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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!