Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber's Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik

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Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber's Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik, by Martina Urban. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 238 pp. $32.00.

Ever since Gershom Scholem's blunt and devastating criticism of the 1960s, Martin Buber's writings on Hasidism have been subject to a lively debate on historical accuracy, use or abuse of sources, and scholarly integrity. In fact, in Scholem's own recollection, Buber was simply "unable to maintain a scholarly attitude toward this topic," something that left the great scholar of Jewish mysticism puzzled and "shattered" at once. In the decades to follow, Buber's interpretation of Hasidism was generally seen as deeply flawed and compromised by an arbitrary method of popular anthologization, which filled the needs of both highly assimilated Jewish and very romantically inclined German audiences at the turn of the century, but had little to do with serious scholarship. His readers and followers, as Scholem later remarked, were under the spell of an "aesthetic ecstasy," as was the young Buber himself. Buber, however, as is well known, never intended to present an historically faithful, philological account of Hasidic life. From the very inception of his work, he insisted on creative'Vetelling" and "spiritual" faithfulness rather than critical editing. Indeed, among his most faithful disciples, Buber's Hasidic exercises were quickly construed, and hence justified, as precursors of some sort to his later dialogical thought, when the interest in dialogical thought was still strong in the academy. More recently, Buber's Hasidism has experienced even greater sympathetic revaluation for its intuitive, unconventional approach, recognizing the fact that Buber s engagement with Hasidic sources did not represent bad scholarship but something qualitatively different. But what was is this qualitative difference?

Martina Urban's recent study Aesthetics of Renewal takes on this question in the kind of depth and theoretical astuteness no author, it is safe to say, has done before. It is not the controversy itself that interests Urban - for there is much written about and little to argue with - but the peculiar technique of representation that guided Buber's understanding of Hasidism: his "distinctive hermeneutic" (p. 17). Written in a clear and tight language, her book not only inserts Buber's Hasidism into the intellectual-historical context that produced it, but also asserts its place in contemporary theories of text and transmission. It was precisely the consciously "ahistorical representation" of the Hasidic movement which squarely placed, as Urban argues, Buber's project at the nexus of modernism and its aesthetic self-perception. Just as "appearing" (Erscheinen) is an aesthetic category that requires and postulates "immediate presence" and is thus qualitatively different from "appearance" (Erscheinung), so it is Buber's own aesthetic imagination that renders his Hasidic writings an'affirmation of both uniqueness and presence," intimately tied, as is the artwork itself, to the "temporal prism" of the moment, yet also, if we think of Gadamer, endowed with the permanence of a time of its own. This turn to aesthetics, as Urban rightly reminds us, meant also a turning away from the "text-cenreredness" of traditional Judaism, displacing text by culture and subverting the hermeneutic community. Rather than reading and commenting, which had been the practice of Buber's so despised "Talmudism," text-centeredness was to give way to a new'Vhythm-centeredness," resonating with the "dynamic, inner life forces of culture" (p. 12). Here, the author is careful to show that the role of text in the early Buber need not be retroactively unraveled through his dialogical principle but can, to much greater effect, be reconstructed from the fin-de-siècle "crisis of language" and the profound distrust in the written word it produced. Buber's choice, then, not to work philologically was motivated by a struggle with the meaning of language that was never fully resolved, as one can see from his "ambiguity towards Hebrew," whose superiority in the national rebirth he questioned and affirmed at the same time (p. …


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