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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 26: Buber and Judaism


Ludwig Lewisohn, writing in 1935, said of Martin Buber:

Dr. Buber is the most distinguished and influential of living Jewish thinkers.... We are all his pupils. The contemporary reintegration of modern Western Jewish writers, thinkers, scientists, with their people, is unthinkable without the work and voice of Martin Buber. (Ludwig Lewisohn, Rebirth, A Book of Modern Jewish Thought [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935], p. 87; cf. p. 88 f. and Ludwig Lewisohn, Cities and Men [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927], pp. 200-212.)

No Jewish thinker has had a greater cultural, intellectual, and religious influence than has Buber in the last four decades. He is of significance for Judaism not only as religious philosopher, translator of the Bible, and translator and re-creator of Hasidic legends and thought, but also as a religious personality who has provided leadership of a rare quality during the time of his people’s greatest trial and suffering since the beginning of the diaspora. Since the death of Hermann Cohen, Buber has been generally acknowledged as the representative figure of Western European Jewry. He wielded a tremendous influence not only upon the youth won over to Zionism but also upon the Liberals, and even, despite his non-adherence to the Jewish Law, upon the Orthodox. ‘It was Buber,’ writes Alfred Werner, ‘to whom I (like thousands of Central European men and women devoid of any Jewish background) owe my initiation into the realm of Jewish culture.’ (Franz Rosenzweig, ‘Martin Buber,’ Jüdisches Lexikon [Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1927], Vol. I col. 1190 f. Cf. Franz Rosenzweig, Kleinere Schriften [Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1917], p. 106. Alfred Werner, ‘Buber at Seventy,’ Congress Weekly, Vol. XV [February 13,1948], p. 10; Liptzin, Germany’s Stepchildren, op. cit., p. 263 f.)

Today, in the third generation of his writing, speaking, and teaching, Martin Buber is without question not only the representative figure of Western European Jewry but of world Jewry as well. No one has done more than he to bring about a rebirth of Judaism, and his works promise to affect generations of thinking religious Jews of the future. The steady spread of his influence from Europe to England and from Israel to America makes it clear that this is no temporary phenomenon but a deep-seated force in the life and destiny of the Jewish people.

In his early twenties Buber associated himself with the great Zionist leader, Theodore Herzl, and in 1901 he became the editor of the Zionist journal, Der Welt. He broke shortly with Herzl, however, because of the latter’s purely political Zionism, and he became the leader of those Zionists (including Chaim Weizmann) who demanded that the movement be founded on the basis of a Jewish cultural renaissance. In 1902 this group founded the Jüdscher Verlag, which later became the publishing house for the most important Zionist literature, and in 1916 Buber founded the journal Der Jude, which became the central point for the higher spiritual strivings of the Zionist movement. As a result of its high level, moreover, Der Jude became the leading organ of German-speaking Jewry. (Robert Weltsch, ‘Martin Buber,’ Jüdische Lexikon, op. cit., Vol. I, col. 1191; Adolf Böhm, Die zionistische Bewegung bis zum Ende des Weltkrieges, 2nd enlarged edition [Tel Aviv: Hozaah Ivrith Co., 1935], Vol. I, pp. 203 f., 297 ff., 535.)

Although Buber gave up active leadership in the Zionist movement in favour of his broader religious, philosophical, and social interests, he continued to exert a strong influence on the Zionist movement through his speeches and writings. Through his emphasis on the building of a real Jewish community, he became a co-creator of the idea of the Chaluzim, or pioneers. For the furtherance of this goal, his circle joined forces in 1919 with the Palestinian ‘Hapoel Hazair,’ led by A. D. Gordon. Adolf Böhm lists Buber, Nathan Birnbaum, and A. D. Gordon as the three most influential leaders of Zionism after Herzl. The new perspective which Buber gave to Zionism was not understood outside of a narrow circle, and it evoked the most intense enmity of all the nationalistic-political Zionists. Yet, according to Böhm, whoever was able to follow Buber was freed by his point of view from torturing doubts and inspired to more intensive work. In the whole sphere of Zionist activity, even that of political organization, it was Buber’s disciples who accomplished what was essential. (Böhm, Die zionistische Bewegung, Vol. I, pp. 521-540. 259) 

Buber’s attitude toward Zionism is integrally related to his conviction that in the work of redemption Israel is called on to play the special part of beginning the kingdom of God through itself becoming a holy people. This election is not an occasion for particularist pride but a commission which must be carried out in all humility. It is not to be understood as an objective fact or a subjective feeling but as an uncompleted dialogical reality, the awareness of an address from God. In it the Biblical covenant to make real the kingship of God through partnership with the land is combined with the Deutero-Isaianic concept of the ‘servant’ under whose leadership Israel will initiate God’s kingdom. (Israel and Palastine, op. cit., pp. 34 f., 49 ff.,54; The Prophetic Faith, p. 232 ff.)

Israel’s special vocation is not just another nationalism which makes the nation an end in itself. The people need the land and freedom to organize their own life in order to realize the goal of community. But the state as such is at best only a means to the goal of Zion, and it may even be an obstacle to it if the true nature of Zion as commission and task is not held uppermost. (Israel and the World, ‘On National Education,’ p. 159; ‘Der Chaluz und seine Welt,’ op. cit., p. 90 ff.; Israel and Palestine, pp. 70 f., 74, 76 f., 117 ff., 121, 125, 144, 147 f.; Two Letters to Gandhi, op. cit., p. 10 f.)

Zion means a destiny of mutual perfecting. It is not a calculation but a command; not an idea but a hidden figure waiting to be revealed. Israel would lose its own self if it replaced Palestine by another land and it would lose its own self if it replaced Zion by Palestine. (Israel and Palistine, p. 142.)

If Israel reduces Zionism to ‘a Jewish community in Palestine’ or tries to build a small nation just like other small nations, it will end by attaining neither. (Ibid., p. 144 f.)

One of the means by which Buber exerted the greatest influence on the Zionist movement was through his discovery and re-creation of Hasidism. According to Robert Weltsch, ‘Buber’s discovery of Hasidism was epochal for the West: Buber made his thesis believable that no renewal of Judaism would be possible which did not bear in itself elements of Hasidism.’ (Jüdisches Lexikon, Vol. I, col. 1191 [my translation]). Through this discovery Buber opened up important new aspects of Jewish experience to the Jews of Western Europe and at the same time helped bridge the growing gap between them and the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Buber proved conclusively that the despised ‘poor relations’ in the East possessed inner treasures of great power and depth which it was impossible any longer to ignore.... Thus he came to embody the ultimate synthesis of the two cultural traditions and to become its living symbol as well as its finest flower. (Wolf, ‘Martin Buber and German Jewry,’ op. cit., p. 348.)

In his earlier writings Buber regarded Hasidism as the real, though subterranean Judaism, as opposed to official Rabbinism which was only the outer husk. He has since come to feel that in Hasidism the essence of Jewish faith and religiosity was visible in the structure of the community but that this essence has also been present ‘in a less condensed form everywhere in Judaism,’ in the ‘inaccessible structure of the personal life.’ Buber differs from other thinkers in regarding the life of the Hasidim as the core of Hasidism and the philosophical texts as a gloss on the life as it is depicted in the legends. In his first Hasidic books Buber exercised a great deal of freedom in the retelling of the Hasidic legends in the belief that this was the best way to get at the essence of the Hasidic spirit. (Israel and the World, ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p. 13; Hasidism, ‘The Beginnings of Hasidism,’ p. 4 f., Die Legende des Baalschem, op. cit., ‘Einleitung.’ Lazar Gulkowitsch writes of Buber’s early poetic recreations of Hasidism: ‘Since Martin Buber is a poet who himself inclines to mysticism, Hasidism in his representation takes on an all too mysterious colouring while its natural childlike quality and its sheer naïveté do not receive adequate emphasis.’ Gulkowitsch, Der Hasidismus, op. cit., p. 66 [my translation]). In 1921 he rejected this method of translating on the grounds that it was ‘too free.’ His later tales, accordingly, are closely faithful to the simple and rough originals. They are often fragmentary sayings and anecdotes rather than complete stories. (Tales of the Hasidim, The Early Masters, op. cit., p. xi. Cf. pp. v-xii and Martin Buber, Der grosse Maggid und seine Nachfolge [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loenig, 1922], Vorwort, pp. v-ix.) Technical criticism of Buber’s retelling of the Hasidic legends is beside the point, writes Ludwig Lewisohn.

These legends will remain a permanent possession of mankind in the form he has given them by virtue of that form which has itself become a part of their message and meaning. Thus, too, his reinterpretation of the Jewish past is beyond the arbitrament of factual scholarship; it has the permanence of great artistic vision; it has created that past in the soul of the present and is itself an enduring part of Jewish reality. (Lewishon, Rebirth, op. cit., p. 87)

No one who has read carefully Buber’s later Hasidic tales and Biblical interpretations could now accuse him of undue freedom, no matter how much they might disagree with his methods or with the conclusions that he reaches. A much more serious and frequent criticism is the fact that Buber does not regard the Jewish law as essential to the Jewish tradition. To understand this attitude we must go back to the last of his ‘Talks on Judaism’ in which he contrasts the false desire for security of the dogmatists of the law with the ‘holy insecurity’ of the truly religious man who does not divorce his action from his intention. Religious truth is obstructed, writes Buber, by those who demand obedience to all the commandments of the Jewish law without actually believing that law to be directly revealed by God. To obey the Mizwot without this basic feeling means to abandon both them and oneself to an autonomous ethic. The relation to the Absolute is a relation of the whole man, undivided in mind and soul. To cut off the actions that express this relation from the affirmation of the whole human mind means to profane them. The image of man toward which we strive is one in which conviction and will, personality and its deed are one and indivisible. (Reden über das Judentum, op. cit., ‘Cheruth’ [1919], pp. 202-209, 217-224.)

The dogmatists of the law reply to Buber that spirit remains a shadow and command an empty shell if one does not lend them life and consciousness from the fountain of Jewish tradition. Otherwise, they say, your direction will be self-will and arbitrariness rather than what is necessary. How can you decide between that part of God’s word which appears to you fresh and applicable and that which appears to you old and worn out? Buber answers this challenge in terms of the ‘holy insecurity’ which makes one willing to risk oneself ever again without hoping to find once for all a secure truth.

O you secure and safe ones who hide yourselves behind the defence-works of the law so that you will not have to look into God’s abyss! Yes, you have secure ground under your feet while we hang suspended, looking out over the endless deeps. But we would not exchange our dizzy insecurity and our poverty for your security and abundance. For to you God is one who created once and not again; but to us God is he who ‘renews the work of creation every day.’ To you God is one who revealed himself once and no more; but to us he speaks out of the burning thorn-bush of the present . . . in the revelations of our innermost hearts -- greater than words.

We know of his will only the eternal; the temporal we must command for ourselves, ourselves imprint his wordless bidding ever anew in the stuff of reality.... In genuine life between men the new word will reveal itself to us. First we must act, then we shall receive: from out of our own deed. (Ibid., ‘Der heilige Weg’ [1919], pp. 65, 71 [my translation]).

There is a significant continuity between Buber’s present attitude and that of these early essays. To Buber Zionism represents the opportunity of the people to continue its ancient existence on the land which has been interrupted by the generations of exile. This implies that Jewish existence in the diaspora from the time of the exile to the present cannot be understood as Judaism in the full sense of the term. The religious observances developed in the exile have the character, in Buber’s opinion, of conserving what was realized in the Jewish state before the exile. Following Moses Hess, he holds that the spirit of the old Jewish institutions which is presented by these obsenances will have the power to create new laws in accordance with the needs of the time and the people once it is able to develop freely again on the soil of Palestine. (Israel and Palestine, p. 122.)

Buber’s position on the law has been interpreted by many, such as the Orthodox leader Jacob Rosenheim, as a dangerous glorification of subjective feeling at the expense of the objective content of actions.) Jacob Rosenheim, Beiträge zur Orientierung im jüdischen Geistesleben der Gegenwart (Zurich: Verlag ‘A’zenu,’ 5680, 1920), pp. 10, 19-23, 27 ff.) This criticism reveals a total misunderstanding of Buber’s philosophy of dialogue which is, as we have seen, a narrow ridge between the abysses of objectivism on the one side and subjectivism on the other. Even some critics who accept the fundamental reality of the I-Thou relation as ‘the centre of any genuine religious experience’ treat ‘revelation’ as the objective -- ‘the act of God whereby He has disclosed the way and destiny of Israel’ -- and meeting, or the I-Thou relation, as the subjective -- ‘the act of man whereby that destiny and its divine source are drawn into the inner life of the individual.’ Man’s response to God thus becomes subjective ‘apprehension’ of an objective truth, and the objectified law becomes more important than the relation with God itself. (Arthur A. Cohen, ‘Revelation and Law, Reflections on Martin Buber’s Views on Halakah,’ Judaism, Vol. I, No. 3 [July 1952], pp. 250-256. For a fuller criticism of Cohen see my article, ‘Revelation and Law in the Thought of Martin Buber,’ Judaism, Vol. III, No. I [Winter 1954], p. 16. For an attitude similar to Cohen’s see Will Herberg’s treatment of the law in Judaism and Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, 1951]).

Another not infrequent misunderstanding of Buber’s attitude toward the law is that it is in reality a form of antinomianism. Here as elsewhere those who think exclusively in terms of either-or find it very difficult to follow Buber’s thought. What Buber is really stressing is the danger of ‘anticipated objectification’ -- the danger of preventing the personal renewal of the instruction when it becomes objectified and rigid as it inevitably must.)From a statement made by Professor Buber at a small discussion group in New York City, December 1951.)Personal responsibility is as far from lawlessness on the one side as it is from rigidified formal law on the other. The history of antinomian sects and movements, Buber writes, shows clearly that the isolated divine freedom abolishes itself when it rebels against divine law. ‘Without law, that is, without any clear-cut and transmissible line of demarcation between that which is pleasing to God and that which is displeasing to Him, there can be no historical continuity of divine rule upon earth.’ The reciprocity between man and God implies, however, that the divine law must be freely apprehended by one’s own act. (Moses, op. cit., p. 187 f.; Eclipse of God, ‘Religion and Ethics,’ p. 129 f.) This in no way implies the position of the antinomians who claim that the law as such displaces freedom and the spirit and therefore ought to be replaced by them.

The true argument of the rebellion is that in the world of the law what has been inspired always becomes emptied of the spirit, but that in this state it continues to maintain its claim of full inspiration; or, in other words, that the living element always dies off but that thereafter what is left continues to rule over living men. And the true conclusion is that the law must again and again immerse itself in the consuming and purifying fire of the spirit, in order to renew itself and anew refine the genuine substance out of the dross of what has become false. (Moses, p. 188.)

Franz Rosenzweig has written the best-known and most persuasive criticism of Buber’s position on the law. In ‘Die Bauleute’ Rosenzweig makes clear that his support of the law is based upon the covenant that God has made, not with our fathers, ‘but with us, us, these here today, us all, the living.’ The content of the teaching must be transformed into the power of our actions; general law must become personal command. The selection of that part of the law which the individual shall perform is an entirely individual one since it depends not upon the will but upon what one is able to do. This selection cannot err for it is based upon obedience of the whole person rather than arbitrary choice. (Franz Rosenzweig, ‘Die Bauleute. "Über das Gesetz." An Martin Buber.’ Kleinere Schriften, op. cit., pp. 109-117, 120.)

In his reply to ‘Die Bauleute’ Buber makes a distinction between revelation and the giving of the law which Rosenzweig has failed to make: ‘I do not believe that revelation is ever lawgiving, and in the fact that lawgiving always comes out of it, I see the fact of human opposition, the fact of man.’ Rosenzweig recognizes the importance of making the law one’s own, but he affirms the whole of the law to be divine prior to this personal appropriation, while Buber cannot. Rosenzweig accepts the command as from God and leaves open the question of whether the individual can fulfill it, whereas Buber remains close to the dialogue and makes the real question whether it really is a command of God to oneself. To Buber the law cannot be accepted unless it is believed in, and it cannot be believed in as something general or universal but only as an embodiment of a real address by God to particular individuals. ‘Is that said to me, really to me?’ Buber asks. On this basis he can at times join himself to the Israel to whom a particular law is addressed and many times not. ‘And if I could with undivided heart name anything mitzwa (Divine command or prescription.) in my own life, it is just this, that I thus do and thus leave undone.’ (Martin Buber, ‘Offenbarung und Gesetz’ [from letters to Franz Rosenzweig], Almanach des Schocken Verlags auf das Jahr 5697 (1936-37), pp. 149-153 [my translation]. [The dates of the letters are 1/10/22; 1/7/24- 5/7/24.] Cf. Franz Rosenzweig, Briefe, ed. by Edith Rosenzweig with the co-operation of Ernst Simon [Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1935], # 399 To Martin Buber [16/7/24], p. 504 f.; # 398 To Martin Buber[(29/6/24], p. 503 f., and # 400 To Martin Buber [July 1924], p. 505.)

Rosenzweig wished to induce Buber to accept the law as a universal. This, to Buber, would be ‘faith in a proposition’ (pistis) as opposed to that trust (emunah) which he feels to be the essence of Judaism.

The Torah of God is understood as God’s instruction in His way and therefore not as a separate objectivum. It includes laws, and laws are indeed its most vigorous objectivizations, but the Torah itself is essentially not law. A vestige of the actual speaking always adheres to the commanding word, the directing voice is always present or at least its sound is heard fading away. (Two Types of Faith, op. cit., p. 57.)

This dialogical quality of the Torah is endangered by the hardening process which brought Torah near the conception of law as an objective possession of Israel and which thereafter tends to supplant the vital contact with the ever-living revelation and instruction. The struggle against this tendency to make the keeping of rules independent of the surrender to the divine will runs through the whole history of Israelite-Jewish faith -- from the prophet’s protest against sacrifice without intention and the Pharisees’ protest against the ‘tinged-ones’ whose inwardness is a pretence up till its peculiarly modern form in Hasidism, in which every action gains validity only by a specific devotion of the whole man turning immediately to God. Thus though the tendency toward the objectivizing of the Torah gained ground in Israel from the beginning, the actuality of faith again and again liberated the living idea. ‘This inner dialectic of Having and Being is . . . the main moving force in the spiritual history of Israel.’ (Ibid., p. 58 f.)

Today, however, ‘Israel and the principle of its being have come apart.’ Despite a national home and freedom to realize itself, the rift between the people and the faith is wider than ever. (At the Turning, op. cit., p. 24) In this breaking-up of the nation and faith the purpose of becoming a holy nation is repudiated. Reform Judaism tends to look on Judaism as religious creed, Orthodox Judaism tends to look on it as religious laws, both without the real existence of a people as a people. Zionists tend to look on it as a national destiny and perhaps also a culture but not as a people embodying an essential relationship to God in the life of the community. The only remedy for this splitting-apart of nation and faith is a great renewal of the national faith.

The dialectic of Israel between those giving up themselves to guidance and those ‘letting themselves go’ must come to a decision in the souls themselves, so that the task of becoming a holy nation may set itself in a new situation and a new form suitable to it. The individuals, regenerated in the crisis, who maintain themselves in Emunah, would have fulfilled the function . . . of sustaining the living substance of faith through the darkness. (Two Types of Faith, p. 171 f.)

What it means to sustain the living substance of faith through the eclipse is perhaps best shown by Buber’s own leadership of the German Jews in their spiritual war against Naziism. After the rise of Hitler, Buber was appointed as director of the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education in Germany, where ‘he was responsible for the training of teachers for the new schools which had to be established as a result of the exclusion of Jewish students from all German educational institutions.’ He also helped guide the teaching, learning, and training activities of the numerous Jewish youth organizations, and he headed the Frankfurter Jüdische Lehrhaus, a free college for Jewish adult education. (Wolf, ‘Martin Buber and German Jewry,’p. 351.)

From these central and strategic positions, Buber directed his spiritual energies to the remotest corners of the Jewish community. To the thousands who were reached and electrified by his words it meant the difference between the suffering of a meaningless fate and the liberating insight into the ultimate triumph of Jewish spirit which knows no defeat.... He was able to save many from spiritual despair. (Ibid., p. 351 f.)

Martin Buber led a whole community of Jews to a deeper affirmation of their Jewishness, Ernest Wolf concludes. And Jacob Minkin writes:

He counselled, comforted, raised their dejected spirits.... Perhaps not many of those who listened to him survived the fiendish slaughter, but if they perished, they died with a firmer faith in their hearts and a deeper conviction in their minds of their people’s spiritual destiny. Martin Buber had taught them to die as Jews had always died -- sanctifying the Name. (Jacob S. Minkin, ‘The Amazing Martin Buber,’ Congress Weekly, Vol. XVI (January 17, 1949), p. 10 ff.)

In the spring of 1952 Buber was awarded the Goethe Prize by the University of Hamburg for his ‘activity in the spirit of a genuine humanity’ and for ‘an exemplary cultural activity which serves the mutual understanding of men and the preservation and continuation of a high spiritual tradition.’ In accepting this award Buber recalled the number of Germans whom he knew during the time of Hitler who risked punishment and death in order to help the German Jews. ‘I see this as a more than personal manifestation and a symbolic confession,’ he wrote, ‘and accept it as such.’ This award was indeed a more than personal symbol, but it was of great personal significance as well: Martin Buber is the only person who stands in such a relation to the Germans, the Jews, and the people of the world that he might receive such a confession for his people.

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