History, Myth, and Divine Dialogue in Martin Buber's Biblical Commentaries

By Sufrin, Claire E. | The Jewish Quarterly Review, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

History, Myth, and Divine Dialogue in Martin Buber's Biblical Commentaries


Sufrin, Claire E., The Jewish Quarterly Review


A TENSION between HISTORY and myth links three biblical commentaries written by the German Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965): Königtum Gotten Kingship of God, 1933); Torat ha-nevi'im The Prophetic Faith, 1942); and Moshe Moses, 1945). ' Buber wrote extensively on the Bible throughout his life, and I will argue in this essay that his commentaries represent a distinct, late stage in the development of his biblical hermeneutics. Buber's commentaries are argument-driven treatises about the nature of the biblical text, suffused with footnotes.2 They lack the flowery language and vivid imagery associated with the more widely read works in which he first presented his philosophy of dialogue and the pieces of exegesis he wrote while translating the Bible into German with Franz Rosenzweig in the late 1920s. Buber's commentaries offer a different perspective on his life's work and reveal at least one arena in which he moved away from his focus on dialogical philosophy to using techniques of close reading and historical critical analysis to draw theological conclusions from ancient and sacred texts.3 Significantly, Buber's commentaries may also be read as revisions of his philosophy of dialogue.

Other biblical critics were largely dismissive of Buber's biblical scholarship. Yehezkel Kaufmann 's review of Torat ha-nevi'im concludes with the comment that the book had merely repeated the problems oí Königtum Gotte*), namely, evaluating Israelite religion on the basis of "one testimony . . . against the testimony of Scripture as a whole."4 Kaufmann 's assessment is not necessarily one that Buber would have refuted. Gershom Scholem's assessment points to the tension between Buber's historical criticism and his commitment to finding a meaning in the text that would speak to Jews in search of religious meaning in the modern world:

Buber's writings on the Bible present themselves [in] the traditional framework of scientific questioning; they are circumscribed - by precise indications of sources and - compared to his other writings - a downright strikingly rich and seemingly ostentatious discussion of scholarly literature on the subject. His exegeses are . . . pneumatic exegeses when it comes to the crunch. But it is pneumatic exegesis with learned notes, which cause its pneumatic character to recede a bit or even blot it out.5

Michael Fishbane comments in his assessment oí Mod he that "the isolation of theory from practice, and of so-called objective historical research from the enduring (subjective) teaching of a text, was not his way."6 Scholem and Fishbane recognize that Buber's commentaries were shaped by his seeing the biblical text in two interwoven ways, namely, as a historical artifact to be studied with historicist tools and as a source of transhistorical meaning and guidance for Jews.

In this essay, I do not seek to evaluate whether Buber's commentaries stand up to the standards of biblical criticism, either of his day or our own. Instead, I ask why Buber turns to biblical criticism as a tool for uncovering religious meaning in the text and how that choice shapes the sorts of arguments he makes about God and the Jewish people. This perspective allows us to see Buber wrestling with concepts important for historical biblical critics and Jewish thinkers alike, for within his commentaries he presents a rich discussion of history, revelation, and myth. I argue that Buber's aim in the commentaries is to articulate the narrative of what he saw as the "true history" of Judaism, with Judaism understood as a theological tradition developed by individuals in dialogical relationship with God.7 His examination of particular instances of humandivine relationship described in the biblical narrative lends nuance to this understanding .

Buber's commentaries develop themes from his earlier works. Buber first discussed biblical myth and history in lectures he delivered between 1909 and 1919, now known in English as his Early Addresses on Judaism. …

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