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Martin Buber from the Perspective of Gershom Scholem

By Kingsmill, Edmee | European Judaism, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Martin Buber from the Perspective of Gershom Scholem


Kingsmill, Edmee, European Judaism


In an oft-repeated remark, Martin Buber once said: 'We all have disciples; some of us have produced schools; but only Scholem has created an academic field.' This 'academic field' is the study of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah in particular, which Scholem's immense philological labours rescued from the hostility of scholars inside Judaism on the one hand and from the obloquy which dabblers in kabbalism had brought upon it outside Judaism on the other, inaugurating in the process a golden age of Jewish mystical studies. Few appreciated Scholem's achievement more than Buber, whereas Scholem's appreciation of Buber's was, at the least, ambivalent. To contemplate the perspective of Gershom Scholem on Martin Buber is, then, to plunge into the deep end of the Judaic soul at its most complex and, in the case of Scholem, its most combative. But it is impossible to read Scholem's attacks on Buber without sensing that something fundamental in relation to the truth of the Judaic soul is being fought for, even if too admixed with those psychological factors which seem always to be a necessary trigger to expression. In fact, Scholem's attacks on Buber were, in terms of the accomplishment of his task, unnecessary and, in the case of his 'Martin Buber's Interpretation of Hasidism', ill-timed for Buber was old and ill when it appeared (in Commentary, 1961). Maurice Friedman, Buber's biographer, writes of the controversy between Buber and Scholem that it 'touches on the soil of tragedy'.1 I will attempt to suggest some reasons why this was so. And then I will look at three pieces on Buber by Scholem, first, 'Martin Buber's Conception of Judaism', second, Scholem's tribute given 'At the Completion of Buber's Translation of the Bible', and third, 'Martin Buber's Interpretation of Hasidism'. I shall begin by giving some account of the early years of each which provides the background for the conflict between these two great but incompatible men.

I

Buber was born in Vienna in 1878, and three years later, after the departure of his mother to Russia and to another husband, the little boy was entrusted to the care of his grandparents, Solomon and Adele Buber. Although the disappearance of his mother, and the revelation by an older girl that she would never come back, left a deep mark (in Friedman's words: 'the young Martin, even though he never spoke of it, bore signs of mourning and bereavement throughout his youth' (2)), the years until he was fourteen spent with his grandparents seemed designed to bestow upon his precocious brilliance all the girls of education and culture which abounded in his milieu. He learnt to speak fluently German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, English, French, and Italian, and to read several more languages, Spanish, Dutch, Latin and Greek among them, Greek being his favourite language. Friedman relates that when Buber took his final examination on leaving the gymnasium, the instructor questioned him about a speech of the chorus in Sophocles in answer to which Buber recited the passage from memory, thereby ending the examination.

In addition to all these advantages, acquired by his own industry, Martin's grandfather, Solomon Buber, was a great landowner, a corn merchant, and the owner of phosphorite mines on the Austrian-Russian border. But he was, above all, an eminent scholar of early Rabbinic literature whose critical editions of the Midrashim are cited to this day. He was honoured and consulted far and wide by Jews from every branch of Judaism. Yet he made time to be a companion to his gifted grandson, as did his hardly less remarkable and cultured wife, Adele Buber, who organized Martin's education at home by private tutors until he was ten, at which age he was sent to the Franz Joseph's Gymnasium until he was eighteen. During these years he went through a number of enthusiasms which influenced him profoundly, Goethe, Holderlin, Kant, whom he read at fourteen, Nietzche, about whom he was 'passionate', carrying Thus Spake Zarathustra daily to school with him, as another boy remembered years later, (3) and numerous others, mostly in the same tradition of German literature, poetry and philosophy.

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