Chapter 5: Philosophy of Judaism

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

Chapter 5: Philosophy of Judaism

The two great movements which revolutionized Judaism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the Haskalah, or enlightenment, and Hasidism. At its outset the rational Haskalah turned naturally to western Europe for its inspiration and looked with contempt on the emotional Hasidim. In the same way early Hasidism found in the skeptical and intellectual Haskalah an even greater opponent than traditional Rabbinism. It was only in the wave of a new renaissance that these two movements flowed together, and it was in Buber that this synthesis reached both depth and completeness. (Kohn, op. cit. pp. 13-15)

Buber’s early essays on Judaism set forth with marked clarity the concern for personal wholeness, for the realization of truth in life, and for the joining of spirit and of basic life energies which consistently appears in all of his later writings and determines, as much as any other element of his thought, his attitude toward evil. Almost every important statement which he makes in these early writings about the psychology of the Jewish people (their dynamism, their concern with relation, their inner division, their desire for realization and unity), he later translates into his general philosophy.

The primary task of the Jewish movement, writes Buber, is the removal of the schism between thought and action and the re-establishment of the unified personality who creates out of a single ardour of will. The truly creative person is not the intellectual, nor is he simply the artist. He is the strong and many-sided man in whom human happenings stream together in order to attain new developments in spirit and deed. The redeeming affirmation of a conflict is the essence of all creativity; in the creative person a deep inner division is brought to harmony. To effect this harmony the creative person must have roots in a people through whom he is enriched and fortified. Today faith lies to life and does violence to its surging meanings. But for him who has lost his God the folk can be a first station on his new way. Today Satan tempts the creative man to lose himself in the inessential, to roam about in the great confusion in which all human clarity and definiteness has ceased. The creative kingdom is there where form and formation thrive, and rootedness is a mighty helper to the individual to remain therein. (Die jüdische Bewegung. Gesammelte Aufsätze und Ansprachen, Vol. I, 190014 [Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1916], pp. 12-15, 52, 66-73.)

Man experiences the fullness of his inner actuality and possibility as a living substance which pulls toward opposite poles; he experiences his inner way as a traveling from crossroad to crossroad. In no men was and is this basic duality so central and dominant as in the Jews, and in consequence nowhere has there been such a monstrous and wonderful paradox as the striving of the Jews for unity. For the ancient Jew objective being is unity and Satan a servant of God. It is man’s subjective being which is cleaved, fallen, become inadequate and ungodlike. Redemption takes place through the creature’s overcoming his own inner duality. The true meaning of the Galut, the exile of the Jews, is the falling away from the ancient striving for unity into an unproductive spirituality and intellectuality divorced from life. As a result Judaism split into two antagonistic sides: an official, uncreative side and an underground of Jewish heretics and mystics who carried forward in glowing inwardness the ancient striving for unity. (Martin Buber, ‘Das Judentum und die Menscheit,’ Drei Reden über das Judentum [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening, 1911], pp. 35-56. The essays in Drei Reden are also included in a collected edition, Reden über das Judentum [Frankfurt am Main: Rütten & Loening, 1923, Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1932])

The spiritual process of Judaism manifests itself in history as the striving after an ever more perfect realization of three interrelated ideas: the idea of unity, the idea of the deed, and the idea of the future. The Jew has always been more concerned with the whole than with the parts, with movement than with the senses, with time than with space. For this reason he has always considered the deed and not faith to be the decisive relation between man and God. These three ideas of unity, the deed, and the future are interrelated through Buber’s emphasis on a dynamic realization of the unconditional in the lives of men. Unity is not a static refusal to change, but unity in change. Action is not a reliance on external deeds and formal laws; it is the action of the total being. The future is not the end of time but the fullness of time, not the transcending of the world and mankind but fulfillment through the world and through mankind -- it is a fulfillment of the unconditioned will of God in the conditioned lives of men. (‘Die Erneuerung des Judentums,’ Drei Reden, op. cit., pp. 75-96.)

Sin is living divided and unfree, and it is the indolence and decisionlessness which makes this possible. Decisionlessness allows one to be conditioned and acted upon, for without decision one’s power remains undirected. It is, therefore, just this failure to direct one’s inner power which is the inmost essence of evil. In the soul which decides with its whole being there is unity of power and direction -- the undiminished force of the passionate impulse and the undiverted rectitude of intention. There is no impulse that is evil in itself; man makes it so when he yields to it instead of controlling it. The Mishnah interprets the command ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ as loving God with both the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ impulses; this means loving Him with and through the act of decision, so that the ardour of passion is transformed and enters with its whole power into the single deed.

Decision is the realization on earth of divine freedom and unconditionality. Not the material of an action but the strength of the decision which brings it forth and the dedication of the intention which dwells in it determine whether it will flow off into the kingdom of things or press into the All-holy. The name of the act of decision in its last intensity is teshavah, turning. Teshavah means the caesura of a human life, the renewing revolution in the middle of the course of an existence. When in the middle of ‘sin,’ in decisionlessness, the will awakes to decision, the integument of ordinary life bursts and the primeval force breaks through and storms upward to heaven. When man has raised the conditioned in himself to the unconditioned, his action works on the fate of God. Only for him who lets things happen and cannot decide is God an unknown being who transcends the world. For him who chooses, God is the nearest and most trusted of things. Whether God is ‘transcendent’ or ‘immanent’ thus does not depend on God; it depends on men. (‘Der Geist des Orients und das Judentum’ and ‘Jüdische Religiosität,’ Reden über das Judentum, op. cit., pp. 81-84, 103-113. These essays were originally published together with ‘Der Mythos der Juden’ in Vom Geist des Judentums [Leipzig: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1916])

Thus in Buber’s early philosophy of Judaism good is identified with decision of the whole being, evil with the directionlessness that results from failure to decide. Every important step forward in the development of Buber’s philosophy is reflected in his philosophy of Judaism. His existentialism, his philosophy of community, his religious socialism, and his dialogical philosophy all develop within his philosophy of Judaism as well as outside of it. There is, thus, an essential unity of what are in Buber’s writings two separate streams of developing thought.