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.

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  1. Bob Miller says:

    Let’s say that a Jew who was a secular archaeologist on Monday has become a totally committed Torah Jew studying in Kollel on Tuesday. As of Tuesday, his understanding of ancient history, including the time when our Mesora says the Mabul occurred, has changed radically.

    Objectively, what, if anything, is now different about the Mabul as of Tuesday?

    Are the facts about the Mabul dependent on our perception?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t get it. So was Ancient Egypt wiped out in the Mabul, or wasn’t it? And if it was, how did it seem to continue uninterrupted all the way through Galus Mitzrayim?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    If a Jew held secular views about the Mabul based on the academic archeological consensus and then accepted the Torah view, one could say that “for him” the Mabul was transformed from some sort of natural event (or even a non-even) into another, miraculous event. But would this change of consciousness have changed the actual Mabul event and its aftermath objectively in any way?

  4. Chaim says:

    Can you recommend a good book on Philosophy of Science?

  5. Milhouse says:

    So someone looking in RCBD’s window would have seen the family sitting in the dark, and felt sorry for them? And if he were a materialist and he knew that they were experiencing light and warmth, because for them the vinegar was burning, he’d feel even more sorry for them, because from his perspective what they were experiencing wasn’t “real” but a “cruel illusion”?

    But then what of the other RCBD story, when his wife lit a fire in the oven to hide the fact that she had nothing to cook. When the neighbour looked in the oven, she saw bread that had just finished baking and was about to burn, and called to RCBD’s wife to come quickly and take it out. Was she living in olam hayetzirah?

  6. Abarbanel on Breishis explains Rambam in Moreh 2:29 as understanding the 6 days of creation as sequences of cause and effect rather than real time. Shem Tov and R.Moshe Narboni explain him that way too. As Abarbanel says Rambam referred to that as the greatest secret in Ma’asei Breishis. This would seem a simpler approach. Thus the six days refer to the laws that govern nature and all future developments having been put in place through the Ratzon of HKBH.

  7. micha says:


    The Rambam’s position seems to be that time during Creation was definable, but it wasn’t 6 days. He follows Aristotle, that time is a consequence of motion or change in objects.

    REED seems to be saying that without an observer who experiences desire – effort – satisfaction/frustration, the notion of a time-line is ill-defined. Humans impose a flow of time on a more complex reality.

    As for milhouse and David’s question, I don’t know if I can answer it. You’re looking for logical conclusions from a position which defies one of the most ingrained intuitions about logic — that contradictions can not coexist. I can’t reason that well in such a context, and certainly can’t do so with any surety that I’d reach a conclusion with which the Maharal or Rav Dessler would agree.

  8. Micha, I have read Rambam over and over on this issue. It is very difficult because one has to get into an Aristotelian way of thinking and that is not easy. i also think that to really grasp Rambam one has to, counter intuitively, apply his derech to current science. (I have planned for the longest time to write about that as Rambam seems to be suggesting that several times in Moreh, veod chazon lamoed).I am almost sure that Rambam believed that the first day of physical existence is symbolized by Shabbos and it is the beginning of time. i know it is revolutionary but I have some pointers to that. See his explanation of Shovas vaynofash also his comment by Odom vechave – lo hoyo teva yatziv – and other such small hints. As you know he always says several peshotim on one possuk – the Chitzony and the Penimi so one has to be very cautious.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The Thirteen Petalled Rose said it well: There are worlds upon worlds. I don’t pretend to understand any of these matters. Al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’alGimilut Chasdim is all I know. Maybe in the next gilgul maybe I will know more.
    -Canecutter in the Bog

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