The Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was one of the most creative and influential religious thinkers of the 20th century. His book "I and Thou" has had a wide impact on people of all faiths.
The life and thought of Martin Buber are intimately related to the problems and the fate of modern Judaism. He experienced as a young man the spiritual estrangement and confusion which have often been the lot of modern Jews; as a Jewish scholar and teacher in Germany during the 1930s, the increasingly ruthless suppression of Jews by the Nazis; and as a Zionist, the building of the nation of Israel during and after World War II. Yet precisely in and through his reverent exploration of the Jewish tradition and his concrete identification with his people's destiny, Buber was a truly universal man whose life and insights belong to everyone.
Martin Buber was born on Feb. 8, 1878, in Vienna. When he was 3 his parents were divorced, and he was raised by his paternal grandparents in what is now Lvov in the Ukraine. The natural piety and learning of both his grandparents were an important influence on Buber, although he gave up Jewish religious practices shortly after he celebrated his bar mitzvah (at age 13).
From 1896 to 1904 Buber studied philosophy, religion, and art history at the universities of Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, and Zurich, receiving a doctorate from Vienna in 1904. His dissertation was on mysticism, which attracted him both intellectually and personally. He was also influenced by existentialism through the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky.
Although religiously estranged from Judaism, Buber as a student became a member of the Zionist movement, which sought a center and sanctuary for the world's Jews in the ancient Palestinian homeland. In 1901 Buber edited the Zionist journal Die Welt, but he soon found himself out of sympathy with the purely political program of the majority, aligning himself instead with a smaller group who believed that Zionism must be built upon a Jewish cultural and spiritual renaissance. He retired from active participation for a number of years but returned to the movement in 1916 by founding and editing the very influential journal Der Jude.
Relevance of Hasidism
Buber's explorations into Hasidism, the result of his resolve to become better acquainted with the Jewish tradition, led him into the spiritual dimension of Judaism and thereby into his mature philosophy. The Hasidic movement (hasid means pious) revitalized eastern European Jewry in the 18th century, although by Buber's time it had become isolated and fossilzed. Original Hasidism was a deeply joyous, world-affirming mysticism which sought God in a "hallowing of the everyday" and in human community. Buber believed this to be the essence of Judaism and of religion itself. Buber believed that the peculiar genius of Hasidic piety was the encounter with the divine in the midst of everyday life with its neighbor-to-neighbor responsibilities and joys. This insight, reinforced by existentialism's intense focus on concrete human life and ethical decision, provided the basis for Buber's "philosophy of dialogue," in which the presence of the divine Thou is encountered within, and for the sake of, the concrete relationships "between man and man."
Buber became an eminent authority on Hasidism, preserving its treasures by translating its literature and interpreting its spiritual genius to the contemporary Western world. Among his translations of Hasidic classics and studies of Hasidism are For the Sake of Heaven (1945), Hasidism (1948), Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (1947) and The Later Masters (1948), The Way of Man according to the Teachings of Hasidism (1950), The Legend of the Baal-Shem (1955), and Hasidism and Modern Man (1958).
"I and Thou"
Buber contributed importantly to 20th-century philosophy by offering a creative alternative to the impasse between science-dominated philosophies which reduce human reality to mechanistic terms and idealistic philosophies which abstract the human spirit from its embeddedness in the world and human community. In I and Thou (1922) he analyzes man's two types of relationship to reality, I-It and I-Thou. In the I-It relation, I deal with the world and other persons functionally, manipulatively, as "things" to be investigated and used. This is an inescapable and necessary relation to reality which is not evil in itself but becomes evil insofar as it constantly tends to dominate and shut out another, more profound relation, the I-Thou. In the I-Thou relation, I encounter the world, other persons, and God as Thou in interpersonal dialogue which opens up the true depths of reality and summons to ethical responsibility in the midst of life. Among Buber's philosophical writings, besides I and Thou, mention should be made of Between Man and Man (1947) and Eclipse of God (1952).
Career as a Teacher
In 1923 Buber became the first appointee to the chair of Jewish religious thought at the University of Frankfurt, where he taught for 10 years. During this period he collaborated with his friend, the distinguished Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, on a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German which was acclaimed a masterpiece. Buber's deep involvement with the biblical literature led to profound studies in biblical interpretation, such as Moses (1946) and The Prophetic Faith (1949).
In 1933 Buber was made director of the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education in Germany, carrying out a "spiritual war against Nazism" until forced to leave in 1938. He went to Palestine to become professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, where he taught until his retirement in 1951. Buber worked tirelessly until the end of his life for the new nation of Israel and was widely respected for his integrity and moral passion. Ranging over a wide variety of modern issues, such as education and politics, Buber's writings focus especially on the state of Israel, as in Israel and the World (1948). Buber also dialogued sensitively with Christians and deeply admired Jesus. His book Two Types of Faith (1951) compares Judaism and Christianity. Honored by people all over the world, he died on June 13, 1965.
Further Reading on Martin Buber
Full-length studies of Buber's life and thought in English include Maurice S. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (1955); Malcolm L. Diamond, Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist (1960); Maurice Friedman and Paul Arthur Schilpp, eds., The Philosophy of Martin Buber (1967); Ronald G. Smith, Martin Buber (1967); and Lowell D. Streiker, The Promise of Buber: Desultory Philippics and Irenic Affirmations (1969). Aubrey Hodes, Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait (1971), is a personal study by a close friend.
Additional Biography Sources
Friedman, Maurice S., Encounter on the narrow ridge: a life of Martin Buber, New York: Paragon House, 1991.
Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.
Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work: the early years, 1878-1923, New York: Dutton, 1981.
Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work: the later years, 1945-1965, New York: Dutton, 1983.
Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work: the middle years, 1923-1945, New York: Dutton, 1983.
The other Martin Buber: recollections of his contemporaries, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1988.