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
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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