The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Morality vs. Materialism: Rabbi E. E. Dessler’s Understanding of Godliness, Giving and Greed

While still a student at the Kelm Musar (moralist) yeshivah in Lithuania, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler [1892-1953] began to conceptualize his understanding of giving and taking, and continued to speak about it throughout his life. His conclusions were published as Kuntres haḤesed [Essay on Kindness], within the collection of his writings known as Mikhtav me’Eliyahu.

According to R. Dessler, selflessness is the key manifestation of Godliness in any individual; giving is an elevated capacity and is among the traits of God, who receives nothing from human beings yet continually provides for them. Conversely, egocentricity was viewed by him as the source of all evil. To R. Dessler, obviously immoral behavior, such as theft, as well as seemingly neutral attitudes, such as preferring gifts to purchases, are deplorable for the same reason: both devolve from acquisitiveness. R. Dessler compares a taker to a pig, which constantly wants to consume and is always hungry.

R. Dessler spoke repeatedly against avariciousness and the futility of a materialistic mindset, perhaps addressing the prevalent mentality of his time. Mid-twentieth century England experienced unprecedented opportunity for upward societal mobility, leading to material excess. The Jewish community was not immune. R. Dessler’s approach to luxury and wealth stood in stark contrast.