Lenny Ben-David’s discusses American Interests in the Holy Land in Interview on ILTV

March 27, 2017


Director of Publication at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Lenny Ben-David talks about “surprises” in his new book, American Interests in the Holy Land: Revealed in Early Photographs from 1840-1940. 

Interview originally published here.

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s Motivation to Write Nefesh HaChaim

March 26, 2017

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s Motivation to Write Nefesh HaChaim

By Avinoam Fraenkel

Originally Published on Seforim Blog

Avinoam Fraenkel’s new two volume work, Nefesh HaTzimtzum (Urim Publications), is a

full facing page translation and extensive commentary on Nefesh HaChaim together with all related writings by R. Chaim Volozhin. It also presents a groundbreaking study on the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum  which is demonstrated to be the key principle underpinning all of Nefesh HaChaim. The following essay captures some of the key insights in overview from Nefesh HaTzimtzum  which should be referred to for in-depth details and sources.[1]


Life is complex and our most significant actions in life are often motivated by a wide spectrum of catalysts driven by both conscious and subconsc

ious objectives. Therefore it is a considerable challenge when looking deeply into R. Chaim Volozhin’s magnum opus, Nefesh HaChaim, to try to ascertain what may have primarily driven him to compose it and what motivated him to provide an urgent deathbed instruction to his son in 1821, to publish it as soon as possible.[2]


Was it simply a structured presentation, recording the enormously important worldview of R. Chaim’s revered master, the Vilna Gaon? Was it a manifesto to set the tone for his newfound and soon to be world famous Volozhin Yeshiva? Was it a broadside shot at the entire Chassidic establishment to attempt to bring it into line? Was it a defense for the Mitnagdic camp, to shore up their opposition to the Chassidim by providing them with its own authoritative framework to dampen any attraction to the looming specter of what for many was the compelling allure of the competing Chassidic philosophy?

In all likelihood, all of these factors and many more, both communal and personal, may have motivated R. Chaim, at least to some degree. Nevertheless, on investigation, it appears that there was indeed a single primary motivating factor that can be isolated as significantly influencing the presentation of Nefesh HaChaim. However, in order to be able to relate to this factor, it is necessary to first dispel a smokescreen of deep rooted misconception which has persisted for the last 200 years about perceived fundamental differences of faith between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim. Once dispelled, as explained below, it becomes clear that R. Chaim aimed his urgent message in Nefesh HaChaim at many on the periphery of the Chassidic movement, but not directly at the Chassidic establishment itself. He perceived those on the periphery to be at severe risk of compromising their faith due to their mistaken adoption of practices whose sole objective was to passionately increase their piety to get closer to God at all costs even if this would ironically result in Halachic compromise.

This smokescreen was a result of raging turmoil between the Chassidim and their opponents, the extent of which was so acute that it caused many to be utterly confused as to what the fight was actually about. It prepared the ground for it to be all too easy to believe and accept that the schism was about the fundamental principles of Judaism focusing, in particular, on the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum and the degree to which God is directly manifest in this physical world – and therefore to have a different perception of the required balance between the desire to get closer to God and the necessary punctilious observance of the Halacha. So, even though many equivalences can be found between statements in Nefesh HaChaim, the contemporary Chassidic literature of its time in general and Sefer HaTanya in particular, the profound importance of the key message of Nefesh HaChaim to the wider Chassidic community was entirely misunderstood and therefore totally ignored, as Nefesh HaChaim was perceived to have been based on a fundamentally different philosophical outlook that diverged from what was mistakenly thought by many to be the exclusively Chassidic view on the extent of God’s immanence.

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Bringing Back the Broken Pieces: The Afikoman and its return to the table

March 23, 2017

Taken from The Night That Unites Passover Haggadah
Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach asks, ‘why do the children bring back the broken piece of matzah at the end of the Seder? The afikoman, the broken matzah represents the brokenness in the world. There are so many broken hearts…broken lives..so many tears. But do you know who will fix the world? Do you know who will bring wholeness to the world again? Our children. Our children will bring back the broken piece to make the world whole again.

Mayor of Efrat Oded Revivi thanks Lenny Ben-David for American Interests in the Holy Land

March 17, 2017

American Interests Oded Revivi.jpg

“This morning I received a complimentary copy of the book “American Interests in the Holy Land – Revealed in Early Photographs from 1840 – 1940″, signed by the author, Lenny Ben David, a resident of Efrat. Can’t wait to read the history of the period and judging by the pictures, it looks like a fascinating book. Lenny, thank you very much.”

(Posted by Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat)

On the Fifteen Steps of the Passover Seder, from Rav Kook:

March 16, 2017



Taken from The Night That Unites Passover Haggadah
Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook teaches that the 15 steps of the Seder are to be viewed as rungs in a ladder and are intended to to move us toward a spiritual ascent on the night of Passover. He was once asked, “Who is on a greater spiritual level, a person on a low rung or on a high rung of the spiritual ladder?” He answered: “It depends which direction the person is moving. If the person on the low rung is climbing and growing day by day, he/she is spiritually alive and engaged. Conversely, if a person on a high rung is moving downward, he/she has lost spiritual elan and may continue to sink.


Review of Between the Lines of the Bible: Exodus: A Study from the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary

March 2, 2017

by Amos Lassen

The beauty of Torah is that there is always something new and fascinating to learn with each reading. Personally, I never tire of reading Torah commentaries. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom shares how when traditional study meets academia and it’s rigor, we get even richer meanings of the written word. His emphasis is on how the academic fields of anthropology, archeology, philology, and literary analysis let us glean new meanings and more profound thoughts about the various writings in the book of Exodus and we can then better understand how these writings have become the backbone of the Jewish faith for thousands of years.

Rabbi Etshalom looks at what many see as the gap between academia and tradition and then successfully presents an argument for integrating archaeology, philology, anthropology and literary analysis into religious study of the Bible. It seems that academic and Torah have been at odds for so long and we now see that there are indeed methodologies that bring them together and believe it or not, this has brought about a revival of serious Torah study. (I am reminded of my mother’s standard answer to almost every question, “Do we really have to know why?”).

This is the second volume of “Between the Lines of the Bible” (I have yet to read the first) in which Rabbi Etshalom examines the sacred stories of the book of Exodus through his nuanced understanding of the Torah’s timelessness. I see this book as a “How To” guide and have enjoyed keeping it along side the original text as I make my way through the Exodus tale. Each chapter addresses a specific question that is raised by the text. That question then takes us to step-by-step answers that are the result of clear and understandable reasoning that in most cases uses modern Bible study methods. This does not mean that these new methods take the place of the old ones— they do not, they supplement tradition. Tradition is important and it has kept our religion alive— I do not see it ever being replaced by anything else. I believe that what makes this such a valuable book is that we are guided through the thought process as we read it. Remember that in Judaism there is more value in studying with someone else than in studying alone. Here you get to study with one of the best. By opening new windows to the study of Torah does not mean that we have closed other windows. The more windows we open, the more breeze we feel. Becoming comfortable with Torah is the goal but we should never feel so comfortable that we can close it off.

This entry was posted in Judaica on February 12, 2017.

Review of Kosher Movies

February 26, 2017

by Amos Lassen

It has been one hundred years since D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was released and even though it was considered to be controversial (and remains so today because of its racism, it is an important milestone in the history of cinema in that it remains responsible for the movies to be the dominant and most influential medium of visual arts in the modern age. It revolutionized movie storytelling with its cast of hundreds and its nearly three-hour length. Because of the way it was received, we understand just how important it was culturally and socially. We later learned that the leaders in the film community were Jewish men who were working hard to raise an industry to become part of the cultural expression of this country.

Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Marcus Loew, William Fox and Irving Thalberg were among the principal founders of such important motion picture studios and production companies as Paramount Pictures, Fox and MGM. Because of these men, the film industry contained a significant Jewish element and it was interesting that the first film with sound was “The Jazz Singer”, the story of a traditional Jew who seeks fame and fortune as a popular entertainer and the tension of assimilation that is caused by this. The movie made the movie-going public aware of Jewish values that were to become mirrored by society at large. These values included overcoming adversity, the triumph of hope and the belief in second chances. These values were soon part of the American mind and this came about by the way there were seen on the screen.

In “Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema”, Rabbi Dr. Herbert Cohen looks at there values— the very same ones that have not changed with the movies and we come to realize that Jew and Gentile aspire to them. Rabbi Cohen goes a step further and looks at the peculiarity of the Modern Orthodox approach to engagement with popular culture and film as a way to glean from it “common experiences of life that can and should enhance an Orthodox expression and appreciation of the world, and humanity within it”.

“Kosher Movies” is a collection of short essays on movies that reinforce this Modern Orthodox ideal. The films are grouped together by themes (i.e. parenting, relationships, sports and adversity, ethics and self-improvement) and the essays themselves usually run about two pages in length. They look at the overarching leitmotifs and ideas that the films themselves convey to reach almost a “homiletical conclusion of some of what Orthodox Jews should garner from watching movies.

Rabbi Cohen’s book is not to be confused with other

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