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. Buber contended that Zionism created a new chapter in Jewish history -- Judaism's relative life -- thereby providing a key to the back door to the Divine. By channeling Jewish energies into a direction, namely Jewish peoplehood, Zionism awakened individual Jews to activism, to the deed, and to the future, even though not yet to a renewal of the Jewish spirit. Zionism reminded Buber's contemporaries that Jews are a people with a common past, customs, traditions, life cycle events, and festivals that are worthy of preservation and renewal, that bind us together as a group wherever we are. With the advent of Zionism, it was no longer a liability to be a Jew, for Zionism once again instilled in Jews pride in being Jewish. Jewish individuals once again created Jewish history -- by participating in the everyday details of realizing the Jewish homeland, by organizing the masses into Zionist chapters, by negotiating for land, and by collecting shekels for financial solvency. Through their activities, Buber and other Zionists made an invaluable contribution to an awakening, a first dawn; they provided a breath of fresh air in the Jewish community's relative life.
In his early Zionist days, Buber had proclaimed that he and his friends wanted to transform, not reform. He had specifically devoted his energies to cultural Zionism, because he saw this to be the way to Jewish spiritual renewal -- to the absolute. Yet when reflecting on this period in his essay, "My Way to Hasidism," he noted rather soberly that"Zionism...was...only a first step," a port from which "to embark to the open seas."(10) He cautioned that it would be a mistake to believe that"the national slogan (Bekenntnis) alone" transforms the human being. "Even the Zionist's soul may be empty, though perhaps not as unguided"(11) as that of the person without a cause. Despite Buber's previous enthusiasm for Zionism, something was lacking. Ultimately he did not find the Jewish renaissance with its poetry, literature, visual art, music, and architecture that was such a large part of his life then to be a manifestation of the absolute life. In fact, in the third of his famous Three Speeches on Judaism, "Renewal of Judaism," which Buber presented to the Bar Kochba student organization in Prague in 1911, he warned the Jewish people "that they may lose the life of the spirit. Let us not comfort ourselves by pointing to the flowering of a Young Judaic(12) literature or to those other values that we call...`Jewish Renaissance'."(13) In spite of the success of the Zionist movement in the fourteen years since its inception, Buber felt that at this time the Jewish Renaissance was more "an expression of hope than a reality,"(14) because Zionism was not able to transform Judaism, only individual Jews. He asserted that "at the moment, the Jewish people knows only the relative life."(15) Although he felt that "the bricks" for an absolute life "may, even must be assembled now,"(16) he insisted that "the house can be built only when the people have once more become builders."(17) So far they had not.
Jewish renewal "must be all of one piece," a new heaven cannot be created "in bits and pieces."(18) Buber was aware that "when I am speaking of renewal (Erneuerung), I leave the reality of our time and enter that of a new, future time."(19) Here he referred to the future he envisioned for Judaism. "Renewal for me does not in any way mean something gradual...but something sudden and immense, by no means a continuation or an improvement, but a return and a transformation."(20) Such a renewal "must originate in deeper regions" than had Zionism, and be "based on the Volksgeist"(21), and "the struggle for fulfillment must grasp the entire people,"(22) not just a few. Zionism was merely a reminder that Judaism is ultimately a spiritual process that leads to redemption. Moreover, Zionism was merely an episode in the life of the people, for "to the glance that transcends the relative life and peers into the absolute, it is revealed that the profusion in the former" -- namely the relative life in the form of Jewish history -- "existed only so that the latter" -- namely the spirit -- "could arise from it, and that basically the latter [the spirit] is the reality and the former [history] [is] merely the colorful, manifold, fleeting appearance."23 So far, he felt, the spiritual process had not even begun.
Buber attributed the continuing spiritual poverty in early Zionism to a lack of religiosity. In his essay, "Jewish Religiosity,"(24) Buber stated clearly that "renewal of Judaism means in reality renewal of Jewish religiosity."(25) He explained that religiosity is not religion, but rather the human being's "sense of wonder and adoration, an ever anew becoming, an ever anew articulation and formulation of his feeling that, transcending his conditioned being yet bursting from its very core, there is something that is unconditioned. Religiosity is his longing to establish a living communion with the unconditioned...through his action, transposing it into the world of man."(26)
Buber observed that "the human soul has now been as heavily burdened by a feeling of inevitable evolution as Calvin once burdened it with a feeling of inevitable predestination."(27) This inevitability, however, is not conducive to the great deed that will truly advance the life of the spirit. Rather, "the present extinction of the heroic, unconditional life may, in large part, be ascribed to this feeling [of evolution]."(28) By contrast, "once upon a time the great actor was aware that his deed changed the face of the world, and infused all creation with his own sense; he did not feel subject to the conditions of the world, for he was grounded in the unconditionality of God, whose word he felt in his decisions like the blood in his veins."(29) This type of individual had rediscovered the key to the Divine and was indeed Divinely inspired.
Buber had a plan for how to restore the human being, and therewith the people, to unconditionality. The first step to revelation occurs in "the act of decision."(30) Hence, the decision to become involved in Zionism, to do something to make the world a better place to live for Jews, to participate in tikkun olam, is a holy act comparable to prayer, because it moves us in the direction of God, in the direction of unity. Here Buber invoked the kabbalah, for in the Zohar it is written, "when the world below is ablaze with desire for the world above, the upper world will descend to the lower, and both will unite and permeate each other in man."(31) In other words, pathos -- a passionate, yet passive emotional state -- needs to be transformed into an imperative for action, or, to put it another way, compassion must become ethos.
Actually, in 1910 Buber wrote about a person who fit the individual he was describing -- the man of action. Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) provided a shining example of what "elemental entering-into-relation" means. Buber's relationship with Herzl was a complicated one. He was not kindly disposed toward Herzl during the latter's lifetime, because Herzl opposed cultural Zionism in general and the Zionist Faction which Buber helped to bring about in 1901 in particular. Yet, when Buber looked back on Herzl's life from the distance, he rose above factionalism and acknowledged Herzl's great, though unintentional, contribution to the renewal of Judaism. After five years of studying Hasidism, Buber wrote a crucial essay, "He and We," (1910)(32) in which he saw Herzl and himself as polar opposites. Of Herzl he said, "The impulse of the elementally active person (Elementaraktiver) to act is so strong that it prevents him from acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowledge."(33) A person like Herzl "becomes cognizant of his Judaism. In him awakens the will to help the Jews to whom he belongs, to lead them to where they can experience freedom and security. Now he does what his will tells him. He does not see anything else."(34) In Buber's early opinion, a person such as Herzl becomes active, though not productive,(35) for creativity and productivity are fueled by the absolute life, not the relative life, as is activism. In 1910, Buber understood that Herzl had rendered an invaluable and unique service to Judaism, not only to Zionism, that he indeed returned many Jews to Judaism, leading them in the back door to the Divine -- this in spite of the fact that he did not set out to renew the Jewish spirit, only the Jewish people.
What now mattered to Buber was the manner in which Herzl attended to his Zionist efforts, not just the goal. In his efforts for a Jewish national home, Herzl did not care about personal gain -- in prestige or money -- which is obvious from the fact that he continued his efforts even after the loss of powerful personal friends such as Rabbi Moritz Güdemann of Vienna and his personal family fortune. In Buber's mind, it is this singlemindedness of purpose that made Herzl's efforts religious. He acted the way Moses did when, after the burning bush episode, he stepped before Israel's elders -- with blazing eyes.(36) "Not the matter of a deed determines its truth but the manner in which it is carried out: [either] in human conditionality, or in divine unconditionality. Whether a deed will peter out in the outer courtyard, in the realm of things, or whether it will penetrate into the Holy of Holies is determined not by its content but by the power of decision which brought it about, and by the sanctity of intent that dwells in it. Every deed, even one numbered among the most profane, is holy when it is performed in holiness, in unconditionality."(37) Although Buber was too caught up in their personal feud to acknowledge this during Herzl's lifetime, six years later he humbly admitted that Herzl had all the qualities of a modern-day prophet, a visionary. "When he spoke of his travels, the soul of millions trembled with longing, with expectation, with joy. Joy because of him!... Only from a life such as his can the new people that we yearn for be born."(38)
Buber dearly loved prophetic Judaism. He often juxtaposed it to Rabbinic Judaism, which he disliked. He credited the prophets during the First Temple period with the ability to renew Jewish religiosity; he credited the Essenes during Second Temple days with the same qualities, and, in recent history, the Polish Hasidim. After his disillusionment with Zionism, it was this last group, the Hasidim, that captured Buber's imagination for his own time, for he felt that the Baal Shem Toy and his followers fundamentally challenged the ethos existing in their day. Buber admired the Hasidim for being in tune with the particular spiritual needs of their people. As Idel points out, for Buber "the originality of Hasidism...lies...in the introduction of a unique type of religiosity."(39) This religiosity governed the Hasidic attitude towards the deed. Carried out for the sake of Heaven, every deed can serve to sanctify life. Buber borrowed from Hasidism the notion that there is no negative action. Only inertia and indecisiveness are evil, all activity means religiosity, because it is "the elemental entering-into-relation with the absolute."(40) "There is nothing that is a priori evil; every passion can become a virtue, every impulse `a chariot for God',"(42) even Herzl's delusions (Irrfahrten).(42)
If performed with the proper intent, or kavvanah, the smallest, most insignificant act such as cleaning glasses in an inn, sewing shoes or clothes, or driving a coach, serves to glorify God. This hallowed labor, or avodah, contributes to personal tikkun and to tikkun olam. "The soul of the person acting alone determines the nature of his deed,"(43) or, the intent of the agent to heal or perfect the world. "This deed, hallowed in its intent, redeems the Divine sparks...the wandering souls.... By so doing, the active person works for the redemption of the world."(44) In fact, the human being's actions are not only conducive to the redemption of the world, but to "the redemption of God Himself."(45)
Buber truly believed that Hasidism's "wondrous self-liberation"(46) knew the secret of how to transform Judaism, even though the movement could not sustain itself indefinitely and therefore could not complete the task. He characterized this self-liberation as "that immediate relationship to God" in which the human being "reaches the root of all teaching and all commandment, God's I, the simple unity and boundlessness in which commandments and laws fold their wings," because "he has risen above all of them through his unconditionality."(47) It would appear that in Buber's mind there is no difference between Herzl and the Baal Shem Tov -- both want to renew the people, both act for the improvement of the masses, both aim for redemption. The difference lies in that the Baal Shem Tov approached the goal directly -- through religion, while Herzl's motivation reached the goal indirectly -- through history. Yet both acted out of a sincere belief that they could make a difference -- one in the absolute realm, the other in the relative -- to advance God's goal in the world.
In Buber's conception of what it is to be a Jew, unity between the relative and the absolute life is the ultimate goal -- to lift the earthly or temporal to the spiritual or Divine. Both are to be synthesized in the individual and in the group. The Baal Shem Tov and Herzl pursued this goal in spite of all the odds. German Jewry before World War I consisted of a plethora of expressions -- the Reform Movement, Neo-Orthodoxy, Jewish socialism, diaspora Jewish nationalism, and several variations of Zionism. Idel points out that this also was the case during the time of the Hasidim. "The second half of the eighteenth century was a period of bitter controversies between various Jewish groups in Eastern and Central Europe."(48) Buber realized that it took an individual like Herzl -- who addressed the historical reality with vision -- to motivate the Jewish people. He hoped that the time would come "when Judaism once again reaches out, like a hand, grasping each Jew by the hair of his head, carrying him...toward Jerusalem -- the way the hand of the Lord had once grasped Ezekiel ben Buzi"(49) -- through what Idel calls a "new mystical modus vivendi,"(50) thereby bridging the gap between the different Jewish ideologies and healing the wounds of modernization without negating its benefits.
Unfortunately, World War I caught everyone in the temporal reality of wartime existence. When the war was over, and after the murder of his friend Gustav Landauer in 1919, Buber was a changed man. He once more turned inward to advance his personal religiosity through collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig in the translation of the Yehuda Halevi poems and the Bible translation until Rosenzweig's death in 1929. With the advent of the Nazi terror, Buber's activities turned to practical matters of Jewish and then personal survival.
(1) Martin Buber, Drei Reden über das Judentum (Frankfurt a.M.: Rütten & Loening, 1911), p. 71. See also Nahum N. Glatzer, ed., On Judaism by Martin Buber (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), p. 40. All translations from German texts are mine.
(2) Drei Reden, p. 44; Glatzer, On Judaism, p. 27.
(3) Martin Buber, Ekstatische Konfessionen (Jena: E. Diedrichs, 1909), p. xi. (Also in English, Ecstatic Confessions, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr, translated by Esther Cameron (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985).
(4) Drei Reden, p. 62; Glatzer, p. 35.
(5) "Mein Weg zum Chassidismus," Ms. Var. 350 D/31 (Jerusalem: Buber Archive, Jewish National and University Library), p. 10.
(6) "Mein Weg," Ms. Var. 350 D/31, p. 11.
(7) Martin Buber, "Mein Weg zum Chassidismus" (1918), in Martin Buber Werke, Vol. 3, Schriften zum Chassidismus (Munich: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1963), pp. 961-973.
(8) "Mein Weg," Ms. Vat. 350 D/31, p. 11.
(9) Gilya Gerda Schmidt, Martin Buber's Formative Years -- From German Culture to Jewish Renewal 1897-1909 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995).
(10) Buber, "Mein Weg zum Chassidismus," in Martin Buber Werkei, p. 967.
(11) "Mein Weg," Ms. Var. 350 D/31, p. 11.
(12) Jungjüdisch was a term used by all the cultural Zionists, especially writers who expressed new ideas in Jewish literature from 1895 on. Although Buber here wrote neujüdisch, by linking it to the `Jewish Renaissance,' he clearly means jungjüdisch.
(13) Drei Reden, p. 97; Glatzer, p. 53.
(14) Drei Reden, p. 97; Glatzer, p. 53.
(15) Drei Reden, p. 96; Glatzer, p. 53.
(16) Drei Reden, p. 99; Glatzer, p. 54.
(17) Drei Reden, p. 99; Glatzer, p. 54.
(18) Drei Reden, p. 99; Glatzer, p. 54.
(19) Drei Reden, p. 61; Glatzer, p. 35.
(20) Drei Reden, p. 61; Glatzer, p. 35.
(21) Drei Reden, pp. 97-98; Glatzer, p. 53.
(22) Drei Reden, p. 98; Glatzer, p. 54.
(23) Drei Reden, p. 73; Glatzer, p. 41.
(24) Glatzer, pp. 79-94.
(25) Glatzer, pp. 79.
(26) G1atzer, p. 80.
(27) Drei Reden, p. 59; Glatzer, p. 34.
(28) Drei Reden, p. 60; Glatzer, p. 34.
(29) Drei Reden, p. 60; Glatzer, p. 34.
(30) Glatzer, p. 81.
(31) Glatzer, p. 86.
(32) Martin Buber, "Er und Wir," in Die Jüdische Bewegung I (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag, 1916), 196-204, included in my recent translation of Martin Buber's Zionist writings, The First Buber: The Youthful Zionist Writings of Martin Buber (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), pp. 166-171.
(33) Buber, "Er und Wir," p. 201.
(34) Buber, "Er und Wir," p. 201
(35) Buber, "Die Schaffenden, das Volk, und die Bewegung," in Die Jüdische Bewegung I, pp. 68-77, included in The First Buber, pp. 140-146.
(36) Glatzer, p. 87.
(37) Glatzer, p. 87.
(38) Buber, "Er und Wir," p. 204.
(39) Moshe Idel, Hasidism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 3.
(40) Glatzer, p. 80.
(41) Drei Reden, p. 87; Glatzer, p. 48.
(42) Buber, "Er und Wir," p. 204.
(43) Drei Reden, p. 87; Glatzer, p. 48.
(44) Drei Reden, p. 87; Glatzer, p. 48.
(45) Drei Reden, p. 87; Glatzer, p. 48.
(46) Glatzer, p. 83.
(47) Glatzer, p. 83.
(48) Idel, Hasidism, p. 33.
(49) Drei Reden, p. 99; Glatzer, p. 54.
(50) Idel, Hasidism, pp. 33-34.