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Modern Judaism 23.3 (2003) 264-301

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The Perplexity of Our Time:
Rabbi Nachman Krochmal and Modern Jewish Existence

Yehoyada Amir

Any attempt to explore the Guide of the Perplexed of the Time (Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zeman) 1 by Nachman Krochmal (1785–1840) should start with the question: How can one ascertain the main objective of the various parallel discussions in the treatise? Many factors account for the difficulty in confronting that issue. First, we do not have an adequate knowledge of the exact structure that Krochmal wished to give to his book because it was never completed. We know very little about the content that he wished to assign the chapters that he had intended to write. 2 Second, the only other texts that we have from Krochmal are some letters of his, in which he very seldom mentions the book and its objective. In fact, the only informative source we do possess is an 1836 letter to Shmuel David Luzzatto delivered by Krochmal's son Abraham. In this letter, Krochmal urges Luzzatto, with whom he had had no previous contact, to read and comment on several chapters of the manuscript on which he was working. 3

Moreover, Krochmal deliberately does not provide the reader with definitions of his objective or principal views. For example, unlike Maimonides's The Guide of the Perplexed, Krochmal's treatise does not begin with a systematic introduction that could give the reader a starting point from where he or she could examine the issue. Although both the short introduction at the beginning of the Perplexed of the Time and the subsequent "general prologue" combined with the first four chapters do provide considerable relevant information, which is discussed in detail below, one cannot discern any clear-cut definition of the book's objective. 4 The treatise combines numerous discussions of diverse fields such as the historiography of the Jewish people, biblical criticism, a study of the basic elements of halakhic and aggadaic literature, and an analysis of the works of Jewish philosophers from various periods, as well as Krochmal's own philosophical discussions. Nevertheless, Krochmal never discusses explicitly what connects all those themes and makes them a whole, and he does not reveal the book's internal [End Page 264] hierarchy or its general objective. The reader is left to explore this open question on his or her own.

I discuss several of the book's educational aspects below. However, at this point I should note that the above-mentioned state of affairs is not incidental but, rather, a direct result of Krochmal's educational philosophy. Reading the book is meant to be, in and of itself, an educational process that provides the reader-learner with both a broadpicture of theoretical—namely, philosophical, historiographic, and textual—issues and, at the same time, a higher level of philosophic capacities altogether. The philosophic horizons and capacities of the general reader simply could allow him or her to understand the real Fragestellung of the book and to appreciate it. Only through the educational process of reading and digesting the various discussions will he or she gain the capacity to realize the full range of the questions the book wishes to confront. Stating explicitly the final objective of the book before this educational process has been successfully completed would impair it and stifle its attainment. Only a reader who follows the book's path, occasionally reaching the various peaks that Krochmal attained, will comprehend, at the end of the process, the full significance of the path and the role played by each phase.

Though understanding Krochmal's individual discussions does not seem to be a very difficult and complex task, scholars who study this book are radically divided on the issue of the book's general objective. Simon Rawidowicz states that Krochmal's main objective is an understanding of the nature and essence of the Jewish people in order to mold the present. 5 Rotenstreich vehemently asserts that "Krochmal's main problem lies in establishing Judaism's absolute value." 6 Jay Harris, however, proposes that Krochmal...


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