Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rav Dessler and Nature

In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin discusses Rav Eliyahu Dessler's view on Nature and questions its inclusion in future copies of his book Challenge. Although this author would certainly like to see any mention of Rav Dessler removed from the aforementioned book, it is not for the reason Rabbi Slifkin mentions in his post.

Rabbi Slifkin quotes a particularly distasteful citation about Rav Dessler from a recent book published in Israel by Rabbi Dr. Menachem Martin Gordon, a Jewish academic and well-known apologist for Centrist Modern-Orthodoxy. Rabbi Slifkin apparently accepts Gordon’s presentation of Rav Dessler’s view and goes on to question its “rationalism”. The purpose of this thread is to provide a partial analysis of Gordon’s presentation and see how well it stands up in light of Rav Dessler’s actual written works.

Gordon writes as follows:
Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause—and—effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206).
In view of the fact that Rav Dessler quotes numerous ma’amarei Chazal in support of his thesis, Gordon’s claim is curious. If Rabbi Gordon disagrees with Rav Dessler’s interpretation of Chazal, so be it. But to assert that Rav Dessler’s view is a “radical departure” from Chazal is absurd. But let’s see what Gordon goes on to write.
For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue.
This assertion is wrong on several levels. First and foremost is the fact that Rav Dessler was well-versed both in science itself and in the philosophy of science. He used his knowledge extensively when responding to issues that relate to the ostensible “Torah Science Loggerhead”. In addition he used his understanding of science as a means of perceiving the presence of Hashem in nature.

As far as the study of medicine, Rav Dessler certainly did not consider such an enterprise “pointless”. In Michtav III 170-173 Rav Dessler explains that for people on an exceedingly high spiritual level, such as the Dor Midbar, doctors are unnecessary because each and every individual enjoys direct hashgacha pratis (Divine Providence) and therefore sickness is merely a Divine response to an individual’s specific free-will action, as is the healing process. However on our level there is no question that one may avail himself of the services of a doctor. Indeed, one is obligated to heed the advice of medical professionals.  

In our original quote, Gordon claims that not only does Rav Dessler’s thesis depart from Chazal, it also departs from “the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause—and—effect nexus of human initiative” This claim is more subtle. In order to refute it we would have to provide a lengthy and scholarly treatment of the subject matter at hand, something beyond the current scope and mandate of this blog. However I believe the following comment clearly demonstrates the tenuousness of Gordon's assertion.   

Rav Dessler’s approach to Nature is founded on a specific ontological principle that serves as the point of departure for his entire thesis. The principle is as follows:

Although nature seems to possess the quality of self-subsistence to the casual observer, in reality it is only the perpetual Will of the Creator which infuses the universe, its phenomena, and its laws with ongoing existence.

Rav Dessler’s thesis flows naturally from this principle. In fact, once this principle is assumed his approach seems almost inevitable. The question is, did Rambam subscribe to “the reality of natural law” as Gordon understands it, or was his view more closely aligned with Rav Dessler’s description of nature as explained above? Here’s a partial quote from Moreh Nevuchim 1:69 (Freidlander’s translation, my highlights)

You need not trouble yourself now with the question whether the universe has been created by God… You will find [in the pages of this treatise] full and instructive information on the subject. Here I wish to show that God is the" cause" of every event that takes place in the world, just as He is the Creator of the whole universe as it now exists… a certain production has its agens, this agens again has its agens, and so on and on until at last we arrive at a first agens, which is the true agens throughout all the intervening links. If the letter aleph be moved by bet, bet by gimel, gimel by dalet, and dalet by he - and as the series does not extend to infinity, ler us stop at he -- there is no doubt that the hi moves the letters aleph, bet, gimel, and dalet, and we say correctly that the aleph is moved by hi. In that sense everything occurring in the universe, although directly produced by certain nearer causes, is ascribed to the Creator… When we call God the ultimate form of the universe, we do not use this term in the sense of form connected with substance, namely, as the form of that substance, as though God were the form of a material being. It is not in this sense that we use it, but in the following : Everything existing and endowed with a form, is whatever it is through its form, and when that form is destroyed its whole existence terminates and is obliterated. The same is the case as regards the relation between God and all distant causes of existing beings: it is through the existence of God that all things exist, and it is He who maintains their existence by that process which is called emanation (in Hebrew shepha'), as will be explained in one of the chapters of the present work… God maintains the same relation to the world as the form has to a thing endowed with a form: through the form it is what it is, and on it the reality and essence of the thing depends. In this sense we may say that God is the ultimate form, that He is the form of all forms: that is to say, the existence and continuance of all forms in the last instance depend on Him, the forms are maintained by Him, in the same way as all things endowed with forms retain their existence through their forms. On that account God is called, in the sacred language, he ha-'olamim, "the life of the Universe," as will be explained (chap. lxxii.).
End Quote

I will leave it up to the reader to decide for himself whether Rav Dessler’s approach to nature represents a “radical departure” from that of the Rambam.

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