The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

From Egypt to Galicia: Nachman Krochmal on the Origins and Future of the Jewish Nation

I take up an eastern European thinker closely associated with modes of historical thinking linked to Wissenschaft des Judentums: the Galician philosopher Nachman Krochmal. While his treatment of Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism is well known, I explore a topic that has received far less attention: his neglected account of the Jewish nation’s origins. More specifically, I focus on his treatment of the Israelites’ servitude in Egypt, recovering the political stakes of this historical narrative. Krochmal constructs his account in order to provide a model for Jewish national renewal in his own time--in order to illuminate how a transnational, diasporic collective can grow and sustain itself neither through resources such as a state and military strength, nor through integration into non-Jewish polities, but rather through shared practices and intellectual pursuits that draw on, yet remain separate from, the cultural life of non-Jewish societies.

While many of Krochmal’s Jewish sources treat the Israelites’ time in Egypt as a period of religious decay, he casts this era as one of political development, in which Jews acquired resources crucial to national flourishing: economic and artistic pursuits that enabled cultural growth, modes of historical thinking that fostered civic cohesion, and a capacity to learn from Egyptian society without integrating into it. Moreover, he characterizes the nation emerging after Egypt less as a group poised to acquire statehood and military strength, and more as a group defined by unity amid diversity--a tribal nation whose legal norms and religious consciousness grounded a shared identity across internal divisions. For Krochmal, the resulting picture of a collective that learns from yet remains separate from its surroundings, and that encompasses internal diversity, models a vision of diasporic, transnational life that covertly undermines competing non-Jewish and Jewish models that stress territory, statehood, or Jewish civic integration.