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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 18: For the Sake of Heaven


It is Buber’s chronicle-novel Gog und Magog (For the Sake of Heaven) which, in Karl Kerenyi’s opinion, has won for Buber a secure place among the ranks of classical writers. This work is breath-taking even more for its insights into the phenomena of the spirit than for its perfection of style, writes Kerenyi. It belongs to the heights of prose epicry next to such master works as Thomas Mann’s Erwählten and Per Lagerqvist’s Barrabbas. The great achievement of this chronicle is its evocation of fighters of the spirit who are without comparison in the whole of epic world literature in the ardour and exclusiveness of the unfolding of their religious powers.

Martin Buber has also accomplished this great feat: he has allowed the good and the evil, the holy and the dangerous to appear in his own and his most beloved sphere. His chronicle rises above conditions of time and people as does every work which is a ‘classic.’ (Kerenyi, op. cit., pp. 96-99)

In For the Sake of Heaven Buber has given a vivid and dramatic embodiment to his attitude toward evil and its redemption. This does not mean, as Buber points out, that he wrote this chronicle in order to give a definitive expression to his teaching. He wrote it rather to point to a reality, a reality which is so real in the actual events that occurred that he needed only supply the connecting links in the spirit of the existing facts and sayings in order to make it complete. ‘He who expects from me a teaching which is anything other than a pointing of this kind will always be disappointed,’ writes Buber. While there is no doubt that Buber’s sympathies lie mainly with one side of the conflict he portrays, he did not write the book until he felt that he had penetrated to the essence of the happenings on both sides. He could not give himself to the service of one of the two sides and still do this. Therefore, the only acceptable standpoint was that of tragedy. By this Buber does not mean tragedy in the classical Aristotelian sense of the downfall of a hero, but rather tragedy in a profounder sense of two men living in opposition to each other, each just as that which he is. The opposition here is not one between a ‘good’ and an ‘evil’ will, but the cruel opposition of existence itself. Buber writes that for twenty-five years he was unable to write this novel as it should be written. But as a result of the Second World War, with its atmosphere of a tellurian crisis, the frightful waging of power, and the signs here and there of a false Messianic, the novel wrote itself. (For the Sake of Heaven, 2nd Edition, op. cit., ‘Preface’; Gog und Magog, op. cit., ‘Nachwort,’ pp. 401-408.)

In its external form For the Sake of Heaven is a historical novel built around the conflicts of two Hasidic communities during the Napoleonic wars. The main characters of the novel were actually famous zaddikim of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the relations between them which Buber describes are based on actual Hasidic manuscripts and legends. The two main characters are Jaacob Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, and his disciple, Jaacob Yitzhak, called ‘the holy Yehudi,’ or simply ‘the Yehudi,’ who founded the congregation of Pshysha. Buber says of the Seer in his Introduction to The Tales of the Hasidim, The Early Masters:

He was filled with ceaseless waiting for the hour of redemption and finally initiated and played the chief part in the secret rites which he and certain other zaddikim . . . performed with the purpose of converting the Napoleonic wars into the pre-Messianic final battle of Gog and Magog. The three leaders in this mystic procedure all died in the course of the following year. They had ‘forced the end,’ they died at its coming. The magic, which the Baal Shem had held in check, broke loose and did its work of destruction.

Of the Yehudi, Buber says in Tales of the Hasidim, The Later Masters:

The Yehudi kept on the other side of the realm of magic which the Seer and his friends entered at that time in an attempt to reach the Messianic sphere by affecting current events; he did not wish to hasten the end, but to prepare man for the end. (Tales of the Hasidim, The Early Masters, op. cit., p. 33; Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, The Later Masters [New York: Schocken Books, 1948], p. 35.)

We can best get at the heart of For the Sake of Heaven by extracting from it those parts that deal with the character of the Seer and the Yehudi and with the encounters between them. We are told that when the Seer was born he ‘saw’ from one end of the world to the other, but that he ‘was so dismayed by the flood of evil which he beheld engulfing the earth,’ that he begged that his vision be limited. Yet he was passionately concerned with sinners and preferred the evil-doer who knew that he was evil to the just man who knew that he was just. He was greatly interested in the evil impulse, ‘seeing that without it there is no manner of fruitfulness, whether of the body or the spirit.’ Yet he pointed out ‘that fruitfulness alone does not suffice; the test is the quality of the fruit brought forth.’ Despite his advice to avoid melancholy with all one’s might because it promotes the feeling that one is a slave to sin, the Seer found himself troubled by the fact that he lightened the heart of others yet himself remained heavy of heart. This may have been because the power of his eyes was not equaled by the greatness of his heart. Buber describes him in another work as at once humble and proud and as too wrapped up in his personal world of spiritual urges to have a real relation with those outside him. (For the Sake of Heaven, pp. 4-7; Tales of the Hasidim, The Later Masters, p. 34)

The Yehudi is pictured as a younger man of great strength and sincerity who is unusual in his combination of deep study and fervent ecstatic prayer. He is spoken of as a man who does not know anger, yet he angers many of his contemporary Hasidim because of the irregularity of his hours of prayer and his insistence on inward spiritual preparation before praying. He is marked by an intense concern for the truth as something to live and fight for and by the unusual suffering which arises out of his identification with the sufferings of the exiled Shekinah.

The Yehudi comes to Lublin because he hears that the Seer ‘consorts with good and evil,’ and it is with good and evil that the Seer’s first sermon after his arrival deals. The two first human beings knew good and evil, it relates, in terms of what things were forbidden and what were not. But the serpent clearly referred to a different type of knowing when he said that they had to become as God to know good and evil. They would know good and evil as one who creates both, i.e. not as something to do or not to do, but as two contradictory forms of being. But God knows good and evil as clearly opposed whereas the "’first human beings, so soon as they had eaten of the fruit of the tree, knew good and evil as blended and confused."’ Through God’s self-limitation (tsimtsum) He has given genuine power to every human being with which he may rebel against God. The good consists of man’s turning to God with the whole of this power to do evil. God really tempts man, moreover, and demands that he give up everything and go through the extremity of danger and the gate of dread before he can receive the grace which enables him to love God "’in the manner in which only He can be loved."’ But the serpent "’tainted the truth of temptation with a lie"’ because he prevented man from standing voraciously face to face with whatever impels him to act in contradiction to God’s word.

Nevertheless, even the primeval darkness serves God’s purpose, for where it weighs most heavily it causes a seed of light to awaken. And even though, fearful of the coming of light, it swells and extends beyond the boundary assigned to it, "’it never succeeds in smothering the seed of light."’ The hidden power of the light grows although "’it is full of soreness and sorrow"’ until the final conflict in which the flame of the black fire will roll over the peoples of the world and "’challenge God Himself to combat."’ Thus will arise Gog of the land of Magog who will lead the final battle of the darkness against the light and will be struck down by the Messiah Himself.

Thus the redemption of God waxes in secret and through the very evil which tries to destroy it; for even the power of destruction derives originally from God. The yod, or dot, in Shaddai, the name of God, "’is the primeval originating point of creation which, prior to any creative act, stood above the radiance of God."’

‘It is by virtue of this dot that the awful power of God, which at any moment could utterly devastate and annihilate the world, brings about the world’s redemption instead.... We come to learn about the darkness when we enter into the gate of fear, and we come to learn about the light, when we issue forth from that gate; but we come to learn about that dot only when we reach love.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, pp. 42-48, 58.)

It is after this sermon that the Yehudi has his first important encounter with the Seer. Unlike the Seer he views the power of Gog not as a primeval, metaphysical evil but as the power of evil within us, and it is precisely this inner evil which troubles him. One helps others by meeting their evil lovingly. Otherwise than lovingly one cannot help them. Hatred and condemnation of the evil-doer will make him evil himself and not just in his actions, for it will cause him to cut himself off and imprison himself in the world of his actions. But what am I to do with the evil within me, asks the Yehudi, "’where no element of strangeness has divisive force and no love has redeeming force"’? It is there that one directly experiences an evil which would compel one to use the powers of one’s own soul to betray God.

To the Yehudi’s question of how ‘to prevent the evil from using the good in order to crush it,’ the Seer responds that God Himself uses evil. The Yehudi’s answer to this statement reveals clearly his fundamental opposition to the Seer. The Seer believes that the zaddik may use evil for the purpose of the good because the effect of one’s actions depends on God alone. The Yehudi, on the other hand, believes that mortal good which seeks to make use of evil drowns and dissolves in that evil so that it no longer exists. At the same time, he believes that what God demands of him is to learn to endure the evil which He endures. To endure evil is to meet the temptation which confronts one, but it does not mean to allow oneself to be compelled by it. ‘Freedom dwells with God,’ and human beings have a share in this very freedom which prevents them from being compelled. (Ibid., pp. 58-61)

Later when the Seer develops the implications of his sermon on Gog and Magog into the statement that the Hasidim must strive to intensify the conflict on earth so that it may hasten the coming of the Messiah, the Yehudi tells the Rabbi that he does not believe in miraculous happenings which contradict the course of nature, but regards the miraculous and the natural as two aspects of the same thing -- as God’s pointing finger, or revelation, and God’s creative hand, or creation. The miracle is ‘our receptivity to the eternal revelation, and therefore does not take place through magic and incantations but through openness to God. Similarly the coming of redemption depends not upon our power or on the practice of magic incantation over mysterious forces, but on our repentance and our return to God.

So long as man still deems that there is a counsel for him by virtue of which he can liberate himself, so long he is still far from liberation . . . for so long does the Lord still hide His countenance from him. Not until man despairs of himself and turns to God with the entire force of that despair . . . will help be given him. (Ibid. pp. 37-38,62,99f., 108-113)

At the Seer’s suggestion the Yehudi leaves him and founds a congregation of his own. He remains a loyal disciple of the Seer’s, however, despite the latter’s growing hatred and distrust of him. By this time the lines of the conflict are clearly drawn: The Seer trusts in magic, the Yehudi in grace, the Seer tries to ‘hasten the end’ while the Yehudi concerns himself with hallowing the everyday and with the turning of the individual to God; the Seer is concerned with keeping the light pure and building the power of darkness while the Yehudi is concerned with helping the light pierce the darkness. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Yehudi’s congregation should develop along lines radically different from those of the Seer’s. Through his own emphasis on the divine power of the zaddik and through the awe of his disciples, the Seer holds the place of an oriental potentate in his congregation. The Yehudi, on the other hand, preserves an informal and democratic relation with his disciples. He sits among them on a temporary seat, ‘so that, despite the deep seriousness of his leadership, the picture presented was one of an uncomplicated and familiar comradeship., The Seer uses the spiritual power of his disciples as a magic force to hasten the coming of redemption, while the Yehudi helps his disciples find the path that ‘they seek to pursue of themselves and for their own sake.’ It is this very path which the individual must take for the sake of the Shekinah. (For the Sake of Heaven, pp. 145 f.,223 f.,230, 249.)

The Yehudi founds his congregation on a positive and coherent body of teaching, and it is in this teaching that we can most clearly find Buber’s own wisdom and belief. Lowly as man is, the Yehudi tells a disciple, he contains within him the image of God and is in relation to Him. Nor is man wholly without power in this relationship. He cannot exercise a magic influence upon God through conscious striving, and such striving is itself a proof of his failure. But when he seeks to effect nothing and turns himself to God, then he is not without effect. Man’s turning is not for the sake of individual redemption alone. It is also for the sake of the Shekinah. For the sake of the Shekinah we must set free good from evil wherever we meet them blended together, and we must do this first of all within ourselves. (Ibid., pp. 35, 115-121, 185, 213 f., 249, 255.)

Immeasurable possibilities of redemption lie in individual souls and in the relations between these souls, the Yehudi teaches. But redemption of the individual cannot take place in isolation. He must find his realization in community. A communal life of justice, love, and consecration such as Pshysha embodied is itself the greatest force for redemption, for redemption depends simply upon our return to the good, and it is in community that the relation to God and man can take its most positive form. The Yehudi teaches that redemption is at hand and cannot wait until future lives, and at the same time he teaches that it depends on our turning to the good. (Ibid., pp. 230 f., 246.256,265.) He thus transforms the apocalyptic tension which accompanied the expectation of the Messiah into the ‘hallowing of the everyday,’ and he loses none of the force of this tension in so doing. On the contrary, his single-mindedness results in a heightening of spiritual tension, for he concentrates his being in what he is doing at the moment rather than using that moment as a means to some future end.

A statement of the Yehudi’s in regard to his enemies shows particularly clearly the basis of his faith in the ultimate redemption of evil:

"’You are not to think that those who persecute me do so out of an evil heart. The heart of man is not evil; only its ‘imagination,’ is so; that is to say what it produces and devises aribitrarily, separating itself from the goodness of creation, that is the thing called evil. Even so it is with those; the fundamental motive of their persecution of me is to serve Heaven."’

On the other hand, the Yehudi does not believe that the redemption of evil is something that can take place quickly and easily or without great suffering. To redeem evil is to reunite God with His Shekinah, and this is the ultimate task to which all the ages of men must consecrate their lives. This task can only be fulfilled if men return to the good, and the return to the good is born out of suffering and despair. Only in the depths of suffering and despair do men come to know grace. (Ibid., pp. 278, 202, 282)

When the Yehudi first arrives in Lublin, the exile of the Shekinah is already his greatest concern. Required to tell a story to the disciples, he tells of a wagoner who demanded his help to lift a wagon and then told him after he had lifted it that it was upset in order that he might help. He interprets this story in terms of the exile of the Shekinah:

‘The road of the world . . . is the road upon which we all fare onward to meet the death of the body. And the places in which we meet the Shechinah are those in which good and evil are blended, whether without us or within us. In the anguish of the exile which it suffers, the Shechinah looks at us and its glance beseeches us to set free good from evil. If it be but the tiniest fragment of pure good, which is brought to light, the Shechinah is helped thereby. (Ibid., pp. 32-35)

The Yehudi at one point ascribes his inability to be a good husband or father to the fact that he suffers in himself the exile of the Shekinah. But later in his life he has a vision which suggests that his service to the Shekinah is impaired by his inadequacy in his relation to the created being.

The Yehudi beheld a woman swathed from her head to her ankles in a black veil. Only her feet were naked and through the shallow water in which they stood it could be seen that dust, as from long wayfaring on an open road, covered them. But they also bore bleeding wounds.

The woman spoke: ‘I am weary unto death, for ye have hunted me down. I am sick unto death, for ye have tormented me. I am shamed, for ye have denied me. Ye are the tyrants, who keep me in exile.

‘When ye are hostile to each other, ye hunt me down. When ye plot evil against each other, ye torment me. When ye slander each other, ye deny me. Each of you exiles his comrades and so together ye exile me.

‘And thou thyself, Jaacob Yitzhak, dost thou mind how thou meantest to follow me and estrangedst thyself from me the more? One cannot love me and abandon the created being. I am in truth with you. Dream not that my forehead radiates heavenly-beams. The glory has remained above. My face is that of the created being.’

She raised the veil from her face and he recognized the face. (Ibid., 228-230.) The face that the Yehudi recognizes is probably that of his first wife, whom he had abandoned for the sake of God. The naked feet refer to an early experience of the Yehudi’s -- the experience of being tempted one night by the entrance into his room of a woman in a nightgown and with bare feet. (I am indebted to Professor Buber for these interpretations) The Yehudi jumps out of the window to avoid being compelled by her beauty and by his burning compassion for her humanity. The reference to this incident in the dream might suggest that the Yehudi’s denial of the Shekinah lay in his having fled from his ‘evil impulses’ rather than having used them creatively in his relations with others.

The Yehudi did not have an opportunity to complete his work. He died before he was fifty, in the fullness of his strength. ‘The story of his death is enveloped in more mystery than that of any other zaddik,’ writes Buber in Tales of the Hasidim, The Later Masters. Buber relates there several different legends concerning the Yehudi’s death. From these he has chosen for his chronicle the one which is at once the strangest and the most characteristic of the relations between the Seer and the Yehudi as he has described them in the rest of the chronicle. According to this version, the Seer asks the Yehudi to die ‘so that through the Yehudi the Seer might learn from the upper world what next step to take in the great Messianic enterprise.’ (Tales of the Hasidim, The Later Masters.)

Despite the unusual nature of this request, the reader is not unprepared either for the request or its fulfillment. The Seer has continued to ask the Yehudi to co-operate in his enterprises even after the latter removed to Pshysha, and the Yehudi has co-operated in so far as he could conscientiously do so. Moreover, the Yehudi’s loyalty to the Seer has remained unwavering despite the latter’s hatred and suspicion. The Yehudi’s disciple Benjamin pleads with him not to obey the Seer. To this the Yehudi replies that to be a Hasid means that one will not refuse to give his life. But Benjamin asks him how he can bring a message to the Seer when he is opposed to all his goings-on.

‘"How foolishly you speak, Benjamin," he replied and smiled; yes, truly, he smiled. "If one is permitted to bring a message from the world of truth, it is bound to be a message of truth!"’

Shortly before his death, the Yehudi reveals once again his insight that external evil has its roots in the inner evil of the human heart. He speaks to Rabbi Bunam of "’the three hours of speechless horror after the tumult of the wars of Gog and Magog and before the coming of the Messiah."’ These hours ‘"will be much more difficult to endure than all the tumult and thunder, and . . . only he who endures them will see the Messiah."’

‘But all the conflicts of Gog and Magog arise out of those evil forces which have not been overcome in the conflict against the Gogs and Magogs who dwell in human hearts. And those three hours mirror what each one of us must endure after all the conflicts in the solitariness of his soul.’

The Yehudi speaks these words in a whisper in the midst of a great ecstasy of prayer such as he has experienced from his youth on, not without danger of death. Shortly thereafter he falls into a new and final state of ecstasy which brings him thirty-six hours later to his death. The moments before his death are given up entirely to the thought of the Shekinah, God’s exiled Glory, for whom he has suffered and endeavoured during his life.

Toward the dawn of the third day of beseeching penitence, Yerachmiel, who was watching beside him, heard him whispering the words of the prayers: ‘She is like the palm tree. She who is slain for Thy sake. And considered as a sheep on the butcher’s block. Scattered among those who wound her. Clinging and cleaving to Thee. Laden with Thy yoke. The only one to declare Thy oneness. Dragged into exile. Stricken on the cheek. Given over unto stripes. Suffering Thy pain.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, pp. 280, 284.)

At the very moment of his death, the Yehudi repeats the phrase, ‘The only one to declare Thy oneness.’ These words are symbolic of the Yehudi’s life and are the most fitting for its close; for of all of the characters in this novel, deeply religious though they are, it is only he who has declared God’s oneness, only he who has refused to work for redemption with external means and who has refused to accept a division of the world between God and the devil or a redemption that is anything less than the redemption of all evil and the recognition of God as the only power in the universe.

Buber’s portrayal of the tragic conflict between the Yehudi and the Seer clearly shows that his concept of the redemption of evil does not mean any easy overcoming of the contradictions of life. Instead it includes those contradictions and the tragedy arising from them as an integral part of the redemption. We can gain a deeper understanding of the tragedy inherent in the relations between the Yehudi and the Seer from the fact that the Seer consistently identifies himself with Korah and the Yehudi, by implication, with Moses. According to the Seer, Korah’s intention had been a good one, except for the fact that he had arrogantly emphasized his freedom from sin as against Moses and Aaron who had incurred sin. The Seer has shared Korah’s pride, whereas the Yehudi has approached the meekness of Moses. More important still, the Seer has resembled Korah in his demand for immediate redemption. The Yehudi, in contrast, is like Moses in his recognition that the people are not holy but must become so. The Seer shortly before his death gains some insight into the true nature of his relationship with the Yehudi, and he expresses this in terms of the conflict between Moses and Korah. The soul of Moses and the soul of Korah return in every generation, he says. Korah will be redeemed, he adds, on the day that the soul of Korah will willingly subject itself to the soul of Moses. This realization comes too late, however, for the Yehudi is already dead. Although the Seer feels horror at the thought that he has been among the rebels against God, the contradiction is overcome, if at all, only at the moment of his death when his eyes open wide ‘as in immense astonishment.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, p. 299, 308, Martin Buber, Moses (Oxford: East and West Library, 1946), p. 189 f.)

That the Yehudi actually carries on the task of Moses in a different situation is clear from Buber’s identification of the Yehudi with Deutero-Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant of the Lord.’ (For the Sake of Heaven, 2nd Edition, ‘Preface’; Gog und Magog, ‘Nachwort,’ p. 407.) The servant, in Buber’s interpretation, is neither Israel as a whole nor Christ, but a single figure embodied in different men at different times. The servant takes on himself the afflictions and iniquities of Israel and the nations, and through his sufferings he carries forward the covenant between God and Israel, the covenant to hallow the whole of community life, which Israel has not fulfilled. In so far as they have borne their sufferings willingly, writes Buber, the scattering of the Jews in the Diaspora can be understood as a continuation of the ‘suffering servant.’(The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 217-235.) The Yehudi, then, stands in the succession of servants who voluntarily accept the sufferings of the exile, both the exile of the Jews from Palestine and the exile of the Shekinah from God. Understood in this way, the tragic conflict between the Yehudi and the Seer is a part of that redemptive process whereby this very world with all its contradictions is hallowed and the kingdom of man transformed into the kingdom of God.

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