Sunday, September 23, 2012

Balph Eubank and R. Eliyahu Dessler

This past Sabbath I found myself opening my copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and immediately finding myself getting pulled in. Despite the fact that I already read the book and had no immediate plans of rereading it, I ended up spending a large chunk of the day back in Rand's dystopian world. Despite Rand's very real flaws, this novel is even more important to civilization than Lord of the Rings. My wife, always concerned for the good of my soul, stopped me at one point in the afternoon and asked me to study an essay from R. Eliyahu Dessler's Strive for Truth. Maybe it was the leftover taste from my previous reading, but I could not help but feel that Dessler would have made a wonderful villain for the novel.

There is one particular scene I have in mind. It is a party attended by the leading establishment intellectuals. Rand goes back and forth between the various intellectuals as they regale their own little circle of fawning wealthy liberals with their philosophies. The novelist attacks the notion of plot and the composer attacks melody. These are meant as corollaries to the philosopher, who attacks reason. The conclusions they all take from this, which they offer their audience between mouthfuls of expensive foods and amidst all the glamor of the party, is that life is pointless, man is doomed to suffer and therefore the only thing he can do is submit to authority.

The intellectual scam they are pulling off is as follows. They start by claiming the moral high ground as spiritual men, who oppose greed and wish for everyone to work together for the common good. The fact that they can say this while enjoying the largess of a capitalist they despise fails to strike their audience as hypocritical. On the contrary, the fact that they present themselves as men of privilege, who attack their own class, demonstrates their sincerity. They then deny the existence of reason or any objective morality, denying any means by which they could be challenged. Next, they wash their hands of any responsibility to actually improve the world; their moral superiority resides solely upon the fact that they claim to desire to help people. Thus, not only have they removed any intellectual standards by which they can be judged, they also remove any objective empirical standard by which anyone could point out that their ideas fail. The end result is that humanity must not only physically submit to their authority, it must also spiritually do so, by acknowledging these intellectuals as the selfless morally superior heroes of mankind for agreeing to rule over them.

Dessler uses many of the same arguments. He attacks materiality and people's desire for physical goods. He makes no distinction between rich people and those struggling to make ends meet. In fact, it is critical for his argument, which denounces Jews as a nation, that this includes the vast majority of Jews not living in mansions or driving fancy cars. The next step is to declare that it is hopeless to pursue material things as it is man's lot to suffer. The only option, therefore, is to submit to the divine will and hope for the coming of the Messiah.

Forgive me for being cynical, but the same scam seems to be in play. Dessler grabs the moral high ground by denouncing material goods, all while having enjoyed modern conveniences such as a printing press to spread his writing. He then promises people nothing but disaster, removing any responsibility to actually produce a plan to improve anyone's lot in life. Finally, he has people submit to God, which for all intents and purposes means Dessler. Thus, he gets to rule over people and chastise them for failing to properly appreciate his moral superiority in doing this.

Just like Rand's liberals, Dessler attacks capitalism:         

There are some who take the maximum and give the minimum. These are the merchants and middlemen who take advantage of every opportunity for profit, without ever considering whether the effort and work they have invested really bear any relationship to the profits gained. When they bend their efforts to benefit from their neighbor's failures or take advantage of his ignorance, can this really be distinguished from plain, unvarnished deception? Not to speak of those who amass their fortune by usury, battening on other people's hard-won earnings, or who exploit their workers, paying them a pittance for hard and exacting toil, or who oppress whole nations, ruling them with a tyrant's hand (even though some incidental benefit may accrue to their people) - all these and their like are examples of "much taking and little giving." (Strive for Truth Vol. I, 121-22.)

Dessler's comments about usury really got to me. Was he not aware of the long history that the charge of excessive usury has played in anti-Semitism? Did he not know that while he lived in safety in England, the Nazis were slaughtering millions of those same "materialistic" Jews that he failed to save, using these same arguments? In truth, it is only through "greed" and "exploitation" by merchants and "middlemen" (in truth everyone from the miner taking iron from the earth to the housewife buying that iron in the form of pins is a middleman) that we make any progress. Suffering is caused by people like Dessler who condemned capitalism.

One cannot treat him charitably as someone who took a rhetorical misstep; on the contrary, the continued suffering of millions of Jews was a necessary part of a self-serving ideology that gave him a position of honor, respect, and power over others. He may have meant well, but then again just about every great crime in human history was committed by people who claimed and likely even believed that they acted for the "public good."


Adam Zur said...

Rav Desseler is my favorite villain.He is absolutely delicious. I think he made his arguments intensionally based on logical fallacies so that people like me would have fun tearing them apart.

Anonymous said...

The early 20th century was a period during which capitalism was not popular. This extended into the Jewish world in which ideologies like socialism and Zionism competed with traditional Judaism. For instance, there are many more extreme statements by Zionist leaders regarding the Jewish tendency towards engaging in "unproductive" commercial activities, rather than, say, farming. Rav Dessler was not a leader in expressing those sentiments, but simply absorbed the then current zeitgeist in formulating his competing ideology. It is, however, interesting that his thought has been turned into a scholasticism that is currently taught in Bais Yaakov high schools and seminaries.

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Eddie said...

Dessler is a fanatic and a manipulator. Just like the communists manipulated the masses with their hatred of wealth, and encouraged jealousy, so did Dessler and his followers. Dessler was also opposed to learning a profession or working hard for a living. whilst his ideas on bitachon are interesting, overall his "strive for truth" is essentially a big lie, and his mindset has created much poverty and resultant crime, and sex abuse in the haredi community.