Modernity, Faith, and Martin Buber
“I and Thou,” a short treatise by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, was published in German in 1923; by the time it appeared in English, fourteen years later, the translator could already call it “one of the epoch-making books of our generation.” When Buber died, in 1965, his Times obituary focussed mainly on this one book, crediting it with making Buber “a pioneer bridge builder between Judaism and Christianity.” Buber’s philosophy of dialogue had been enthusiastically embraced by such Protestant thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Even today, “I and Thou” remains a staple of religion courses and bookstore spirituality sections, and inspirational quotes from it—“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language”—circulate endlessly on social media.
Yet “I and Thou,” which uses a generalized, ecumenical vocabulary, has never enjoyed the same stature among Jewish readers as it has with the world at large. After Buber’s death, the novelist Chaim Potok observed, “It was a source of considerable anguish and frustration to Martin Buber that he was more appreciated by Christians than by Jews.” This was a painful irony, since few people in the twentieth century had thought more passionately about Judaism and Jewishness. Buber had written dozens of books about Jewish history, theology, mysticism, and scripture. He was an early adherent of Zionism, worked on translating the Hebrew Bible into German, and popularized Hasidic folklore; during the Nazi period, he ran a Jewish adult-education program in Germany, to sustain the morale of his persecuted people. To Jewish historians, this is the Buber who matters: the writer and teacher whose career spanned the most important events of Jewish modernity, including the end of German-Jewish civilization and the creation of the State of Israel, where he spent the final decades of his life.
“Buber was a contested figure,” Paul Mendes-Flohr writes in his new biography, “Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent” (Yale). “He evoked passionate, often conflicting opinions about his person and thought.” There were always readers who distrusted Buber’s thinking about Judaism, which was defiantly innovative and anti-traditional. Some people questioned whether he really was a major thinker or just a charismatic impresario of ideas. In the nineteen-twenties, when Judah Magnes, the chancellor of the newly founded Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, tried to hire Buber as a professor, the faculty repeatedly refused to accept him, considering him not quite a true scholar. Only in 1938, as Buber tried to leave Nazi Germany, was a chair found for him—not in religion or philosophy but in the sociology department. The snub was hard for him to bear, and he accepted the appointment only after much internal struggle.
Reading Buber, it’s not hard to understand why he might inspire suspicion. His prose, shaped by the literary tastes of the early twentieth century, tends to be high flown rather than precise. His book “Daniel” (1913) is written in a rhapsodic style that owes something to Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and something to Symbolist poetry: “Because we cannot circle above all existence—sleepless, unbroken, boundless, glowing—we content ourselves with being submerged and awakening.” Even some of his admirers admitted that they couldn’t always be sure of what he was trying to say. (“I have read it to the end and—understood nothing,” Magnes wrote after reading “Daniel.”) The American translator of “I and Thou,” Walter Kaufmann, acknowledged that Buber “tends to blur all contours in the twilight of suggestive but extremely unclear language. Most of Buber’s German readers would be quite incapable of saying what any number of passages probably mean.”
Such haziness was inevitable, because the questions Buber was trying to answer were the most ineffable ones of human life: What is the meaning of our existence? How can we achieve the feeling of wholeness that we so painfully lack? Above all, Buber asked, how do we find our way to God, now that religious belief has become so challenging for modern, educated people? Anyone who believed it was possible to give crystal-clear answers to such questions would have to be a messiah or a charlatan, and Buber was neither.
At the heart of Buber’s theology was his theory of dialogue—the idea that what matters is not understanding God in abstract, intellectual terms but, rather, entering into a relationship with him. Such a relationship, he believed, is possible only when we establish genuine relationships with one another. “Whoever goes forth to his You with his whole being and carries to it all the being of the world, finds him whom one cannot seek,” he wrote. In daily life, we usually fail to live up to this ideal. We tend to treat the people and the world around us as things to be used for our benefit. Without this mind-set, which Buber called “I-It,” there would be no science, economics, or politics. But, the more we engage in such thinking, the farther we drift from “I-You,” his term for addressing other people directly as partners in dialogue and relationship. Only when we say “You” to the world do we perceive its miraculous strangeness and, at the same time, its potential for intimacy. Indeed, it’s not only human beings who deserve to be called “You.” As Buber wrote, even a cat or a piece of mica can summon up in us the feeling of a genuine encounter with another: “When something does emerge from among things, something living, and becomes a being for me . . . it is for me nothing but You!”
This way of thinking about God and faith may seem to be remote from Judaism as most Jews traditionally understood it. But, in a sense, Buber’s rejection of Jewish orthodoxy made him a good representative of his generation of German-speaking Jews, many of whom turned decisively away from Jewish practice. Buber was born in 1878 in Vienna. The course of his life was changed when he was three years old, when his mother ran away with a Russian officer, leaving without saying goodbye to her son. Mendes-Flohr emphasizes that this early loss left Buber with a lifelong feeling of abandonment, which in turn fed and shaped his religious longings. The God he describes in his work is neither a stern lawgiver nor a merciful redeemer but a close presence to whom we can always turn for intimacy. “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart,” he wrote. “But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of his eternity, you?”
His mother’s abandonment determined Buber’s fate in a more concrete way, too: he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents, in the city then known as Lemberg (today’s Lviv), the capital of the province of Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they raised him until he was an adolescent. His grandfather Salomon Buber was a wealthy philanthropist and a Jewish scholar of renown; Martin grew up in an observant household and was educated in Hebrew and in Yiddish, as well as in German. But, when he was fourteen, he moved in with his father, who had remarried and moved to Lemberg. This household was more secular and assimilated, and Buber stopped observing most Jewish customs. By sixteen, he was ripe for rebellion: he recalled feeling “a raging hatred of the entire nauseating atmosphere in which I lived, a wrathful aversion against the official morality, the official education.”
Like many young people of his era, Buber kindled to the writings of Nietzsche. As a teen-ager, he came to school every day carrying a copy of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” and for the rest of his life he was influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas about the need to create new values and to seek intense experiences. But his rebellion was not only intellectual: as a twenty-one-year-old student, Buber fell in love with a Christian fellow-student, Paula Winkler, who herself became a significant writer, and they had two children out of wedlock. In time, they married—they remained a loving couple until her death, in 1958—and she converted to Judaism. But he kept the relationship secret for a long time, so as not to risk losing his family’s financial support.
Having private means enabled Buber to devote himself to a life of ideas. Handsome and delicate—he stood no taller than five feet two—he was a charismatic presence. A student at the University of Vienna, where his studies included philosophy, literature, and art history, he also spent a few semesters in Zurich, Leipzig, and Berlin, and his circle came to include various kinds of rebels, such as proto-New Agers living in communes. One of his closest friends was Gustav Landauer, a Jewish intellectual who took part in the socialist revolution in Bavaria after the First World War and was murdered by counter-revolutionary soldiers. Buber cut a thoroughly bohemian figure, and it would hardly have been surprising if, like Landauer, he had lost interest in his ancestors’ faith.
Instead, as his thinking grew more radical, his engagement with Jewish politics and history deepened. He became a supporter of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement shortly after it was founded, in 1897, even serving as editor of the official Zionist newspaper for a short period. In 1902, he co-founded a Jewish publishing house, which produced German translations of many important works in Hebrew and in Yiddish. (Later, during the First World War, Buber also launched an influential monthly journal, Der Jude.)
By the age of thirty, then, Buber was a leading figure among what Mendes-Flohr calls the “nonacademic literati”— he was what we might call a public intellectual. But, although he became perhaps the most famous Jewish thinker and writer in Germany, Buber separated himself from institutional religious life. He avoided synagogue even on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. When he was reproached for this on one occasion, he replied, “It is more difficult for me not to observe Yom Kippur than it would be to observe it.” In other words, his rejection of Jewish orthodoxy was not a matter of convenience—still less of assimilation—but of religious principle.
Buber drew a distinction between religion—a body of received beliefs and rituals—and what he called “religiosity,” the molten spiritual core from which religions are born. Traditional Judaism held that living according to law was itself a source and an expression of spiritual fervor. But Buber was convinced that Orthodox Judaism was no longer a real option for people like him. “Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them or no longer wants to comply with them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue,” he wrote. This equation of truth with creativity was something that Buber learned from Nietzsche, and it marked a radically new way of thinking about Judaism. Truth was no longer a question of what had happened in history—for instance, whether God had really given Moses a set of laws on Mt. Sinai—but of what would best be able to sustain the Jewish people in the future. To preserve Jewish religiosity, Buber was willing to sacrifice much of the Jewish religion.
What twentieth-century Judaism needed, Buber believed, was to find inspiration in the moments of its history when the divine spoke directly to the people. In his view, three such moments were supremely important. One was the age of the Biblical prophets, who preached divine justice against the backsliding of the people and the arrogance of the powerful. Another was the birth of Hasidism, in the eighteenth century, which used a fervent democratic mysticism to wrest authority away from Judaism’s learned élite. Starting in 1906, Buber published translations and adaptations of Hasidic legends, which caused a sensation among German Jews, who had long looked down on what they considered ancestral superstitions. Hasidism, Buber insisted, was nothing for modern Jews to be ashamed of—it was one of the world’s great spiritual traditions.
The third of Buber’s Jewish inspirations was the most surprising: the teachings of Jesus. Buber held that it was a mistake to see Jesus as the founder of a new Christian religion. He was, rather, a quintessentially Jewish teacher, whose moral passion and poetic creativity made him an heir to Isaiah and to Jeremiah. In Buber’s view, the core of Jesus’ teaching was that “God wants to be realized within the world and its worldliness through their purification and perfection.” Here is the point of connection between Judaism and Buber’s theology of dialogue: the world is holy because it is where we can encounter God. That is why any theology or politics that seeks to bring this world to an end—through an apocalyptic transformation or a total revolution—is fundamentally opposed to Buber’s Jewish ideal.
It is no wonder that a theologian who saw Jesus as quintessentially Jewish should be controversial among Jews. But Buber’s goal was not to undermine Judaism; instead, he wanted to redefine it in ways that would make it intellectually compelling and spiritually fulfilling. That is what made him such an important influence on a generation of young German Jews for whom religion was a source of bitter conflict. Buber promised that they did not have to become German, as assimilated Jews sought to do. He taught that being Jewish was itself a way of being modern.
“Why do we call ourselves Jews?” he demanded, in one of a series of lectures to the members of a Jewish student group in Prague. “Only out of inherited custom—because our fathers did so? Or out of our own reality?” Buber exhorted his listeners—who included the then unknown Franz Kafka—not to abandon their Judaism but to reinvent it: “To be a Jew truly from within, to live as a Jew with all the contradiction, all the tragedy, and all the future promise of his blood.” When these lectures were published, in 1911, as “Three Addresses on Judaism,” they had an electrifying effect. Among their readers was the young Gershom Scholem, who was to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest Jewish scholars and thinkers. “The voice speaking from [Buber’s] books,” he recalled, “was promising, demanding, fascinating, uncovering the hidden life beneath the frozen official forms, uncovering its hidden treasures. . . . He demanded attachment to and identification with the heart of the people.”
This emphasis on the heart of the Jewish people was at the core of Buber’s idiosyncratic Zionism, which was cultural rather than political. Despite his early support for the movement, he was a poor fit for an organization dedicated to a concrete territorial goal—the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Buber supported this aim, but only as a means to the end he really cared about: the spiritual and cultural renaissance of the Jewish people. In the “Three Addresses,” he insisted that, although “a central Jewish settlement in Palestine would undoubtedly have great significance,” it could not “beget the only things from which I expect the absolute to emerge—return and transformation, and a change in all elements of life.”
Buber’s unease with Zionism grew as the prospect of a Jewish state became more real. In 1917, when the Zionists were celebrating Britain’s endorsement of their aims in the Balfour Declaration, Buber objected that he did not envision the redemption of the Jews as something that could be achieved through political victories. Later, after Buber moved to Jerusalem, in 1938, he opposed a Jewish declaration of statehood, arguing that Palestine should become a binational state shared by Arabs and Jews. And, after the State of Israel came into being, in 1948, Buber continued to criticize its policies and its leadership on many issues—including, especially, its treatment of Arab refugees—becoming a thorn in the side of David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister.
Characteristically, though, Buber would not renounce the Zionist ideal just because he was disappointed in its reality. “I have accepted as mine the State of Israel, the form of the new Jewish community that has arisen,” he reportedly told a friend. “But he who will truly serve the spirit . . . must seek to free once again the blocked path to an understanding with the Arab peoples.” Like other liberal Zionists then and since, Buber found himself exposed to criticism from all sides. In Israel, he was famous but unpopular, suspected of disloyalty to the Jewish community. “Whether on the street or in a café, among the intellectuals of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,” a disappointed follower told him, “nowhere did I hear a kind word about Martin Buber.” The man also upbraided him for displaying a cross in his house. (The offending item, Buber explained, was actually a Piranesi engraving of a church.)
Meanwhile, Buber also had to face progressives and pacifists who condemned Zionism altogether. In 1939, he engaged in a polemic with Gandhi, who had published a statement saying that Zionism was an injustice to the Arabs of Palestine, and also recommending that the Jews of Nazi Germany stay there and resist by means of nonviolent satyagraha, or “soul force.” The agonized open letter Buber wrote in response explained that, although such a course might work against the British Empire, against Hitler it was meaningless: “An effective stand in the form of non-violence may be taken against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them to their senses; but a diabolic universal steamroller cannot thus be withstood.” Buber insisted that Zionism was not an aggressive or violent movement. “No one who counts himself in the ranks of Israel can desire to use force,” he wrote. This was its own kind of wishful thinking, and Buber admitted that his attitude toward violence involved a contradiction: “We should be able even to fight for justice—but to fight lovingly.”
Buber’s escape to Jerusalem underscored the need for a refuge for Jews. Had he remained in Germany, he surely would have perished in the Holocaust. Instead, he went on to live for another twenty-seven productive years, in Palestine and in Israel. Yet the destruction of the Jews of Europe also destroyed the basis of much of Buber’s work. He had hoped to provide modern European Jews with a sustaining connection to their tradition, and now those Jews were almost all dead or scattered. He had preached the importance of saying “You,” but the Holocaust represented the ultimate triumph of the “It,” reducing human beings to mere things.
In old age, Buber was the perfect image of a sage, with twinkling eyes and a white beard. Mendes-Flohr opens his book by recounting a perhaps apocryphal story of children pointing at Buber in the street and calling him God. Late in life, when he was living in Jerusalem, he was visited by a stream of young kibbutz members seeking solutions to their religious quandaries. Buber responded by denying that he had anything to teach. “I do not know what ideas are,” he claimed. “Whoever expects of me a doctrine . . . will invariably be disappointed.” His words sound like the utterance of a Zen master contemplating a koan, and, indeed, Buber had long been fascinated by Taoism and Buddhism. The best way to understand Buber, ultimately, may be not as a thinker but as a seeker—a religious type that became common in the twentieth century, as many Europeans and Americans turned to Eastern faiths or modern ideologies in their search for meaning.
In 1951, Buber delivered a series of three lectures in New York that served as a pendant to the Prague lectures he had given forty years earlier. In the intervening decades, the position of the Jews had changed more dramatically than in any comparable span of time in the previous two thousand years, and Buber had witnessed those changes at first hand. As a young man, he had sounded a call to rally the Jewish spirit; now he pondered whether Judaism had a future at all. “How is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?” he asked. “The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep.”
Yet Buber remained convinced that the human need for a relationship with God was indestructible. That is why he hoped to speak not just to Jews but to a whole broken world. For all of us, he wrote, the question we ask “in the innermost recesses of the heart” is the same: “Can you teach me to believe?” ♦