Martin Buber and Feminist Ethics: The Priority of the Personal, by James W. Walters

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The Martin Buber Library. Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Press, 2003. 140 pp. $19.95.

The disciplines of Feminist Studies, Gender Studies, and Queer Studies address more than the restricted content areas they designate. More than anything else they query the established disciplines, undermine accepted truisms, and destabilize the activity of study itself. James W. Walters examines the thought of Martin Buber and relates it to the thought of several prominent feminists, noting that they share a "postmodern" orientation that includes a rejection of the "grand narratives" of the Enlightenment, a rejection of rationalistic systems, and an emphasis on relationship (pp. 85-106). Such an endeavor is valuable and illuminates the postmodern adumbrations of some modern thinkers, in this case Buber. The largest section of this book summarizes Buber's life, development, and thought. It provides a far less extensive summary of several feminist writers -- Nel Noddings, Carol Gilligan, and Alison M. Jaggar in particular. The final section seeks to explain the commonality between these thinkers, which is said to lie in the fact that "the interhuman is neither uniquely feminine, nor is it masculine.... It is just profoundly human" (p. 105).

Walters emphasizes what he considers the "ethical" message of Buber and relates it directly to Buber's understanding of the I-Thou relation. He claims that this relation falls into the "noumenal realm" and is "normative for what we can discover about ethics" (p. ix). This way of approaching Buber's ethics slants it away from the realistic approach that Buber took to all ethical and moral questions and leads to several problems with Walters' conclusions. Walters to refer to "Buber's romantic development of the I-Thou relation" (p. 4), a descriptive term Buber would reject. Walters likewise misunderstands Buber's insistence that BOTH the word pairs "I-Thou" AND"L-It" are primal and creative language (pp. 11-13). While correctly recognizing that "Buber's ethics is preeminently a way of attending to the world," he misses the fact that, since this is so, it is an ethics as rooted in the realities of I-It being as of I-Thou relationship. This confusion leads Walters to identify a tension that does not exist -- that between "existential commitment to the ineffable sphere of the between" and "his seemingly contradictory affirmation of law" (p. 55).

This misunderstanding of the place of I-It choices in Buber's ethics leads Walters to impute a theological message to Buber's thinking. Buber is self-consciously not a theologian and holds a complex view of divinity. He claims that the "lines of relationship" finally "meet" in the Eternal Thou who provides assurance that a truly spoken "I-Thou" will never go unanswered. This is clearly an unconventional view of the divine. Walters fails to note this untraditional and non-theological character of Buber's thought. He uses terms such as a person's "God-Given centeredness" (p. 33) that have little relation to what Buber considers the essential nature or function of divinity. To speak of a God "who was equally available" before and after modernity (p. 41) misunderstands Buber's radical transformation of tradition Jewish thinking about God.

Walters also confuses "religion" and response to the divine. …