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Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman


Maurice S. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of religious studies, philosophy and comparative literature at San Diego State University. Martin Buber (1878-1965).was a Viennese Jewish philosopher and religious leader who translated the Old Tetament into German. He was a Zionist. He sought understainding between Jews and Arabs. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1955 and reprinted in 1960 by Harpers, N.Y. as a First Harper Torchbook edition. This material prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 17: The Redemption of Evil


Man’s turning from evil and taking the direction toward God is the beginning of his own redemption and that of the world. God ‘wishes to redeem us -- but only by our own acceptance of His redemption with the turning of the whole being.’ Our turning is only the beginning, however, for man’s action must be answered by God’s grace for redemption to be complete. When we go forth to meet God, He comes to meet us, and this meeting is our salvation. ‘It is not as though any definite act of man could draw grace down from heaven; yet grace answers deed in unpredictable ways, grace unattainable, yet not self-withholding.’ It is senseless, therefore, to try to divide redemption into a part that is dependent on man and a part that is dependent on God. Man must be concerned with his action alone before he brings it about, with God’s grace alone after the action is successfully done. ‘The one is no less real than the other, and neither is a part-cause . . . man’s action is enclosed in God’s action, but it is still real action.’ When man breaks through, he has an immediate experience of his freedom; after his decision has been made, he has an immediate experience that God’s hand has carried him. (The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 104, 124; Hasidism, op. cit., ‘Spinoza,’ pp. 108-111; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p. 18, ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 32 f.) Man’s action and God’s grace are subsumed under the greater reality of the meeting between God and man.

The decisive turning is not merely an attitude of the soul but something effective in the whole corporeality of life. It is not to be identified with repentance, for repentance is something psychological and purely inward which shows itself outwardly only in its ‘consequences’ and ‘effects.’ The turning is something which happens in the immediacy of the reality between man and God.’ It ‘is as little a "psychic" event as is a man’s birth or death.’ Repentance is at best only an incentive to this turning, and it may even stand in the way of it if a man tortures himself with the idea that his acts of penance are not sufficient and thereby withholds his best energies from the work of reversal. (Two Types of Faith, op. cit., p. 26; Israel and the World, ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p. 20; The Way of Man, op. cit., p. 35 f.)

The teshavah, or turning to God, is born in the depths of the soul out of ‘the despair which shatters the prison of our latent energies’ and out of the suffering which purifies the soul. In his darkest hours man feels the hand of God reaching down to him. If he has ‘the incredible courage’ to take the hand and let it draw him up out of the darkness, he tastes the essence of redemption -- the knowledge that his ‘redeemer liveth’ (Job xix, 18) and wishes to redeem him. But he must accept this redemption with the turning of his whole being, for only thus can he extricate himself from the maze of selfishness where he has always set himself as his goal and find a way to God and to the fulfillment of the particular task for which he is intended. (For the Sake of Heaven, op. cit., pp. 113, 116, 202; Israel and the World, ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ p. 101 f.; The Way of Man, p. 36.)

To turn to God with the whole of one’s being means to turn with all of one’s passion. Passion is the element without which no deed can succeed, the element which needs only direction in order that out of it the kingdom of God can be built. According to Hasidism, it is the yearning of the divine sparks to be redeemed that brings the ‘alien thoughts,’ or impure impulses, to man. The alien thoughts of which the Baal-Shem speaks are in our language fantasy, says Buber. The transformation of these impulses, accordingly, can only take place in our imaginative faculty. We must not reject the abundance of this fantasy but transform it and turn it into actuality. ‘We must convert the element that seeks to take possession of us into the substance of real life.’ The contradictions which distress us exist only that we may discover their intrinsic significance. (Israel and the World, ‘The Faith of Judaism, p. 17 f., Hasidism, ‘The Foundation Stone,’ p. 53 f., ‘The Beginnings of Hasidism,’ p. 30 f.; Kampf um Israel, op. cit. p. 399 f.; Martin Buber, Ten Rungs, Hasidic Sayings, trans. by Olga Marx [New York: Schocken Books, 1947], p. 94 f.; Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, The Early Masters, trans. by Olga Marx [New York: Schocken Books, 1947], pp. 4 11-14, 29; Hasidism and Modern Man, ‘The Baal-Shem-Tor’s Instruction in Intercourse with God.’)

The very qualities which make us what we are constitute our special approach to God and our potential use for Him. Each man is created for the fulfillment of a unique purpose. His foremost task, therefore, ‘is the actualization of his unique, unprecedented and never-recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, and be it even the greatest, has already achieved.’ We can revere the service of others and learn from it, but we cannot imitate it. Neither ought we envy another’s particularity and place nor attempt to impose our own particular way on him. (Tales of the Hasidim, The Early Masters, p.29; The Way of Man, p.17 ff.) The way by which a man can reach God is revealed to him only through the knowledge of his essential quality and inclination. Man discovers this essential quality through perceiving his ‘central wish,’ the strongest feeling which stirs his inmost being. In many cases he knows this central wish only in the form of the particular passion which seeks to lead him astray. To preserve and direct this passion he must divert it from the casual to the essential, from the relative to the absolute. He must prevent it from rushing at the objects which lie across his path, yet he must not turn away from these objects but establish genuine relationship with them. ‘Man’s task, therefore, is not to extirpate the evil urge, but to reunite it with the good.’ If man lends his will to the direction of his passions, he begins the movement of holiness which God completes. In the hallowing which results, ‘the total man is accepted, confirmed, and fulfilled. This is the true integration of man.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, p. 117; The Way of Man, p. I9 f.; Images of Good and Evil, op. cit., pp. 39-42; Israel and the World, ‘The Power of the Spirit,’ p. 181 f.)

The belief in the redemption of evil does not mean any security of salvation. The prophets of Israel, writes Buber, ‘always aimed to shatter all security and to proclaim in the opened abyss of the final insecurity the unwished-for God who demands that His human creatures become real . . . and confounds all who imagine that they can take refuge in the certainty that the temple of God is in their midst.’ There is no other path for the responsible modern man than this ‘holy insecurity.’ In an age in which ‘God is dead,’ the truly religious man sets forth across the God-deprived reality to a new meeting with the nameless God and on his way destroys the images that no longer do justice to God. ‘Holy insecurity’ is life lived in the Face of God. It is the life in which one learns to speak the truth ‘no matter whether a whole people is listening, or only a few individuals,’ and learns to speak it quietly and clearly through having been in hell and having returned to the light of day again. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Modern Thinking,’ p. 97 f., ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ p. 63; Kampf um Israel, p. 198; Martin Buber, ‘Our Reply,’ Towards Union in Palestine, Essays on Zionism and Jewish-Arab Cooperation, ed. by Martin Buber, Judah L. Magnes, and Ernst Simon [Jerusalem: Ihud Association, September 1945], p. 34.)

If a man tries to get rid of his insecurity by constructing a defensive armour to protect himself from the world, he has added to the exposedness which is the state of all men the hysteria which makes him run blindly from the thing he fears rather than face and accept it. Conversely, if he accepts his exposed condition and remains open to those things which meet him, he has turned his exposedness into ‘holy insecurity.’ He has overcome his blind fear and has put in its place the faith which is born out of the relation with the Thou. The defensive man becomes literally rigid with fear. He sets between himself and the world a rigid religious dogma, a rigid system of philosophy, a rigid political belief and commitment to a group, and a rigid wall of personal values and habits. The open man, on the other hand, accepts his fear and relaxes into it. He substitutes the realism of despair, if need be, for the tension of hysteria. He meets every new situation with quiet and sureness out of the depths of his being, yet he meets it with the fear and trembling of one who has no ready-made answer to life.

The religious essence of every religion, writes Buber, ‘is the certainty that the meaning of existence is open and accessible in the actual lived concreteness.’ This does not mean that meaning is to be won through any analytical or synthetic reflection upon the lived concrete but through ‘living action and suffering itself, in the unreduced immediacy of the moment.’ Neither can one aim at experiencing the experience, for one thereby destroys the spontaneity of the mystery and thus misses the meaning. ‘Only he reaches the meaning who stands firm, without holding back or reservation, before the whole might of reality and answers it in a living way.’ No meeting with God can take place entirely outside of this lived concrete. Even asceticism is essentially a reduction for the sake of preserving the concreteness of the moment when this no longer seems attainable in the fullness of life. Prayer too is not spirituality floating above concrete reality but lived concreteness. Prayer is the very essence of the immediacy between man and God, and praying is, above all words, the action of turning directly to God. In true prayer, no matter what else the individual asks for, he ‘ultimately asks for the manifestation of the divine Presence, for this Presence’s becoming dialogically perceivable.’ The presupposition of a genuine state of prayer is not religious words, pious feelings, or techniques of spiritual concentration but ‘the readiness of the whole man for this Presence, simple turned-towardness, unreserved spontaneity.’ (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ pp. 49 f., 52 f., ‘God and the Spirit of Man,’ p. 163; Between Man and Man, ‘Dialogue,’ p. 15; Des Baal-Schem-Tow Unterweisung im Umgang mit Gott, p. 12 f.; The Way of Man, p. 21; Two Types of Faith, pp. 28,157,161.)

All religious reality begins with the acceptance of the concrete situation as given one by the Giver, and it is this which Biblical religion calls the ‘fear of God.’ The ‘fear of God’ is the essence of ‘holy insecurity,’ for ‘it comes when our existence becomes incomprehensible and uncanny, when all security is shattered through the mystery.’ By ‘the mystery’ Buber does not mean the as yet undiscovered but the essentially unknowable -- ‘the undefinable and unfathomable,’ whose inscrutableness belongs to its very nature. The believing man who passes through this shattering of security returns to the everyday as the henceforth hallowed place in which he has to live with the mystery. ‘He steps forth directed and assigned to the concrete, contextual situations of his existence.’ This does not mean that he accepts everything that meets him as ‘God-given’ in its pure factuality.

He may, rather, declare the extremist enmity toward this happening and treat its ‘givenness’ as only intended to draw forth his own opposing force. But he will not remove himself from the concrete situation as it actually is.... Whether field of work or field of battle, he accepts the place in which he is placed. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ p. 50 ff.)

One should not willingly accept evil in one’s life but should will to penetrate the impure with the pure. The result may well be an interpenetration of both elements, but it may not be anticipated by saying ‘yes’ to the evil in advance. (From a conversation between Buber and Max Brod quoted in Max Brod, ‘Zur Problematik des Bösen und des Rituals,’ Der Jude, ‘Sonderheft zu Martin Bubers fünfzigstem Geburtstag,’ X, 5 [March 1928], ed. by Robert Weltsch, p. 109.)

Fear of God is the indispensable gate to the love of God. That love of God which does not comprehend fear is really idolatry, the adoration of a god whom one has constructed oneself. Such a god is easy enough to love, but it is not easy to love ‘the real God, who is, to begin with, dreadful and incomprehensible.’ (Eclipse of God, p. 50 f.; Martin Buber, Israel and Palestine, The History of an Idea [London: East & West Library; New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1952], p. 89.)

He who wishes to avoid passing through this gate, he who begins to provide himself with a comprehensible God, constructed thus and not otherwise, runs the risk of having to despair of God in view of the actualities of history and life, or of falling into inner falsehood. Only through the fear of God does man enter so deep into the love of God that he cannot again be cast out of it. (Israel and the World, ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 31 f. Cf. ibid., ‘Imitatio Dei,’ p. 76 f.; For the Sake of Heaven, p. 46.)

The fear of God is only a gate, however, and not, as some theologians believe, a dwelling in which man can settle down. When man encounters the demonic, he must not rest in it but must penetrate behind it to find the meaning of his meeting with it. The fear of God must flow into the love of God and be comprehended by it before one is ready to endure in the face of God the whole reality of lived life. (Israel and the World, ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 32; Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Philosophy,’ p. 50 ff.; Two Types of Faith, pp. 137, 154.)

Contrary to the teachings of many religious men, the love of God does not mean the submission of one’s will in obedience to God. ‘When and so far as the loving man loves he does not need to bend his will, for he lives in the Divine Will.’ God commands that man love Him, but it is not God, but the soul itself, in the original mystery of its spontaneity, that loves Him. Man can be commanded to love God since this means nothing other than the actualization of the existing relationship of faith to Him. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ in contrast, does not mean loving feeling but loving action. One cannot command that one feel love for a person but only that one deal lovingly with him. Re-ah, or ‘neighbour,’ means, in the Old Testament, anyone with whom one stands in an immediate and reciprocal relationship. "’Love thy re-ah" therefore means in our language: be lovingly disposed towards men with whom thou has to do at anytime in the course of thy life.’ This lovingkindness will also ultimately come to include the feeling of love, for if a person really loves God, he loves every man whom God loves as he becomes aware that God does love him. To find meaning in existence one must begin oneself and penetrate into it with active love: ‘Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet Him.... If you wish to believe, love!’ (Two Types of Faith, pp. 69 ff., At the Turning, pp. 37, 42 ff.)

The love of the Creator and of that which He has created are finally one and the same. ‘Imitatio Dei’ does not mean becoming like God as He is in Himself but only the following in His way in relation to justice and love -- the divine attributes which are turned toward man. The true meaning of the ethical, writes Buber, is ‘to help God by loving His creation in his creatures, by loving it towards Him.’ ‘People who love each other with holy love bring each other towards the love with which God loves His world.’ (At the Turning, p. 37 ff.; Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One,’ pp. 51 f., 56 f.; Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p. 137 f., Hasidism, ‘God and the Soul,’ p. 158.) The true love of man is not a general love for all humanity but a quite concrete, direct, and effective love for particular individuals. Only because one loves specific men can one elevate to love one’s relation to man in general. (Hasidism, ‘Spirit and Body of the Hasidic Movement,’ p. 86; Introduction by Buber to Hermann Cohen, Der Nächste [Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1935], p. 6 Martin Buber, ‘Kraft und Richtung, Klugheit und Weisheit’ [From a letter], Das werdende Zeitalter, VII [1928], 97; Eclipse of God, ‘The Love of God and the Idea of Deity,’ p. 77 ff.) ‘"Togetherness,"’ says David of Lelov in For the Sake of Heaven, "’means that each is intimate with the other and each feels lovingkindness for the other."’ The Yehudi extends this togetherness even to the sons of Satan, whom God has made us capable of loving:

‘Does not redemption primarily mean the redeeming of the evil from the evil ones that make them so? If the world is to be forevermore divided between God and Satan, how dare we say that it is God’s world? . . . Are we to establish a little realm of the righteous and leave the rest to the Lord? Is it for this that He gave us a mouth which can convey the truth of our heart to an alien heart and a hand which can communicate to the hand of our recalcitrant brother something of the warmth of our very blood?’ (For the Sake of Heaven, pp. 121, 125)

In between the self-righteous avoidance of the evil of others and the acceptance and willing of evil lies the difficult path of taking evil upon oneself without being corrupted by it and transforming it into love. This can be done only by the person who has himself reached maturity and quiet of soul. It cannot extend to removing another person’s responsibility before God, but it can help him to escape the whirl into which the evil impulse has plunged him. (Ibid,. p. 56 Tales of Hasidim, The Early Masters, p.4 ff.)

Through genuine dialogical existence the real person takes part in the unfinished process of creation. ‘It is only by way of true intercourse with things and beings that man achieves true life, but also it is by this way only that he can take an active part in the redemption of the world.’ Redemption does not take place within the individual soul but in the world through the real meeting of God and man. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by man, for there is nothing so crass or base that it cannot become material for sanctification. ‘The profane,’ for Hasidism, is only a designation for the not yet sanctified. ‘Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God.’ The things that happen to one day after day contain one’s essential task, for true fulfilled existence depends on our developing a genuine relationship to the people with whom we live and work, the animals that help us, the soil we till, the materials we shape, the tools we use. ‘The most formidable power is intrinsically powerlessness unless it maintains a secret covenant with these contacts, both humble and helpful, with strange, and yet near being.’ (The Way of Man, pp. 21 f., 42-46; Hasidism, ‘The Foundation Stone,’ p. 58, ‘Spinoza,’ p.111 Israel and the World, ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 34.)

No renunciation of the object of desire is commanded: it is only necessary that man’s relation to the object be hallowed in his life with nature, his work, his friendship, his marriage, and his solidarity with the community. Hence serving God with the ‘evil impulse’ and ‘hallowing the everyday’ are essentially the same. ‘Hallowing transforms the urges by confronting them with holiness and making them responsible toward what is holy.’ (Hasidism, ‘The Beginnings of Hasidism,’ p. 31 f.; Israel and the World, ‘The Power of the Spirit,’ p. 180 f.) Transforming the evil passion into good cannot take place inside oneself but only in relation. It is just in his relations with others that man finds it possible to serve God with his fear, anger, love, and sexual desire.

By no means . . . can it be our true task . . . to turn away from the things and beings that we meet on our way and that attract our hearts; our task is precisely to get in touch, by hallowing our relationship with them, with what manifests itself in them as beauty, pleasure, enjoyment. Hasidism teaches that rejoicing in the world, if we hallow it with our whole being, leads to rejoicing in God. (The Way of Man, p.20)

The sanctification of the profane has nothing to do with pantheism, writes Buber. Pantheism ‘destroys or stunts the greatest of all values: the reciprocal relationship between the human and the divine, the reality of the I and the Thou which does not cease at the rim of eternity.’ It is because God dwells in the world that the world can be turned into a sacrament. But this does not mean that the world is objectively already a sacrament. It is only capable of becoming one through the redeeming contact with the individual. The foremost meaning of a sacrament is ‘that the divine and the human join themselves to each other, without merging themselves in each other, a lived Beyond-transcendence-and-immanence.’ This covenant also takes place when two human beings consecrate themselves to each other in marriage or in brotherhood, ‘for the consecration does not come by the power of the human partners, but by the power of the eternal wings that overshadow both.’ Sacramental existence, like dialogical existence in general, involves a meeting with the other in which the eternal Thou manifests itself. The sacrament ‘is stripped of its essential character when it no longer includes an elemental, life-claiming and life-determining experience of the other person, of the otherness, as of something coming to meet and acting hitherwards.’ (Tales of the Hasidim, The Early Masters, p. 3; Hasidism, ‘The Foundation Stone,’ p. 59, ‘Spinoza,’ p. 101 ff., ‘Symbolical and Sacramental Existence in Judaism,’ pp. 117, 130.)

The essence of the hallowing of the everyday is kavanah, or intention. Kavanah is identical with the readiness of the Single One to meet all that confronts him. This readiness is an inner preparation, a willingness to remain open and to respond from the depths of one’s being, but it is not a preparation of the act itself.

The substance of the act is ever supplied to us, or rather, it is offered us, by that which happens to us, which meets us -- by everything which meets us. Everything desires to be hallowed . . . in the kavanah of redemption in all its worldliness; everything desires to become a sacrament. (Hasidism, ‘Symbolical and Sacramental Existence,’ p. 144.)

The sacramental substance cannot be manipulated through special acts or intentions (kavanot). It can only be awakened in each object and act ‘through the presence of the whole man who wholly gives himself, through sacramental existence.’ The essence of kavanah, accordingly, is the direction of the whole of one’s being and power into each act. It is not the nature of the act but the kavanah which determines whether or not it is good or evil, holy or profane, strong or weak in redemptive power.

The great kavanah does not ally itself with any selection of what has been prescribed; everything which is done with that can be the right, the redeeming act. Each act may be the one on which all depends; the determining factor lies in the strength and concentration with which I do the hallowing. (Ibid., p. 134, ‘Spirit and Body of the Hasidic Movement,’ p. 72 f., ‘The Beginnings of Hasidism,’ p. 28.)

The basis for the Hasidic attitude toward redemption is the belief that redemption, like creation, takes place at every moment. Man’s work is enclosed in God’s in such a way that each moment of redemption is perfect in itself as well as taking place in the time series of the world. These are not moments of ‘a mystical, timeless now.’ Each moment is filled with all time, for in it true presentness and the movement of history are united. This union of history and the moment involves a tension and a contradiction, for although redemption takes place at every moment, there is no definite moment in the present or the future in which the redemption of the world could be pronounced as having taken place once for all. ‘God’s redeeming power is at work everywhere and at all times, but . . . a state of redemption exists nowhere and never.’ Historical deed means the surmounting of the suffering inherent in human being, but it also means the piling up of new suffering through the repeated failure of each individual and each people to become what it was meant to be. The right answer to the divine revelation is an entire, undivided human life. ‘But splitting up is the historical way of mankind, and the unsplit persons cannot do anything more than raise man to a higher level on which he may thereafter follow his course.’ (Ibid., ‘Spinoza,’ p.111; Moses, op. cit., pp. 88, 199)

The core of the Messianic hope does not belong to eschatology and the margin of history where it vanishes into the timeless but to ‘the centre, the ever-changing centre . . . to the experienced hour and its possibility.’ The Messiah, the righteous one, must rise out of the historic loam of man, out of the dramatic mystery of the One facing the other. Redemption is not dependent upon Messianic calculations or any apocalyptic event, but on the unpremeditated turning of our whole world-life to God. This turning is open to the whole of mankind and to all ages, for all are face to face with redemption and all action for God’s sake is Messianic action. As every sinner can find forgiveness, so every civilization can be hallowed, writes Buber, and this hallowing can take place without primitivizing or curtailment. (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. by Canon Witton Davies [New York: The Macmillan Co., 1949], pp. 137, 142, 144; Hasidism, ‘Spirit of the Hasidic Movement,’ pp. 70, 74 ff., ‘Spinoza,’ pp. 112, 116; Israel and the World, ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p. 21; Between Man and Man, ‘What Is Man?’, p. 142, At the Turning pp. 21 ff., 50 f.; Two Types of Faith, p. 170 f.; cf. Images of Good and Evil, p. 26.)

The Jewish belief in redemption is not first of all pistis, faith in the proposition that redemption will come at some future date, but emunah, trust in God whose oneness also implies the ultimate oneness of God and the world. This trust in the ultimate oneness of God and the world is a faith in the power of the spirit to penetrate and transform all impulses and desires, to uplift and sanctify everything material. It is the faith ‘that there is really only One Power which, while at times it may permit the sham powers of the world to accomplish something in opposition to it, never permits such accomplishment to stand.’ But this trust in God does not imply any illusions about the present state of the world. ‘The unredeemed soul refuses to give up the evidence of the unredeemed world from which it suffers, to exchange it for the soul’s own salvation.’ The Jew experiences the world’s lack of redemption perhaps more intensely than any other group, writes Buber. He feels it against his skin, tastes it on his tongue.

He always discovers only that mysterious intimacy of light out of darkness which is at work everywhere and at all times; no redemption which is different in kind, none which by its nature would be unique, which would be conclusive for future ages, and which had but to be consummated. (Two Types of Faith, p. 168 f.; Israel and the World, ‘The Power of the Spirit,’ p. 180 ff., ‘And If Not Now, When?’, p. 237 f., ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 34 f.)

Judaism does not neglect spiritual inwardness, as Simone Weil believed, but neither is it content with it. It demands that inward truth become real life if it is to remain truth: ‘A drop of Messianic consummation must be mingled with every hour; otherwise the hour is godless, despite all piety and devoutness.’ The corollary of this demand for the redemption of the world and not just of the individual soul is the refusal to accept the Gnostic rejection of creation -- the division between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God which leaves the evil of the world forever unredeemable. ‘The world is reality, and it is reality created not to be overcome but to be hallowed.’ Judaism cannot accept a redemption in which half of the world will be eternally damned or cut off from God: ‘There can be no eternity in which everything will not be accepted into God’s atonement.’ (At the Turning, pp. 34-40; Israel and the World, ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p. 25 ff. ‘The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,’ p. 34 ff., ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ p. 101, ‘The Spirit of Israel and the World of Today,’ p. 191 f.)

What saved Judaism is not, as the Marcionites imagine, the fact that it failed to experience ‘the tragedy,’ the contradiction in the world’s process, deeply enough; but rather that it experienced the contradiction as theophany. This very world, this very contradiction, unabridged, unmitigated, unsmoothed, unsimplified, unreduced, this world shall be -- not overcome -- but consummated.... It is a redemption not from the evil, but of the evil, as the power which God created for his service and for the performance of his work. (Israel and the World, ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p. 26.)

This universal at-onement finds expression in the Jewish concept of yihud, or unification. Yihud is the proclamation of the oneness of God -- not the passive acknowledgment of this oneness, a statement of a subject about an object, but an act of meeting, ‘the dynamic form of the divine unity itself.’ It does not take place through creedal profession or magic manipulation, but through the concrete meeting of I and Thou by which the profane is sanctified and the mundane hallowed. It is ‘the continually renewed confirmation of the unity of the Divine in the manifold nature of His manifestations.’ This confirmation must be understood in a quite practical way: it is brought about through man’s remaining true ‘in the face of the monstrous contradictions of life, and especially in the face of . . . the duality of good and evil.’ The unification which thus takes place ‘is brought about not to spite these contradictions, but in a spirit of love and reconciliation.’ (Ibid., p. 15; Hasidism, ‘Spirit of the Hasidic Movement,’ p. 78.)

The ‘national universalism’ of the prophets, writes Buber, looks to each people to contribute to redemption in its own particular way. This national universalism, in Buber’s opinion, is the only answer to the present conflict between national sovereignty and the need for international co-operation: ‘A new humanity capable of standing up to the problems of our time can come only from the co-operation of national particularities, not from their being leveled out of existence.’ The full response to God’s address to mankind must be made not only as individuals but as peoples, and not as peoples taken as ends in themselves but as ‘holy peoples’ working toward redemption through establishing the kingship of God. To become a ‘holy people’ means, for Israel and for all peoples, to realize God’s attribute of justice in the indirect relations of the people with one another and His attribute of love in their direct relations. It means the fulfillment of God’s truth and justice on earth. ‘To drive the plowshare of the normative principle into the hard sod of political fact’ is ‘a tremendously difficult undertaking,’ writes Buber, ‘but the right to lift a historical moment into the light of superhistory can be bought no cheaper.’ (Israel and Palestine, pp. 118, 136; At the Turning, pp. 37 f., 24.)

This fulfillment can only take place if the synthesis of people, land, and work results in the coming to be of a true community, for only in true community can justice and love be realized and the people hallowed. ‘All holiness means union between being and thing, between being and being, the highest rung of world-holiness, however, is the unity of the human community in the sight of God.’ Only a true community can demonstrate the Absolute and point the way to the kingdom of God: ‘Though something of righteousness may become evident in the life of the individual, righteousness itself can only become wholly visible in the structures of the life of a people.’ The righteousness of a people, in turn, must be based upon real communities, composed of real families, real neighbourhoods, and real settlements, and upon ‘the relationships of a fruitful and creative peace with its neighbours.’ The peacemaker ‘is God’s fellow-worker,’ but we make peace not by conciliatory words and humane projects but through making peace ‘wherever we are destined and summoned to do so: in the active life of our own community and in that aspect of it which can actively help determine its relationship to another community.’ (Martin Buber, ‘Der Chaluz und seine Welt’ [Aus Einer Rede], Almanach des Schoken Verlag auf das Jahr 5697 [1936-37], p. 89 f.; Kampf um Israel, pp. 25 f. [my translation], 253, 268 f., 193, ‘The Gods of the Nations and God,’ p. 210, ‘And If Not Now, When?’, p.239.)

The decisive test of brotherhood is not within the community but at the boundary between community and community, people and people, church and church, for this is the place where diversity of kind and mind is felt most strongly. ‘Every time we stand this test a new step is taken toward a true humanity, gathered in the name of God.’ One of the central emphases of Buber’s Zionism, correspondingly, has been his insistence that the Jews live with the Arabs and not just next to them. (The first two sentences are from an unpublished address by Buber on ‘Fraternity’ to the World Brotherhood Association in California in 1952; Kampf um Israel, p. 451.) For many years one of the leaders of Ihud (Unity) and of the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Co-operation, Buber wrote in 1939 in an open letter to Gandhi:

I belong to a group of people who from the time Britain conquered Palestine have not ceased to strive for the conclusion of a genuine peace between Jew and Arab. By a genuine peace we inferred and still infer that both peoples together should develop ‘ the land without the one imposing its will on the other. In view of the international usages of our generation, this appeared to us to be very difficult but not impossible. (Towards Union in Palestine, op. cit., p. 120; Israel and the World, ‘The Land and Its Possessors’ [From an Open Letter to Gandhi], p. 231 f. Cf. Martin Buber and J. L. Magnes, Two Letters to Gandhi [Jerusalem: Reuben Mass, 1939], pp. 10-20.)

Whether Buber speaks of the establishment of community or religious redemption, his goal is ‘the goal of the ages,’ and the way to that goal is through the fulfillment and redemption of individual human beings in direct and upright relation with one another.

‘Never will a work of man have a good issue if we do not think of the souls whom it is given us to help, and of the life between soul and soul, and of our life with them and of their lives with each other. We cannot help the coming of redemption if life does not redeem life.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, p. 256.)

Although in the final analysis the only thing that can help is what is true and right, in an emergency this is not always possible. Living entails doing injustice: the fact that we cannot breathe and eat without destroying organic life has symbolic meaning for our human existence. But the humanity of our existence begins there where we say: We shall do no more injustice than we must to live. Only then do we become responsible to this life, and this responsibility cannot be laid down according to any set principle but must be ever again recognized in the depths of the soul according to the demands of each concrete situation.

In order to preserve the community of men, we are often compelled to accept wrongs in decisions concerning the community. But what matters is that in every hour of decision we are aware of our responsibility and summon our conscience to weigh exactly how much is necessary to preserve the community, and accept just so much and no more; . . . that we . . . struggle with destiny in fear and trembling lest it burden us with greater guilt than we are compelled to assume. (Israel and the World, ‘Hebrew Humanism,’ p. 246 ff., Kampf um Israel, p. 438 f. Cf. ‘Our Reply,’ op. cit., p. 34 f. In his open letter to Gandhi, Buber wrote: ‘We have not proclaimed . . . the teaching of non-violence, because we believe that a man must sometimes use force to save himself or even more his children. But . . . we have taught and we have learnt that peace is the aim of all the world and that justice is the way to attain it.... No one who counts himself in the ranks of Israel can desire to use force.’ Page 19 f. ‘I am forced to withstand the evil in the world just as the evil within myself. I can only strive not to have to do so by force.... But if there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up to God’s hands.’ Page 20 f.)

True community is the link between the social Utopia of modern man and the direct theocracy of the Bible. This does not mean, writes Buber, that religious socialism and the kingdom of God are to be identified. The one is man’s action while the other cannot be completed without God’s grace. But neither can they be separated, for man’s action and God’s grace are intimately bound together. The essence of Buber’s religious socialism is his belief that the centre of community must be the relation of the individual members of the community to God. Though the Single One ‘cannot win to a legitimate relation with God without a legitimate relation to the body politic,’ the prior relation is that with God, for this is ‘the defining force.’ The importance of Hasidism does not lie in its teaching, writes Buber, but in its ‘mode of life which shapes a community.’ Yet Hasidic life is characterized first of all by its wholly personal mode of faith, and it is only through the action of this faith that a community is formed. (Martin Buber, Königtum Gottes, Vol. I of Das Kommende. Untersuchungen zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Messianischen Glaubens [Berlin: Schocken Verlag 1932], p. 144; Kampf um Israel, p. 260 f.; Martin Buber, ‘Drei Sätze eines religiösen Sozialismus,’Neue Wege, Zurich, XXII [1928], No. 7/8, 328; Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One,’ p. 76; Hasidism, ‘The Beginnings of Hasidism,’ p. I f.)

True community cannot be built on the basis of either new institutions, on the one hand, or individual good-will, on the other, so long as the relations between men remain fundamentally unchanged. The absence of directness in the relations between men in the modern world can only be overcome by men who respond to the concrete situations which confront them with openness and with all of their power, by men who mean community in their innermost heart and establish it in their natural sphere of relations. Such men do not proceed out of community; they prove themselves ready for community by living genuinely with other men. Genuine education for community is identical, therefore, with genuine education of character -- the education of real persons who deny no answer to life and the world but are ready to respond out of a living unity to everything essential that they meet. (Kampf um Israel, pp. 268 f., 273, 291 f.; Between Man and Man, ‘The Education of Character,’ p. 116.)

To establish true community man must rise in rebellion against the illusion of modern collectivism: he must rescue his real personal self from the domination of the collective. The first step in this rebellion must be to smash the false alternative of our epoch -- that of individualism and collectivism. In its place he must put the vital, living knowledge that ‘the fundamental fact of human existence is man with man.’ This knowledge can only be attained through man’s personal engagement, through his entering with his whole being into dialogue. The central question for the fate of mankind, accordingly, the question on the answer to which the future of man as man depends, is the rebirth of dialogue. This means, above all, the overcoming of the massive existential mistrust in ourselves and others, for it is this that stands in the way of genuine relation between man and man. (Between Man and Man, ‘What is Man?’ p. 201 ff.; ‘Hope for This Hour,’ op. cit.)

The will to overcoming this existential mistrust must begin with a ‘criticism of criticism’ which will assign proper boundary lines to those newly discovered elements by means of which the sociological and psychological theorists have attempted to unmask and ‘see through’ the motivations of individuals and groups of men. Man is not to be ‘seen through’ but ‘to be perceived ever more completely in his openness and his hiddenness and in the relation of the two to each other.’ This is a clear-sighted trust of man which perceives his manifoldness and wholeness without any preconceptions about his background and which accepts, accredits, and confirms him to the extent that this perception will allow. Only those who can in this way overcome the mistrust in themselves and recognize the other in the reality of his being can contribute to the re-establishment of genuine dialogue between men. (‘Hope for This Hour.’) Only through this renewal of immediacy between man and man can we again experience immediacy in the dialogue with God. ‘When the man who has become solitary can no longer say "Thou" to the "dead" known God, everything depends on whether he can still say it to the living unknown God by saying "thou" with all his being to another living and known man.’ If after long silence and stammering we genuinely say Thou to men who are unlike ourselves and whom we recognize in all their otherness, then we shall have addressed our eternal Thou anew. (Ibid. Between Man and Man, ‘What is Man?’, p.168) Before we can genuinely address the Thou, however, we must escape from that modern idolatry which leads us to sacrifice ‘the ethical’ on the altar of our particular causes. A new conscience must arise in men which will summon them to guard with the innermost power of their souls against the confusion of the relative with the Absolute.

To penetrate again and again into the false absolute with an incorruptible, probing glance until one has discovered its limits, its limitedness -- there is today perhaps no other way to reawaken the power of the pupil to glimpse the never-vanishing appearance of the Absolute. (Eclipse of God, ‘On the Suspension of the Ethical,’ p. 155 f.)

We have to deal with the meaningless till the last moment, writes Buber in a comment on Franz Kafka, but in the very act of suffering its contradiction we experience an inner meaning. This meaning is not at all agreeable to us yet it is turned toward us, and it ‘pushes straight through all the foulness to the chambers of our hearts.’ Kafka depicted the course of the world in gloomier colours than ever before, yet he also proclaimed emunah anew, ‘with a still deepened "in spite of all this," quite soft and shy, but unambiguous.’ ‘So must Emunah change in a time of God’s eclipse in order to preserve steadfast to God, without disowning reality.’ The eclipse of the light of God is no extinction. Although the l-Thou relation has gone into the catacombs, something is taking place in the depths that even tomorrow may bring it forth with new power. Until this happens it is worthier not to explain the eclipse ‘in sensational and incompetent sayings, such as that of the "death" of God, but to endure it as it is and at the same time to move existentially toward a new happening . . . in which the word between heaven and earth will again be heard.’ (Kampf um Israel, ‘Ein Wort über Franz Kafka,’ p. 213; Two Types of Faith, p. 168 f.; Eclipse of God, ‘God and the Spirit of Man,’ p. 167, ‘Religion and Modern Thinking,’ p. 91.) The cry of the Job of the Bible and the Job of the gas chambers must become our own. We too must contend with God.

We do not put up with earthly being, we struggle for its redemption, and struggling we appeal to the help of our Lord, Who is again and still a hiding one. In such a state we await His voice, whether it come out of the storm or out of the stillness which follows it. Though His coming appearance resemble no earlier one, we shall recognize again our cruel and merciful Lord. (At the Turning, p. 61 f. 148).

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