Jay Harris is the author of the in-depth important and enlightening book “Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age.”[1] It is a well-organized study of an important nineteenth-century Jewish scholar and philosopher. Harris is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

Nachman Krochmal (1785-1840) lived in Galicia, Austrian Empire, which is now Ukraine. His book “Guide for the Perplexed of Our Time” made pioneering contributions in the areas of Jewish religion and history. His book, which addresses the various attacks against Orthodox Judaism, shows how an Orthodox Jew can accept biblical criticism and still remain an Orthodox Jew and observe its practices.

His book was published after his death in 1851 by the preeminent German scholar Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), a man often considered the greatest Jewish scholar of the 19th century. He began in 1819 the movement called Wissenchaft des Judentum, “Science of Judaism,” which stressed the analysis of Jewish literature and culture with the tools of modern scholarship.

Krochmal was persuaded that twelfth century philosopher Maimonides was correct and was impressed by Maimonides’ book on philosophy “Guide of the Perplexed,” and became inspired to write his own updated version to reconcile Judaism with modern secular knowledge. He did so by tracing Judaism through its manifestations in history, literature, and religious philosophy. He wrote: “we are delighted, how great is our lot, for the word of God and the true Torah are with us, and it (the Torah) need not fear scholarly investigation from any perspective.”[2]

Krochmal states that in the natural course of events, nations go through three stages: (1) the period of blossoming and birth of the national spirit, (2) the nation matures for a long or short time with strength, (3) the nation, as all natural organisms, incorporates the cause of their degeneration and death, and these destructive elements grow and spread, and the nation diminishes until it disappears entirely. The Jewish nation, he admitted, is also subject to this natural order, but “the general spiritual essence within us will shield us from the fate of those who vanish…. The three-period cycles which we have mentioned were duplicated and triplicated with us…[but] there always emerged a new and reviving spirit; and if we fell, we arose and were fortified, and did not abandon God.”[3] The philosopher Hegel claims that the train of history has passed Jews, but Krochmal asserts that “Jews are the conductors of that train; it is they alone who are capable of leading humanity to its promised land.”[4] In essence, Jews are subject to the natural course of events, but “their spiritual essence remains beyond time.”[5]

Krochmal was convinced that all, or almost all, conclusions of modern scholarship about the Bible should not be considered challenging to rabbinic tradition. The rabbis knew what modern scholars found in and about the Bible. But they felt that they must hold their understandings from the masses for fear they might be misled by these insights.[6]

For example, although the biblical book Isaiah appears to be about a single Isaiah, Krochmal recognized that the last twenty-seven chapters of the book of Isaiah was by a second prophet.  He offers proof that the ancient rabbis knew the lateness of the second half of Isaiah. He states that “if we moderns can discern the lateness of the book we must then suspect that the rabbis were also aware of this fact.”[7] The rabbis were certainly not unsophisticated Bible scholars. Krochmal also felt that the ancient sages knew that “a number of Psalms are products of the second century BCE, not compositions by King David.[8]

He applied the same reasoning to the biblical book Qohelet, saying it is obvious that Solomon did not compose this book. “In implausibly attributing the book to Hezekiah, the rabbis were furtively indicating that they knew full well that Qohelet was not of Solomonic origin.”[9] He wrote that the ancient Greek Jews called Qohelet “Ecclesiastes,” which means a member of the “assembly,” to indicate that the author was actually a member of the Great Assembly, and not Solomon.

Krochmal recognized the significant dispute between the rational Maimonides and the mystic Nachmanides. Maimonides argued that laws derived from hermeneutic principles but not explicit in the Torah are rabbinic. Nachmanides claimed that the talmudic rabbis considered them Torahitic. Krochmal agreed with Maimonides that the “historical” claims of the Talmud were never meant to be taken seriously as history. Maimonides and Nachmanides similarly differed regarding midrashim. Maimonides taught that any one accepting them as true facts is a fool.[10] Nachmanides accepted them as true despite many of them being outrageous. Krochmal wrote: “It never dawned on the rabbis that such stories, taught for homiletical purposes, were to be accepted as true.”[11]

He considered the laws contained in the Torah as outlines of the basic contours of the legal system, but “the halakhah must necessarily have undergone development, rooted in the needs and desires of a living community.”[12] In essence, the Torah was fluid, to develop over time. Even many Torah words were changed.[13]

Harris states that Krochmal “developed a historical form of hermeneutics in which traditional claims are always taken seriously, but not literally.”[14] Yet, despite his open mind to many Jewish traditions, “None of this was to lead to an abandonment of traditional practice, but to a renewed intellectual – indeed, modern – commitment to it.”[15]


[1] New York University Press, New York and London, 1991.

[2] Guide, pages 143-144.

[3] Guide, pages 40-41.

[4] Harris, page 128.

[5] Harris, page 135.

[6] Guide, page242.

[7] Harris, page 173.

[8] Harris, page 179-180.

[9] Harris, page 174. Harris adds “Now it is impossible that the words of Solomon (d. 920 BCE) could have survived all those generations in oral form until Hezekiah (late eighth century) finally wrote them down.”

[10] In Chelek.

[11] Guide, page 211.

[12] Harris, page 229.

[13] Such as the Tekunei Soferim, “the embellishments of the Soferim.”

[14] Harris, page 322.

[15] Harris, page 314.