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Born: 1878, Vienna, Austria

Died: 1965, Jerusalem, Israel

Major Works: I and Thou (1923)

Major Ideas

The I-Thou approach to relationships is the only way people can be fully authentic; only a part of our being is expressed in the I-It relationship.

Scripture and biblical commentary are of great importance but are not infallible.

Religious law is not immutable but applicable to the times of its formulation.

Zionism must incorporate Arabs as well as Jews.

Cooperative efforts, such as in the ideal kibbutzim, are to be encouraged, but collectivism is dangerous.

A German-Jewish religious philosopher, Martin Buber, born in Vienna was a master prose stylist (in his native German) whose achievements included biblical translation and commentary, social reforms, and educational innovations. He studied at a number of top European universities, became a Zionist (though of a rather independent cast), edited several important journals, and embraced Hasidism. Active in adult Jewish education and in opposing Nazi nationalism, he migrated to Palestine in 1938, where he taught at Hebrew University. He was engaged in promoting the idea of the Israeli kibbutz and centered his philosophic teachings around the concept of dialogue--between persons and God, and among persons themselves. There are many facets to the development of his influential thought but none is better regarded than what is popularly known as his "teachings" on the I-Thou dialogue between persons and between the individual and God.

I and Thou

This fundamental teaching, which is found in all of his work, stems from the insight that in relating to things or objects, I do so quite differently from the way that I respond to a person (a "Thou") who addresses me and to whom I wish to relate. Inanimate objects are observed, Buber writes, while persons are spoken to, sincerely communicated with. He cautions that an inadequate relationship results not in the realization of an I-Thou ideal but rather in the more objective--and therefore less desirable--I-It relationship. If we take a less than fully "personal" interest in another, the result will be in an I-It class. If, for instance, I deal with my superior at work on the basis of that man or woman's likelihood of giving me a promotion rather than from a genuine concern for our human relationship, then the result is I-It. The same will be true if a repairman is treated by me solely in his job capacity or a doctor is considered only as a healer, excluding the possibility of my encountering that person's humanity on an obviously deeper level.

The preferred relational level is that of the I-Thou, which signifies a kind of cosmic comprehension of the entire universe. The Thou that I thus encounter is not an object, not a single thing noticed out of the many other possible things I might notice. Rather, the entire universe is grasped in the acceptance of the Thou--not vice versa. Not only, says Buber, is my relationship to the universe changed in each of my I-Thou encounters, but the "I" changes as well. The I of the I-Thou partnership can itself never be an object. Buber's I is understood only in the context of a relationship. If it is in an I-It relationship, the I here exists with only a portion of myself in it. By definition, then, there is a part of me that must be observer in the I-It context, a part of me that must stand outside the relationship to pass a judgment on it.

Contrariwise, the I of the I-Thou situation is a totally involved, totally committed I. Buber argues that God is the archetypical Thou, the basis on which the human I-Thou is modeled. Nor does Buber limit this idea to human encounters. While recognizing that the I-Thou is almost nonexistent below the animal level, Buber holds for the possibility of a measure of ideal interaction with an animal, but such interaction is quite possible (although rare enough) on the person-to-person level. On the highest plane, the human-with-God meeting must be on the I-Thou level from the human perspective. Buber insists that God must be encountered and experienced in dialogue, not merely as thought of and spoken to.

Most relationships are entered into without the fullness of being of both parties. Great loves, great friendships are very rare. Usually we hold back from total involvement for one reason or another and enter into a relationship only with some deep reservations, There is a fear of risk on the part of the person since, again by definition, there is no holding part of the self back in the I-Thou encounter; one commits one's total being. No defense mechanisms are held in reserve--the risk involved is that of the complete I.

There are a number of implications in accepting Buber's position here. One important feature is that the I-It relationship is necessarily one of the past. All knowledge that is objective (and that is what the I-It has to be) is knowledge about one's past, whereas the I-Thou relationship is experienced exclusively in the present. One explanation of this is that in the I-Thou relationship each participant must be willing to accept whatever response is made by the person with whom one is relating. This means that each must be a true listener, a woman or man who will not attempt to predict the response of another but listen clearly without any previous judgment interfering with the hearing.

Buber and Hasidism

Born in 1878, Buber was the child of Jewish parents who were assimilated. His mother left the family when Martin was three years old and the boy was raised then by his grandparents in an area now known as the Ukraine. Critics have noted that one of the important influences on the development of Buber's theory of dialoguing resulted from his search for his absent mother. Buber's grandparents provided him with a background that prepared him for his study of philosophy and art, which he pursued in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The grandfather was a wealthy man very much interested in rabbinical Hebrew tradition and linguistics. His grandmother believed in the need to modernize nineteenth-century Jewish culture.

While Buber's doctoral dissertation centered on the thought of two important Christian mystics, Nicholas of Cusa and Jakob Boehme, it was the nihilism and skepticism of modern culture of Friedrich Nietzsche that most gained his attention. It was at this time, at the exact turn of the century, that Buber became a Zionist and editor of the Zionist weekly magazine, The World (Die Welt). This was at the invitation of the Zionist movement's founder Theodore Herzl in 1901.

But Buber did not remain editor a full year because Herzl's approach to establishing a homeland for the world's scattered Jews was significantly different from Buber's. Herzl emphasized the need for diplomacy to establish a Jewish homeland, while Buber insisted on the need for spiritual renewal and the immediate establishment of agricultural settlements in Palestine. Later, in 1916, Buber was to found his own, very influential journal, The Jew (Der Jude), which was widely read by Jewish intellectuals throughout the world. It was in these pages that Buber promulgated his idea that was to prove so controversial to many Jews and others--that a binational state be formed in Palestine based on the cooperation of Arabs and Jews.

It was also at the turn of the century that Martin Buber began to seriously study Hasidism. Based on the tradition founded by Israel Ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Toy) in Russia in the eighteenth century--of whose life little is known--Hasidism may be regarded as an eastern European religious-mystical-revival movement. The word Hasid is Hebrew for "pious one" and emphasizes the joy of religion as expressed in singing and in dancing, stressing religious commitment, the spiritual life, devotion to good deeds, and adherence to customs, laws, and traditions.

Buber saw in Hasidism a revitalization of Judaism that would--again paralleling his dialogic approach as manifested in the ideal I-Thou relationship--restore a proper balance to human beings in their encounters with God, with each other, and with nature He wanted Zionism to reflect this "healing" just as Hasidism attempted to do in the eighteenth century. In his volume Paths in Utopia (1947), Buber claimed that in the Israeli kibbutz--an agricultural community of cooperating volunteers working in a natural environment--a kind of utopian socialism could be realized but was falling short of the ideal. While he did not label such experiments as failures, he did express disappointment over the fact that the majority of kibbutz dwellers neglected the person-God relationship, partly because they were alienated by inadequate representations of God rather than by the living God himself, who is beyond any representation.

By the middle 1930s, Buber became a major Jewish educational force in Germany. Under the Nazis, he was the director of the entire Jewish adult education program in Germany, where he courageously spoke out against Adolf Hitler's brand of nationalism. The Nazis so restricted his freedom that Buber chose to emigrate to Palestine in his sixtieth year. There he proved again to be an active and influential teacher. He held the post of professor of social philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem until his retirement in 1951.

He was chosen the first president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Arts and helped to found the Teachers Training College for Adult Education, which concentrated on developing teachers for the great number of immigrants entering the newly established state of Israel. Part of Buber's success in this area was due to his ability to gain the respect and cooperation of those whose religious and political views differed from his own. This was a monumental achievement, particularly considering Buber's attitude toward a legalism in Judaism which he found objectionable. He taught that revelation can never be regarded in terms of law. Biblical laws are only a human response to revelation and thus have application to the periods in which they are formulated but are not obligations placed on future generations, which will need to make their own responses. Politically, he was also able to work with Zionists who rejected his cooperative efforts aimed at harmonizing Arab-Jewish relations. (At his funeral in 1965, Ara b students publicly honored Buber in a very unusual display of respect.)

Toward the end of his life, Buber became interested in psychotherapy. Not surprisingly, Buber wrote of the dialogue aspects of that discipline, emphasizing the need for the patient and therapist to speak and hear each other, and warning the therapist not to remain cloaked in the mantle of a "school" and thus inhibit the dialogue possibilities.

Buber has had a large impact on such Christian thinkers as Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel, Ernst Michel, J. H. Oldham, and others, in spite of his insistence that Judaism has most emphasized the spiritual force of the God-man concept. He was critical of certain aspects of Protestantism that teach passivity of human beings in their relationship to God, and he rejected the ideas of some Catholic theologians who held that Judaism somehow was ignoring the concept of the grace of God.

Further Reading

Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Considered the best work on Buber in English, this volume includes an excellent bibliography.

____. Martin Buber's Life and Works, New York: E. P. Dutton. Vol. 1, The Early Years, 1878-1923 (1981); vol. 2, The Middle Years, 1923-1945 (1983); vol. 3, The Later Years, 1945-1965 (1984). This is the definitive biography of Buber in English.

Vermes, Pamela. Buber. New York: Grove Press, 1988. A nonscholarly introduction to the life and Thought of Buber's central ideas as well as his impact on Christian thinkers.

Urs von Balthasar, Hans. Martin Buber and Christianity. London: Harvill, 1961. A critical but appreciative study of Buber's teachings by one of Europe's most widely respected Catholic theologians.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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