It was a source of considerable anguish and frustration to Martin Buber that he was more appreciated by Christians than by Jews. Though he addressed himself to the world, Buber regarded his thought as firmly rooted in Judaism and he persistently refused to sever his writings from their Jewish moorings. Jews, however, have generally continued to look upon his efforts with suspicion and to regard them as outside the mainstream of Jewish thought. This is not to say that he went unrecognized by his people; he was often the object of mass adulation. But it was the kind of adulation a people accords to those of its great personalities who have somehow carved a place for themselves in the world at large, yet who remain basically unacceptable at home. In Israel, where he lived for the last twenty-odd years of his life, he was a myth of sorts. But except for a small group of admirers, Israelis have remained singularly unimpressed by his writings. A similar attitude toward Buber prevails among American and British Jews. His most loyal audience consists largely of those contemporary Protestant thinkers who are disillusioned with what they take to be the excessive rationalism of liberal Protestant theology. At first glance, such a situation suggests the workings of an incomprehensibly bizarre and absurd fate. But this is hardly the case. Given the central idea of his philosophy, together with the circumstances in which this idea developed, the nature of Buber's present audience seems almost inevitable.

How did it come about that the most influential Jewish philosopher of our time has nevertheless been largely rejected by his own people? One needs to know something not only about Buber but also about his era before one can give a proper answer to this question.


The 19th century was witness to a major turning point in Western civilization; door after door slammed shut upon the comforting certainties of the past. A new historiography focused its attention upon long-hallowed texts and traditions and called into question much of what had been accepted as truth for two thousand years; a new science offered an apparently flawless mechanistic model of the universe, thereby putting the final nail into the coffin of Aristotelian physics; a new anthropology buttressed the idea of cultural relativism with a considerable body of accurate scientific information; a new biology plucked man from his central position in the scheme of things and revealed to him his simian progenitors; a new philosophy, promulgated by Nietzsche, reduced Western values and philosophical system-building to rubble; a new view of human progress looked upon revolution and the class struggle as the inexorable dialectic of history; a renewed secularism suddenly found its voice and posed an open threat to established religion; a new psychology saw man as moved by inner forces which he could discover and comprehend only with the utmost difficulty.

It was amidst this turbulence that the German Jews of the 19th century struggled for their rights as citizens. In France, the process of emancipation was relatively swift and smooth, a direct outcome of the Revolution; in Germany, the process was filled with anguish and torment, and full emancipation was not achieved until 1871. During much of the 19th century, therefore, German Jews, in the face of considerable anti-Semitism, were striving to prove themselves as German as the Germans themselves—and often more so. Jewish historiographers began to lay bare the dynamics of Jewish history by applying to classical Jewish texts the same principles that German scholars were applying to the great texts of the non-Jewish world. Abraham Geiger succeeded in creating an ideology for the Reform movement; Samson Raphael Hirsch solidified the ranks of Western-oriented traditionalist Jews; and Zechariah Frankel laid the theoretical groundwork for the later birth of Conservative Judaism in America. This entire effort—even that of Hirsch—was geared toward making Judaism appear acceptable, palatable, and rational both to Jews and non-Jews.

Eastern European Jewry, by contrast, managed for the most part to hold fast against the inroads of the times—despite Moses Mendelssohn's followers in that part of the world and the Russo-Jewish proponents of modernism. The Hasidim and their Talmud-oriented opponents, who had hated one another bitterly for fifty years, now joined together against a common enemy: the Enlightenment. East confronted West across a chasm of suspicion, mistrust, and loathing, each convinced that the other was destroying Judaism.

This was the climate in which Martin Buber was born, raised, and educated.


Buber was born in Vienna in 1878. Because his parents were divorced, he spent much of his youth in Poland in the home of his grandparents. His grandfather, Salomon Buber, was—unique combination—both an enlightened Jew and a devout pietist. A successful banker, community leader, scholarly editor of classical rabbinic texts, and Hebraist, he nevertheless prayed in a tiny Hasidic synagogue, using a prayer book replete with Kabbalistic instructions. Martin Buber's first encounters with Hasidism—the movement that was later to be one of the most significant factors in the shaping of his thought—took place during those early years in his grandfather's home, and during the summers he spent with his father, who would take him to the Galician village of Sadagora, the dynastic seat of a leading Hasidic rabbi.

The youthful Buber was much impressed by what he saw, but this early fascination with Hasidism faded quickly. By the time Buber began his secondary-school education in a Polish Gymnasium, he had abandoned all pretense to ritual piety, and during his early years at the University of Vienna, which he entered in 1896, as well as in the brief time he spent at the University of Berlin, he gave little indication of any concern with things Jewish. His intellectual heroes at this period were Nietzsche, whom Buber regarded as the creator of a new system of values, and Wilhelm Dilthey, whose careful distinction between knowledge in the natural sciences and the social sciences—the former characterized by cool, objective detachment, the latter by intense personal participation—was to provide Buber with the methodology for exploring the realm of dialogue. His spiritual heroes were Christian mystics—Jacob Boehme, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa—and his doctoral dissertation was devoted to a study of Christian mysticism in the Renaissance and Reformation.

In this part of his life, then, Buber gave little thought to his Jewish past—but the past refused to release him. Out of a growing sense of alienation from a Western soil in which he had no roots, Buber started on his way back to Judaism by becoming a Zionist. In this regard he was no different from thousands of other Jews who were disenchanted with institutionalized religious life, but whose loyalty to their people and heritage was of sufficient intensity to bring them into the religiously neutral fold of modern Zionism. Thus in 1901, Buber joined the staff of the Zionist publication Die Welt. Soon, however, he grew dissatisfied with Herzl's political Zionism, which argued for the establishment of a Jewish state solely as a protective measure against anti-Semitism. Thereupon he became one of the leading advocates of the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha'am, which envisioned a small community of Jews, rooted in the soil of Palestine, as the vital center of a world-wide Jewish cultural renaissance that would enable Judaism to resume its creative role in Western civilization.

Buber's early preoccupation with Zionism was the first step he took toward a new profession of Judaism. The next step followed quickly: a hunger to know more about that which he was beginning to profess. And knowing, for Buber, meant not merely the storing up of factual information, but also “the eye-to-eye knowing of the people in its creative primal hours.” He embarked upon a systematic attempt to master the Hebrew language, which he had neglected since his youth. During this time there occurred one of those strange, forever mysterious, triggering events akin to the celebrated madeleine episode in Proust's life. In 1904, Buber came across a little book purporting to be the testament of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. He was particularly struck by a passage describing the man of true piety. “He takes unto himself the quality of fervor, for he is hallowed and become another man and is worthy to create and is become like the Holy One, blessed be He, when He created His world.” Years later, in My Way To Hasidism, Buber gave a vivid account of his reaction to that passage:

It was then that, overpowered in an instant, I experienced the Hasidic soul. The primarily Jewish opened to me, flowering to newly conscious expression in the darkness of exile: man's being created in the image of God I grasped as deed, as becoming, as task. And primarily Jewish reality was a primal human reality; the content of human religiousness, Judaism as religiousness, as “piety,” as Hasidut, opened to me there. The image out of my childhood, the memory of the zaddik and his community, rose upward and illuminated me: I recognized the idea of the perfected man. At the same time, I became aware of the summons to proclaim it to the world.

Buber heeded the summons. He withdrew from all public activity—from participation in Zionism, from writing and lecturing—and immersed himself in the study of Hasidic literature. By the time he emerged from this voluntary isolation five years later, at the age of thirty-one, his mysticism and his Judaism, which had been developing along separate lines, had converged—and he was well on the way toward the discovery of his central idea. I and Thou, appearing some thirteen years later, in 1922, was Buber's first statement of his fully developed philosophy of dialogue—and it made him famous.

On the invitation of Franz Rosenzweig, Buber now joined the faculty of the Freie jüdische Lehrhaus, which Rosenzweig had established in Frankfurt. This adult studies institute, which for a time had an enrollment of more than a thousand students, included among its faculty many of the men who were later to become great figures in the world of scholarship: Nahum Glatzer, Gershom Scholem, Ernst Simon, Leo Strauss. Agnon, the Hebrew novelist, taught there for a while; Erich Fromm gave a course in Rashi; Leo Baeck taught Talmud and medieval texts; and Buber lectured on his approach to religion and conducted a seminar on Hasidism. His courses immediately established him as a central figure in the Lehrhaus.

From 1923 to 1933, Buber was also on the faculty of the University of Frankfurt, where he taught Jewish philosophy of religion and the history of religions. In 1933, with Hitler already in power, Buber was still able to write with hope:

Among all the national relationships into which the Jewish people has entered, with all the problems implied thereby, none has been as fruitful as the German-Jewish tie.

But two years later he realized that hope was futile: “The chamber no longer exists in which we can speak to others and be heard by them. Dialogue no longer exists.”

He left Germany in 1938 and settled in Jerusalem, where he served as professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University. He died in June 1965. His legacy consists mainly of one overriding idea, to which we now turn our attention.


At the turn of the century, Germany experienced a renewed interest in mysticism. Buber, of course, was sympathetic to many elements of that revival: its opposition to the preoccupation with science and critical analysis; its stress on the power of creative imagination; its emphasis on the role of feeling and intuition; and especially its insistence on the radical uniqueness of each individual, which was to become one of the basic tenets of Buber's own thought.

Buber's attraction to mysticism arose from his intense concern with the problem of the relationship between the individual and the world. The ecstasy of the thinker as mystic was understood by Buber as the reason for the vitality of the thinker as creative participant in the stream of ordinary life. It was this aspect of mysticism, this ability of the mystic to return to the world renewed, that interested him. Buber began by positing the notion of an already existing essential unity which it was the task of the mystic to discover by means of his ecstatic experiences. Later, he modified this position in favor of one that emphasized the need to realize the unity of God and the world through a genuine and fulfilled human existence. And finally, largely as a result of his study of Hasidism, he came to the idea of the meeting of God and man in dialogical encounter.

The core of Buber's thought is perhaps best approached through two incidents he related in a work entitled Dialogue. The first tells of his encounter with an animal:

When I was eleven years of age, spending the summer on my grandparents' estate, I used, as often as I could do it unobserved, to steal into the stable and gently stroke the neck of my darling, a broad dapple-grey horse. It was not a casual delight but a great, certainly friendly, but also deeply stirring happening. . . . The horse, even when I had not begun by pouring oats for him into the manger, very gently raised his massive head, ears flicking, then snorted quietly, as a conspirator gives a signal meant to be recognizable only by his fellow-conspirator; and I was approved. But once—I do not know what came over the child, at any rate it was childlike enough—it struck me about the stroking, what fun it gave me, and suddenly I became conscious of my hand. The game went on as before, but something had changed, it was no longer the same thing.

The second incident apparently occurred some time toward the end of Buber's five-year period of preoccupation with Hasidic literature:

What happened was no more than that one forenoon, after a morning of “religious” enthusiasm, I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him any more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason. I conversed attentively and openly with him—only I omitted to guess the questions he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends—he himself was no longer alive—the essential content of those questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.


Recounting these incidents years after the publication of I and Thou, Buber attempted to explain them in terms of his philosophy of encounter. Concerning the experience with the animal, he wrote:

If I am to explain it now, beginning from the still very fresh memory of my hand, I must say that what I experienced in touch with the animal was the Other, the immense otherness of the Other, which, however, did not remain strange like the otherness of the ox and the ram, but rather let me draw near and touch it. When I stroked the mighty mane, sometimes marvellously smooth-combed, at other times just as astonishingly wild, and felt the life beneath my hand, it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin, something that was not I, was certainly not the Other itself; and yet it let me approach, confided itself to me, placed itself elementally in the relation of Thou and Thou with me.

And concerning his experience with the young man:

He had come to me, he had come to me in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.

The encounter with the young man was crucial for Buber. It occurred at a time when Buber had been engaged in some sort of mystical experience and it led him to the realization that the mystic, by focusing so intently upon his own self, cuts himself off from all meaningful contact with other human beings. Expressed in terms of his philosophy of dialogue, the encounter with the young man is an example of the I-It relation; that with the animal, of the I-Thou.

According to Buber, man confronts the world with one of two possible attitudes. When he sees an object—be it man, animal, plant, or insensate thing—as something to be manipulated, exploited, or objectively experienced, he confronts it as an It to his I. When, however, he encounters it as Buber encountered the animal, he confronts it as a Thou to his I. The sphere of Buber's philosophical exploration is relation or betweenness; it is the hyphen that lies between an I and an It, and an I and a Thou.

In I and Thou, Buber offered his initial analysis of these two attitudes. He claimed that the I-Thou relation cannot be sought. “The Thou meets me through grace”—by which he probably meant that we enter into it spontaneously, often when we least expect to. The I-Thou relation is fluid; it is suddenly present, and then gone. “Every Thou in the world is enjoined by its nature to become a thing for us. . . .” Only one Thou never ceases to be a Thou: God. God is never absent; “it is only we who are not always there.”

Buber insisted that the Thou cannot be tied down or contained; any attempt to institutionalize it obstructs our relationship to it. In At The Turning, he wrote: “The higher, the decisive principle which alone can knit together the relationship to God and the relationship to man—the principle of love—requires neither organizations nor institutions but can be given effect at any time, at any place.”

The I-Thou relation is not a trick of the mind; it is real. Maurice Friedman, probably the most perceptive of Buber's followers, comments on this point in his introductory essay to Buber's The Knowledge of Man: “In an essential relation with man . . . one life opens to another. . . . The two participate in one another's lives in very fact, not psychically, but ontically.” Thus the sense of participation in the very being of the Thou is not a play of the imagination or a psychologically-induced emotion; it occurs in actuality.

Buber apparently regarded the I-Thou as the original, primal attitude of man:

In the beginning is relation.

Consider the speech of “primitive” peoples . . . whose life is built up within a narrow circle of acts highly charged with presentness. The nuclei of this speech, words in the form of sentences and original pre-grammatical structures . . . mostly indicate the wholeness of a relation. We say “far away”; the Zulu has for that a word which means, in our sentence form, “There where someone cries out: ‘O mother, I am lost.’” . . . In this total situation the persons, as expressed both in nouns and pronouns, are embedded. . . . The chief concern is with . . . the true original unity, the lived relation.


It does not, however, follow from this that the I-It attitude is intrinsically harmful or evil; in fact, Buber saw the I-It attitude as a vital tool for the furthering of human progress. “And in all seriousness of truth hear this: without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man.”

The I-It attitude is one of objective detachment, whereas the I-Thou is one of intense involvement. For the most part, the former is the attitude of the genuine scientist, the latter, that of the great poet, the serious novelist, the true religionist. But no human being is wholly characterized by either of these two attitudes. As Malcolm L. Diamond puts it:

The two postures are not rigid compartments into which various types of people permanently fit—the scientist into the I-It, the artist into the I-Thou—they are modes of personal existence that appear alternately in all men.

Buber considered Socrates, Jesus, and Goethe to have realized the I-Thou relation most fully: Socrates with man, Jesus with God, and Goethe with nature. In I and Thou, Buber wrote:

But how lovely and how fitting the sound of the lively and impressive I of Socrates! It is the I of endless dialogue, and the air of dialogue is wafted around it in all its journeys, before the judges and in the last hour in prison. This I lived continually in the relation with man which is bodied forth in dialogue. . . .

How lovely and how legitimate the sound of the full I of Goethe! It is the I of pure intercourse with nature; nature gives herself to it and speaks unceasingly with it, revealing her mysteries to it but not betraying her mystery. . . .

And to anticipate by taking an illustration from the realm of unconditional relation: how powerful, even to being over-powering, and how legitimate, even to being self-evident, is the saying of I by Jesus! For it is the I of unconditional relation in which the man calls his Thou Father in such a way that he himself is simply Son, and nothing else but Son.

The fact that Buber chose Jesus rather than Moses is an indication of the extent to which his early involvement with Christian mysticism remained a dominant factor in his thinking and colored his later understanding of Judaism.

Buber's concept of the I-It and I-Thou relations is the central element in his thought. Every aspect of his philosophy—religious, ethical, social—is grounded in that concept. In his religious philosophy, Buber rejected completely the rationalist effort to understand and comprehend God. God cannot be expressed; He can only be addressed as a Thou. Following the line of thought developed by Kierkegaard, Buber argued that the mark of man's freedom is his ability to choose and to stake his life on his choice. By risking everything through a decision of faith, man becomes a genuine person; it is in making an ultimate choice for faith that man is most human and most free. Translated into Buber's own terminology, this means that personality is a function of, or is generated out of, the I-Thou relation.

In his ethical philosophy, Buber argued that evil is the constant viewing of a person as an It. Making one's own self the central element of a relationship—an act which renders it impossible to achieve the I-Thou relation—is the root-source of human sin. And in his social philosophy, Buber was a staunch opponent of the collectivist and authoritarian state because it depersonalizes the individual and makes him into an It. “The true community does not arise through people having feelings for one another (though indeed not without it), but through first, their taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Center, and second, their being in living mutual relation with one another.”


In hasidism, Buber felt he had discovered a community which lived the I-Thou relation. He offered a glowing description of this movement in My Way To Hasidism:

Nowhere in the last centuries has the soul-force of Judaism so manifested itself as in Hasidism. . . . Never yet in Europe has such a community thus established the whole of life as a unity on the basis of the inwardly known. Here is no separation between faith and work, between truth and verification, or, in the language of today, between morality and politics; here all is one kingdom, one spirit, one reality.

Buber's understanding of Hasidism, however, is open to a number of objections. This is partly because his interpretation was based almost entirely on legends, biographies, miracle tales, and sayings of the zaddikim. Buber virtually ignored a second category of Hasidic writings—the homilies, the commentaries on biblical texts, the works on prayer. In The Origin and Meaning of Hasdism, he wrote:

. . . our chief source of knowledge of Hasidism is its legends, and only after them comes its theoretical literature. The latter is a commentary, the former the text. . . .It is foolish to protest that the legend does not convey to us the reality of Hasidic life. Naturally, the legend is no chronicle, but it is truer than the chronicle for those who know how to read it.

Gershom Scholem1 has pointed out the limitations of such an approach. To describe Hasidism on the basis of its legends is equivalent to describing Roman Catholicism by selecting the finest epigrams of the saints of the Church, while at the same time disregarding its dogmatic theology. Buber severed Hasidism from its historical setting and presented it solely as a spiritual phenomenon. More remarkable is the fact that the theoretical literature which Buber rejected was actually the initial creative literature of the Hasidic movement, whereas the legends came into being almost fifty years after the beginnings of Hasidism. Buber, then, deliberately chose to ignore the body of literature created during the period in which the movement was at its highest level of vitality and creativity.

Moreover—as Scholem has been at pains to demonstrate—Buber's reading of the texts he did use was in itself problematical. One instance is of special significance for our purposes, since it bears directly on the question we raised at the beginning—the question having to do with the nature of Buber's present audience. Buber made the point that in Hasidism the separation between “life in God” and “life in the world”—to him the primal evil of all “religion”—is overcome in genuine, concrete unity. Scholem takes this to mean that “man's responsibility is infinitely more important than the dogmatic formulation of institutional religion.” And he goes on to say that what Buber regarded as the “primal evil of all religion” (that is, institutionalization) is at the very center of Hasidic teaching:

Buber's so-called “concrete unity” is a fictitious one where Hasidism is concerned, for “life in the world” is no longer life in the world when its divine origins appear in contemplation, thereby transforming it into “life in God.” I have still to discover a passage in Hasidic writings that does not maintain the basic separation that Buber so resents. The fact, of course, is—to put it bluntly—that Buber is a religious anarchist . . . and his doctrine is religious anarchism, which does not acknowledge any teaching about what should be done but puts the whole emphasis on intensity, on how whatever one does is done. Therefore, references to the Torah and the Commandments, which to Hasidism still meant everything, become extremely nebulous in Buber's presentation.


Scholem sums up his evaluation of Buber's interpretation of Hasidism with these words:

. . . the merits of Buber's presentation of Hasidic sayings and legends are very great indeed and will to a large extent stand the test of time. But the spiritual message he has read into them in his more mature works is too deeply bound up with assumptions that have no root in the texts—assumptions drawn from his own very modern philosophy of religious anarchism. Too much is left out in his presentation of Hasidism, while what has been included is overloaded with highly personal speculations.

I do not know that Buber made any claims to scholarship in his treatment of Hasidic sources; he was more of a poet than a scholar. But he certainly felt he had uncovered the essence of Hasidism through his interpretation of its legends. And that, as Scholem has shown, is doubtful indeed.

Buber regarded Hasidism as having been, during its period of dynamic creativity, the archetypal manifestation of the essence of prophetic Judaism, and he regarded the teachings of the Prophets as the heart of Judaism. Maintaining as he did that the I-Thou relation cannot be contained and institutionalized, he denied the centrality of Jewish law and placed it on the periphery of his Jewish world-view. In his early writings, he described the prophets, mystics, and some of the zaddikim as the bearers of the I-Thou encounter between Judaism and the divine, while priests, kings, and legalists were preoccupied with the It, with the congealing and freezing of the original revelatory encounter. Though he modified this position in his later books, Buber—for all his apparent awareness of the practical importance of the I-It—always retained a marked distaste for structure. That is to say, he saw Jewish law and institutions as having a stifling effect upon the spontaneity that is a necessary condition of the I-Thou encounter.

In Buber's thought, prophetic Judaism, Hasidism, and Zionism are all interrelated. Both prophet and Hasid envision as the goal of Judaism the establishment of an I-Thou community of men on this earth. Modern Zionism, in turn, is the means by which the Jew can realize this prophetic vision in the land to which he is inextricably linked by the Covenant. Buber regarded the kibbutz as a potential I-Thou community, and though he was disillusioned with it later in life, he never abandoned his original hope for it. His position in favor of a bi-national Palestine was more controversial, and caused him to be looked upon with suspicion and resentment by many Israelis. Here, too, Buber longed for the establishment of a dialogical relationship—this time between Jews and Arabs. Reality proved to be stronger than the dream.


It is thus hardly surprising that neo-Orthodox Protestant theologians are among Buber's most ardent admirers, for he shares with these thinkers the characteristic stances of religious existentialism. He denies the ability of unassisted human reason to respond adequately to the dilemmas and ultimate questions that confront man. He sees man as a being who is constantly faced with the need to make decisions. The most crucial decision is the one concerning man's affirmation of God, who can be reached only by total commitment. All of a man's life is staked on this choice, this Pascal like wager.

Furthermore, Buber shares with many Protestant theologians a distaste for systematic theological concepts, religious institutions, and prescribed patterns of religious behavior. When Buber views religion as a direct relationship between man and God, when he defines sin as the absolutization of the I-It relation, and when he insists that religious laws stultify man's attempts effectively to encounter God, he articulates positions that are perfectly acceptable to Protestants like Niebuhr, Tillich, Heim, and Brunner.

But the very things that make Buber attractive to Protestants render him suspect to Jews. Not that this was always so. In the Europe of the 20s and the 30s, Buber had a large audience among Jews who were somewhat disillusioned with the incessant apologetic attempts to make Judaism rational, and who were seeking a sophisticated ground for their religiosity. They found themselves basically sympathetic to Buber's personality and thought and they were able to appreciate the beauty of his German prose. Many of them were Reform Jews; some were enlightened traditionalists. They became his loyal followers; they constituted Buber's greatest audience—an audience that was to be annihilated by Hitler.

Who is left? Contemporary Jews have responded with something less than enthusiasm to his thought for a variety of reasons. There is, to begin with, Buber's ambivalent attitude toward Jewish law:

I do not believe that revelation is ever a formulation of laws. It is only through man in his self-contradiction that revelation becomes legislation. . . .I cannot admit the law transformed by man into the realm of my will, if I am to hold myself ready as well for the unmediated word of God directed to a specific hour of life.

It is part of my being that I cannot accept both (the Law and the word of God) together and I cannot imagine that this position will ever change for me. . . .

For me, though man is a law-receiver, God is not a law-giver, and therefore the law has no universal validity for me, but only a personal one. I accept, therefore, only what I think is being spoken to me (e.g., the older I become, and the more I realize the restlessness of my soul, the more I accept for myself the Day of Rest).

As a result of such pronouncements, Buber has been condemned or ignored by Orthodox Jews. And when the Hasidim think of him at all, it is hardly with high regard, for they too feel that he has misunderstood and perverted the teachings of Hasidism by disregarding its commitment to Jewish law. Secular Jews, on the other hand, dislike his intense religious orientation. As for Conservative and Reform Jews, those who identify themselves with the rationalist stream of Western culture tend to look upon Buber's religious subjectivism with displeasure, while those who are inclined toward existentialism find they have more in common with Franz Rosenzweig, who took a positive stand on Jewish law. (Some of the younger Reform religious leaders are an exception.)

Buber's view of Jesus has served as a further impediment to his acceptance by Jews. In Two Types of Faith he wrote:

For nearly fifty years the New Testament has been a main concern in my studies, and I think I am a good reader who listens impartially to what is said.

From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded him as God the Savior has always appeared to me a fact of highest importance which, for his sake and my own, I must endeavor to understand. . . . My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever more stronger and clearer, and today I see him more strongly and clearly than ever before.

I am more certain than ever that a great place belongs to him in Israel's history of faith. . . .

Buber looked upon Jesus as a Servant of the Lord. As spoken of by Deutero-Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord suffers in silence, without knowing his role in the messianic scheme of things. It is his task to wait until such time as God draws him forth to proclaim his messianic nature to the world. Jesus was such a Servant—but with a difference. For instead of waiting, he proclaimed himself the Messiah, and thus became the first of the long and pathetic series of false messiahs. According to Buber, however, this in no way detracts from the intrinsic quality and worth of the personality and teachings of Jesus, who remains a great figure, the greatest figure in the history of Jewish messianism. Whether or not this line of thought is correct is not at issue here. The point is that Buber's attitude toward Jesus was hardly calculated to win him followers among the Jews.


Throughout human history, the most salient characteristic of man has been his ability to create religious and scientific models of the universe. Each great system of thought represents another model of reality. These models are a testimony to the richness of the human mind and an indication of man's basic need to construct meaningful configurations out of the raw data given to perception. Man had been doing this all along in an unconscious sort of way, believing that these models were objective representations of truth and grounded in immutable scientific or religious laws. In the 19th century, however, man became aware of his model-making activity; he became conscious of the fact that he gives meaning to the world rather than drawing meaning from it. While this insight emphasized man's creativity, it also exposed the arbitrary character of his creations, for it denied the existence of absolute standards, and it stripped the world itself of all essential meaning.

Buber's whole philosophy can be seen as a reaction against modern man's view of the world as a chaos; it is an attempt to see the world as intrinsically suffused with meaning. In I-It encounters, this meaning remains dormant; in I-Thou encounters it enters into the relation and charges it with value. These latter encounters, though elusive and fleeting, are remembered and retain the ability to bring some measure of meaning into later I-It encounters. In essence, this is Buber's religious model of the universe and his legacy to the world. It is a valuable model in that it has much to say concerning the nature of the human experience.

Given Buber's inability to comprehend the nature and meaning of Jewish law, his existentialist orientation, his attitude toward Jesus, and his view of Judaism as refracted through the prism of Christian mysticism, it is perfectly understandable that his work is regarded with suspicion by contemporary Jews. But there is nevertheless a bitter irony in the fact that the great philosopher of dialogue is today virtually incapable of entering into dialogue with his own people.

1 See his article, “Martin Buber's Hasidism,” in the October 1961 COMMENTARY.

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