Moreh Nevukhe ha-Zeman

Moreh Nevukhe ha-Zeman (the Guide of the Perplexed of the Time): The unfinished magnum opus of Nahman Krochmal (1785-1840), posthumously published by Leopold Zunz in 1851. This massive and exceptionally wide ranging torso is a major contribution to both modern Jewish thought and modern Wissenschaft des Judentums.  Indeed, in its combination of philosophical speculation and historical investigation MNZ is unique.

1. Historical background/ 2. Moreh Nevukhe ha-Zeman/ 2.1 Contents/ 2.2 Nature and Goals/ 2.3 Spirit, Religion and History/ 2.4 Faith and Law

  1. Historical background: K. was born in the town of Brody, Galicia and spent most of his life in Zolkiew. After a brief return to Brody in 1836, he settled in Tarnopol, where he died. While he received a traditional Jewish education, limited to the study of the Babylonian Talmud, its classic commentaries, and the standard codes, he acquired on his own French, German, and Latin and devoted himself to the study of medieval Jewish philosophy and (secondarily) Kabbalah, in particular Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra and Nahmanides, and modern European philosophy, in particular Spinoza, Kant, Schelling and Hegel,  as well as to the study of Jewish history, in particular the works of Josephus, Azaryah de Rossi, J. Basnage, and I. M. Jost. K., a genuine polymath, also broadened his rabbinic studies to encompass such non-standard texts as the Palestinian Talmud and various midrashic collections and investigated, in German translation, the writings of Philo and the early Christian Gnostics.  While K. published only a few brief articles and several letters in his lifetime, he exerted, thanks to his oral teachings and written correspondence, a profound influence upon and became the acknowledged leader of all the thinkers associated with the Galician haskalah, among them S. Bloch, Z. H. Chajes, S. J. Rappaport, Z. M. Pineles, M. Letteris, and Y. H. Schorr.  Of particular importance for reconstructing K.’s thought and supplementing MNZ are three of his letters: the first to S. D. Luzzatto (Shadal), announcing the imminent appearance of part 1 of MNZ and explaining the work’s goals; the second  to S. L. Goldenburg, the editor of the Hebrew scholarly journal, Kerem Hemed, responding to Shadal’s attacks upon ibn Ezra and Maimonides (1838);  and the third to Z. H. Bodek, discussing the issue of providence as presented  in rabbinic  literature and in Maimonides, Nahmanides, and ibn Ezra, and hinting at his own views on the subject (1839).
  1. Moreh Nevukhe ha-Zeman

2.1 Contents: MNZ consists of 17 chapters, some either first drafts and/or incomplete (chapters 5, 12, 16, and 17). It begins with three brief preliminary remarks. The first four chapters constitute a “general introduction,” in which K. argues that the Jews of his age can avoid the extremes of fanaticism or unbelief only through understanding Judaism in a philosophically and historically sophisticated manner.  In Chapters 5-7 K. introduces the concept of spirit as the primary element in reality, and constructs on its base his philosophy of religion and history in general and Judaism and Jewish history in particular.  Chapters 8-10 provide an overview of (in K.’s view) the first two cycles of Jewish history, extending from Abraham to the suppression of the Bar-Kokhvah rebellion. Chapter 11 consists of a series of detailed textual studies– of particular importance are K.’s analyses of Deutero-Isaiah, Koheleth, and certain (in his view) Maccabean Psalms–that serve to underpin the historical presentation of the previous chapters. Here K. pioneers in introducing biblical criticism to Eastern Europe Jewry. Chapters 13-14, the first devoted to Halakhah, the second to Aggadah, analyze the emergence of the rabbinic tradition. (There is internal evidence that the order of these chapters ought to be reversed.) Chapters 12, 15, and 17 appear to be a loosely strung unit dealing with the emergence of the traditions of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah.  Chapter 12 deals primarily with Philo; Chapter 15 with Christian Gnosticism and the emergence of Kabbalah; while Chapter 17 seeks to reconstruct the religious philosophy of ibn Ezra, primarily on the basis of his biblical commentaries. What links these three chapters is that they all treat of broadly (Neo-) Platonic emanationist doctrine with, particularly in the chapter on ibn Ezra, a distinctly Kabbalistic inflection. These sixteen chapters appear to belong to the relatively complete first part of MNZ. The one exception is chapter 16, an incomplete translation of the beginning of Hegel’s Logic, which serves as the introductory chapter to the largely missing second part, which, by all indications, was intended to be a systematic and advanced presentation of K.’s metaphysics and philosophy of religion.

2.2 Nature and Goals. The work’s incomplete state, uncertain order, exceptionally diverse contents, and lack of a full-scale Introduction make it difficult to determine its nature and goals. Particularly unclear is the connection between the work’s philosophical and historical chapters.  Partial clues are provided by the work’s two titles: MNZ and Sha‘arei Emunah Tzerufah, The Gates of Pure Faith. Both in MNZ itself and in his letter to Luzzatto, K. notes that the purpose of his work and its mode of inquiry are very similar to those of the Guide, with differences between the two works regarding subject matter and order owing to the differing perplexities confronting Maimonides’ generation and his own.  Both works deal with the perplexities caused by the contradictions between a superficial understanding of the Torah and general knowledge and both suggest that the way to resolve those perplexities is to translate the contents of the Torah from the level of imagination to that of intellect, to use Maimonides’ terms, or from the level of representation, Torahitic faith, to that of understanding or reason, the wisdom of faith, to use K’s. (This also explains the other title of MNZ, The Gates of Pure Faith.) While for Maimonides, however, the general knowledge that clashes with a superficial understanding of the Torah is scientific and philosophical, for K. it also includes historical knowledge. As many have suggested, this is another meaning of Guide of the Perplexed of the Time. Namely, K.’s generation was perplexed by the problems of time, history, and historicism and how they impacted on Jewish belief and practice. K.’s resolution, as well, differs from Maimonides’. For Maimonides, the Torah’s intellectual level constitutes its inner meaning, and the prophets were philosophers who in Scripture translated their intellectual understanding into popular imaginative categories. To translate the contents of the Torah from the level of imagination to that of intellect is, then, to recover its deepest original meaning. In this respect, the highest truth was always known, and history only plays a role in its dissemination. For K., by contrast — and here his view of the relationship between religion and philosophy resembles Hegel’s—religion and philosophy have the same truth for their content, but religion conceives of that content in imaginative, representational categories, while philosophy translates that content into rational, conceptual categories. The prophets, for K., then, were not philosophers, but attained knowledge of the truth in an intuitive, immediate fashion that might be properly termed revelation, and the translation of Scripture into philosophical terms is a genuine translation of the original content into new forms that takes place over the course of history –not the recovery of an original, hidden meaning. This explains how the title The Gates of Pure Faith can apply to MNZ’s historical chapters as well as to its philosophical chapters, for the emergence of the Jewish faith in all its conceptual purity is a historical process, one that, for K., has still not been completed. Moreover, K. often subtly weaves biblical phrases into those historical chapters, and proceeds to rephrase that representational biblical language in “pure” conceptual terms.

2.3 Spirit, Religion and History: K.’s philosophical views fit broadly into the German idealist tradition. Following Schelling and Hegel, he presents a monistic, organic view of the universe. The fundamental element in reality is spirit, which for K., like Hegel, is primarily manifested in society and history. While for Hegel, however, the ultimate locus of spirit is the State, for K. it is the nation.

K. differentiates between partial spirit which is connected with matter and absolute spirit which he defines as “the cause which includes in its unity all causes and the true reality of all being,” and which consequently contains within itself all partial spirit. It was the Jewish people who were the first to attain knowledge of absolute spirit, “the first to uphold the divine unity in the purity of its truth.” To begin with, they viewed absolute spirit in representational terms. Only over time did they begin to translate this representational understanding into rational categories. This involved a shift from a personal, transcendent, volitional, and supernaturalistic conception of God to a more impersonal, immanent, and naturalistic one. Whether K. leaves any room for personality or transcendence in his understanding of absolute spirit is debated by interpreters of MNZ. The transition from absolute spirit to partial spirit, however, almost certainly involves a moment of volition for K.

From an historical vantage point, that of verstand, the (partial) spirit manifested in the history of one of the nations of the world refers to the sum total of its cultural creativity– a creativity usually expressed most strongly in one area: beauty, law, etc. –, while the connection between the Jewish people and absolute spirit refers to their monotheistic faith. From a speculative standpoint, however, that of vernunft, the matter is reversed, and a particular nation’s cultural creativity and the Jewish people’s monotheistic faith should be viewed as the means whereby spirit, whether partial or absolute, attains self-expression and self-awareness.

However the matter is viewed, the attachment of the nations of the world to partial spirits connected to matter results in their being subjected to the organismic-biological “laws” of history, whereby each nation undergoes a cycle of growth, maturity, and decline and annihilation, though the products of its cultural creativity, on account of their spiritual nature, are never lost, but incorporated into mankind’s general spiritual patrimony. Here K. is following models of historical development current in his day, as articulated in varying forms by Lessing, Herder, Vico, and Hegel.  On the other hand, the attachment of the Jewish people to absolute spirit guarantees that, although it too is subject to the historical “law” of growth, maturity, and decline, after the completion of its initial cycle, rather than disappearing, it will renew itself, to begin yet another cycle. In this respect, the Jewish people, while not exempt from history, is an ‘am olam, an eternal people. Again, from an historical vantage point K. depicts the process of constant renewal in immanent terms, whereby the Jews’ monotheistic faith endows them with the strength to persevere under the most arduous circumstances—indeed, the seeds of renewal of a new cycle are already to be found in the period of decline of the previous one—, while from a speculative standpoint, the eternity of the Jews is seen as resulting from absolute spirit’s need to attain complete self expression. By virtue of the Jewish people’s attachment to absolute spirit they become, declares K. following Sforno and Mendelssohn, “the teachers of a multitude of many nations.”  Moreover, since absolute spirit contains within itself all partial spirit, it is necessary for the Jewish people, while firmly preserving its national-spiritual identity, to interact with the other nations with whom they come into contact, and learn from, absorb, and transmute their spiritual teachings and achievements.  Here one may discern a “maskilic” agenda emerging from K.’s speculative theses.

For K., the Jewish people had already undergone three cycles of growth, maturity, and decline, the last ending in the middle of the seventeenth century. It is not clear whether K. had a full-fledged doctrine of historical progress. He affirms that the second cycle, beginning with the return to Zion, reached a higher level of spirituality than the first, since for the first time the people as a whole were free of idolatry and accepted monotheism “in the purity of its truth.” But did he believe that there was a similar advance from the second cycle to the third? Some scholars answer “no,” and point to K.’s statement that during the second period of the second cycle the Jewish people as a whole reached its spiritual height, “and the daughter of Jeshurun had not had as precious a time as this from its inception until this day.” They also note that even though K. sees a continuous conceptualization of religious faith, he asserts in several places that representational faith is equal in value to conceptual understanding. Others answer “yes,” and point to places in MNZ where K. clearly asserts the superiority of conceptual understanding over representational faith. Supporting this is K.’s claim in his “general introduction” that only by translating their representational faith into conceptual terms can the Jews of his age avoid the extremes of fanaticism or unbelief. As for K.’s comment about the daughter of Jeshurun, it may be noted that K. explicitly states that this refers only to the spiritual heights attained by the nation as a whole, not to those attained by outstanding individuals. Certainly, for K., ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Nahmanides, who lived in the second period of the third cycle, reached heights of spiritual and conceptual understanding unequalled by anyone in the second cycle.

If the latter view be upheld, K. may have envisaged continual progress extending into his day, which, though he never say so explicitly, he evidently viewed as the beginning of  a fourth cycle.  The spiritual heights attained by ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and Nahmanides would extend to the people as a whole. Indeed, new heights might be attained, insofar as his generation would understand spirit historically.  The people, preserving its national-spiritual identity but interacting with the surrounding nations, would engage in renewed cultural and religious creativity. It is not clear whether the locus of such a renewal would be the Diaspora or the land of Israel. Both Diaspora nationalists and cultural Zionists, then, justly could and did view K. as their spiritual godfather.

2.4 Faith and Law The core of Judaism, for K., is: the knowledge of God, namely, the believer’s apprehension that everything not grounded in the Creator is nothingness and emptiness; the service of God, namely, the believer’s apprehension that he in his spirituality is beloved of God, can approach Him, and is thereby preserved by Him; and the performance of the commandments which undergirds these two basic apprehensions. Here K. follows Maimonides in upholding the authority of halakhah, but subordinating it to religious/philosophical understanding.

K. views halakhah, as he does Jewish faith, in evolutionary terms. The Oral Law, whose origins K., drawing upon the approach of the German legal historian F. K. von Savigny, traces back to antiquity, underwent a long process of development, whose stages K., in his very influential Chapter 13, delineates from the soferim, the scribes, through the tanna’im, until the redaction of the Mishnah. But just as the historical process of the translation of representational faith to conceptual form brings to light a latent content, so too all legal innovations derived from the original divinely inspired legal corpus can be seen as potentially included in it — provided the derivations accord with reason,.  From his discussion in Chapter 10, however, it becomes clear that for K. not all rabbinic innovations were legitimate. There K. sharply criticizes certain rabbinic decrees, stemming from the end of the Second Temple period, the period of decline in the second cycle, which raised the barriers between Jews and non-Jews. Such decrees, in K.’s view,   derived from fanaticism and extreme nationalism. It would seem that K., while upholding the authority of halakhah, looked forward to its moderate reform. Only through such reform and greater interaction between Jews and non-Jews could the Jews of his time fill their role as “the teachers of a multitude of many nations.”


Source Materials

Kitvei R. Nahman Krochmal, ed. Simon Rawidowicz, 2nd edition, Waltham Mass. 1961.

Secondary Literature 

Yehoyada Amir, The Perplexity of Our Time: R. Nachman Krochmal and Modern Jewish Existence, in: Modern Judaism 23 (2003), 264-301.

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

Fishel Lachower, Nigleh ve-Nistar be-Mishnato shel ha-Ranak, in: ‘Al Gevul ha-Yashan ve-ha-Hadash, Jerusalem 1951, 211-263.

Eliezer Schweid,  Beyn “Hokhmat  ha-Torah ‘al ha-Emet” ve-“Sod Yihud ha-Emunah,” le-“Filosophiyyah shel ha-Dat,” in: Iyyun 20 (1969), 29-59.

Lawrence Kaplan

McGill University

Montreal, Quebec