Endorsement of Nefesh HaTzimtzum

Professor Jonathan Garb, Professor of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University.

 Nefesh HaTzimtzum by Avinoam Fraenkel,

It is my great pleasure to recommend that all interested in Kabbalah and Jewish spirituality in general obtain a copy of R. Fraenkel’s book. It is a blessing that in recent decades many works of Kabbalah are available in stores and in databases, yet this is all the more reason to stress the repeated and thorough study of deep classics such as R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh ha-Hayyim and R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya. If one studies – to cite one example – the main works of the renowned R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one sees clearly that these were the central modern books that inspired him. R. Fraenkel has now provided us with an incredible learning tool for the study of Nefesh Ha-Hayyim and also for the study of the central topic of the Tzimtzum – that he persuasively argues is the central theme organizing the unique structure of the book (which is not apparent to superficial readers). Through doing so, the author has also provided us with crucial keys for understanding Tanya and other writings of the Alter Rebbe.

There are many layers and levels in the wonderful contribution of this book:

Firstly, the Hebrew reader has an excellent layout for Nefesh Ha-Hayyim and a compilation of all of the non-Halakhic works of R. Hayyim, together with a selection of all the key texts necessary for learning the sugya of the Tzimtzum in general. The English reader also has an excellent translation of all of these texts, many of which were not previously accessible in this language. However, this section also provides anyone with basic English another wonderful tool: very extensive annotation with referencing and cross-referencing. However, the pinnacle of the book is the clear and profound section that analyzes and discusses the topic of Tzimtzum in a highly innovative, truth-seeking and meticulous manner. One should add that this discussion is based on intensive dialogue with one of the great theoreticians of this generation, R. Moshe Schatz.

There are many hiddushim contained here and I will only enumerate a few of them:

  • As academic scholarship is also beginning to realize, the difference between Nefesh Ha-Hayyim and Tanya is far smaller than previously imagined, as indeed is the difference between the protagonists in the earlier debate on Tzimtzum (between R. Yosef Irgas and R. Immanuel Hai Ricci) . R. Fraenkel helps us to realize this by moving our attention away from terminology towards analytics. Here the question of perspective (that, as the Rashash stressed, is central for understanding the Kabbalah of the Arizal) is crucial. An accompanying move is disclosing that all of the writers on Tzimtzum focus on Malkhut as the arena of this process.
  • On the historical level, R. Fraenkel has courageously corrected several errors blocking understanding of this key topic. In doing so, he has paved the way for appreciating the centrality of the Kabbalah of the Arizal for all subsequent generations, and also (despite my own initial doubts) has persuaded me that though “statistically” Tzimtzum is not a frequent theme in this corpus, nonetheless it informs many key discussions, as in Gate 42 of Etz Hayyim. Finally, the author’s diachronic analysis of the non-Halakhic writings of R. Hayyim of Volozhin demonstrates that the themes of Nefesh ha-Hayyim developed constantly from much earlier stages in his life. So we now have the key for understanding his thought as a whole, especially as the author has cross-referenced his Ruach Ha-Hayyim and translated many key passages from the latter work.

I hope and pray that R. Fraenkel publish many more such books for the benefit of all who seek in-depth Jewish knowledge. As R. Yoel Kluft (mentioned in the present book) wrote in his approbation for the first book by my first teacher, R. Wolbe, zt”l, there is much pseudo-depth in this generation and it is a true pleasure and comfort to encounter a writer who invests maximal effort towards reaching the truth of the Torah and of wisdom.


Professor Jonathan Garb

Professor of Jewish Thought
Hebrew University
Koach (28) Tishrei 5775 / 22 October 2014

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