Chapter 1: The Narrow Ridge

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

Chapter 1: The Narrow Ridge

‘I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the "narrow ridge,"’ writes Buber. ‘I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed.’ (Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, trans. by Ronald Gregor Smith [London: Kegan Paul, 1947] p.184). Perhaps no other phrase so aptly characterizes the quality and significance of Martin Buber’s life and thought as this one of the ‘narrow ridge.’ It expresses not only the ‘holy insecurity’ of his existentialist philosophy but also the ‘I-Thou,’ or dialogical, philosophy which he has formulated as a genuine third alternative to the insistent either-or’s of our age. Buber’s ‘narrow ridge’ is no ‘happy middle’ which ignores the reality of paradox and contradiction in order to escape from the suffering they produce. It is rather a paradoxical unity of what one usually understands only as alternatives -- I and Thou, love and justice, dependence and freedom, the love of God and the fear of God, passion and direction, good and evil, unity and duality.

According to the logical conception of truth only one of two contraries can be true, but in the reality of life as one lives it they are inseparable. The person who makes a decision knows that his deciding is no self-delusion; the person who has acted knows that he was and is in the hand of God. The unity of the contraries is the mystery at the innermost core of the dialogue. (Martin Buber, Israel and the World, Essays in a Time of Crisis [New York: Schocken Books, 1948], ‘The Faith of Judaism,’ p.17.).

In the light of this quality in Buber’s thought, it is not surprising that many find his works difficult to understand. Most of us approach a book expecting little other than an extension and application of concepts which we already possess or at the most a stretching of these concepts through the introduction of new perspectives. We find it painful, therefore, to come up against a thinker like Buber who questions the fundamental channels of our thinking and forces us to think -- if we are to follow him at all -- in radically other ways.

The German theologian Karl Heim wrote in 1934 that every age has a vital question that particularly belongs to it. To Heim the question for our age is that of the transcendence versus the immanence of God. For others the issue is naturalism versus anti-naturalism or ‘humanitarian’ religion and ethics versus the ‘authoritarian.’ Not only in philosophy and theology, but in education, art, politics, economics, and, in fact, every important field of thought, the typical pattern of our age is the increasing division of issues into conflicting and irreconcilable opposites. Thus in education ‘objective’ classical education battles with education for the individual or education based on ‘subjective’ interest. Again, science and religion or science and the humanities are set in opposition to each other, or the relation between them is falsified by still another pair of opposites: an objective ‘scientific truth’ and a subjective ‘poetic truth.’ In aesthetics art tends to be looked at as imitation of ‘objective’ reality or as ‘subjective’ expression. In politics civilization itself is threatened by a growing rift between democracy and communism -- with an increasingly ominous insistence that ‘peace’ is to be obtained through the universalization of one of these points of view and the complete destruction of the other. Those who resort to an analysis of the underlying causes and value presuppositions of modern man’s situation in the hope of finding there some clue for his salvation establish the either-or on still another plane: universalism versus exclusivism, knowledge versus will, error versus sin, collectivism versus individualism, environment versus heredity, reason versus emotion, discipline versus permissiveness, security versus freedom -- ‘objectivism’ versus ‘subjectivism.’

The gravest danger of these either-or’s is not the increasing division of men within and between countries into hostile and intolerant groups, nor is it even the conflict and destruction which results and seems likely to result from these divisions: It is the falsification of truth, the falsification of life itself. It is the demand that every man fit his thought and his way of life into one or the other of these hostile camps and the refusal to recognize the possibility of other alternatives which cannot be reduced to one of the two conflicting positions. In the light of this danger and its tremendous implications for our age, I should ‘venture to say that the vital need of our age is to find a way of life and a way of thought which will preserve the truth of human existence in all its concrete complexity and which will recognize that this truth is neither ‘subjective’ nor ‘objective’ -- neither reducible to individual temperament on the one hand, nor to any type of objective absolute or objective cultural relativism on the other.

In all of Martin Buber’s works we find a spiritual tension and seriousness, coupled with a breadth of scope which seeks constantly to relate this intensity to life itself and does not tolerate its limitation to any one field of thought or to thought cut off from life. More remarkable still, Buber has accomplished the rare feat of combining this breadth and intensity into an integral unity of life and thought, and he has done this without sacrificing the concrete complexity and paradoxicality of existence as he sees it. Buber’s writings are unusual in their scope and variety, dealing with topics in the fields of religion, mythology, philosophy, sociology, politics, education, psychology, art, and literature. Despite this variety, Buber’s philosophy attains a central unity which pervades all of his mature works.

Buber’s thought has had a great influence on a large number of prominent writers and thinkers in many different fields, and it seems destined to have a steadily greater influence as its implications become clearer. His influence as a person, what is more, has been almost as great as the influence of his thought. It is this integral combination of greatness as a person and as a thinker which makes Buber one of the rare personalities of our time. The characteristic of both Buber’s personality and his work, according to the German educator Karl Wilker, is ‘the greatest conceivable consciousness of responsibility.’

The more I have come to know him, not only through his works but also face to face, the more strongly I have felt that his whole personality tolerates no untruthfulness and no unclarity. There is something there that forces one to trace out the last ground of things.... He who is thus must have experienced life’s deepest essence.... He must have lived and suffered ... and he must have shared with us all our life and suffering. He must have stood his ground face to face with despair.... Martin Buber belongs to the most powerful renewal not only of a people but of mankind. (Karl Wilker, ‘Martin Buber,’ Neue Wege, Zurich, XVII, No. 4 [April 1923], 183 f. [my translation]).

The German Catholic thinkers Eugene Kogon and Karl Thieme speak of Buber in a similar fashion: ‘In everything that he writes the undertone reveals that here speaks a man of faith, and, indeed, a man of active faith.’ The most astonishing thing that one can say of Buber, they add, is that his person does not give the lie to his works. (Eugene Kogon and Karl Thieme, ‘Martin Buber,’ Frankfurter Hefte, VI, 3 [March 1951], pp. 195-199.) The socialist thinker, Dr. Heinz-Joachim Heydorn, goes even further in this direction. What makes Buber’s life great, he writes, cannot be discovered through what he has written in his books or through any sum of his sayings.

Outside of Albert Schweitzer I know no one who has realized in himself a similar great and genuine deep identity of truth and life.... This little, old man with the penetrating, incorruptible eyes has already today begun to project into the brokenness of our time like a legendary figure; he is a living proof of what this life is capable of when it wills to fulfill itself fearlessly and only in responsibility.... Buber has accomplished what one can only say of a very few: he has reached the limits of his own being . . . and through this has made the universal transparent. (Heinz-Joachim Heydorn, ‘Martin Buber und der Sozialismus,’ Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte, Vol. IV, No. 12 [December 1953], pp. 705 f., 709 [my translation]).

One who has met Buber knows that he is marked above all by simplicity, humour, seriousness, genuine listening, and an unwavering insistence on the concrete. One of the most striking testimonies to Buber as a whole man is that of Hermann Hesse, the famous Swiss novelist and poet:

Martin Buber is in my judgment not only one of the few wise men who live on the earth at the present time, he is also a writer of a very high order, and, more than that, he has enriched world literature with a genuine treasure as has no other living author -- the Tales of the Hasidim.... Martin Buber ... is the worthiest spiritual representative of Israel, the people that has had to suffer the most of all people in our time. (From a letter of Hesse to a friend explaining his nomination of Buber for a Nobel Prize in literature in 1949. Hermann Hesse, Briefe, Vol. VIII of Gesammelte Werke [Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1951], p. 324 ff. [my translation]).

Hesse’s high estimate of Buber as a literary figure has been forcefully echoed by the noted authority on Greek religion and myth Karl Kerenyi, who impressively asserts Buber’s claim to belong to the ranks of ‘classical writers’ in the fullest and deepest sense of the term. Classical writers, he says, possess the power of calling back to life and inspiriting the past and of recognizing in it a deep level of the soul. ‘They are all discoverers and conquerors, reconquerors of what has apparently been lost, and, with every discovery . . . rediscoverers of man.’ Buber brings to this task the multiple genius of one of the most gifted of living men, and the sphere of his gift is the universally human. To assess his significance for German and world literature it will be necessary to compare him with his early contemporaries, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom he shared a common atmosphere of style and spirit, but also to go far beyond this atmosphere to the world of the Hasidic Jew which Buber discovered in the fundamental sense of the term. (Karl Kerenyi, ‘Martin Buber als Klassiker,’ Neue Schweizer Rundschau, XX, 2 [June 1952], pp. 89-95, my translation. The poet Rilke wrote with enthusiasm of Buber’s Daniel [1913] and, according to the English Rilke scholar, J. B. Morse, was influenced by it in the writing of the ninth Duino Elegy. In 1950 J. B. Morse sent Professor Buber an essay on the influence of Buber’s early ideas on Rilke, but I have not been able to discover where or whether this essay was published. See Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe an seinen Verleger, pp. 180, 182.)

From the time of his earliest writings Buber has been generally recognized as a master German stylist. Buber belongs, writes Ludwig Lewisohn, ‘to the very thin front ranks of living German masters of prose.’ Buber’s books, according to the German writer Wilhelm Michel, belong stylistically to the noblest that the essay art of this time has brought forth. His style is a mature one, says Michel, one that has developed with the years and come into its own. It is the speech of an ordered and fully disciplined spirit. ‘It is rich with presence and corporeality; it has drunk much of the sensual into itself and has become dense with it. But it has remained full of deep feeling and organic; each of its forms gleams with living meaning.... It is the pure devotion to the word of a man simplified for the sake of God.’ (Ludwig Lewisohn, Rebirth, A Book of Modern Jewish Thought [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935], p. 87; Wilhelm Michel, Martin Buber, Sein Gang in die Wirklichkeit [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening, 1926], pp. 11 14.)

In the quarter of a century since Michel wrote the above characterization, the richly sensual quality of Buber’s style has tended to decrease in favour of an ever greater simplicity and concreteness on the one hand and a more considered and meditative style on the other. At the same time, even in his scholarly and philosophical works, his writing has never wholly lost that poetic and emotive quality through which he has so remarkably integrated philosophical, religious, and artistic communication into one total address to the reader. In 1954 the German poet Fritz Diettrich said of Buber’s style: ‘He has made our speech into so choice an instrument of his thought that he has taken his place by the side of Goethe and Schopenhauer as a master stylist.’

I have never yet found a passage in Buber’s works where he did not succeed in bringing even very difficult material and philosophical dicta into a framework suitable to them. The cleanness of his thought and of his style are one. From this comes the honest of his conclusions. (Fritz Diettrich, ‘Martin Buber. Die Stimme Israels,’ an address over the Stuttgart Radio, February 1954, to be published the end of 1954 [my translation]).

The integral nature of Buber’s style defies adequate translation and interpretation. None the less, even the English reader can glimpse in translation the amazing achievement of condensation, concreteness, and integrality which is found in some of the most recent of his writings: Images of Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, At the Turning, and, most especially, ‘The Way of Man’ in Hasidism and Modern Man.

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the age of fourteen in the Galician home of his grandfather, Solomon Buber, one of the last great scholars of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment). He studied philosophy and the history of art at the University of Vienna and the University of Berlin, and in 1904 he received his Ph.D. from the latter university. In his twenties he was the leader of those Zionists who advocated a Jewish cultural renaissance as opposed to purely political Zionism. In 1902 Buber helped found the Judischer Verlag, a German-Jewish publishing house, and in 1916 he founded Der Jude, a periodical which he edited until 1924 and which became under his guidance the leading organ of German-speaking Jewry. From 1926 to 1930 he published jointly with the Catholic theologian Joseph Wittig and the Protestant doctor and psychotherapist Viktor von Weizsäcker the periodical Die Kreatur, devoted to social and pedagogical problems connected with religion. Prom 1923 to 1933 Buber taught Jewish philosophy of religion and later the history of religions at the University of Frankfurt. In 1938 Buber left Germany to make his home in Palestine, and from that year through 1951 he served as professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. After he became emeritus, the government of the state of Israel asked him to double the size of the Institute for Adult Education that he founded in 1949 and directed until 1953 (‘After four years of a very vital existence, the Institute has been closed, following the cessation of mass immigration,’ Buber writes. ‘There survives a certain activity under the same name, being essentially the merit of my excellent co-worker, Dr. Gideon Freudenberg.’ From a letter from Professor Buber to the author of August 8, 1954.) This Institute trains teachers to go out to the immigration camps to help integrate the vast influx of immigrants into the already established community.

Those who have met Buber or have heard him lecture have discovered the prophetic force of his personality and the tremendous strength and sincerity of his religious conviction. Everywhere he has spoken, the arresting man with the white beard and the penetrating, yet gentle, eyes has shown those present what it means to ask ‘real questions’ and to give real answers. He has also shown again and again what it means to walk on the narrow ridge not only in one’s thinking but in the whole of one’s life. One of the foremost Zionist leaders and thinkers, he has also been the leader of those Jews who have worked for Jewish-Arab co-operation and friendship. Pioneer and still the foremost interpreter of Hasidism, he has preserved in his thinking the most positive aspects of the Jewish enlightenment, Hasidism’s traditional enemy. Translator and interpreter of the Hebrew Bible and spokesman for Judaism before the world, he has been deeply concerned since his youth with Jesus and the New Testament and has carried on a highly significant dialogue with many prominent Christian theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike.

Perhaps the most striking example of how Buber has followed the narrow ridge in his life is his attitude toward the German people after the war. He was the leader of the German Jews in their spiritual battle against Nazism, and he counts himself among ‘those who have not got over what happened and will not get over it.’ Yet on September 27, 1953, in historic Paulskirche, Frankfurt, Germany, he accepted the award of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. In his acceptance speech Buber pointed out that less than a decade before several thousand Germans killed millions of his people and fellow-believers ‘in a systematically prepared and executed procedure, the organized cruelty of which cannot be compared with any earlier historical event.’

With those who took part in this action in any capacity, I, one of the survivors, have only in a formal sense a common humanity. They have so radically removed themselves from the human sphere, so transposed themselves into a sphere of monstrous inhumanity inaccessible to my power of conception, that not even hatred, much less an overcoming of hatred, was able to arise in me. And what am I that I could here presume to ‘forgive’!

At the same time Buber pointed to other classes of Germans who knew of these happenings only by hearsay, who heard rumours but did not investigate, and some who underwent martyrdom rather than accept or participate in this murder of a whole people. The inner battle of every people between the forces of humanity and the forces of inhumanity, writes Buber, is the deepest issue in the world today, obscured though it is by the ‘cold war’ between gigantic camps. It is in the light of this issue that Buber understands both the award of the prize and his duty to accept it:

Manifestations such as the bestowal of the Hansian Goethe Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on a surviving arch-Jew. . . are moments in the struggle of the human spirit against the demonry of the subhuman and the anti-human.... The solidarity of all separate groups in the flaming battle for the becoming of one humanity is, in the present hour, the highest duty on earth. To obey this duty is laid on the Jew chosen as symbol, even there, indeed just there, where the never-to-be-effaced memory of what has happened stands in opposition to it.

(Martin Buber, Das echte Gespräch und die Möglichkeiten des Friedens, speech made by Buber on occasion of receiving the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, Frankfurt am Main, Paulskirche, September 27, 1953 [Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider Verlag, 1953], pp. 5-8. Das echte Gespräch is also found as part of Martin Buber: Fünf Ansprachen anlässlich der Verleibung des Friedenspreises des Deutschen Buchhandels [Frankfurt am Main: Börsenverein Deutscher Verleger- und Buchhandler-Verbände, 1953], pp. 33-41 [my translation]. Das echte Gespräch [‘Genuine Conversation and the Possibilities of Peace] was published in English in Martin Buber, Pointing the Way, Collected Essays, ed. and trans. by Maurice S. Friedman [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957]. [A line is missing here from this footnote. -- Online editor] misguided purists [see Dr. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin’s vitriolic attack ‘Martin Buber in St. Paul’s Church’ in the Jewish Spectator, November 1953, and my reply in the Jewish Spectator, April 1954, pp. 26 ff.], Paulskirche, Frankfurt, has not been a church for over a century. In 1848 it was the seat of the German revolutionary parliament and not long after of a congress of German rabbis!)