Martin Buber: Philosopher and Visionary

By Roshwald, Mordecai | Contemporary Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Martin Buber: Philosopher and Visionary


Roshwald, Mordecai, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: In November the German Education Minister Or Annette Schavan, on an official visit to Israel to mark the country's sixtieth anniversary, announced that the German government would fund a new Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Prof. Sarah Stroumsa, Rector of the Hebrew University, said that 'establishment of this society [which] guarantees that our heritage, the legacy of our past cultures, the humanistic reflection on ideas and on human society [...] stems from a firm belief in the central role of the humanities in generating an academic and intellectual renaissance in society'. In the following article, Martin Buber's distinguished contribution to that tradition is examined by one of his former pupils.

Martin Buber was born in 1878 in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and died in Jerusalem in 1965. At an early age he moved to Lwow, or Lemberg (then also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and lived with his grandfather Salomon Buber, a distinguished Judaic scholar. Thus his pre-university education was rooted in German and Hebrew, as well as Polish, the main language of instruction in the secondary school in Lwow which he attended. He returned to Vienna for university studies and later moved to Germany to follow the academic profession. In the mid-thirties Buber left Nazi Germany and was appointed Professor of Sociology of Culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where the present writer became his student as an undergraduate and eventually as a doctoral candidate.

Yet Buber's career transcended the confines of the academic world. His teaching and writing established him as a unique creator who can hardly be classified in the customary way. He has been described as a philosopher, a theologian, a poet, a translator, a visionary, a national spiritual leader. He may well have been a combination of all of these, which makes him an extraordinary personality.

Ich und Du, a poetic-philosophical insight into human relations, published when Buber was forty-five years old, may be the key to the understanding of his creation. It reveals the root of his approach to human existence, namely the relationship of the individual to fellow humans, and beyond that the relationship between Man and God. It is in relating to others that man becomes what he is, while failing to form the elemental I-Thou relations results in human and social deterioration.

It is these relationships that branch out into the domain of society and nation. It is the quest for the primary ties among human beings which made Buber look at the closely knit kibbutz cooperative settlements in Palestine as attempts at realization of the ideal community. It is the quest for a national community bound by such brotherhood that coloured Buber's Zionism. For his commitment to Jewish independence rejected the ideal of mere normalization of the Jewish condition, of becoming like other nations. For him Zionism meant the establishment of a morally excelling community, inspired by the vision of the biblical prophets.

The relationship to God, which he interpreted and sought, was also elemental and based on the total trust, on firm belief. Buber, to recall his own saying, regarded the rational conclusions of science and philosophy as a partial view of reality, while the religious belief was comprehensive and total, and thus a superior response to human yearning. Buber's philosophy of faith is linked to his exploration of the Hasidic movement, originating in the eighteenth century, which stressed the emotional experience of faith. By transcribing Hasidic stories and legends into German, he presented the mysterious world of this esoteric sect to the Western world. This and his philosophy of Man-God relations has fascinated Christian theologians and philosophers to this day.

There is one more fruit of Buber's work which is a monumental contribution to the world's spiritual civilization.

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