The Experience and Nearness of God

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel stressed the human encounter with God.


While rationalism and its abstract concepts held the attention of most early modern Jewish thinkers, several twentieth-century thinkers were more concerned with the religious and spiritual experience of the individual. The thinking of two such theologians, Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), serves as the basis for much of the current work in liberal theology. 

Martin Buber is best known for his religious philosophy of dialogue. 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, 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. Man answers through his dealings with these things and beings.” The Bible itself contains models of this human experience of God. Moses perceives natural events as indications of God’s power and God’s presence in the human realm. Similarly, the power and show of natural forces at Sinai led the Israelites to accept the revelation of God’s Torah.

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Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi was ordained by the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and earned her Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President's Scholar at HUC-JIR. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and their three children.

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