Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt"l: Builder of Torah
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, whose fiftieth yahrzeit we celebrate this coming Sunday, 24 Teves, is best known as the author of Michtav Me’Eliyahu, the most influential and widely disseminated work of hashkafa of the last century. Just as it is said of the Chofetz Chaim, zt"l, that his phenomenal tzidkus obscured his greatness in learning, so it could be said of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s that his greatness as a thinker has obscured the magnitude of his impact as a builder of Torah institutions.
When Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky sought to describe the achievement of Rabbi Aharon Kotler in bringing the concept of Torah lishma to America, he could think of no higher accolade than to compare Reb Aharon’s impact to that of Rabbi Dessler in England. "What Rabbi Dessler did in England, Rav Aharon did in America," he said.
Rabbi Dessler’s arrival in England, however, was far from auspicious. He first came in 1928 to accompany his father Rabbi Reuven Dov Dessler for medical treatments. While in England, he decided to stay in the hope that he would be able to pay off debts that he and his father had incurred in a failed business venture. That decision led, in turn, to a separation of three years from his wife and two young children, who remained behind in Kelm.
His first position as rabbi of the Ein Yaakov shul in London’s East End was little more than a glorified shammas position, with a commensurately meager salary. The congregants, mostly newly arrived immigrants themselves, had little appreciation of the stature of their rav, who had previously been offered a position on the beis din of Vilna by his uncle the gadol hador Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grozinski.
Even when he moved to the better-established and more learned congregation of the Montagu Road Beis Medrash in Dalston, Rabbi Dessler had little satisfaction from his rabbinic duties. It galled him to earn his livelihood as a rabbi, which he viewed as turning Torah into a business. In later years, he would tell the members of the Gateshead Kollel that the congregants had viewed his drashos as a form of entertainment.
Fortunately, his rabbinic duties did not occupy the majority of his time. Shortly after his arrival in England, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman, the av beis din of London and s father-in-law of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, recommended him as a tutor for the children of aristocratic Sassoon family – Pircha 15 and Solomon (Sliman) 14.
Under Rabbi Dessler’s tutelage, Solomon would develop into a talmid chacham and an original and profound Torah thinker. When Rabbi Sassoon was still a young man, Rabbi Herzog recommended him to be Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a suggestion Rabbi Sassoon rebuffed. In time, Rabbi Sassoon took his place as one of the most significant philanthropists in the Jewish world.
While Rabbi Sassoon remained the talmid with whom Rabbi Dessler spent the most time learning, the circle of private students gradually expanded to include, among others, twin brothers Sam and Fred Kahn, Rabbi Mordechai Miller, who would one day teach at and lead Gateshead Teachers Seminary for six decades, and Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, the co-editor and driving force behind the publication of Rabbi Dessler’s monumental five-volume Michtav Me’Eliyahu.
Rabbi Dessler’s talmidim furnished him great delight. In a 1938 letter to an old friend from Lithuania, he wrote, "Hashem has favored me with precious students, who are dear to me, and of substantial merits. . . . Of all my labor, this is the only part that gives me satisfaction." He drew his talmidim to him with chords of love. A profusion of letters, filled with longing to be reunited and expressions of gratitude for the slightest kindness, such as a cup of tea, flowed from his pen whenever he was separated from them.
Though most of Rabbi Dessler’s learning with his talmidim was devoted to Talmud (he and Sliman Sasoon completed Shas together at least once), Rabbi Dessler was no less concerned with their spiritual development. Almost all of his private students came from comfortable circumstances – the young Sliman Sassoon not infrequently arrived for his lessons still in his tennis attire – and Rabbi Dessler sought to shake their comfortable, upper middle-class complacency. The first essay in Michtav Me’Eliyahu describes the lives of misery lived by both the rich and the poor – the former because of their surfeit of material goods and the latter because of their lack of them.
The inherent tension between spiritual and material pursuits, and the incomparable superiority of the former, was Rabbi Dessler’s constant theme. His best-known essay, Kuntras HaChessed, in which divides the world into givers and takers was completed in this period as well. That essay drew its inspiration from the Beis HaTalmud of Kelm in which Rabbi Dessler was raised. The eradication of self-love, the Alter of Kelm taught, is the basis of all Divine Service, both bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero.
THE LATE SUMMER OF 1941 found Rabbi Dessler in Chesham in Buckinghamshire along with other Jewish refugees from the constant German bombing of London. He was once again separated from his entire family. His son Nachum Velvel was learning in Telshe Yeshiva in the United States; his wife Bluma and daughter Hennie were trapped in Kelm at the outbreak of the War and were fortunate to be able to wend their way to Australia for the duration.
Rabbi Dessler was then in his fifty-first year, and had but 12 years left to live. Though many of his classic essays had already been formulated, not one word had been published except in stencils for his talmidim. Had Rabbi Dessler passed away then his name and thought would have been lost to posterity.
That summer a letter arrived at his lodgings from Rabbi Dovid Dryan, the mohel of Gateshead and founder of the fledgling Gateshead Yeshiva. Reb Dovid proposed the establishment of a kollel of outstanding young kollel scholars in Gateshead. Unbeknownst to Rabbi Dessler, Reb Dovid had sent the same letter to 21 other rabbis. Also unbeknownst to him, every other rabbi responded negatively to Reb Dovid’s suggestion: 18 did not bother to answer at all; another 3 commended the idea but decided it was impracticable under the wartime circumstances. The naysayers might have added that the number of those who appreciated the importance of Torah learning, much less the concept of Torah lishma, in England in those days in were few indeed. The few yeshivos that existed were small in size, and the idea of Kollel learning was unknown.
Rabbi Dessler alone replied positively to Reb Dovid’s letter: "My heart sees a great light in the matter which Your Honor suggested – your merit is very great." He replied as he did not because he saw success as guaranteed, but because he viewed the matter as too important not to try.
With Rabbi Dessler’s encouraging response to Reb Dovid Dryan’s letter, the face of English and all European Jewry was changed forever. By early 1942, the first group of young scholars was already in place. By any standard, they were an exceptional group. Their ranks included Rabbi Chaim Shmuel Lopian, already famous as author of Ravcha D’Shmaitesa; Reb Chaim Shmuel’s younger brother Rabbi Leib Lopian, future Rosh Yeshiva of Gateshead Yeshiva; Reb Leib’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Grossnass, subsequently a dayan on the London Beis Din; Rabbi Zusia Waltner, the founder of Sunderland Yeshiva, together with Rabbi Grossnass: and Rabbi Moshe Schwab, the future Mashgiach of Gateshead Yeshiva. The Gateshead Rav, Rabbi Naftali Shakovitsky also learned together with the Kollel. Within a few years, the original group was joined by a steady stream of young geniuses from Schneider’s Yeshiva in London: Rabbi Alter Halperin, Rabbi Shammai Zahn, Rabbi Naftali Friedler, Rabbi Bezalel Rakov, and yblch"a, Rabbi Dov Sternbuch and Rabbi Wolf Kaufman.
After Reb Dovid made three successful initial solicitations for the Kollel, he never succeeded in raising another shilling. The entire financial burden of the Kollel fell on the frail shoulders of the naturally self-effacing Rabbi Dessler. In order to raise the necessary funds, and maintain contact with all his old talmidim as well, Rabbi Dessler adopted an almost super-human schedule. Two or three nights every week, he slept in an upright seat courtesy of British Railway, as he traveled Motzaei Shabbos between Gateshead and Letchworth (wartime home of the Sassoon family); Thursday night from London to Gateshead; from London to Manchester and back yet another night. Only because the Hashgacha had separated Rabbi Dessler from his family was he able to contemplate, much less undertake, such a schedule.
Rabbi Moshe Schneider told the students in his yeshiva that Rabbi Dessler did not remove his clothes to sleep throughout the entirety of the war. "My brothers sleep on the ground," he explained to anyone who asked why he drove himself as he did. The destruction of the entire Eastern European world in which he was raised and nurtured was never far from his thoughts. Individual life, he proclaimed repeatedly, no longer existed. "Anyone who thinks of his own material position at a time like this is nothing less than a traitor to Hashem," he wrote his physician. The only question confronting every Jew who escaped the fires was: For what purpose did Hashem spare me?
The Kollel flourished beyond all expectations. Rabbi Dessler asked himself what he could have done to be the instrument of such a revolution in the understanding of Torah learning in all of England, indeed all of Western Europe. The only answer he could give: "In times such as ours, when capable men are scarce, anyone who show willingness to tackle a vital problem has Divine assistance heaped upon him. It turns the incapable into successful men, not because they deserve it but because the world needs them."
Rabbi Dessler’s role in the Kollel was not confined to raising the funds. He was its animating spirit. Though he allowed himself no more than one vote in any matter to be decided, and did not demand or allow any deference to be shown to him, somehow he always managed to persuade each member of his position in private conversations long before any vote was taken.
To the members of the Kollel, Rabbi Dessler was simply the gadol hador in hashkafa. "I never met another person with his phenomenal ability to plumb a subject to the depths," remembers Rabbi Dov Sternbuch. "His koach ha’iyun was incomparable. His face would go red with exertion when he was working on a problem."
"He was a living example of what is important and what is not," remembers Rabbi Wolf Kaufman, today Rosh Kollel in Manchester. "He made us embarrassed to talk about money." The young couples in the Gateshead Kollel were typically both penniless refugees. They considered themselves fortunate if they started married life with a few place settings and a handful of cheap cutlery that quickly rusted. (No one dreamed in those days of an exchange of thousands of dollars of jewelry prior to the wedding.)
Yet – and this is the key point – they considered themselves fortunate. Rabbi Dessler created such an atmosphere of spiritual striving that the members of the kollel and their wives were able to ignore their very strained circumstances. The opportunity to learn Torah lishma was all they asked.
He instilled in the members of the Kollel a disdain for anything other than finding the point of truth, internalizing it and living one’s life accordingly. When Rabbi Naftoli Friedler was offered a position as Rosh Yeshiva in the Gateshead Yeshiva, he did not view it as a step up from being a member of the Kollel. And when Rabbi Leib Grossnass left the Kollel to take a position as a Dayan on the London Beis Din, the other members of the Kollel could not understand why he would do such a thing.
THE FOUNDING OF THE GATESHEAD KOLLEL would certainly have been sufficient by itself to secure Rabbi Dessler’s place among those who set the foundations for today’s thriving Torah world in England. But even that is not the sum of his contribution.
His Motzaei Shabbos shmuessen that were open to the whole Gateshead community exerted a profound influence on the yeshiva bochurim, and the Gateshead Yeshiva grew fivefold in size during the early years of the Kollel. It was Rabbi Dessler who persuaded Rabbi Nachman Dovid Landynski, the Rosh Yeshiva, to take Rabbi Leib Lopian onto the yeshiva staff. And when Rabbi Landynski was forced to seek medical attention for a sick child in America, Rabbi Dessler prevailed upon Reb Leib’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gurwicz, to leave his position in London to join the yeshiva. "My two lions," as Dayan Abramsky used to call them, served together as roshei yeshiva for over thirty years. Rabbi Dessler also brought another Kollel member, Rabbi Moshe Schwab into Gateshead Yeshiva as Mashgiach.
Rabbi Dessler’s influence was even more profound on Gateshead Teachers Seminary whose graduates have spread Torah to every corner of Europe, North Africa, and Eretz Yisrael. In recognition of his contribution to the Seminary, the only picture than hung on the walls of the Seminary during the lifetime of its founder, Mr. Avrohom Dov Kohn, was that of Rabbi Dessler.
He and Mr. Kohn discussed and laid the groundwork for the Seminary for a year before it opened its doors. Only Rabbi Dessler’s persuasive powers won over the members of the Gateshead community to the project, which was far removed from the forms of women’s education with which they had grown up. Without that approval the project could never have gotten off the ground.
From the opening of the Seminary, Rabbi Dessler taught there. On Thursday night, he spoke on a particular topic in Jewish thought. That lecture was open to all women in Gateshead. Every week, the students had to write their own synopses of the Thursday class, and Rabbi Dessler personally read over their efforts and commented on them. On Friday morning, he taught a Chumash-Rashi shiur.
The early staff was comprised almost entirely of members of the Kollel, such as Rabbis Grossnass, Friedler, Zahn, Binyamin Zev Weiss, and Sternbuch (who continues to teach until today), and Rabbi Dessler’s close talmid from London Rabbi Mordechai Miller. The latter succeeded Mr. Kohn as principal of the Seminary. The Seminary is justly famed for its emphasis on hashkafa, and Rabbi Dessler’s writings remain one of the principal foundations of that hashkafa.
Finally, Rabbi Dessler imbued his disciples with a zeal to build and spread Torah. He himself was one of the first to devote himself to ba’alei teshuva, of whom some of the first were students in Gateshead Seminary. And his followers and those who drank in his words in Gateshead Seminary have founded institutions all over the globe.
In one of his letters Rabbi Dessler tried to understand how it could be that "someone of no great ability succeeds in achieving something of the greatest importance to the entire world." His answer: Sometimes one alone understands the importance of the matter and steps forward. He was that one, and the world of Torah was immeasurably changed as a consequence.