Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler

Scholar in the Musar movement inspired Ponivezh Yeshivah.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler was a religious thinker and prominent figure in the Musar movement (1881-1954). Dessler was born in Homel in Russia where he received a traditional Jewish education leading to his rabbinic ordination, semikhah. After trying his hand, unsuccessfully, in business, Dessler obtained a rabbinic position in the East End of London.

He was later instrumental in establishing in the town of Gateshead a kolel, an institution in which married men with families are supported by patrons of learning while they devote themselves entirely to advanced Talmudic studies on the Lithuanian pattern; an institution now popular everywhere in the ultra-Orthodox world, but, at that time, unheard of in England.

Dessler used to say that even the Orthodox Jews in England looked upon members of the Kolel as if they were Martians newly arrived on the planet. Dessler, though the principal of the kolel, received no salary from the institution, earning his living by privately teaching the sons of Jews who were concerned that the young men should be trained in the old-style Talmudic learning. Dessler later was appointed to the prestigious position of spiritual guide to the great Yeshivah of Ponivezh in Israel. Both in Gateshead and in Ponivezh, Dessler influenced generations of students, two of whom, L. Carmel and A. Halpern, published his discourses under the title Mikhtav me-Eliyahu (Writing of Elijah) in four volumes. This work has become a standard text for devotees of the Musar tradition.

Dessler belongs firmly in the Musar tradition (he was a great-grandson of lsrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement); most of his thought being based on the ideas of this movement. But he also acquired an extensive knowledge of kabbalah and Hasidism and, to a lesser extent, of modern psychological theories, often referring in his lectures to Freudian theories, for example. In this respect he was a highly original Jewish theologian whose views were respected even by thinkers with no allegiance to his form of traditional Judaism.

Understanding God through study of Torah

Dessler’s religious thought is of the otherworldly kind, although, through his early business experience, he came to know the world, its temptations and allurements, and was far removed from the ideal of the world-losing saint. The purpose of Judaism, for Dessler, is to equip the Jew to enjoy the nearness of God in life everlasting, which, he taught, can be achieved only through the rigorous, unselfish study and practice of the Torah.

Great attention is paid, in his thinking, to the subconscious mind, which Dessler comes close to identifying with the "evil inclination" of rabbinic thought. God has endowed man with the instincts of self-preservation and self-regard, without which human life would lack its driving force, but it is through the discipline afforded by the Torah alone that these instincts are prevented from becoming entirely self-serving and ultimately destructive. Dessler understands heaven and hell in purely spiritual terms. For him, heaven and hell are not places but spiritual states: the one of the nearness to God acquired in this life by disinterested, and hence God-like, service and worship; the other of remoteness from God, the pain of which is described in terms of physical torment because, in this life, it is it is beyond the human mind otherwise to picture intense spiritual loss.

Dessler postulates that life, rightly understood, consists of that towards which an individual directs his strivings. When a man directs all his strivings towards what Dessler calls "worldly vanities," that man’s self is empty and insignificant. But if the self directs its strivings to spiritual, other-worldly concerns, that self enjoys the life of the World to Come even here on earth.

It is only by the individual’s free choice of the good, in his struggle with temptation in this life, that the good becomes part of his very being and his choosing of it the root of his eternal bliss in the World to Come. A good given as a gift, even if the gift is from God Himself, cannot become part of the soul’s very being since a gift, by definition, is an external endowment and is not self-acquired. This is why the Rabbis speak frequently of this life as a preparation for eternal bliss in the Hereafter.

In Dessler’s subtle thought, the austerity of his Musaristic belief is only partly offset by his frequent appeal to the writings of the Hasidic masters. Dessler seems to be attempting impossible when he seeks to blend the rigors of Musar with the joyousness of Hasidism the very different Freudian-type analysis of psyche.

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