- Saving Knowledge
on “nachman krochmal and the ‘perplexities of the time’” (1887)
Solomon Schechter’s sensitively and vigorously written portrait, “Nachman Krochmal and the ‘Perplexities of the Time’ “ (1887),1 places Krochmal in two different contexts and views him from two quite different perspectives. Since we possess only a few more primary sources for Krochmal’s life and work than did Schechter, the essay has not lost its value.
The piece may be divided into an introduction and three parts. The first briefly sketches Krochmal’s life, drawing from “the accounts of [Leopold] Zunz, [Solomon J.] Rapoport, and [Meir] Letteris,” supplemented by various letters. The second part, an overview of that “grand and deep book,” Krochmal’s unfinished and posthumously published magnum opus, Guide of the Perplexed of the Time,2 is the essay’s weakest part, even containing outright errors. Thus, Schechter states that Krochmal discusses “the ideal gifts bestowed on the various ancient nations” and “the ideal gifts of Israel” in two different chapters. But he discusses both in chapter 7. Schechter views chapters 11 through 15 as an excursus to the history of the Jewish people found in chapters 8 through 10. But this is true only of chapter 11. Chapters 12 to 15, to which chapter 17 should be added, stand on their own as surveys of different facets of Jewish literary creativity. The third and most important part examines “the importance of Krochmal’s treatise . . . its significance in the region of Jewish science . . . [as well as] the general tendency of the whole work” (p. 67). [End Page 138] Of what did that importance consist? Schechter answers that “Krochmal’s object was to elaborate a philosophy of Jewish history, to trace the leading ideas that ran through it, and the ultimate causes that led to its various phases.” However, Schechter notes, “at the time Krochmal began to write there did not exist a Jewish history at all.” He concludes, consequently, that Krochmal “was . . . compelled to . . . establish the facts of Jewish history as well as to philosophize upon them . . . Hence, in the very midst of his philosophical analysis, the author was compelled to introduce digressions on historical subjects in order to . . . form the basis of his analysis.” Historical research here seems to be subordinated to philosophical analysis. Despite this, Schechter interestingly continues, “It is precisely for these historical excurses that Krochmal has earned the gratitude of posterity” (pp. 65–66).
Here we approach the heart of the work’s significance for Schechter, which, as he writes in both this and other essays, lies precisely in what distinguishes its title, Guide of the Perplexed of the Time, from the title of Krochmal’s model, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed: “the words ‘of the Time’ ” in the title (p. 68).3 Schechter explains, “By these words Krochmal reminds us that great as are the merits of the immortal work of Maimonides . . . still it will no longer suffice for us. For . . . each age has its own perplexities, and therefore needs its own guide” (p. 68).
The perplexities of Krochmal’s age—and his own—Schechter continues, result from the rise of the philological method. “A hundred years ago,” Schechter ironically notes, “men were in that happy state of mind in which they knew everything. They knew the exact date and author of every Psalm; they knew the author of each and every ancient Midrash; they knew the originator of every law and ordinance; they even knew the writer of the Zohar and of other mystical books.” But, Schechter laments tongue in cheek, “the philological method has swept away all this knowingness as by a deluge from heaven, and men find they know nothing” (p. 71). Thus, both Maimonides and Krochmal addressed the perplexities caused by the contradictions between a superficial understanding of the Torah and general knowledge. However, while for Maimonides the general knowledge at odds with a superficial understanding of the Torah was scientific and philosophical, for Krochmal it also included historical knowledge. As many—though not Schechter himself—have suggested, this is another dimension of Guide of the Perplexed of the Time, namely, the [End Page 139] perplexity Krochmal’s generation experienced regarding...