Martin Buber's Conception of the Relative and the Absolute Life

By G, Gilya | Shofar, January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Martin Buber's Conception of the Relative and the Absolute Life


G, Gilya, Shofar


Martin Buber's Conception of the Relative and the Absolute Life

Martin Buber's intense occupation with issues or causes during his younger years contributed to his spiritual enlightenment in specific areas in a particular time frame. So, for instance, in the years from 1898 to 1904 he was consumed with Zionist activities, from 1905 to 1909 he concentrated on understanding Hasidism, from 1909 to 1914 he synthesized his previous eureka experiences into a life philosophy. In his view, unity, action, and vision were three related and interconnected concepts of great importance to life. In his own struggle for meaning, he identified two spheres of which life consists. One sphere is our history, a people's relative life; the other our relationship to God, a people's absolute life. Both are necessary for a harmonious life, but both are not equally accessible. While a people may make a mark in history, it does not have the kind of direct access to God that the prophets or the Baal Shem Tov had. Hence, an indirect way to the Divine has to be found. In 1910 Buber contended that, for the Zionist period, Herzl had such a leadership role, not because of the goal he pursued, but because of the manner in which he carried out his task.

Throughout his life, Martin Buber (1878-1965) was interested in three spiritual concepts that interconnected in what he called the relative and the absolute life -- unity, the deed, and the future.(1) Unity is the ultimate goal for the human being -- within the individual, within the community, in humanity, between humanity and every created thing, and between God and the world.(2) The other two -- action (deed) and vision (future) -- are necessary components of the process towards unity. Without them, there can be no unity.

Unfortunately, unity is not something we are given. Rather, it is something we have to earn. In his 1909 introduction to Ecstatic Confessions, Buber wrote, "Our human life which allows everything to enter, all kinds of light and music, all brave thoughts and all variations of pain, complete memory and total expectation, is barred only from one thing: unity."(3) It was his belief that unity is to be found only in the person in whom "all his capacities...have been welded into one,"(4) or, to say it another way, in the individual in whom the relative and the absolute life are one. Unfortunately, modernity brought with it fragmentation and alienation, not unification, and not only from the self and from humanity, but also from God. With the door to the Divine closed and the key lost, human beings could no longer find their way directly to the absolute. They could only attempt to achieve temporal unity -- in communal and national movements, for example. This limitation complicated the achievement of the ultimate goal.

Buber's first experience with the struggle to form an integrated whole came in his own life. In characterizing his personal evolution in 1918, he acknowledged being sucked into the "olam-hatohu," the world of confusion, soon after leaving his grandfather's home in 1896. He called the world "the abode of wandering souls," and himself a form, "without Judaism...without humanity, and without the Divine presence."(5) Buber was drifting. He had neither a relative nor an absolute anchor. According to his own evaluation, what "liberated" him from the olam-hatohu was Zionism, "more accurately, the news of the First Zionist Congress."(6) Although he eliminated this admission from the manuscript and the printed text of his essay, "My Way to Hasidism,"(7) he spelled out the meaning of the thought in the original manuscript version. "I can only hint here what Zionism meant for me.... The restoration of the context, the rooting in the community."(8)

As I have shown in my study, Martin Buber's Formative Years(9), Buber became an activist for the Zionist cause in 1898. He threw himself fully into any tasks that needed doing -- organizing, publicizing, even forming an opposition. …

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