Rav Dessler On Reality and Perception, part II

(This post is an erratum and addendum to points made in “Rav Dessler On Reality and Perception“.)1: A correction. I wrote that in order to experience miracles, one must lift themselves into a world where moral law is more absolute than physical law. This is only partly true. Alternatively, Hashem can push the person into that world — as need requires. This is how the Egyptians experienced the miraculous turning of water into blood. It was obviously not a merit that allowed them to experience a non-natural punishment. Rav Dessler concludes chapter 3 of our essay, “All perceptions of olam ha’asiyah are not absolute at all, but are relative to the needs of the topic.” (p 310)Whether the difference is one of merit or of need (which in turn is usually caused by merit), the thesis stands: There is no reason to assume that just because the people of that generation experienced a flood, people of our era must find evidence of that flood.

2: The relationship between perception and reality is the subject of the next paragraphs, the first two of chapter 4: “We find that we learn according to this that our perception is itself the reality of the world for us. … This perspective seems strange to us, but it is only because we live in olam ha’asiyah and see the physical as literally (mamash) absolute…” (Note: The Hebrew actually borrows the word “absolute” throughout the essay.)

This is pretty clearly a phenomenologist position. (Phenomenology: A philosophy based on the intuitive experience of phenomena, and on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as consciously perceived by human beings.)

3: Rav Dessler himself extends the inability to experience miracles with the inability to experience their legacy. This is why we compute the molad from a point in the creation year, without accounting for the month that took fewer days because one of them was extended when the sun stood still for Yehoshua.

Rav Dessler on Reality and Perception

Time — its existence is only within our perception. Creation is far more profound than our ability to grasp and far greater than that which is represented in our physical universe. Consequently, “creation” transcends any limitations of time. The concept of something being “beyond the limitations of time” cannot be fully grasped by the human intellect. Thus when considering “beyond the limitations of time”, it is projected into our minds as endless periods of time. And thus it seems to scientists as if the world evolved over millions of years.Question: If so, why then does the Torah establish the description of creation in terms of six days? The Torah wanted to teach us that the existence of all things is only in proportion to the spiritual content it possesses. Something that contains much materialism and little spirituality – its value and true existence is small because the existence of everything [is determined solely] according to the measure of its spiritual content. (And this is the meaning of the verse “[for] a thousand years in your eyes are as yesterday which passed…” The smallest component of time to us would be the “passing”, in our memories, of the experiences of one day in the past, and thus the terminology “which passed”.)

And according to what we have mentioned, the fact that the universe appears to scientists to be millions of years old, the reason is that every object which is empirically observable to us on a superficial level, actually alludes, on a more profound level, to a deeper more qualitative aspect, that is, an aspect relating to the fundamental nature of creation and its spiritual purpose. Thus, what appears as differentiated stages in the chain of superficial cause and effect processes, is essentially nothing but spiritual aspects and levels in the fundamental nature of creation, except that it seems like this to one with a materialistic perspective, the entire cause and effect experience is simply a superficial shell which encompasses these fundamental and essential aspects of creation.

- Rav EE Dessler, “Zeman veHishtalshelus”, Michtav MeiEliyahu vol IV, pp 113 (tr. R’ Simcha Coffer)

Rabbi Coffer uses this quote as the basis of a proof that Rav Dessler believed in a young universe, with the apparent age an artifact of the limitation of the scientific perspective. (See the above link.)

The translation itself, above, omitting his bracketed insertions and copious comments, seems pretty clearly otherwise. Rav Dessler asks and answers why the Torah uses a terminology of 6 days. This question is only meaningful if the notion of six days is no more valid than any other.

Rather, Michtav mei’Eliyahu promotes the idea that the flow of time and duration of time are concepts that don’t have their usual meaning with respect to the creation period. Therefore, the scientist projects his perception and his meaning on the problem. Which is not wrong, they’re simply human projections onto the incomprehensible. In other words, 13.7 billion years is not the wrong answer, nor is six days. They are each right, in their way. This is the same conclusion one reaches (although R’ Coffer obviously didn’t), looking at Michtav MeiEliyahu vol. 22 pp 150-154. See my earlier entry “Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation“.

Another case where Rav Dessler (Mm”E vol. pp 304-312) focuses on the role of perception in defining reality is his elaboration of the Maharal’s understanding (Gevuros Hashem, 2nd introduction) of nisim (miracles). See my essay at Mesukim MiDevash for Beshalach, pp 1-2:

The Maharal … writes that rather than being an exception to the rule, nissim follow their own rules. Indeed, miracles occur all the time, but on their own plane of reality. This is why Yehoshua requests “shemesh beGiv’on dom – the sun should stand still in Giv’on.” (Yehoshua 10:13) The sun stopped for the Jews in Giv’on, who were on a plane where miracles operate, but not for anyone else. Literally two different realities were simultaneously experienced. Not two different perceptions of the same event, but two conflicting things were real, depending upon which world one occupied.

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mekubalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The second is their self-awareness. The senses bring us information about the physical world. Self awareness brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

According to Rav Dessler, someone who truly sees the world in terms of justice and kindness, freedom or oppression, to the extent that those laws are more objective and more absolute than gravity, conservation of energy, or electromagnetic force, then those laws actually do drive their reality. Such a person would live in a world of neis rather than teva.

(In a different essay, Rav Dessler relates neis to the person’s emunah. One can’t be influenced by the presence of miracles. Therefore, miracles only occur to those whose faith is already unshakable without them. The two perspectives are identical: One discusses the causal connection between rising up to olam hayetzirah and experiencing miracles, the other discusses how the connection is just.)

In both his discussion of time and of the laws of nature, Rav Dessler seems to be taking a consistent position, something along the lines of philosophers like Kant or Ernts Mach (an opinion shared by Einstein). Reality is at least as much the order we project on the world as the world “out there” itself. Mach uses this idea to explain why the universe is so sensible. We can explain natural law through science and math as we structures them because we’re actually studying the order we impose on the universe, not the absract thing “out there”. If reality is a product of both the external reality and what we impose on it, then consistency is not necessarily a given, particularly consistency between observers.

Ernst Mach’s description:

The goal which [science] has set itself is the simplest and most economical abstract expression of facts.
When the human mind, with its limited powers, attempts to mirror in itself the rich life of the world, of which it itself is only a small part, and which it can never hope to exhaust, it has every reason for proceeding economically.
In reality, the law always contains less than the fact itself, because it does not reproduce the fact as a whole but only in that aspect of it which is important for us, the rest being intentionally or from necessity omitted.
In mentally separating a body from the changeable environment in which it moves, what we really do is to extricate a group of sensations on which our thoughts are fastened and which is of relatively greater stability than the others, from the stream of all our sensations.
Suppose we were to attribute to nature the property of producing like effects in like circumstances; just these like circumstances we should not know how to find. Nature exists once only. Our schematic mental imitation alone produces like events.

- “The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry”, excepted by J. Kockelmans. Philosophy of science: the historical background. New York: The Free Press, 1968

If we aceppt the idea that people of sufficiently different spiritual statures have different mental schema, then yes — miracles and even the definition of time, would depend on the individual.

In that Mesukim, I mentioned the following possibility:

Perhaps this approach leads to the conclusion that the biblical archeologists’ enterprise is doomed to failure. The archeologist lives and explores the world of teva. But the nissim recorded in Tanach did not occur within the world of teva, perhaps we should not expect to see evidence of them there.

Perhaps the inability to find archeological evidence of the flood or the tower of Bavel is akin to Rav Dessler’s description of the time of creation: “[I]t seems like this to one with a materialistic perspective, the entire cause and effect experience is simply a superficial shell which encompasses these fundamental and essential aspects of creation.” And perhaps if we had more meritorious archeologists, ones who glimpse into olam hayetzirah, they would find such evidence. (But would be unable to share it with the rest of us.)

This would mean the problem understanding the mabul is not a contradiction between the Torah and the empirical data, but an inconsistency inherent in different peoples’ version of the empirical world.

I realize that people with more rationalist, positivist, empiricist bents would find this resolution dissatisfying. And those without such inclinations would be unlikely to be bothered by the question. But it’s an interesting thought either way.

Types of Halachic Rulings

The following taxonomy of kinds of halachic ruling was culled from the Rambam, Hilkhos Mamrim ch. 2, and includes thoughts learned at a shi’ur given by R’ Yonasan Sachs (of RIETS and the Agudath Israel of Passaic).
(I posted an earlier version on soc.culture.jewish, and from there made it into the group’s FAQ. I later repeated it on Avodah, and the following reflects comments and corrections made there.)
  1. Minhag. Custom. Custom, although not really part of halakhah, can change. Minhag is any act that the masses, on their own, accept. According to the Rambam, to qualify as a minhag the practice must then ratified by the rabbinate. Any minhag that is against actual halakhah, is called a minhag ta’os, a mistaken minhag. Any that is based on a misunderstanding is a minhag shetus, a foolish custom. These two subtypes should not be followed. Any nearly universal minhag is called a minhag Yisrael, and has most of the stringencies of law. Yarmulka and ma’ariv services are two examples of a minhag Yisrael.
  2. Din deRabanan. A rabbinic law. These are set up by the rabbinate, instead of the masses, in order to preserve the spirit of the law. For example, Purim and Chanukah. There are 7 new commandments that are entirely rabbinic. According to the Rambam, who only counts biblical mitzvos amongst the 613, this means there are actually 620 mitzvos altogether.
  3. Gezeira deRabanan. A rabbinic “fence”. These are enacted to prevent a common cause for breaking the act of the law. For example, one may not place food directly on a fire before Shabbos in order to keep it heated during Shabbos. This is a fence around the law against cooking on Shabbos. To prevent the gezeira from being violated, a metal cover, called a “blech” in Yiddish, is placed on the stove top before Shabbos with the flame (turned to a low setting) under one section and the pot with food placed on the blech. This blech serves as a fence, allowing heating of the food without any danger of violating the law. Note that a “gezeira dirabanan” becomes binding only if the community accepts it.According to the Rambam, a gezeira cannot be overturned. However, a gezeirah where the law’s purpose is included in the legislation is implicitly conditional on the purpose. The problem is in knowing when the purpose is given in the quoted gezeirah, and when the gemara provides a motivation on its own, after quoting the gezeirah. For example, meat must be salted within three days of slaughter, or the prohibited blood will be too soaked into the meat to be retrieved. What about the contemporary situation, where meat is generally frozen solid? Some rule that since the reason is given in the legislation, and the reason doesn’t apply, neither does the time limit. Others rule stringently, presumably because they do not believe the reasoning about the blood being soaked into the meat was part of the legislation as initially codified.

    According to the Tif’eres Yisrael (Ediyos 1), there are actually two sub-categories:

    1. Siyag. Fence (Hebrew; “gezeirah” is Aramaic). Something that will lead to a future violation to do an error in understanding the law. Such as the ban on mixing poultry and milk, lest people become lenient in mixing meat and milk.
    2. Cheshash. Concern. Cases where the threat of violation is in the current situation, because one is in a circumstance where habit taking over or other accident is likely.

    The Tif’eres Yisrael says that a cheshash can be deemed inapplicable if the norms change such that the threat no longer exists. It does not require a beis din that is greater in number or wisdom as the law is not lifted, just that the current situation is deemed to be outside the limits the law addressed.

  4. Asmachta. Mnemonic. The Raavad (on Mamrim 2) considers laws backed by a mnemonic in the Torah are in a different category than other rabbinic laws. He writes that Hashem wrote these asmachtos as a way to suggest laws to us to enact as needed.
  5. Divrei Qabbalah. The words that were received; i.e. laws enacted by a beis din like the Great Assembly that included nevi’im (prophets). Many consider these rabbinic laws one step closer to Torahitic law than most others, since the law was ratified by consulting with Hashem Himself. This is like the Raavad’s concept of asmachta, but more so — not only suggested by Hashem to be used as needed, but we’re told that the situation justified it.Those who believe this is a distinct category would include Purim as divrei Soferim rather than usual rabbinic law. Some achronim rule that the obligation for women must hear megillah and the other mitzvos of Purim is rabbinic but for men it’s divrei qabbalah. Thus, their obligation is lesser.
  6. Pesaq. A rabbinic ruling. This ruling addresses a the questionable area of some law or custom. A pesaq that is not prima facie in violation of accepted halakhah can only be overruled by another body that is both larger in number (or perhaps number of students), and greater in “chokhmah”. (The ability to know how to use the facts. Not more knowledgeable book-wise, but more steeped in the Torah weltanschauung.)
  7. Derashah. A law derived by hermaneutics. Some hold that derashah only serves as support for already known laws, and therefore are tools in pesaq. However others, including the Rambam, see them as constructive, a means for discovering new Torahitic laws. This appears to be supported by a medrash on Rus, in which Boaz is credited as being the first to rule that “Moavi” means males from Moav in particular.
  8. A last category has only two related examples. Torah law mandates a shevus, a law to rest on Shabbos. It also requires resting from some of the melachos, constructive work activities, even on chol hamo’ed. However, Hashem left it up to man to decide the parameters of these forms of rest.

The distinction between the second and third categories is subtle. In order to be a din (or issur, or melakhah) deRabanan, the prohibited action is one that is similar in purpose to the permitted one.

In contrast, a gezeira does not even require an action. In the example I gave, it was inaction, leaving the pot where it is, that is prohibited. Second, the category includes things that are similar in means to the prohibited act, and will therefore cause confusion about what is and what isn’t okay; and things which will allow people to be caught up in habit, and forget about the prohibition. Only a gezeira may defy an actual Divine law (although a pesaq will often define one), and even so only under specific circumstances. All of the following must be satisfied:

  • The law being protected is more stringent than the one being violated. This determination isn’t easy.
  • The law is being violated only through inaction. No one is being told to actively violate G-d’s commandment.
  • According to the Ta”z, the law being violated will still be applicable in most situations. It still must exist in some form. (Not every acharon agrees with this requirement.)

In another way, a gezeira is less powerful than a normal rabbinic law in that it cannot be compounded. One may not make a “fence” for the express purpose of protecting another “fence”.

A law is considered accepted if it becomes common practice. Any din or gezeira that does not get accepted by the masses in the short run, does not become binding in the long run. Similarly, there are rules for pesaq, but they are violated if the masses choose to follows some other rabbinic body’s pesaq. Notice, however, that this need for acceptance is only in the short run, to enact the law. Once a law is accepted, it may only be overruled by pesaq. It does not cease to exist just because it faded out of practice.