By Rabbi Johnny Solomon
Like many young men and women, I was introduced to the Nefesh HaChaim while in Yeshiva, and I recall the sense of wonderment when introduced to some of its most basic concepts. Nefesh HaChaim provides a roadmap towards living a life of spiritual exaltation, and there are parts in this work where one can catch a glimpse of the blueprint for creation. But like many of those same young men and women – and in contrast to most of my other sefarim – my copy of the Nefesh HaChaim has been opened on very few occasions since then – primarily because I did not feel confident that I had the necessary skills to grasp the depth of this great work. Like all areas of Jewish mysticism, true comprehension of the Nefesh HaChaim demands a guide – someone who has toiled in Torah study and who has pursued a life of Avodat Hashem; someone who is already using the roadmap and someone who has been able to fathom those parts of the blueprint that have been revealed to them.
To achieve this level of comprehension, such a guide must be familiar with the writings and opinions of the Nefesh HaChaim’s greatest influences such as the Zohar, the Arizal and the Vilna Gaon, as well as with the teachings of the many great scholars who have provided explanations to shed light on this work such as Rabbi Shlomo Eliyashiv, Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi & Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. Consequently, the sheer quantity of this literature, as well as the complexity of its subject matter, has meant that even those who teach the Nefesh HaChaim have generally stayed clear of certain portions of this work.
However, the recent publication of a revolutionary new translation, commentary and collection of essays on the Nefesh HaChaim by R’ Avinoam Fraenkel – titled ‘Nefesh HaTzimtzum’ – is about to transform the way that this book will be studied, understood and perceived. R’ Fraenkel (who, it should be noted, is a Hi-Tech professional and who has written this work in his ‘spare’ time), has dedicated the past 5 years to learn, elucidate, translate and explain each word & concept found in the Nefesh HaChaim, and the impressive letters of approbations highlight what a major contribution he has made through this extraordinary labour of love.
In fact, while Nefesh HaTzimtzum only includes a handful of references to love (eg. love of Torah, love of the soul), there is no doubt that love – in its deepest meaning of the word – has been the driving force that has pushed R’ Fraenkel to produce this magnificent work. As will be explained below, R’ Fraenkel’s elucidation of the Nefesh HaChaim seeks to change our perception of this work; from a book which has previously been understood to be a polemic from the Mitnagdim against Chassidism, to a book whose language, tone and ideas highlight the unity of the Jewish people. Especially since R’ Fraenkel has studied in Yeshivot aligned with Chassidism (Chabad), as well as the Lithuanian approach to Torah learning (Kerem B’Yavne), it seems that this journey has enabled R’ Fraenkel not only to find unity in Nefesh HaChaim, but also to personally achieve inner unity between the different approaches to Torah that he has experienced.
In Volume 1 of Nefesh HaTzimtzum, subtitled ‘Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s Nefesh HaChaim with Translation and Commentary’, R’ Fraenkel provides a vowelized hebrew text and crystal clear translation of the entire Nefesh HaChaim along with exhaustive notes that include references to all of the sources quoted by R’ Chaim Volozhin, as well as an in-depth commentary that explains each concept, insight and wordplay cited in the text. The production of just this stunning volume on its own would have been an incredible achievement, and certainly, any home, shul, yeshiva or university library would regard it as a tremendous asset.
However, it is Volume 2 of Nefesh HaTzimtzum, subtitled ‘Understanding Nefesh HaChaim through the Key Concept of Tzimtzum and Related Writings’ where R’ Fraenkel’s extraordinary gift of learning, processing, analysing and explaining concepts that are rightly regarded as the deepest in Jewish mysticism are most clearly visible. Here, R’ Fraenkel includes three essays that explain essential concepts in the Nefesh HaChaim, and though there is no doubt that his essays on ‘The Deeper Meaning of Makom’ and ‘The World of the Malbush’ are insightful and impressive, it is his lengthy essay titled ‘Tzimtzum – The key to Nefesh HaChaim’ which is nothing less than a work of genius.
In this 130 page essay – which itself is followed by 175 pages of references in both Hebrew and English – R’ Fraenkel not only seeks to explain R’ Chaim’s conception of Tzimtzum, but he also demonstrates that what has until now been considered to be a contrary interpretation of this concept by Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi and his followers, is actually in congruence with the Nefesh HaChaim. To achieve this stunning conclusion, R’ Fraenkel presents a number of masterful arguments based on a plethora of sources, and in so doing, he achieves the ultimate result that the greatest of mystics pray for: unification. While many had insisted that Chassidim and Mitnagdim – as reflected by the writings of Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi and Rabbi Chaim Volozhin – adopt contrasting views concerning the way God interacts with the world, R’ Fraenkel provides robust evidence to support the contention of Rabbi Dessler that ‘there are no differences of opinion’.
But in addition to the philosophical and historical interest of this point, R’ Fraenkel explains that it has a practical consequence as well. There have been those within the Chassidic movement who have justified halachic compromises on the basis of Chassidism’s (apparently unique) approach to spirituality. However, R’ Fraenkel’s conclusions mean that ‘there is no scope for anyone to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between the formal outlook of the Chassidic Movement and that of mainstream Judaism and that the paths for serving God of both the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim are fundamentally the same’. Consequently, there is ‘no basis to use [mystical concepts] to license Halachic compromise in any way’. Rather than Nefesh HaChaim containing one answer in the ongoing debate about the nature of God and the correct paths to serve Him, R’ Fraenkel explains with great sensitivity and reference to a dazzling array of sources that Nefesh HaChaim is a book of love, unity and peace; it is a book that explores the most profound Jewish concepts but whose goal was to achieve the most important Jewish objective. And if this has been misunderstood by its readers (which it most certainly has!), it is incumbent upon us to review this work with a closer eye and a more open heart, which is precisely what R’ Fraenkel’s impeccable work enables us to do.
In addition to the above-mentioned essays, Volume 2 contains the hebrew text with translation of other writings originally published with the Nefesh HaChaim, other associated writings of R’ Chaim Volozhin and his students, as well as some very helpful resources such as an outline of the Nefesh HaChaim and incredibly detailed indices for both Volumes.
Despite this being a considerably longer review than I usually write, my words are utterly insufficient to express the extent to which learning these volumes has stimulated my head, stirred my heart and touched my soul. Nefesh HaTzimtzum is a work of elegance inside and out. It guides the reader through the most wonderful array of profound Jewish concepts, and it is the ultimate gateway to the Nefesh HaChaim. True, Nefesh HaChaim provided a roadmap towards living a life of spiritual exaltation, and it offered glimpses of the blueprint for creation. But for a variety of reasons, the roadmap became blurred and there was strong disagreement about the substance of the blueprint. With his Nefesh HaTzimtzum, R’ Fraenkel restores this work to its fullest glory and enables its learners to envision what R’ Chaim Volozhin sought to teach. Simply put, Nefesh HaTzimtzum is magnificent!
This review originally appeared in Rabbi Johnny Solomon’s newsletter.