Nachman Krochmal: A Guide for the Perplexed of His Era

Nachman Krochmal pioneered the idea of historical-critical study of Judaism in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia

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The struggle of Jews to be both modern and religious informed Krochmal's scholarship.  This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Nachman Krochmal (1785-1840] was a philosopher, scholar, and leading figure in the Haskalah [Jewish enlightenment] and Judische Wissenschaft [Science of Judaism] movements. Krochmal’s father, a wealthy merchant in the Galician town of Brody, saw to it that his son received a traditional Jewish education in Bible, Talmud, and the Codes. At the early age of 14, Krochmal was married and, supported by his father-in-law after the fashion of those days, he continued his studies, acquiring a knowledge of German and German literature, and philosophy, especially the works of Kant, Herder, and Hegel. Krochmal was entirely self-educated in general learning but his erudition was both extensive and profound. He would often bemoan the fact, however, that he never had an opportunity of studying at a university.

In Brody, Lvov, and Zolwiew, Krochmal gathered around him a small group of earnest seekers of the new knowledge; some of these young men later followed in his footsteps as thinkers and historians of Judaism. Krochmal’s Moreh Nevukhey Ha-Zeman (Guide for the Perplexed of the Time) was based on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, although the title was given by Zunz, who published the work in 1851 after Krochmal’s death.

What Zunz rightly saw as the difference between the two Guides lay in the very different challenges to which the authors responded. Maimonides “perplexed” were concerned with trying to reconcile Judaism with the Aristotelian philosophy dominant in the Middle Ages. No one was at all perplexed in this way in Krochmal’s day when the source of confusion was the problem of  “Time” caused by the increasing awareness that Judaism, like all other religions and cultures, has had a history. Krochmal’s intention was to show how Judaism had developed historically, contrary to the traditional view held in his day by his co-religionists in Galicia, that the Jewish religion was simply transmitted more or less intact from generation to generation.

In Krochmal’s analysis of the terms of the Hegelian thesis, antithesis and synthesis, the culture of everyday people undergoes a period of birth, growth, and decline and these are reflected in the history of that people. The particular idea on which the culture is based—the pursuit of beauty, for instance, by the ancient Greeks—first captivates that people and becomes its guiding principle, its god, as Krochmal calls it. There follows a period of growth and the idea then spreads to become the common property of mankind. Once this happens, the particular people loses its specific goal and suffers a decline.

The Jewish people also undergoes periods of birth, growth and decline, but since the God Jews worship is the Absolute which embraces all particular ideas, the Jews never lose the reason and spur for their existence and, even after a period of decline, reemerge as the eternal people. Krochmal quotes in this connection the verse, : “For I the Lord change not; and ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malchai 3:6).

Some students of Krochmal’s work believe that, in his opinion, the period of the Emancipation and the emergence of the Jews into Western Society heralded, though Krochmal does not state this explicitly, a new episode of growth after decline for Judaism.

Although Krochmal was a strictly observant Jew, his ideas were viewed with disfavor by the Orthodox Rabbis of his day, who were suspicious of any attempt to see Judaism in terms of historical development because this suggested a degree of relativism. Krochmal believed that the modern Jew was bound by his sense of integrity to acknowledge the developing nature of his religion without surrendering his loyalty to traditional forms, especially those of the Haskalah; although, in Krochmal’s view, Haskalah too, has had a history.

Krochmal, at the beginning of his Guide, quotes a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud in which it is stated that the Jew is confronted with two paths in life, one of fire, the other of ice. If he proceeds along the path of fire he will be burned. It he proceeds along the path of ice he will be frozen. What should the wise man do? He should walk in the middle. This became Krochmal’s slogan. The path of fire, of uncritical and unreasoning enthusiasm typical of Hasidism, a movement of which Krochmal was less than enamored, encourages ignorance and leads to all kinds of vagaries and superstitions. The path of ice, on the other hand, the path of cold reason uninspired by true religious feeling, leads to a rejection of Judaism and total assimilation. The wise man, for Krochmal, the informed Maskil, follower of the Haskalah, knows how to walk in the middle. Such a Jew allows both his reason and his emotions to control his life.

It cannot be maintained that Krochmal’s understanding of Judaism in the modern age is the final word. Yet he was a pioneer and his ideas were seminal, influencing in different ways Reform and Conservative Judaism and Zionism, and showing hope the historical-critical approach can be adopted without detriment to the essential truth of the Jewish religion.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.