Martin Buber in the 1920s. (Central Zionist Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Martin Buber

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

Martin Buber was born in 1878 in Vienna and died in 1965 in Jerusalem.

A philosopher and scholar, Buber is best known for his religious philosophy of dialogue, outlined his 1923 essay “I and Thou,” and for his critiques of mainstream Zionism. His philosophy is often described as “existentialist.”

I and Thou

In “I and Thou,” Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object. In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person. The honor of the other–and not just her usefulness–is of paramount importance.

The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. For Buber, God is the “Eternal Thou.” God is the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end.

In addition, according to Buber, our relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship–be it with a person or thing–involves a meeting with God. God, in a sense, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world. “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”

When one encounters the world in this way, revelation occurs. “God speaks to man in the things and beings he sends him in life,” Buber wrote. “Man answers through his dealings with these things and beings.”

Buber’s understanding of the religious experience of the biblical writers also applied to his understanding of the works of the Hasidic masters. In many of the teachings Buber collected in his book, Tales of the Hasidim, God is portrayed as immanent–an immediate and felt presence. God can be found in every encounter, in each experience, and in every aspect of the world. Because of his focus on experiential existence, Buber is considered an existentialist thinker.

Views on Zionism

An ardent Zionist in his early adulthood in Germany, Buber became editor of the leading Zionist newspaper, Die Welt, in 1901. However, he later broke with the movement for, in his view, ignoring the needs of the Palestinian Arabs who lived in the Land of Israel.  He became active in a group called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which was founded in 1925 to advocate the creation of a bi-national state.

After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which played a prominent role in German Jewish life at a time when Jews were increasingly excluded from secular schools, professions and cultural institutions.

Despite his ambivalence about Zionism, Buber moved to Israel in 1938, becoming a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He nonetheless remained an advocate for Arab rights and believed the Israeli government should allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel after the 1948 War of Independence.

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