Martin Buber

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

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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.

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