A 19th-Century Mystical Theology of Judaism https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/religion-holidays/2016/01/a-19th-century-mystical-theology-of-judaism/

January 20, 2016 | Alan Brill
About the author: Alan Brill holds the chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University and is the author of, among other books, Judaism and World Religions (2012) and Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish-Hindu Encounter (2019).

In his treatise Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, the outstanding Russian rabbinic scholar and educator Ḥayyim of Volozhin (1749–1821) presented a kabbalistic theology of Judaism. In his review of Avinoam Fraenkel’s English translation of this work, Alan Brill writes:

In contrast to ḥasidic thinking, Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim situates Torah study over prayer and piety (without, of course, rejecting either).The most famous idea from Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim is about the talmudic obligation to study Torah . . . “day and night.” . . . [According to] Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, the Talmud’s intent is that one should maximize the actual time spent studying because of study’s mystical effect on the cosmos. Most contemporary yeshiva students do not know that the source for this approach is the Zohar [the principal work of kabbalah], not the Talmud. . . .

The greater availability of Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim [in English] will correct the widespread [and] mistaken view that its author, and the opponents of Ḥasidism in general (known as Misnagdim), advocated Talmud study without concurrent emphasis on kabbalah, the attainment of moral perfection, and worship. . .

Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim has not played a large role in American Jewish thought or in the [highly influential work] of the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem. However, the work was translated into French in 1986 by Benno Gross and has played a significant role in modern French thought, where it has been used to derive Jewish ideas of cybernetics and semiotics. In several of his essays, the French-Jewish philosopher Emamnuel Levinas cites Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim to explain the need to transcend the self for infinite confrontation with divine will.

Read more on Book of Doctrines and Opinions: https://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/nefesh-hatzimtzum-avinoam-fraenkel-and-his-translation-of-nefesh-hachaim/