Nachman Kohen Krochmal (1785-1840) was the first Jewish historian to treat Jewish history as an integral part of all human history.
When Nachman Krochmal was born at Brody, Galicia, Poland, on Feb. 17, 1785, the Age of Enlightenment was reaching its height and German idealism was still in ascendant vogue. The messianic expectations of the previous centuries had been all but extinguished. A certain intellectual malaise affected European Judaism, thrown as it was into open contact for the first time with the mainstream of European thought and culture.
Krochmal disliked the philosophizing of Maimonides, which he felt had led Jewish thought to contemplate abstractions of reason. He disagreed with some of the basic tenets of the Enlightenment, particularly the belief in infinite human progress, hero worship, and the natural or innate goodness of man. He was also repelled by the inbred views of die-hard Jewish traditionalists, who viewed the history of the Jewish people as a development totally separate and distinct from, as well as superior to, general human development. He detected the malaise of his time and set out to be the new Maimonides. He called his major work More Nevukhei Hazeman (Guide for the Perplexed of the Time), in imitation of Maimonides's earlier work, More Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed). Krochmal died on July 31, 1840, in Ternopol, and his masterpiece was published posthumously and in incomplete form in 1851.
Krochmal's chief aim in the More Nevukhei Hazeman was to show that studies in Judaism, far from being an independent and free-floating area of inquiry, could be understood only in conjunction with other historical religions and cultural studies and that the history of the Jews was governed by the same laws of change and development that governed all peoples and cultures. Krochmal thought that the history of any people must be characterized by a cycle of youth, maturity, and decline. However, in Jewish history he detected several such cycles. What enables Judaism to begin anew after each decline and thus not perish is the presence of what Krochmal calls the Absolute Spirit, the religious genius, or the specific national individuality, of Israel. In fact, Israel's mission is to spread knowledge of this abiding Absolute Spirit, which has been especially entrusted to it.
In his theories Krochmal was a child of his day in many ways, but in other ways he was ahead of his time. His views did reflect a certain Hegelian cyclical structure of history. With J. G. Fichte and the Baron de Montesquieu, he viewed religion as a reflection of the soul of the people. On the other hand, his ideas suggest certain aspects of social Darwinism, which arose a century later, and he formulated the concept of Jewish mission so dear to later reform thinkers. Above all, his emphasis on the historical reality of the Jewish people gave a first formulation to tenets that later were adopted by Zionist thinkers.
Further Reading on Nachman Kohen Krochmal
Krochmal is discussed in Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature from the Close of the Bible to Our Own Days, vol. 3: From the Middle of the Eighteenth Century to the Year Eighteen-eighty (1936).