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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 25: The Faith of the Bible

Buber’s philosophy of dialogue has been of particular importance in the Biblical interpretation with which he has been mainly concerned in his later years. One of the most significant of his Biblical works is his translation of the Hebrew Bible into German with the aid of his friend Franz Rosenzweig. The Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, according to Solomon Liptzin, ‘has been universally acclaimed as a miracle of fidelity and beauty.’ Ernest M. Wolf has explained this translation as an attempt to reproduce in the German some of the basic linguistic features of Hebrew. ‘The result of their endeavour was the creation of a new Biblical idiom in German which followed the original meaning of the Hebrew more faithfully than any other German translation -- or any translation in any other language -- had ever done.’ The translation is set in the form of cola (Atemzüge) rhythmic units based on natural breathing pauses. These serve the purpose of recapturing the original spoken quality of the Bible. (Solomon Liptzin, Germany’s Stepchildren [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1944], p. 256; Ernest M. Wolf, ‘Martin Buber and German Jewry, Prophet and Teacher to a Generation in Catastrophe,’ Judaism, Vol. I, No. 4 [October 1952], p. 349; Walter Nigg, Martin Bubers Weg in unserer Zeit, first issue of Religiöse Gegenwartsfragen, Bausteine zu einem kommenden Protestantismus, ed. by Josef Boni and Walter Nigg [Bern: Verlag Paul Haupt, 1940], pp. 21-25; Franz Rosenzweig, ‘Die Schrift und das Wort,’ in Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Die Schrift und ihrer Verdeutschung [Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1936], pp. 76-87. For an unfavourable criticism of the Buber-Rosenzweig translation see Emanuel bin Gorion [Emanuel Berdyczwesky], Ceterum Recenseo. Kritische Aufsäitze und Reden [Tübingen: Alexander Fischer Verlag, 1939], pp. 21-38.)

This translation was accompanied by a volume in which Buber and Rosenzvveig explained the new principles of translation that they used. (Die Schrift und ibrer Verdeutschung, op. cit. 239) Both the translation and the new methods helped to produce a renaissance of Bible study among German-speaking Jews.

Had the generation of young Jews that went through the Buber-Rosenzweig school of Bible reading and Bible interpreting been permitted to grow up and to remain together, they would probably have become the most Bible-conscious Jews since the days before the ghetto-walls had fallen in Europe. (Wolf, ‘Martin Buber and German Jewry,’ op. cit., p. 350)

Despite the pressing demands on his time, Buber has succeeded in carrying out his original plan of tracing the development of the Messianic idea from the earliest periods of the Hebrew Bible through Jesus and Paul. The volumes of Biblical interpretation in which he has traced this development -- Königtum Gottes, Moses, The Prophetic Faith, Two Types of Faith, Right and Wrong, and the first section of Israel and Palestine -- constitute an extremely significant and creative contribution to the field of Biblical scholarship. Commenting on Buber’s translation of the Bible and on his Biblical criticism in Königtum Gottes, the Old Testament scholar Ludwig Feuchtwanger writes:

The new total viewpoint of Buber’s science of Biblical study has without question created a new situation in Old Testament scholarship. For the first time there has arisen a real Jewish critical study of the Bible -- Jewish and critical at once -- which does not allow its way to be dictated to it by foreign tendencies. (Ludwig Feuchtwanger, ‘Bibelforschung aus jüdischem Geist, Martin Bubers Erneuerung der Bibel aus Geist des Judentums,’ Der Morgen, Vol. VIII, No. 3 [August 1932], p. 222 [my translation]. See Karl Thieme, ‘Martin Buber als Interpret der Bibel,’ Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte [Köln], Vol. VI, No. I [19S4], pp. 1-9, and Hans-Joachim Kraus, ‘Gespräch mit Martin Buber. Zur jüdischen und christlichen Auslegung des Alten Testaments,’ Evangelische Theologie [Munich], Vol. XII, No. 1/2 [July-August 1952], pp. 59-77, for two recent evaluations of Buber’s interpretation of the Bible by Catholic and Protestant theologians respectively.)


God created man through love, says Buber, as a Thou for His I, an I for His Thou. He created man as a free being because He wished to be freely known, willed, and loved. The action of creation goes on incessantly, for God incessantly calls man and the world into being. Every person in the world represents something original, unique, and unrepeatable. Despite all analysis into elements and all attempts to explain the origin of personality, every man must in the end recognize in his personality an untouched residue, underived and underivable. To seek the origin of this residue means in the final analysis to discover oneself as created. Though man’s personality becomes a reality through the relation of the I to the human Thou, it is already potential in his created uniqueness, his relation to the eternal Thou. This uniqueness is not given to man for mere existence but for the fulfillment of a purpose that only he can fulfill. (Hasidism, op. cit., ‘Spirit and Body of the Hasidic Movement,’ pp. 64-68, ‘God and the Soul,’ pp. 155-158; The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., p. 195; The Way of Man op. cit., p. 17; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ p. 100; Images of Good and Evil, op. cit., p. 82 f.)

Not only is there in everybody a divine particle, but there is in everybody one peculiar to him, to be found nowhere else.... Everyone has in the eyes of God a specific importance in the fulfillment of which none can compete with him. (Hasidism, ‘Love of God and Love of Ones’s Neighbor,’ p. 178 f.)

The mystery of our existence, the superhuman chance of mankind is that God places Himself in man’s hands: He wants to come into the world through man. Man is the completor of God’s creation and the imitator of His redemption. (Ibid., ‘God and the Soul,’ p. 158; I and Thou, p. 82; Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘Religion and Modern Thinking,’ p. 100 f.; Images of Good and Evil, p. 82 f.; The Way of Man, p. 44 f.) He has, accordingly, real freedom -- the freedom of a separate person to go the way of his own personality, to do good and to do evil.

Man, while created by God, was established by Him in an independence which has since remained undiminished. In this independence he stands over against God. So man takes part with full freedom and spontaneity in the dialogue between the two which forms the essence of existence. That this is so despite God’s unlimited power and knowledge is just that which constitutes the mystery of man’s creation. (Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p. 138)

If man’s redemptive movement toward God is to be real, so also must his fall away from God be real. But this does not mean that an inherited ‘original sin’ is able to remove immediacy between God and man. Man sins as Adam sinned and not because he sinned. Although he is increasingly burdened by history, he is always capable of proving true before God. (Images of Good and Evil, pp. 36-40; Hasidism, ‘Spinoza,’ p. 109; The Prophetic Faith, p. 210; Two Types of Faith, pp. 136 f., 158.)

Man’s freedom properly understood is not freedom from external limitations but freedom, despite these limitations, to enter into dialogue with God. This dialogue is implicit, as we have seen, in God’s very creation of man. ‘The creation itself already means communication between Creator and creature.’ (The Prophetic Faith, p. 195. 241) In contrast to the customary view that it is monotheism which is the contribution of Judaism to the religions of the world, Buber regards the dialogue with God as the centre and significance of the Jewish religion.

The great achievement of Israel is not so much that it has told man of the one, real God, the origin and goal of all that exists, but rather that it has taught men that they can address this God in very reality, that men can say Thou to Him, that we human beings can stand face to face with Him, that there is communion between God and man. (Hasidism, ‘Spinosa,’ p. 96)

This communion between God and man implies partnership and nearness, ‘but in everything which grows out of it an ultimate distance persists which is not to be overcome,’ This absolute distance between God and man establishes the unconditional in man’s relation with God and at the same time discloses the place of redemption. Man remains utterly inferior and God utterly superior; yet if only man truly speaks to God, there is nothing he may not say. (Two Types of Faith, p. 9; Images of Good and Evil, p. 20; Between Man and Man, ‘The Question to the Single One,’ p. 77; The Prophetic Faith, p. 164 f.)

Again and again God addresses man and is addressed by him. . . . To God’s sovereign address, man gives his autonomous answer; if he remains silent, his silence is an answer, too.... The basic doctrine which fills the Hebrew Bible is that our life is a dialogue between the above and the below. (At the Turning, op. cit., p. 47 f.)

Man must enter into this dialogue with his whole being: it must be ‘an exclusive relationship which shapes all other relations and therefore the whole order of life.’ This exclusiveness demands a ‘religious realism,’ a will to realization of one’s belief in the whole of one’s existence, that cannot be present in a polytheism which sees a different God in each phenomenon of life. ‘The man in the Israelite world who has faith is not distinguished from the "heathen" by a more spiritual view of the Godhead, but by the exclusiveness of his relationship to God and by his reference of all things to Him.’ (Königtum Gottes, op. cit., p.91 f.; Two Types of Faith, p. 39) This exclusiveness makes it impossible to allow any part of one’s life to remain a sphere separate from God, and it makes it necessary to recognize God as He is, and that is as not limited to any one form, image, or manifestation. The exclusive Thou of prayer and devotion is the imageless God, who cannot be confined to any outward form. (Moses, op. cit., p.7 f.; Two types of Faith, p. 130 f.)This reality of faith and life is restricted, says Buber, by those Christians who leave God open to human address only in conjunction with Christ. Although imageless in religious idea, the God of the Christian is imaged in actual experience. We have, indeed, the power to glance up to God with our being’s eye, writes Buber; but this glance yields no images though it first makes all images possible. To identify God with one of the images that is thus produced is to allow the image to conceal the imageless One, and this means a limitation by man of the fullness of his dialogue with God. (Two Types of Faith, p. 131 f.; Hasidism, ‘Spinosa’ p. 96 f.)


The Holy is not a separate and secluded sphere of being, writes Buber. It is open to all spheres of being and is that through which they find their fulfillment.

The genuine life of faith develops on the spiritual heights, but it springs from the depths of the distress of the earth-bound body.... Wherever the action of nature as well as spirit is perceived as a gift, Revelation takes place.

God may not be limited to the spiritual and the supersensual. Not only does His imagelessness not prevent Him from manifesting Himself in the visible world, but it is just this imagelessness which makes His manifestation possible: ‘He is the history God which He is, only when He is not localized in Nature; and precisely because He makes use of everything potentially visible in Nature, every kind of natural existence, for His manifestation.’ (Israel and Palestine, op. cit. pp. 149, 26, 40; Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Reality,’ p. 32; Two Types of Faith, p. 39; Moses, pp. 194, 127.) God pushes through nature and history to that earthly consummation in which spirit and nature will be unified, the profane sanctified, the kingdom of God established out of the kingdom of man, and all of time and creation drawn back into eternity.

There is not one realm of the spirit and another of nature; there is only the growing realm of God. God is not spirit, but what we call spirit and what we call nature hail equally from the God who is beyond and equally conditioned by both, and whose kingdom reaches its fullness in the complete unity of spirit and nature. (Israel and the World, ‘Biblical Leadership,’ p. 131, ‘The Two Foci of Jewish Soul,’ p. 34.)

The corollary of this unity of spirit and nature is the belief that there is no essential difference between natural events and ‘miracles.’ Any natural event may be revelation for him who understands the event as really addressing him and is able to read its meaning for his personal life. In the same way, ‘miracle’ to Buber is neither an objective event which suspends the laws of nature and history nor a subjective act of the imagination. It is an event which is experienced by an individual or a group of people as an abiding astonishment which no knowledge of causes can weaken, as wonder at something which intervenes fatefully in the life of this individual and this group. The current system of cause and effect becomes transparent so that one is allowed a glimpse of the sphere in which a sole power, not restricted by any other, is at work. ‘To recognize this power on every given occasion as the effecting one . . . is religion generally as far as it is reality.’(Israel and the World, ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ p. 97 f. Moses, p. 75 ff. Cf. For the Sake of Heaven, op. cit., p. 112.)

The God of spirit and nature is also the God of history. The promise of the land to the people of Israel is the promise of a work of community which land and people must undertake in common, and as such it is at once a work of history and nature. History, however, is predominant, for history includes nature. ‘In the biblical, which is a history religion . . . there is no Nature in the Greek, the Chinese or the modern Occidental sense. What is shown us of Nature is stamped by History.’ During the period of the Kings, the magnification of God into the Cosmic King made a symbolical allegiance to God seem satisfactory in the place of the allegiance in every sphere of life which is demanded by the Lord of history. God should indeed be recognized as Lord of the world, writes Buber, but not as removed to the far heavens, for the God of the universe is the God of history who walks with His creatures along the hard way of history. (Israel and Palestine, pp. x-xii, 9 f., 14, 19; Königtum Gottes, p. 85; Moses, pp. 78 f., 158; The Prophetic Faith, pp. 85 f., 94.)

Although in the biblical view nature ultimately bears the stamp of history, it is necessary to distinguish between the way in which God reveals Himself in these two spheres. The self-communication of God through nature is indirect, impersonal, and continuous, while that through history is direct, personal, and discontinuous. It is the creating God who uninterruptedly speaks in nature, but in history it is the revealing God who speaks, and His revelation ‘breaks in again and again upon the course of events and irradiates it.’ Following the Maggid of Mesritch, Buber distinguishes between the original Godhead, which desires to impart Itself directly, and Elohim, the impersonal spirit of God working through creation. God’s imparting of Himself to man starts as indirect through nature and becomes more and more direct until man is led to meet YHVH Himself, who is at one and the same time the complete unity and the limitless person. It is this limitless original Godhead, and not the self-limited God, that speaks the I of revelation. (At the Turning, p. 57 f.; Hasidism, ‘God and the Soul,’ pp. 153-156.)

It is this second, ‘gracious and unforeseeable,’ form of spirit through which God reveals Himself to man in history. Here we come to know God not only as a revealing God but also as ‘a God who hides Himself,’ for there are times when God’s revelation in history seems clear and unmistakable and others when He seems absent altogether. Just as God’s imagelessness is necessary that He may manifest Himself in any form, so His hiding is necessary that He may reveal Himself.

God ever gives Himself to be seen in the phenomena of nature and history and remains invisible. That He reveals Himself and that He ‘hides Himself ‘ (Isa. x1v, 15) belong indivisibly together; but for His concealment His revelation would not be real and temporal. Therefore He is imageless; an image means fixing to one manifestation, its aim is to prevent God from hiding Himself; He may not be allowed any longer to be present as the One Who is there as He is there (Exod. iii, 14).

Christianity aims, in effect, to prevent God from hiding Himself, says Buber, in so far as it fixes Him in the image of Christ. (At the Turning, p. 58; Two Types of Faith, p. 130 f.)

In his concept of revelation Buber combines the meeting of I and Thou with the idea of ‘momentary Gods’ which Usener has presented as characteristic of the most primitive stage of mythical thinking. God does not arise for us out of inherited tradition, writes Buber, but out of the fusion of a number of ‘moment Gods.’ If we are addressed by the signs of life, we cannot say that he who speaks is God if we do not reply ‘out of that decisive hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we imagined we knew of God, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge, and were plunged into the night.’ What we can know of God in such an experience is only what we experience from the signs themselves, so that the speaker of the speech ‘is always the God of a moment, a moment God.’ But as one comes to know the poet through the separate experience of a number of poems, so ‘out of the givers of the signs, the speakers of the words in lived life, out of the moment Gods there arises for us with a single identity the Lord of the voice, the One.’ (Between Man and Man, op. cit., p. 14 f.) Not only does our world of It experience ever new creation through the flaming forth of the Thou, but each new Thou renews in all presentness the past experiences of Thou. It is this which is the essence of faith: not the past deadening the present, but the present recalling the past to life so that the moments of the past and the moment of the present become simultaneously present and joined in living unity.

In I and Thou Buber wrote of revelation as not imparting any specific ‘content’ but a Presence as power. ‘The Word of revelation is I am that I am.’ In Königtum Gottes and in Moses Buber rejects ‘I am that I am’ for ‘I shall be there as I shall be there.’ When Moses at the burning bush asks God His name, he is told: ‘Ehyeh asher ehyeh.’ ‘This is usually understood to mean "I am that I am" in the sense that YHVH describes himself as the Being One or even the Everlasting One, the one unalterably persisting in his being.’ The Biblical verb does not include this shade of meaning of pure being. ‘It means happening, coming into being, being there, being present . . . but not being in an abstract sense.’ (I and Thou, op. cit., p. 110 ff.; Moses, op. cit., pp. 51 f., 160; Königtum Gottes, op. cit., p. 83 ff.) God promises that He will always be present, but not in any known or expected form. He identifies Himself only as the Presence which comes and departs, as the imageless God who hides and reveals Himself.

The true meaning of YHVH, the inherited divine name, is unfolded in the ehyeh asher ehyeh: YHVH is He who is present in every now and in every here. And in order to make clear that the direct verb explains the indirect name, Moses is first instructed to tell the people ‘Ehyeh, I shall be present, or I am present, sends me to you,’ and immediately afterwards: ‘YHVH the God of your fathers sends me to you.’ (Moses, op. cit., pp. 49-53) Thus Moses at the burning bush clearly experiences the identity of the God whom he meets in the full and timeless present with the God of tradition revealed in time. He recognizes the God of the fathers as the eternal Thou, and he understands the present revelation of God as the assurance of His future presence.

Revelation is thus man’s encounter with God’s presence rather than information about His essence. Buber rejects the either-or of revelation as objective or subjective in favour of the understanding of revelation as dialogical. To be revelation and not just literature it must come from outside man, but that does not mean that man has no part in the form which it takes.

My own belief in revelation . . . does not mean that I believe that finished statements about God were handed down from heaven to earth. Rather it means that the human substance is melted by the spiritual fire which visits it, and there now breaks forth from it a word, a statement, which is human in its meaning and form, human conception and human speech, and yet witnesses to Him who stimulated it and to His will. We are revealed to ourselves -- and cannot express it otherwise than as something revealed. (Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘Supplement: Reply to C. G. Jung,’ trans. by Maurice S. Friedman, p. 173.)

Before the word is spoken to man in human language, it is spoken to him in another language, from which he has to translate it into human language. He does not convey a finished speech but shapes to sound a hidden, soundless speech. But this does not mean that he translates subjective emotions into objective speech and then pretends to have the word of God. The word is spoken to him as between person and person, and he must be in the full sense of the word a person before God can speak to him. (The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., p. 164 f.; Hasidism, op. cit., ‘Symbolical Existence in Judaism,’ pp. 119-129; The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 110-113.)

The anthropomorphism of the Hebrew Bible serves a valid purpose in preserving the concrete quality of the encounter with the divine. In the encounter itself ‘we are confronted by something compellingly anthropomorphic, something demanding reciprocity, a primary Thou.’ We owe to anthropomorphism the two great concepts of YHVH’s divine love for Israel and of His fatherhood. In the Hebrew Bible God is not seen in Himself but in His relation to man, and His revelation changes according to the historical situation. In the pre-exilic period God addressed individuals as members of the people into which they were incorporated and from which they were undetachable. The Ten Commandments were addressed to a single Thou rather than a collective You, yet to every individual as a part of the nation in which he was embedded. Only later in history when the individual discovers and becomes aware of himself does God speak to him as such. (Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘Religion and Reality,’ p. 22 f.; Moses, op. cit., pp. 160, 194, The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., p. 89; At the Turning, op. cit., ‘The Silent Question,’ p. 37 f.)

The differences between the prophets, similarly, arise from the fact that each prophet discovered the divine demand meant by his particular historic situation. What is essential in prophecy is that it be based on the reality of history as it is happening and that its tie with this situation reach to the secret ground of creation in which existence is rooted. Jeremiah attacks the dogmatics of a guardian deity during a situation of false security, and Deutero-Isaiah opposes the dogmatics of a punishing deity during a situation of adversity. ‘Both prophesy so for the sake of the covenant between godhead and manhood, for the sake of the kingdom of God.’ (Ibid., op. cit., pp. 43 f., 49, 178, 182 f.; Königtum Gottes, op. cit., pp. 150-153; Moses, op. cit., p. 131)

The prophets sought God to ‘know’ Him, to be in direct contact with Him, and not in order to hear future things. Even their predictions of the future were for the sake of the present, that the people might turn again to the way of God. The pure prophets are distinguished from the apocalyptic ones, as from the seers and diviners of other religions, by the fact that they did not wish to peep into an already certain and immutable future but were concerned only with the full grasping of the present, actual and potential. Their prophecy was altogether bound up with the situation of the historical hour and with God’s direct speaking in it. They recognized the importance of man’s decision in determining the future and therefore rejected any attempts to treat the future as if it were simply a fixed past which had not yet unfolded. Their attitude corresponds to the basic Biblical view that man is set in real freedom in order that he may enter the dialogue with God and through this dialogue take part in the redemption of the world. (The Prophetic Faith, pp. 103 f., 116, 175 f.; At the Turning, p. 54.)

Even when the prophet announced an unconditional disaster, this announcement contained a hidden alternative. By the announcement the people were driven into despair, and it was just this despair which touched their innermost soul and evoked the turning to God by which they were saved. The false prophets tell the people what they wish to hear. They set up ‘over against the hard divine word of demand and judgment the easy word of a pseudo-deity . . . who is ready to help unconditionally.’ The true prophets, in contrast, present the hard demand of God in this historic situation without weakening or compromise. And God does not lighten the choice between the hard truth and the easy fraud. He speaks to the people only in the language of history and in such a way that they can explain what happened as the coincidence of adverse circumstances. ‘This God makes it burdensome for the believer and light for the unbeliever; and His revelation is nothing but a different form of hiding His face.’ (Ibid., pp. 104, 175-179; At the Turning, p. 54 f.)

‘Our path in the history of faith is not a path from one kind of deity to another, but in fact a path from the "God Who hides Himself " (Isa. xlv, 15) to the One that reveals Himself.’ Amos’s ‘righteousness,’ Hosea’s hesed, or ‘lovingkindness,’ and Isaiah’s ‘holiness’ represent three important developments of the meaning of the divine kingship for the life of the community. All three are ways of imitating God for the sake of His work.

In one generation Israel’s faith developed these three basic concepts of the relationship to God, and only all together could express what is meant by the being present of the One Who is present to Israel, Who is ‘with it.’ The name YHVH was unravelled at the revelation to Moses in the thorn bush; in the revelation to three prophets it has been unfolded. (Ibid., pp. 44, 101 f., 114 f., 128 f.)

This unfolding does not eliminate the periods of terror when God seems to withdraw from the world or the periods of insecurity when inherited conceptions of God are tested and found inadequate. The faith relationship has to stand the test of an utterly changed situation, and it must be renewed in a modified form. The force of extreme despair results in a new pondering of dogmatic conceptions which will either result in the sapping of the last will to live or the renewal of the soul. Emunah, the faith of the Hebrew Bible, is a trust in the faithfulness of God despite His different manifestations in different historic situations. (The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 44, 183; Two Types of Faith, op. cit., p. 34)

The midpoint between creation and redemption is not the revelation at Sinai or at the burning bush but the present perceiving of revelation, and such perception is possible at any time. What is given to an individual in this present moment leads to the understanding of the great revelations, but the vital fact is one’s own personal receiving and not what was received in former times. ‘At all times,’ writes Buber, ‘only those persons really grasped the Decalogue who literally felt it as having been addressed to themselves.’ We must feel creation, revelation, and redemption as happening to ourselves before we can understand them in the Bible. In our meeting with God in the daily events of life we experience all three: knowledge of our origin, awareness of His presence, and the touch of His saving hand in our darkest hour. (Moses, op. cit., p. 130; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible,’ pp. 94 f., 98-102.)

The Bible has, in the form of a glorified memory, given vivid, decisive expression to an ever-recurrent happening. In the infinite language of events and situations, eternally changing, but plain to the truly attentive, transcendence speaks to our hearts at the essential moments of personal life.... This fundamental interpretation of our existence we owe to the Hebrew Bible; and whenever we truly read it, our self-understanding is renewed and deepened. (At the Turning, op. cit., ‘The Dialogue between Heaven and Earth,’ p. 49 f.)

The Kingship of God

The Biblical dialogue between God and man finds its most significant expression in the concept of the kingship of God. Buber’s work of Biblical interpretation, accordingly, is principally devoted to tracing the development of this idea from its earliest expression in the tribal God, or Melekh, to its sublimest development in ‘the God of the Sufferers.’

The Israelite Melekh, the God who led Abraham in his wanderings, differs from other gods of the way in that He does not serve the purposes of the people by leading them to a place that they know and wish to go to. Instead He drives them to do the uncustomary, the untraditional -- to overcome enmity of clan and tribe and unite into one people, to take the unbeaten path into the land He has chosen for them. (Ibid., p. 68; Moses, op. cit., p. 125 f.; Israel und Palästina, p. 38. Cf. Israel and Palestine, p. 21.) The people of Israel recognize YHVH as their Melekh, their King, and they recognize themselves as chosen by Him. This does not mean that He is their God in the sense that He belongs to them or they in any way possess Him. He whom heaven itself cannot contain (I Kings viii, 27) belongs to no people or place. Yet at the very time when it becomes necessary to destroy Israel’s illusion that it has a monopoly on its God, at the time when it becomes unmistakably clear that YHVH is not the God of a tribe, even then and just then He is proclaimed as God of the tribe for ever and ever, as the God who liberated the people from Egypt and brought them forth to the land. (Königtum Gortes, op. cit., pp. 73, 81) (my translation). The one God, the God of heaven and earth, is the king whose kingship the people must make real through themselves becoming a holy people, a people who bring all spheres of life under His rule.

The time when this recognition of God’s kingship takes place is that of the Covenant at Mount Sinai. This covenant between God and the people of Israel is not a contract, as is sometimes thought. It ‘means no legal agreement, but a surrender to the divine grace and power.’ Not only is it unique among all religions, says Buber, but even in the Old Testament itself there is no analogy to it: ‘Only in the Sinai Covenant . . . does an action take place which sacramentally founds a reciprocity between’ an Above and a Below.’ This reciprocity is a free action, a ‘choice’ by both YHVH and the people. Israel cannot be understood as merely YHVH’s congregation of faith nor YHVH simply as Israel’s protector God. This reciprocal choice entails an active ‘over-againstness’ of the two partners such as is impossible in the magical view in which the divine side remains passive and in the ordinary sacramental view in which the human remains passive. (The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., p. 51; Königtum Gottes, op. cit., pp. 111-119; Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p. 136.)

The Sinai Covenant is not to be understood as a limitation in the essence of God, as if He were somehow less absolute for having entered into it. Like His revelation to Moses, it says only that He, the hiding and revealing God, will be present with the people in the future, that He will be there as He will be there. It does not mean that Israel is in some way dearer to God than other peoples. Israel is chosen only to fulfill a charge, to become a ‘holy people.’ Until this charge is fulfilled the choice exists only negatively. When the people are unfaithful, God says to them through His prophet, ‘You are not my people and I am not ehyeh ("I am present") for you.’ (Königrum Gottes, op. cit., p. 115 f.; At the Turning, op. cit., ‘Judaism and Civilization,’ p. 14; Moses, op. cit., pp. 103, 105, 53 f.) God’s demand that Israel become ‘a holy people’ means the spontaneous and ever-renewed act whereby the people dedicate themselves to YHVH with their corporeal national existence, their legal forms and institutions, their internal and external relationships, the whole factuality of worldly life. The ‘religious’ and the ‘social’ are here closely connected, for Israel cannot become the people of YHVH without just faith between men. The direct relation of each of the children of Israel to YHVH makes them equal to one another and makes their duties to each other duties to YHVH as well. (Königtum Gottes, p. 106 ff., 144; The Prophetic Faith, p. 55)

After Moses, the most serious attempt to realize the kingship of God was in the period of the judges. The judge judged not as an appointed official but as one who remained in direct relation to the spirit as an open receiver. There is no security of power here, only the streams of a fullness of power which presents itself and withdraws. In the absence of any means for succession other than the recognition of someone possessing charisma, there comes to the front what Buber calls the ‘paradox of all original and direct theocracy.’ The very absence of restraint and compulsion which enables the men of faith to wait for the grace which they wish to follow enables those without faith not to follow anyone. The highest binding cannot by its very nature make use of any compulsion; it calls for a perfected community based on spontaneity. But this trust in spontaneity may lead in the end to an anarchy passionately sanctioned in the name of the freedom of God. This paradox is that of the kingship of God itself: it stands in the historical conflict between those who bear the message and those who resist it. It is the visible manifestation of the historical dialogue between the divinity that asks and mankind that refuses an answer yet also seeks one. (Ibid., op. cit., pp. 3 f., 31 f., 60, 106 f., 139 f., 143-146, 179-182; 2nd enlarged edition [Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1936] p. xxvii; Moses, pp. 184-190) This tragedy of the contradiction confronted not only Moses but also the judges, the prophets, the ‘suffering servant,’ and Jesus.

The unity of spirit and law in the judge is succeeded by the king, who had security of power without spirit, and the prophet, who had spirit without power. The kings were commissioned by God and responsible to Him, but they tended to sublimate the irresponsibility into a divine right granted without obligation and to regard their anointing as demanding of them a merely cultic acknowledgment of YHVH’s kingship. It is this failure of the kings in the dialogue with YHVH which resulted in the mission of the prophets. The ‘theopolitical’ realism of the prophets led them to reject any merely symbolic fulfillment of the divine commission, to fight the division of community life into a ‘religious’ realm of myth and cult and a ‘political’ realm of civic and economic laws. YHVH passes judgment on the nations not for their iniquity against Him but for their iniquity against each other. He demands ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ of the people for the sake of the completion of his work (Amos). He seeks not ‘religion’ but community. (Ibid., op. cit., pp. 144, 175; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘Biblical Leadership,’ 129 f.; The Prophetic Faith, pp. 66 ff., 85 f., 97, 101 f., 152 f., 172.)

The God of Isaiah whom one knows to be Lord of all is not more spiritual or real than the God of the Covenant of whom one knows only that ‘He is King in Jeshurun,’ for already He makes the unconditional demand of the genuine kingship. The way of the kingship is the way from failure to failure in the dialogue between the people and God. As the failure of the judge leads to the king and the failure of the king to the prophet, so the failure of the prophet in his opposition to the king leads to the conception of two new types of leader who will set the dialogue aright -- the Messiah of YHVH and the ‘suffering servant of the Lord.’ (Königtum Gottes, op. cit., 89 f., 181 f.; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘Biblical Leadership’ pp. 124-133.)

Isaiah’s Messiah, or ‘Immanuel,’ is the anti-king, but he is not a spiritual anti-king, as many see it. He is the king of the remnant, from which the people will renew itself, and his Messianic kingship is a real theopolitical kingship endowed with political power for the realization of God’s will for the peoples. ‘Immanuel’ is not simply a leader of the people of Israel nor is there any question of the sovereignty of Israel in the world. God leads all peoples to peace and freedom and demands that ‘in freedom they shall serve him, as peoples, each in its own way and according to its own character.’ The Messiah of Isaiah is the vice-regent who is to make God’s leadership of the people real. ‘He is anointed to set up with human forces and human responsibility the divine order of human community.’ He is in no way divine or more than man; he is godlike as is the man in whom the likeness to the divine has unfolded. ‘He is not nearer to God than what is appointed to man as man; . . . he too stands before God in indestructible dialogue.’ He does not take the place of man’s turning or bring about a redemption which man has merely to accept and enter into. The ‘Messianic’ prophecy is no prediction of an already certain future: it too conceals an alternative, for there is something essential that must come from man. The belief in the coming of a Messianic leader is in essence the belief that at last man shall speak with his whole being the word that answers God’s word. God awaits an earthly consummation, a consummation in and with mankind. The Messianic belief is ‘the belief in the real leader, in the setting right of the dialogue, in God’s disappointment being at an end.’ (The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 140-144, 151, 153 f.; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘Biblical Leadership,’ p. 131.)

The God of the Sufferers

Although YHVH’s sovereignty in every field of life was proclaimed at the time of the Covenant, it was only by a long and slow process that men came to recognize God and His activity in the spheres which seemed necessarily foreign to Him. This difficulty is particularly strong in connection with those unusual events where men feel the presence of the demonic and the irrational, events that arouse terror, threaten security, and disturb faith. The Biblical concept of holiness is that of a power capable of exerting both a destructive and a hallowing effect. The encounter with this holiness is, therefore, a source of danger to man. As in the story of Jacob’s wrestle with the angel, it is the perilous test that the wanderer must pass before he enjoys the final grace of God. (The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 71, 52; Moses, op. cit., pp. 106, 118.)

The early stage of Israelite religion knows no Satan; if a power attacks a man and threatens him, it is proper to recognize YHVH in it or behind it, no matter how nocturnally dread and cruel it may be; and it is proper to withstand Him, since after all He does not require anything else of me than myself.

In ‘events of the night,’ such as that in which the Lord met Moses and tried to kill him (Exod. iv, 24-26), Buber finds one of the deepest roots of Deutero-Isaiah’s words (Isa. xlv, 7): ‘Who makes peace and creates evil, I YHVH do all this.’ (Moses, p. 57 ff.)

The danger is turned into a grace for those like Jacob and Moses who stand the test. This is the experience of Abraham too when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac. Like the despair which draws forth the ‘turning,’ the extremest demand here draws forth the innermost readiness to sacrifice out of the depths of Abraham’s being. God thus allows Abraham’s relation to Him to become wholly real. ‘But then, when no further hindrance stood between the intention and the deed, He contented Himself with Abraham’s fulfilled readiness and prevented the action.’ This is what is called ‘temptation’ by the faith of the Old Testament, a faith which takes the over-againstness of God and man more seriously than does any other. (Ibid, pp. 83, 118; The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 83, 91 f.; Königtum Gottes, op. cit., pp. 99-104; Eclipse of God, op. cit., ‘On the Suspension of the Ethical,’ trans. by Maurice S. Friedman, p. 153.)

Job’s trial can also be understood as a ‘temptation,’ for God’s apparent absence occasions a despair in Job which causes his innermost nature to become manifest. Through the intensity of his ‘turning,’ through his demand that God speak to him, he receives a revelation of God such as could not otherwise be his. It is ‘just at the height of Job’s trial . . . just in the midst of the terror of the other, the incomprehensible, ununderstandable works, just from out of the secret,’ that God’s ways of working are revealed. Job accuses God of injustice and tries in vain to penetrate to Him through the divine remoteness. Now God draws near Job and Job ‘sees’ Him. It is this nearness to God, following His apparent hiddenness, which is God’s answer to the suffering Job as to why he suffers -- an answer which is understandable only in terms of the relationship itself. (The first sentence of this paragraph is based on a letter from Professor Buber to me of June 18, 1952; Israel and the World, op. cit., ‘Imitatio Dei,’ p. 76; The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., pp. 192-196.)

Job remained faithful even when God seemed to hide His face from him. He could not renounce his claim that his faith in God and his faith in justice should once again be united. (The Prophetic Faith, p. 92.)

At all times in Israel people spoke much about evil powers, but not about one which, for longer than the purpose of temptation, was allowed to rule in God’s stead; never, not even in the most deadly act of requital by God, is the bond of immediacy broken. (Two Types of Faith, op. cit., p. 140)

God sets creation free and at the same time holds it. He does not put an end to man’s freedom despite his misuse of it, but neither does He abandon him. Even God’s hiding His face is only an apparent hiding which does not contradict the statement in I and Thou that only we, and not God, are absent. God does not actually withdraw His presence; He only seems to do so. Yet this must not be understood as a purely immanent event. It does not take place in man but between man and God. ‘To those who do not want to be near to Him God replies by not giving to them any more the experience of nearness’ (cf. Ps. x, 1; Jer. xxxi, 3). He lets the resisting experience his fate in history, the fate resulting from his own deeds. (Ibid, p. 151 f.; I and Thou, op. cit., p. 99; The Prophetic Faith, op. cit., p. 94. The quotation and the sentence preceding it are from two letters from Professor Buber to me, both of June 18, 1952.)

God’s anger and His seeming withdrawal are a part of His love for man -- a love which wishes man to enter the dialogue with Him but will not compel him to do so. Hence there is no real division between God’s mercy and His justice. God’s wrath in the Old Testament is always a fatherly anger toward a disobedient child from whom He still does not withdraw His love. Although He may at times harden, He also forgives. Thus Amos knew that God would stay with the people in the midst of the desolation which was the work of His own judgment, and Hosea wrote of God’s mercy, ‘I will heal their turnings away, I will love them freely.’ (Ibid., pp. 90, 139, 164; The Prophetic Faith, pp. 109-113. 254)

Jeremiah, like Amos and Hosea, recognized that both YHVH’s blessing and His curse flow from His love. He also recognized that because of His love for man, God takes part in man’s suffering. Whoever helps the suffering creature comes close to the Creator, writes Jeremiah. God shares in the trouble and suffering of His nature and even suffers by His own actions at the hour when He comes near to destroying the work of His hands. This ‘God of the sufferers’ is also acknowledged by Deutero-Isaiah, who writes not only of the God of heaven and earth, who perceives and is above all, but also of the God who remains near the outcast, who dwells ‘with the contrite and lowly of spirit.’ (The Prophetic Faith, pp. 161 ff., 167,182 f.)

It is from among the ‘lowly of spirit’ that God finds His special servant in whom He is glorified. This is Deutero-Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant of the Lord,’ the righteous man who suffers for the sake of God. Deutero-Isaiah’s ‘servant’ stands in the succession of men whom God has designated as His servant -- Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, and Job. Of these he is especially linked through his sufferings with Job, the ‘faithful rebel.’ Like Job he experiences God’s nearness in his suffering, and like Job, too, his suffering has a super-personal meaning. The ‘servant’ differs from Job, however, in that he voluntarily takes on himself all the griefs and sicknesses of the people’s iniquities in order to bring them back to YHVH. (Ibid., pp. 181, 189, 196, 227, 232; Two Types of Faith, p.143 f.) In suffering for the sake of God he comes to discover the meaning of his own suffering: he recognizes that God suffers with him and that he is working together with God for the redemption of the world. In the figure of the servant the meaning of God’s answer to Job becomes clear.

Man penetrates step by step into the dark which hangs over the meaning of events, until the mystery is disclosed in the flash of light: the zaddik, the man justified by God, suffers for the sake of God and of His work of salvation, and God is with him in his suffering. (Two Types of Faith, p. 144.)

The ‘servant’ is bowed down by sorrow, disfigured by disease, despised and shunned by the people. Yet it is just he who experiences God’s nearness and receives God’s promise that he will be preserved for the task of ushering in God’s kingdom.

Deutero-Isaiah’s ‘servant’ cannot be identified either with Israel or with Christ. He is not a corporate but a personal being, yet he is more than a single person. ‘This person takes shape in many likenesses and life-ways, the bearers of which are identical in their innermost essence.’ But no supernatural event or resurrection of the dead leads from one of these figures to the next. The servant is ‘preserved’ for the day in which God’s salvation shall be to the end of the earth, but it is only the ‘servant’ who is preserved and not the person who embodies him at any particular time.

There are three stages on the servant’s way. The first is the prophetic stage of the futile labour of the prophet to bring Israel back to YHVH, the stage in which he sees himself as an arrow which is fated to remain in the quiver, hidden and unused (Isa. xlix, 2). He is promised a great future work reaching all nations and, sustained by this promise, is willing to bear an immense affliction for God’s sake. The second stage is the acting of the affliction. He not only endures it but also, as it were, accomplishes it: it becomes his act. The third stage is that of the ‘success’ of the work born out of affliction, the liberation of the subject peoples, and the establishment of the covenant of the people with God, the human centre of which is the servant. Only now is the arrow taken from the quiver and hurled forth. It is laid on the servant to inaugurate God’s new order of peace and justice for the world.

The servant thus completes the work of the judges and the prophets, the work of making real God’s kingship over the people. Though a prophet, he is no longer a powerless opposition to the powerful, but a real leader like the Israelite nabi of early times. Here, in contrast to the Messianic promise of Isaiah, it is not the king but the nabi who is appointed to be deputy of God’s kingdom. This kingdom now signifies in reality all the human world. Yet there remains a special tie between the personal servant and the servant Israel. Through the nucleus that does not betray the election, the living connection between God and the people is upheld, and from their midst will arise ‘the perfected one.’ Through his word and life, Israel will turn to God and become God’s people. When the suffering servant is allowed to go up and be a light for the nations, the servant Israel, redeemed and cleansed, will establish God’s sovereignty upon itself and serve as the beginning of His kingdom.

The unity between the personal servant and the servant Israel passes over to their unity in suffering. In so far as Israel’s great suffering in the dispersion was willingly and actively borne, it is interpreted in the image of the servant. ‘The great scattering which followed the splitting-up of the state . . . is endowed with the mystery of suffering as with the promise of the God of sufferers.’ This is the mystery of history, the mystery of the arrow which is still concealed in the quiver. (The Prophetic Faith, pp. 224-234.)

The way, the real way, from the Creation to the Kingdom is trod not on the surface of success, but in the deep of failure. The real work, from the Biblical point of view, is the late-recorded, the unrecorded, the anonymous work. The real work is done in the shadow, in the quiver. (Israel and the World, ‘Biblical Leadership,’p. 133)

‘Whosoever accomplishes in Israel the active suffering of Israel, he is the servant, and he is Israel, in whom YHVH "glorifies Himself."’ Thus the ancient God of the way, the God who caused Abraham to ‘stray’ from his father’s house and went before him in his wanderings, is acknowledged by suffering generations as their Shepherd in the way of exile. (Hasidism, ‘Spinoza,’ p. 112 f.; The Prophetic Faith, p. 234 f.)

When one has given serious consideration to Buber’s Biblical exegesis, one is no longer tempted to fall into the easy assumption that Buber has read his dialogical philosophy into his interpretation of Biblical Judaism. It becomes clear instead that it is precisely in the Bible itself that Buber’s dialogical philosophy finds its most solid base. Indeed, the full working out of this philosophy would not have been possible without the years that Buber spent in the translation and interpretation of the Bible. ‘Only a viewpoint that is Biblical in a very profound sense,’ writes the Old Testament scholar J. Coert Rylaarsdam in a discussion of Buber’s The Prophetic Faith, ‘could so consistently illuminate every part of the Bible it touches.’ (J. Coert Rylaarsdam, ‘The Prophetic Faith,’ Theology Today, Vol. VII [October 1950], p. 399 ff. At the same time, Rylaarsdam accuses Buber of undue subjectivity: ‘Basically his interpretation of the Old Testament is a documentation of his own views.... Buber’s work would have been more generally acceptable if he had more fully permitted objective historical reconstruction to perform an adequate critical function. Questions of literary criticism and history are frequently settled by a too easy reliance on the writer’s a priori assumptions.... Buber’s profound insights will be scorned by many on the ground that he is "uncritical" and "too philosophical"., That Rylaarsdam’s criticism is in part, at least, based on a misunderstanding of Buber’s position and a difference in Rylaarsdam’s own a priori assumptions is shown by his further statements that ‘Because of his individual and personal emphasis the notion of an objective revelation of God in nature and history involving the whole community of Israel in the real event of the Exodus does not fit well for him,’ that Buber’s view of revelation is ‘essentially mystical and nonhistorical,’ and that ‘the realistic disclosure of Yahweh as the Lord of nature and of history recedes into the background because of an overconcern with the experience of personal relation’ -- criticisms which are all far wide of the mark, as is shown by the present chapter.) This does not exclude the obvious fact that there has been a fruitful dialectic in Buber’s thought between his interpretations and the development of his personal philosophy. ‘There are things in the Jewish tradition that I cannot accept at all,’ Buber has said, ‘and things I hold true that are not expressed in Judaism. But what I hold essential has been expressed more in Biblical Judaism than anywhere else -- in the Biblical dialogue between man and God.’ (From a statement made by Professor Buber at a small discussion group in New York City, December 1951)

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