Martin Buber

The creation of a Jewish existentialism--and a Jewish state.


Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Martin Buber was an existentialist Jewish philosopher, educationist, and Zionist thinker. He was born Vienna in 1878 and died in Jerusalem in 1965.

Buber’s main contribution to philosophy is the distinction, made in his justly famous philosophical poem I and Thou, between the I-It relationship and the I-Thou. In the former man relates to others and to things in an objective, detached manner, as when the physical scientist examines his data and the social scientist the life of a community. In the latter relationship, man meets others as those to whom he says "Thou." That is to say, his approach to the other is as person to person, where the other is not a thing to be manipulated or even to be used for the satisfaction of his benevolent instincts, but a fellow creature with whom one can engage in dialogue, a favorite Buberian word.

On the religious level, according to Buber, man cannot talk about God but can only encounter Him, not only in the dialogue of prayer but also by encountering the divine Thou behind all particular Thous.

Seeing Text as a Retelling

Buber’s further distinction, in his book Moses, between history and saga is important for biblical studies. Many of the biblical narratives, such as the Exodus, are best seen not as sober, factual histories but rather as a retelling, a Heilsgeschichte, or a kind of sacred poetry, of past events in which the mighty acts of God were observed by men and women of faith.

In his early career Buber was profoundly interested in Jewish mysticism but as his thought developed he came to view mysticism with a degree of suspicion. The mystic’s ideal of annihilation of selfhood tends to negate the all important I-Thou relationship in which the human soul is not lost in God but encounters Him in dialogue. Buber’s retelling of The Tales of the Hasidim (the title of the work in which Buber brought Hasidism to the attention of the Western world) tends to make the leaders of the movement advocates of the I-Thou approach.

A favorite quote of Buber was from the [Hasidic] master of Kotsk who commented on the verse: "And ye shall be holy men unto me" (Exodus 22:30) that this means: "Be holy men"; or, as Buber put it, the ideal is to be "humanly holy," a Jewish humanism which does not urge its followers to flee the world but to become involved in the world. Gershom Scholem has criticized Buber for relying only on the Hasidic tales while ignoring Hasidic doctrine as taught in the works of its foremost teachers who did advocate the mystical way.

Buber also wrote a novel on Hasidism, For the Sake of Heaven, a narrative of the conflict between the early masters of the movement when, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, some were on Napoleon’s side and, others on the side of the Tsar.

Categorizing Buber

A question often put is whether Buber can be considered a Jewish thinker. Buber certainly considered himself to be speaking from within the Jewish tradition. "I can stand beside my father’s house," said Buber, "and yet see whole world go by." But it was often remarked that while Buber enjoyed unbounded admiration in the Christian world his reception among Jews was less enthusiastic, partly because there is a strong element of antinomianism in Buber’s thought that places him outside the Jewish traditional approach to religion in which the Torah and its precepts are imposed heteronomously [i.e. not autonomously] upon the Jew and are not dependant on whether he personally can appropriate them by saying "Thou" to them.

An attempt at appointing Buber to a chair in religious studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was abandoned because of opposition by the Orthodox. Eventually he was appointed instead Professor of Social Philosophy where his influence was keenly felt in educational and other spheres and where he was idolized by generations of students.

Proposing a Bi-National State

Buber was a Zionist from his youth and was highly admired when he moved to Jerusalem in 1938, yet his political views which looked forward to an eventual bi-national commonwealth of Jews and Arabs were thought naïve, unrealistic and dangerous. It is said that during his life in Israel he never entered a synagogue in his refusal to accept any kind of external, and hence for him, unauthentic, forms of religious activity.

Buber’s literary style, except in his Hasidic tales and his novel, hardly makes for easy reading. At times it seems almost as if he believed that the only way to give expression to profound ideas is to be obscure. The story is told that, soon after he had settled in Jerusalem, a woman complimented him on his excellent Hebrew, saying that it was so good that she understood everything he said. Buber is reported to have replied (though he denied this) "I shall not be satisfied with my Hebrew until you cannot understand a word I say."

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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