Lecture #04a: Rav Dessler's Second Thoughts

  • Rav Tamir Granot



We concluded the previous lecture by noting that despite his conservative position, negating any ideological innovation or criticism, even Rav Dessler does take a new look at the history of the Jewish nation in the modern era, prior to the Holocaust and following it. Interestingly, he refuses to acknowledge the innovation inherent in his own words.


The Essence of our Era


We are struck dumb at the terrible destruction that has been visited upon us in our generation, and we ask ourselves: For what reason has God done this to us… What is this great wrath? Let us examine this.


The entire period that preceded the destruction was a time of when the burden of the exile was lightened upon the shoulders of the Jewish people. Even a hundred and fifty years ago, Jews were rejected and despised among the peoples of the world. It was only in recent generations that the nations began to ease our yoke and to extend to us rights and conditions equal to their own; thus began the period of the "Emancipation." In recent years there has even been talk about the Land of Israel and the possibility of it being given to us as a place of habitation and rest. Those same nations for whom we were previously the subject of scorn and disdain, and who considered us the lowest of the low – even for them, the Land of Israel is the Holy Land, and yet still God put it in their heart to think about giving it to us.


Clearly, the period of the Emancipation was ordained by God to serve as a preparation for us for the coming of the Messiah, and it was for this purpose that the burden of exile was lightened upon us. For the preparation for the time of the Messiah requires of us much spiritual work in order to attain the level of redemption, and a situation of constant trouble and frequent humiliation is not conducive to producing the necessary boost to ascend. Thus, this new illumination and the easing of our situation came about in order that we should use them for the purposes of holiness. But since we have turned the purpose upside down, and instead of understanding the hint from Above to prepare ourselves for redemption out of joy and expanding our consciousness, we used the new situation mingle with the gentiles and to learn from their ways, therefore there awaited us the well-known danger of preparation for holiness that its not realized – as explained above. (And the fact that the destruction came only now, even though the process of assimilation was one that has developed gradually for a long time, is because God is long-suffering and does not bring punishment until the measure of sin is full, and there is no longer any hope of [a positive] influence bringing about a repair. Thus we find in the case of the First Temple, which stood for a long time with the "ten miracles" still being maintained in it, even though Menashe had long ago placed an idol in the Sanctuary.) [And if after the terrible destruction there comes about another period of grace, we should not repeat our transgression, but rather recognize the hints from Above and be inspired to return in full repentance.] (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, part IV, p. 124 [Heb.])[1]


As we know, the spiritual leadership of European Jewry was divided as to the significance of the Emancipation.  Some rabbis – including the Chatam Sofer in Hungary, Rav Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dinov in Galicia, and Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi in White Russia – rejected the Emancipation, recognizing that it would lead to an abandonment of religion and to assimilation.  On the other hand, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch in Germany viewed it as a blessing, just as he regarded the Enlightenment itself as a source of spiritual blessing for the Jewish people rather than as a spiritual threat.  There were also other leaders, such as the Maggid of Kozhnitz (among the Chassidim) and Rav Yaakov Ettlinger of Altuna, Germany, who regarded the very fact of an improvement in the situation of the Jews as a Divine act of kindness, and saw no reason to oppose it.  Of course, Rav Dessler's words, cited above, represent a clear deviation from the position of opposition and rejection – a position which, with time, was also upheld by Rav Elchanan Wasserman, who was the focus of a previous lecture.


However, Rav Dessler takes a step further and asserts that the Emancipation was a Divine act of kindness in preparation for the Final Redemption.  In other words, it should be viewed as part of a positive development in history, which is proceeding towards the redemption of Israel. 


A hundred years earlier, a similar theme had been proposed by Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, who explains in his book Derishat Tzion that the Emancipation is not – as the "enlightened" Jews believe – a gateway to the intermingling of Jews within their countries in Europe, but rather a platform for creating the political conditions that will allow the Jewish nation to act, vis-א-vis the nations as well as within itself, to promote a process of national awakening.  (This theory turned out to herald the Zionist enterprise.)


Rav Dessler continues Rav Kalischer's view in that he identifies the positive aspect of the Emancipation as a stage leading towards redemption, but he is not prepared to draw the same conclusion arrived at by his predecessor.  While Rav Kalischer believed that the proper response to God's blessing in the form of Emancipation was practical action, using political and economic tools to achieve the goal of Jewish redemption, Rav Dessler insists that the comfortable situation brought about by the change in the gentile attitude was supposed to be used for spiritual, internal development and refinement, in order to become ready for and worthy of the redemption.  To this view, an understanding of the Emancipation as an invitation to assimilate among the nations does not prove, retroactively, that it was a negative phenomenon; rather, it points to a catastrophic missed opportunity, since in its wake came the Holocaust.


The establishment of the State of Israel, which had just came about when Rav Dessler's above words being written, is also viewed by him as one of God's mercies, to which we should respond with repentance and good deeds.  This does not represent any kind of ideological shift, since the conclusion that he draws is, ultimately, a conservative one: our mission is to elevate ourselves through repentance and Torah study, etc.  However, his words do represent a new perspective – perhaps even a new historical world-view – that detects within the modern era some significant progress towards redemption, both in terms of the process of awarding rights to the Jews in Europe (late 18th-century onwards), and in terms of the establishment of the State of Israel.


I believe that Rav Dessler's words should also be viewed within the spiritual and social context of the early years of the State's existence.  Rav Dessler was the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counselor) of the Ponivezh yeshiva in Benei Berak, which was headed by the Rabbi of Ponivezh, Rav Yosef Shelomo Kahaneman zt"l.[2] Rav Kahaneman had welcomed the establishment of the State of Israel and perceived it as a sign of "Divine awakening" in anticipation of the redemption.  He ordered that the Israeli flag be displayed at his yeshiva, and he hosted leaders of the State.  It may be assumed that Rav Dessler's positive view – which has no basis in the teachings of either the Chafetz Chaim nor Rav Wasserman, whom he had defended so passionately in his letter on "Faith in the Sages" – arose from the sense of elation that overtook even some of the Charedi leadership in the early years of the State, and from his closeness to Rav Kahaneman.



 Rav Kahanneman

 Rav Dessler himself passed away in the year 5714, and it is difficult to know whether he maintained his view or whether it changed.  In later Charedi literature, a positive view of the Emancipation or of the State of Israel – in fact, any positive view of Jewish history in the modern era as following some sort of process – is unacceptable.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] This section of Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu has not yet been translated into English in the Strive for Truth series.

[2]   Rabbi Yosef Shelomo Kananeman (1886-1969), also known as the Rabbi of Ponivezh, was Rosh Yeshiva of Ponivezh in Lithuania prior to the Holocaust, and was the founder and first Rosh Yeshiva after its subsequent re-establishment in Israel.  Rabbi Kahaneman was born in the town of Kuhl in Lithuania.  He studied at the Telz yeshiva, under Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and Rabbi Shimon Shkop.  Thereafter he spent a year at the yeshiva of Novhardok, and three more years at the yeshiva of Radin, under the Chafetz Chaim.  He married the daughter of the rabbi of Vidzh, and took up the rabbinate there when his father-in-law was appointed rabbi of Vilkomir.  In 1916 he became head of the yeshiva at Grodno, where he became known as a man of exceptional organizational abilities, and from then he started establishing similar yeshivot.  In 1919, with the passing of Rabbi Yitzchak Rabinowitz, he was appointed rabbi of Ponivezh, where he immediately established a yeshiva called "Ohel Yitzchak," in memory of his predecessor.  During the years 1923-1925 he served as a member of the Lithuanian parliament.  He remained the rabbi of Ponivezh up until Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940.  During the German occupation he remained outside of Lithuania and thus was saved; the same year, he moved to Palestine and settled in Jerusalem.  In 1944 he initiated, with the help of the Chazon Ish, the establishment of a yeshiva in Benei Berak, named after his community which had been eradicated.  The permanent building of the yeshiva was completed only ten years later, and its inauguration was held on the 27th of Sivan, 5713 (June 10th, 1953), commemorating the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Lithuania.