Rav Dessler: The life and impact of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
by Jonathan Rosenblum
ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications $23.99
Reviewed by Rabbi Joseph Elias
The Jewish Observer
January 1, 2001
Twelve years are not a long period in which to make one’s mark in the world. In the beginning of this biography, Jonathan Rosenblum points out that Rabbi Dessler’s public life stretched over no more than twelve years – from 1941, when he came to Gateshead to found its Kollel, to his petira (passing) in 1953 in Bnei Brak, when he had moved to become the Mashgiach of Ponovezh Yeshiva. Yet during this period he played an extraordinary role in the growth of Torah Jewry, leaving a lasting imprint on posterity.
Our Sages stress that men of great stature are rare, and therefore Divine Providence scatters them through the ages. Rabbi Dessler was such an outstanding personality – and he was chosen to live in a remarkable period and to make a seminal contribution to it. Rosenblum, who has previously earned our gratitude for his outstanding biography of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, among other writings, has succeeded in this work to capture the essence of his subject.
Rabbi Dessler’s life encompassed the traumatic destruction of the Eastern European Torah world, and the efforts to rebuild Torah in new locations; as product – and guardian – of the very best that pre-War Jewry possessed, he was able to transmit it to the new centers of Torah. This required not only greatness in Torah, but also a profound understanding of this new world, and the ability to address it in language that it understood. It is these qualities that emerge from this book.
There was a twofold way in which Rabbi Dessler placed his imprint upon his time: through his personality and through his teachings. They cannot really be separated from each other for, in complete harmony, one complemented the other. But each made its own powerful impact and deserves attention.
THE IMPRINT OF HIS PERSONALITY
Rabbi Dessler’s towering personality was the ideal embodiment of Kelm – a small town that represented unique spiritual heights. Rosenblum, carefully and at length, makes us understand the community, the Talmud Torah (as Kelm’s famous mussar yeshiva was known), and the personalities who molded Kelm. Their goal? To create individuals who were totally absorbed in serving G-d, with their emotions, desires and impulses, thoughts and actions, their relationship to their fellow beings, and to G-d Himself, all controlled by Torah alone. The means? The unique brand of Kelm mussar, a clear understanding of one’s self, and a commitment to the ways in which one could perfect himself.
Rosenblum cites many telling instances of how Kelm in general, and Rabbi Dessler in particular, put these demanding concepts into practice, and indeed many more examples could be added. Self-effacement and utter humility were absolute prerequisites. Thus Rabbi Dessler saw in honorific titles and public acclaim real danger for the recipient. As recounted by Rosenblum, he was most distressed that a shiur(class) of his had been advertised in the Morgen Journal. (However, he did not say that it would have been better not to have had the shiur. He always felt an obligation to teach Torah whenever he could – rather, he said that he would have preferred a handful of listeners instead of a crowd attracted by an ad; indeed, numbers were never significant to him.)
He totally subordinated any personal concerns of his to the demands of the klal(community). Davening before the amud at his venerated father’s Yahrzeit was extremely important to him – but one year, when he was called out of town on communal matters, he sacrificed this personal commitment (a similar episode involving Rabbi Dessler is recounted in the biography of Rabbi Elya Lopian, p. 238).
But Rabbi Dessler was not only concerned with the klal. He felt equally strongly his obligation to every fellow Jew. He insisted, when he headed the Gateshead Kollel which he had founded, that he should not be considered – and treated – any differently than the youngest members of the Kollel; but he was extremely concerned that each of them should receive utmost respect and consideration. After speaking at the Kollel on Wednesday nights, he would take the night train to London. However, there were always talmidim who surrounded him with questions after the shiur; he would never cut anyone short or reveal impatience, even when it meant missing the train.
After Seuda Shlishis in the Kollel, he would deliver a shiur, while at the same time a shiur was given in the yeshiva. Frequently a number of yeshiva boys sneaked over to the Kollel to hear Rabbi Dessler. He never commented – until one time when a short circuit plunged the Kollel into darkness. Only then, when nobody would be embarrassed, he spoke out in objection to this practice. Rabbi Dessler was extremely careful, deliberate and thoughtful in what he would say. I was therefore momentarily taken aback to read in Rosenblum’s book that he told the Kollel members many bitter, funny, and scornful stories about his experiences in the English rabbinate of that time (p. 122). But, of course, it was not idle talk; he would not have spoken that way unless there was a constructive purpose in his mind. As explained in p. 221, "to those [in the Kollel] who needed an additional incentive to fight against the temptations of a prestigious position, [Rabbi Dessler told] of the humiliations he suffered as a congregational rabbi."
The picture drawn in biographies of gedolim is all too often wooden and uninspiring. In contrast, the image that emerges from the pages of this book is a living mussar text that will inevitably challenge the reader to examine his own standards of conduct. Indeed, somebody commented that it is so overpowering that it might discourage any effort to follow in its footsteps. However, while the overall goal is so high, an effort to get closer is surely within every reader’s ability.
Let us now turn to Rabbi Dessler’s teachings. As Rosenblum points out, his writings exert an extraordinary influence, and this is further reinforced by the works of his disciples. Notably, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander’s Sifsei Chaim, of which five volumes have so far appeared, elaborates and opens up deeper vistas on many issues that are presented in a more concentrated form in the five volumes of Michtav M’Eliyahu.
In drawing a magnificent picture of Rabbi Dessler’s time and personality, Rosenblum modestly declares (p. 353) that no summary could do justice to the wide range of his thought and that, in any case, such an assessment of Rabbi Dessler’s thought is far beyond his competence. However, this does not exempt us from the obligation to try, if we want to do justice to Rabbi Dessler’s impact on our age.
Actually, both in the body of the book and in the appendix, Rosenblum very clearly delineates a number of themes that are crucial in Rabbi Dessler’s thought – notably those with a close relationship to man’s ability and need to grow spiritually (the make-up of his inner self, his free will, the overcoming of his innate selfishness, the need to become a "giver," and his role in the community). These topics are the subject of traditional mussar; but as Rosenblum points out, Rabbi Dessler dealt with them in his own way and drew on an encyclopedic range of sources, from Zohar, Kabbala and Chassidus to the great thinkers and commentators of all ages. Most important, however, while he always emphatically stressed the need to work on improving oneself, he set his teaching into a wider and deeper framework, which we must not overlook and for which he drew on all the sources mentioned. Rabbi Dessler saw himself as a teacher of Torah faith and thought – necessary prerequisites for the Torah Jew which, in our generation, cannot be taken for granted, in the face of intellectual, social and moral challenges posed by our environment. Hence he stressed man’s role and responsibility against the background of the cosmic unfolding of the universe’s history, from Creation to Moshiach, resurrection, and the World-to-Come (thus his many references to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto; cf. Michtav M’Eliyahu IV 150-156). He saw his particular function in helping his disciples to an understanding of the profound teachings of the Sages contained in Aggadata, following the lead of the Maharal. It was the depth of his teachings, and the light which they shed upon the major questions of life in our world, that account for the attraction and influence that they exercised on the most varied circles in Torah Jewry, and that undoubtedly will continue to serve as a guiding light for our times.
Rabbi Elias, Chairman of the editorial board of The Jewish Observer, is the author of a number of published works, including a new translation and commentary on Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s The Nineteen Letters (Feldheim).
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