Krochmal, Naḥman

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KROCHMAL, NAMAN (17851840), was a Jewish philosopher and historian. A major figure in the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment movement), Krochmal is noted for his contributions to Jewish historiography and his program for a metaphysical understanding of Judaism using German idealist philosophy.

Born in the city of Brody in Galicia, Krochmal lived most of his life in the town of Żołkiew near Lvov. To supplement his traditional Talmudic education, he learned Latin, Syriac, Arabic, French, and German, giving him access to a broad range of medieval and modern philosophical literature. Despite an unsuccessful career as a merchant, Krochmal rejected the offer of a rabbinical post in Berlin and supported himself as a bookkeeper. His last years were spent in the Galician cities of Brody and Ternopol.

In the nineteenth century the large Jewish population of the Polish districts of the Hapsburg empire was an integral branch of the east European Jewish milieu both in its economic and social patterns and its traditional Jewish piety. Galicia was a center of Hasidism, as well as of rabbinic learning and leadership of Hasidism's opponents. Krochmal himself was a religiously observant Jew who was highly critical of the "delusions" and "folly" of the asidim, with whom he and his circle from time to time came into bitter conflict. Krochmal was one of the preeminent figures of the Galician phase of the Haskalah, then in its heyday and consisting of writers who advocated such reforms of Jewish life as the modernization of Jewish education and livelihood, a greater knowledge of natural sciences and European languages, and the introduction into Hebrew literature of the genres and ideas of modern European literature. A major aim of Krochmal's scholarship was to further the rapprochement between the modern rational, critical, and historical spirit and the Talmudic-rabbinic worldview.

Krochmal was a brilliant conversationalist but published little in his lifetime. After his death his papers were sent, according to his instructions, to the eminent German Jewish scholar Leopold Zunz, who edited and published them in 1851 as Moreh nevukhei ha-zeman (A guide for the perplexed of the time), a title deliberately reminiscent of Moses Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed.

Krochmal's book is an incompletely developed but suggestive work that covers the following topics: the connection between philosophy and religion, the philosophical significance of the Israelite conception of God, the cycles of Jewish history in relation to the cyclical history of nations, aspects of postbiblical Jewish literature (including a pioneering treatment of the evolution of the halakhah and aggadah ), the logic of Hegel, and the philosophy of Avraham ibn ʿEzraʾ.

Like Hegel, Krochmal conceived of the dynamic totality of reality as an absolute Spirit whose nature is pure cognition, which for Krochmal was the philosophical meaning of the God of Judaism. Like Hegel, Krochmal believed that religion conveys through the faculty of imagination that which philosophy conveys through reason, so that it is the task of philosophers to make explicit what remains implicit in religious imagery. The extent of Krochmal's indebtedness to Vico, Herder, Schelling, and Hegel has been a matter of scholarly controversy: Apart from his rendition of Hegel's logic and use of the terminology of post-Kantian idealism, Krochmal does not hold to a temporal unfolding of the absolute. Equally, if not more important to Krochmal's metaphysics were Maimonides, Abraham ibn ʿEzraʾ, and Qabbalah.

Krochmal grounded the truth of Judaism in a general concept of religion and cultural nationalism. The intelligibility of reality and the lawfulness of nature derive from a system of spiritual powers that, in turn, is generated by an unconditioned absolute Spirit. All positive religions intuit some aspect of this supersensuous reality. Moreover, a particular national spirit expresses the unity and individuality of the nation during its history. All nations are finite organic entities, passing through a cycle of growth, maturity, and death. Only the people of Israel have avoided eventual extinction, because their singular, infinite God is the dynamic principle of absolute Spirit that generated all the particular spiritual powers. The people of Israel were the "eternal people" inasmuch as they worshiped and were sustained by the force that accounted for the entire cosmic process and that renewed the spiritual strength of Jewish culture after periods of stagnation and decline. The God of Judaism did not change as the Jewish people passed three times through the cycle of national historical existence. The first cycle of national growth, maturity, and decay extended from the time of the biblical patriarchs to the destruction of Judaea in 587/6 bce. The second cycle began with the return from the Babylonian exile and ended with the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the second century ce. The third commenced with the codification of the Mishnah, culminated in the philosophical and mystical flowering of medieval Judaism, and declined in the late Middle Ages. Krochmal does not explicitly develop the notion of a fourth cycle of Jewish history, but he probably envisioned such a rebirth as beginning in the seventeenth century or with the rise of the Haskalah. As the Jewish people passed through these cycles, the Jewish idea of God attained greater articulation and the meaning of the people's existence became transparent to reason.

Because Krochmal proposed a metaphysics that took Jewish history with the utmost seriousness, he can be seen as a pioneer both in Jewish religious thought and in modern theories of Jewish nationhood.


The standard edition of Krochmal's works is Kitvei RaNaK (Writings of Rabbi Naman Krochmal), edited by Simon Rawidowicz (Berlin, 1924; reprint, Waltham, Mass., 1961). On Krochmal's place in Jewish thought, see Julius Guttmann's Philosophies of Judaism, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964), pp. 321344; Nathan Rotenstreich's Jewish Philosophy in Modern Times (New York, 1968), pp. 136148; and Rotenstreich's Tradition and Reality: The Impact of History on Modern Jewish Thought (New York, 1972), pp. 3748. Two articles of value are Ismar Schorsch's "The Philosophy of History of Nachman Krochmal," Judaism 10 (Summer 1961): 237245, and Jacob Taubes's "Nachman Krochmal and Modern Historicism," Judaism 12 (Spring 1963): 150164.

New Sources

Amir, Yehoyada. "The Perplexity of Our Time: Rabbi Nachman Krochmal and Modern Jewish Existence." Modern Judaism 23 (2003): 264301.

Cooper, Eli Louis. Am Segullah: A Treasured People. New York, 1983.

Harris, Jay Michael. Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age. New York, 1991.

Robert M. Seltzer (1987)

Revised Bibliography