Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler
Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892 – 30 December 1953) was an Orthodox rabbi, Talmudic scholar, and Jewish philosopher of the 20th century. He is known as mashgiach ruchani ("spiritual counselor") of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Israel and through collections of his writings published posthumously by his pupils.
Eliyahu Dessler (who was known throughout his life as Eliyahu Leizer or Elya Lazer) was born in 1892 in Libau, Courland (Latvia). His father, Reuven Dov Dessler, was a disciple of one of the main leaders of the Mussar movement, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, best known as the Alter (Elder) of Kelm. Eliyahu was orphaned of his mother at a young age. His father remarried, and would become a successful timber merchant in the city of Homel over the ensuing years, although he would lose virtually his whole fortune after the Russian Revolution, which would prompt his son to relocate to England.
The young Elya was taught by private tutors. At the age of 14 (in 1906), he was to be one of the youngest students at the yeshiva of Kelm, which was then being led by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Braude, the son of the founder. Rabbi Dessler would later speak in fond terms on the study and self-perfection in the Kelm yeshiva. It was unusual in the sense that it provided its pupils with a secular education parallel to their religious studies, enabling them to earn a livelihood rather than having to take up rabbinic positions.
In Kelm, Eliyahu was a diligent student, and would receive semicha (Rabbinic ordination) from his uncle, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who would be the spiritual leader of Orthodox Lithuanian Jewry until his death in 1939 and rarely granted ordinations.
In 1920 Rabbi Dessler married Bluma, a granddaughter of the "Alter" of Kelm. He entered business with his father, and declined a position as a rabbinical judge in Vilna.
After the death of his stepmother in 1928, Rabbi Dessler was forced to accompany his father to London for medical treatment, and decided to remain in the United Kingdom. His wife and children stayed behind for the time being.
In London Rabbi Dessler served in the rabbinate, initially in the East End and later in Dalston, Northeast London. His family joined him in 1931, and his father was to spend his final years in the UK.
In Dalston Rabbi Dessler started tutoring a number of young people, and for a while he was the private tutor of the children of the wealthy Sassoon family. A pupil from this time, Aryeh Carmell, would be one of the main disseminators of Rabbi Dessler's ideas after the latter's death.
His son left London in the early 1930s to study in the yeshiva of Kelm. He would not rejoin his family; during the war they would escape to the Far East, and eventually settled in the United States. Several months before the outbreak of World War II, his wife left for Lithuania with her daughter to visit relatives. The war would separate them, and the women would spend the war mainly in Australia.
In the early 1940s, Rabbi Dessler assumed leadership of the newly formed Gateshead kollel, an institute of religious study for married men, which was a novelty in Western Europe. During the ensuing years he would maintain a gruelling schedule to lead the kollel, raise its funds, and still tutor small groups of young people.
In the late 1940s, the leadership of the Ponevezh yeshiva in the Israeli town of Bnei Berak convinced Rabbi Dessler to assume the role of mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counsellor and lecturer on ethical issues). He relocated to Israel, and again gathered a small circle of students around him. One of his pupils there, Chaim Friedländer, would later fill his position as Ponevezh mashgiach.
Influence and ideas
While it is difficult to determine which teachers had most influence on Rabbi Dessler, it is apparent that he is a child of the yeshiva world of the early 20th century, which was then influenced heavily by the ethical Mussar movement, but has similarly gained proficiency in Kabbalah and works of Hasidic Judaism and Jewish philosophy. His method in interpreting tenets of Jewish philosophy reveals an adherence to the principles of the Maharal (Rabbi Loeb of Prague, 16th century). Another major influence appears to have been the 19th century Hasidic work, Tanya.
Most of Rabbi Dessler's work has reached the public through the pupils he reared in England and Israel. Together, they edited his collected correspondence and ethical writings posthumously in the six-volume Michtav me-Eliyahu ("Letter from Elijah" which alludes to the letter that the prophet Elijah sent to the King of Judah that arrived after Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire), later translated into English and published as "Strive for Truth". This work is now widely studied and quoted in Orthodox Jewish circles.
Perhaps one of the most influential ideas, discussed in an essay in the first volume of Michtav me-Eliyahu entitled Kuntres ha-Chesed (Heb. קונטרס החסד "Pamphlet [on the topic] of Lovingkindness), is the "Jewish philosophy of love." He observes that the perfect love from the point of view of Jewish philosophy is not "give and take" but focuses exclusively on giving. This idea is quoted often and has been developed by many religious thinkers.
Other remarkable points are his stance against preoccupation with materialism and technology, which, in his view, distance mankind from spirituality.
One well known idea of his, expounded on in Michtav meEliyahu, is the Nekudas Habechira (point of free will). He states that everyone has a point in his service to G-d where he has to fight his evil inclination and other points where he there will be no battle, some where he will always give in to his evil inclination and some where he will always win over his evil inclination, and that this point moves as he learns to overcome his evil inclination or as he give in to it. For example, someone who adheres to Orthodox Judaism will have no problem keeping kosher, but may sometimes be tempted to rely on unreliable kosher supervision, while somebody farther away from religious practice will have to struggle with whether to eat a ham sandwich (which is non-kosher regardless of supervision).
- Michtav me-Eliyahu collected correspondence and ethical writings, published posthumously by his pupils Rabbis Chaim Friedländer and Aryeh Carmell. Selected translations into English have appeared as "Strive for Truth" and "Sanctuaries in Time" (Feldheim publishers, inc.);
- Chiddushei ha-Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer al ha-Shas (novellae on the Talmud, published posthumously, 1986).
- Rosenblum J. Rav Dessler; the life and impact of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the Michtav M'Eliyahu. Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 2000. ISBN 1-57819-506-3.