February 17, 1785, is the birthdate of Nachman Hakohen Krochmal, a philosopher, historian and theologian who created a modern and integrated understanding of Jewish culture and belief, but had difficulty sharing it.
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From his home in central Europe, where he was exposed to Enlightenment principles from the west and to Hasidism from the east, Krochmal employed scientific and critical methods to study Jewish tradition, in an attempt to understand the Jewish people’s place in history.
As someone who was reluctant to publish his thought, he left behind only one unfinished magnum opus – “Guide for the Perplexed of Our Time” -- which was only completed and published more than a decade after his death.
As usual, married at 14
Nachman Krochmal was born in Brody, then part of Austria, today in Ukraine. His father, Shalom Hakohen Krochmal, was a prosperous and open-minded merchant, whose work brought him frequently to cities like Berlin and Leipzig, where he came in contact with Enlightenment figures such as Moses Mendelssohn.
In his youth, Nachman received a traditional Jewish education, and as was standard for a promising young scholar at the time, he was married off at age 14 to the daughter of a wealthy businessman. He and his wife, Sarah Habermann, then went to live with her family in Zolkiew (today Zhovka), near Lemberg (today Lviv).
With someone else supporting the couple, who eventually had four children, Krochmal was able to embark on his own, self-guided program of studies. He pursued a careful reading of medieval Jewish philosophy, especially of Maimonides, and kabbalah, and also immersed himself in European languages and philosophy.
His troubles began about a decade after his marriage.
First, in 1808, he suffered some sort of breakdown, which required a period of convalescence. In 1814, his father-in-law, his source of income, died, and he had to go into business for himself, something for which he was not ideally suited.
Nonetheless, Krochmal continued with his self-education, reading such philosophers as Hegel and Kant. He also had his own group of disciples, and was frequently consulted by people who traveled to Zolkiew to meet with him.
His students urged Krochmal to put his ideas on paper, but, according to historian Max Nussbaum, he resisted this for some time. He also was offered, and turned down, employment as a rabbi in Berlin. Only after the death of his wife, in 1826, did he begin to write.
The evolution of Judaism
“Guide for the Perplexed of Our Time” is a one-of-a-kind work. Its titular reference to Maimonides’ 12th-century philosophical landmark was no accident, as Krochmal attempted in the book to provide the first systematic Jewish philosophy since the original “Guide for the Perplexed.”
In Nussbaum’s words, Krochmal was the first Jewish thinker to “employ the concepts of ‘Time and Space’ as principal elements of his historical method,” which is to say that he looked at Jewish culture as something that evolved with time.
Krochmal, who remained traditional in his religious observance, looked at the history of the world and identified the process by which nations, including the Hebrew people, are born, go through development and maturation, and then decay and die. He asked how it is that Judaism survived while every other civilization has had a finite life.
His conclusion was that while Jewish civilization goes through the same processes of development and maturation, it does so in a cyclical way, reinventing itself and beginning the process again.
What remains constant is the Jews’ special relationship with the Absolute, that is, God.
He applied this thesis to both the Jews’ history and to the sacred texts that have emerged from each period of that history. This was not the conventional thinking at the time, and it is an approach that had a formative influence on almost all of the developments of modern Jewish life, from critical examination of the Bible, for example, to Jewish nationalism.
Toward the end of his life, Krochmal, now ill, moved in with his daughter in the town of Tarnopol. It is there that he died, on July 31, 1840.
It was not until 1851 that his student Leopold Zunz, the founder of the Wissenschaft de Judentums school of academic Jewish studies, published his teacher’s lone work of written scholarship, as requested by Krochmal in his will.