Rabbi Ḥayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821) was among the most prominent disciples of the famed talmudist known as the Vilna Gaon, and founded a yeshiva in his hometown that became the model for all later such institutions. Three years after his death, his mystical-theological treatise, Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim (“The Soul of Life”), appeared in print; it aims to present an alternative exegesis of a core kabbalistic concept to that of the Ḥasidim, although it mentions neither them nor their works by name. Avinoam Fraenkel has now produced an annotated English translation of Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim, along with a companion volume analyzing it. Calling the two books “a work of both real piety and ingenious scholarship,” Yitzhak Melamed writes:
For both Rabbi Ḥayyim and his ḥasidic opponents, the mystery of how an infinite divine being created a finite physical world is answered by the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria’s doctrine of tsimtsum, or divine self-limitation. As Fraenkel writes near the beginning of his 757-page second volume, . . . the concept of tsimtsum “explains how it can be that the existence of an all-permeating and infinite God is totally concealed from us in the physical world.”
In the celebrated formulation of Luria’s student Ḥayyim Vital, before the creation of the world “the sublime and simple [divine] light filled all of reality, [but] then [God] contracted Himself at the very central point . . . and left an empty place . . . in which all the worlds . . . were formed.”
The precise meaning of this striking description was the subject of learned and subtle controversy among early-modern kabbalists. Some conceived it as a more or less literal description, affirming that the creation of a space truly vacant of God, a kind of spiritual vacuum, was a necessary condition for the creation of the world. Among this school of literal interpretation of the doctrine one finds . . . Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz, Rabbi Jacob Emden, and, according to some, even . . . the Vilna Gaon. In contrast to this school, . . . virtually every ḥasidic master adopted a nonliteral reading of the doctrine, arguing that the divine contraction before creation was only apparent and that truly God never withdrew from reality.
In situating Nefesh ha-Ḥayyim within the [framework of contemporary debates among kabbalists], Fraenkel has already done his primary audience—who are likely to be, like him, members of the modern-day, English-speaking yeshiva world—a great service. For . . . these readers and others have tended to read [this] treatise so selectively and with so little understanding of its kabbalistic terms of art that they have generally taken it to be a work of pious exhortations to study more Talmud, rather than a subtle work of mystical theology.