Buber: Mysticism without Loss of Identity

By Bertman, Martin A. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Buber: Mysticism without Loss of Identity

Bertman, Martin A., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

"He (the hasid) elevates their needs before he satisfies them."

Martin Buber, My Way to Hasidism [1]

MORDECAI MARTIN BUBER, THE FOREMOST OF MODERN Jewish thinkers known to the world at large, was born in Vienna in 1878. At the age of three, when his mother disappeared without a trace, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Lvov, where he and his grandfather, Solomon Buber, a scholar of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, prayed with the hasidim. At eighteen Buber entered the University of Vienna where he became interested in religion, especially Christian mysticism; Buber's doctoral dissertation, "From the Problem of Individuation: Cusanus and Boehme," focused on Cusanus, a Catholic Cardinal and mathematician who, like the mystic Boehme, revealed the limitations of reason. Also in these early years Buber's driving interest was Zionism. He had a close working relation with Chaim Weitzman and his Paths in Utopia [2] reflects his continuing positive view of Kibbutz socialism.

In 1906, Buber published his Tales of Rabbi Nachman and two years later his Legend of the Baal Shem. In due course, these first literary projections of Hasidism were followed by essays on the meaning of Hasidism for modern man. It is his work on Hasidism that brought him popular fame. Buber's rather romantic presentations of hasidism pierced the non-Jewish world as a spiritual possibility. They show Buber's understanding of the Jewish love of God, which needless to say to some, is the deepening of the love one has for one's fellow man.

His most famous philosophical book, I and Thou, published in 1923, focuses on what makes an authentic conversation or relationship. Its key concept is dialogue--that is a conversation or a relationship that involves the concrete circumstances of the participants and assumes their interchange has the presence of God as its foundational relation. Buber's thought shows the influence of both Christian and Jewish mysticism. His ongoing writings on the dialogue principle, the I-Thou, and on hasidism have the same spirit. In both, there is a striving for authenticity within a religious sensibility. To be authentic the individual grasps his own self and concrete circumstances with the larger sense of being a God-created-being.

In the early 1920s, while teaching at the University of Frankfurt, Buber began to put much effort into adult education for Jews, especially in his association with Franz Rosenzweig's Frankfurt Lehrbaus. With Rosenzweig (1886-1929)-the author of a most important book on Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption [3]-he translated the Chumash into German, begun in 1925 and published in 1937. His Zionism, his teaching, and his translation of the Chumash are expressions of his responsibility to other Jews in a framework that has been called Buber's "Hebrew humanism." This was all achieved during increasing anti-Jewish German attitudes. In 1938, Buber left Germany and went up to Jerusalem where he taught at the Hebrew University and worked for peace between Jews and Arabs. He died in Israel in 1965.

My interest in this essay is on the impact of Buber's mysticism that runs through the very variety and extraordinary richness of Buber's work. It is a sort of labyrinth of mirrors that keeps the thread of his struggle to see himself whole as both a Jew and a man. In a sense, his mysticism is like that great white beard of his that models and yet, in a sense, hides the face--hides it until you realize that it itself is part of the face. Buber's mysticism in a similar way doesn't hide the man but expresses Buber in his full human concreteness. For Buber, this meant he should live with a holy nearness to the ongoing mystery of creation, where the Master of the Universe is always acting upon one.

It is not news that Martin Buber is a mystic. But he is a mystic where the individual retains his identity in union with the sacred. Indeed, that union is the foundation for various possible human relationships: those with other human beings, with living creatures, and with God.

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