rav Dessler. I do not intend to offend, this is not an ad hominem attack, but I'm seriously disturbed, annoyed, bothered, irritated by his approach.
    Not only do I disagree with his conclusions but I find the whole psuedo-philososophic, mumbo-jumbo offensive.
    Are we supposed to understand what he's saying, point-by-point, or out of the haze of his statements are we supposed to arrive at some deeper meaning?
    Maybe that's too strong - but I'm trying to be as explicit as possible as to where I'm coming from.
    1) I expect anyone making an argument (esp. about the very nature of God and the universe) to be clear and forthcoming as possible. I don't see that here.
    Take for instance:
    The highest level is to see nature not as a tool of God, but as a representation of God Himself.
    I think by "nature" Rav Dessler is refering to cause-and-effect, as suggested by Dr. Gordon.
    First off, no one claimed nature to be a tool of God other than Rav Dessler himself (see the previous paragrah in the adapttaion) - so we have kind of a straw man argument here.
    Regardless, what does it mean to be a representation of God? Like an idol? Is there something in "nature" that shares the same essential characteristics of God? Does it help to call it a "concealed representation"?
    If anyone understands this - please chime in.
    2) I expect anyone making an argument based on traditional sources - to really defend his position agaisnt ALL traditional sources that appear to be opposed to his position - and to bring supporting evidence. And perhaps he does.
    All we have in this excerpt is one enigmatic story from the gemara. Really?
    Maybe someone can defend Rav Dessler on this point as well. Please volunteer.

    I'll leave off talking about the so-called rationalist approach of the blog-meister, (should this be called "Special Rationality")? I hope to write another note just re-iterating how inconsistent this is with the apparent philosophy you'll find in every perek of gemara.

  21. At the risk of my words causing the opposite response, I see here some very typical misunderstandings, and problems with definitions of terms.

    To me, the fact that R. Dessler has to wave his hands and say that he is not speaking of Spinoza, means that he is talking about what R. Solevetchik called "Halacha of Din"... i.e., Nature is what we witness from a Gd that is perfect, and absolutely Just with no way to deviate, bribe, or argue away Justice.

    You can read this as extremely rationalist, if you understand Gd and miracles as seemingly natural things, or you can read this as magical man in the sky doing his super tricks of trickery. It all depends on how you define your terms of Gd, Miracles, Divine Will, and Nature.

  22. Mordechai, ManchesterMarch 28, 2012 at 11:10 PM

    Has anyone else noted the clear similarity between the views espoused by Rav Dessler as quoted by Rav Slifkin and the views of the Mutakallimun, which are so strongly contested by the Rambam in the Moreh?

  23. Perhaps an eitzah that may help you come to a conclusion with menuchas hanefesh is to do your best job to articulate a logically sound reason to exclude his position based on his other positions.

  24. so what is the alternative to r. dessler ?

    you drop an object from your hand and it falls to the ground.

    who moves it to the ground. R. dessler says G-d (cloaked through gravity) atheist scientists say gravity only (as science has no need for that hypothesis)

    the alternative to r. dessler is G-d created gravity which then became an independant force which has no need of G-d and this has the independent power outside G-d to affect things.

    theologically, God could disappear chv and gravity would continue.

    I doubt that the rambam would subscribe to such a view, as you are limiting an Omnipotent G-d which is impossible.

  25. If you can get a hold of HaMaayan Journal from 1985 VOL A Rav Carmel has an article there on P. 3-13
    מהות הטבע: "מכתב מאליהו" מול מורה נבוכים"? המעין כה, א (שמ"ה)

  26. Now THAT sounds interesting! Does anyone have a copy that they can send to me?

  27. Here's a copy of the article: http://tinyurl.com/c7p27nu (requires academia.edu account to view)

  28. Fascinating. Rav Carmell claims that Rav Dessler and Rambam are fundamentally of the same mindset!

  29. How rationalist is this?
    From Michtav Me'Eliyahu:

    [Modern researchers and scientists] believe that we need to develop in children their independence – and this is a grave error. We do not need to develop their independence, only their submission… My cousin Rabbi Zisel told me that he saw in one of the holy books that even if the child listens to his parents, it is advisable to invent a story in order to find a reason to hit him at least a bit… These new scientists, in their zeal to destroy even the principles that non-Jews knew, which stem from God’s Bible and the prophets, invent fabrications that turn over all the roots [of authentic education and morality], to educate shameless “Hitlerists”.

  30. Is the same Dessler who wrote how a thousand should be sacrificed to create one gadol? Why do we even pay attention to what he says?

  31. Fascinating. Rav Carmell claims that Rav Dessler and Rambam are fundamentally of the same mindset!

    Fascinating? I think its a simple case of cognitive dissonance.
    Someone is attempting to minimize the outright contradiction between two of his most respected authorities.
    It doesn't work.
    Mordechai from Manchester hit the bull's eye.

    See this article in Reshimu by Rabbi Sedley:

  32. R' Natan, I was very impressed by your point in The Challenge of Creation that the very concept of "The Laws of Nature" derives from "Yichud Hashem". I believe that R' Dessler's explanation contributes to this point.

    It sounds like R' Dessler was heavily influenced by the "Ein Od MiLvado" argument of Chassidus. That used to be anti-rationalist, and anti-science, until science itself created a model of the building blocks of the Universe being "information" itself. Thinking back to how R' Aryeh Kaplan described G-d as pure information... perhaps "Ein Od Mil'vado" is as rational explanation as anything else.

    And if scientists can talk about "quantum tunneling", why can't R' Dessler talk about miracles?

  33. What is important for the rationalist approach is that the laws of nature are treated as real, fixed and not as an illusion. Whatever happens behind the scenes of those fixed laws (ie. are they a tool or directly Hashem) is irrelevant. The question regarding Rav Dessler's highest level is how does he view the laws of nature?
    Either, A) Since it is a direct manifestation of Hashem are the laws completely subject to change and only appear fixed. non-rational
    Or B) Or are they, despite being a direct expression of Hashem, still completely fixed and constant. Rational.

  34. R.NS: "I develop the idea of how the system of natural law is immensely significant and valuable from a rationalist Jewish perspective. ..."

    Google Books previews all of Chapter 5 of Rabbi Slifkin's The Challenge of Creation: The Importance of Natural Law. I found the chapter-context helpful to considering Rabbi Dessler's position and its significance to the book.

  35. The issue of how Hashem runs the world given the fixed laws of nature is extremely deep, and probably needs a book in its own right. First, isn't one of the Ranbam's own 13 ikarim Shehu lvado asah oseh vyaaseh lchol hamaasim? So whichever camp you belong to, you need to reconcile hashgacha pratis with what at least appears to be the determinism of nature. How does the RBSH leave room for himself to maneuver when the laws of nature appear fixed? In addition, how do humans have free choice if their actions can be predicted based on their current state. I.e., does a ball have free choice to move right or left in the air? No, only can follow the trajectory imparted by the thrower. Can a nerve cell decide whether to fire or not? No, only can follow the laws of physics which dictate that it sums its inputs and if above threshold, it fires; if not, it does not. So how does one decide to do an action? Which neuron is able to make an independent decision that would initiate a muscle cell to move?

    Furthermore , if nerves can't act independently, then how can we punish a criminal? He can always claim he had no choice, and his actions were predetermined based on his physiology and past states.

    A possible resolution to all this is that if the laws of physics are at their heart based on probability with no hidden factors, then the RBSH can reserve the right to actually make the decision as to which of the possible outcomes will occur on the molecular level, despite the fact that it looks random to any observe. He may allow a person's soul control over the neurons in his brain in a similar subtle manner that cannot be detected by scientific instruments, but does not violate the laws of science. This is just one possibility, but probably every maamin from whichever camp would need to eventually come up with something similar. So Rav Dessler could be saying this, and would not necessarily be anti-rationalist.

    As far as how Hashem then decides to make his decision, does he follow one's zchus or one's mazal; and can one change Hashem's mind by means of hishtadlus or tefila? These are further difficult questions. One possibility would be that hishtadlus increases the probability that a certain molecular outcome would occur. So less hashgacha is required to make it happen, whereas if one did not do hishtadlus, the chances of the desired outcome are less, and more hashgacha is required for Hashem to want to flip it to the other side despite it being of low probablity. Possibly the level of one's hashgacha is based upon his zchus, and may cost him, as well, as the gemara says about Yaakov Avinu.

    Just a few thoughts. Please comment.

  36. Mordechai, ManchesterApril 1, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    To check out the similarities between Rav Dessler's views, as cited by Rav Slifkin, and the views ascribed by the Rambam to the Mutakallimun, cf. Moreh Nebuchim; Vol I, Premises 6 and 10.

  37. Mordechai, ManchesterApril 1, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    Sorry my mistake.
    To check out the similarities between Rav Dessler's views, as cited by Rav Slifkin, and the views ascribed by the Rambam to the Mutakallimun, cf. Moreh Nebuchim; Vol I, Chap. 73, Premises 6 and 10.

  38. Sam said...
    Is the same Dessler who wrote how a thousand should be sacrificed to create one gadol? Why do we even pay attention to what he says?

    March 29, 2012 10:45 PM

    i've come across such comments elsewhere in the blogosphere; but they are usually followed by someone pointing out that he was only writing his OBSERVATION of the educational system of Lithuania as opposed to Germany. i recently came across the CI advocating education from which the one in a thousand will reach hora'ah. i don't see among his followers
    the 999 that he would call failures,

  39. Fascinating. Rav Carmell claims that Rav Dessler and Rambam are fundamentally of the same mindset!


    so his rav carmell wrong or right ?


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