Mar­tin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent

  • Review
By – April 13, 2020

Mar­tin Buber’s full beard and mod­est bear­ing sug­gest an almost bib­li­cal pres­ence. But, as the sub­ti­tle of this high­ly read­able biog­ra­phy indi­cates, Buber was an anom­alous Jew,” an embod­i­ment of the con­flicts of the mod­ern spir­i­tu­al­ly ani­mat­ed Jew freed from the restraints of rit­u­al and practice.

Philoso­pher, reli­gious thinker, Jew­ish activist, and human­i­tar­i­an, Mar­tin Buber played a major part in the move­ments for change in ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Judaism. Although, he was not as influ­en­tial as he would have hoped in the view of Paul Mendes-Flohr, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Divin­i­ty School and Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty and edi­tor-in-chief of the Ger­man edi­tion of Buber’s col­lect­ed works. In this impres­sive biog­ra­phy, based on thou­sands of Buber’s let­ters and a few auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal frag­ments,” Mendes-Flohr unfolds a his­to­ry of Buber’s thought, influ­ence, and activism that caused him to be con­sid­ered an out­sider, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Israel, even as he was high­ly respect­ed and admired in Europe and the Unit­ed States.

Orig­i­nal­ly drawn to Zion­ism as a path to a revi­tal­ized Jew­ish com­mu­nal life freed from rit­u­al, Buber nev­er entire­ly made peace with the polit­i­cal state, nor the state with him. Buber was par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal of the treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans, and his oppo­si­tion to the exe­cu­tion of Adolf Eich­mann, one of the prime orga­niz­ers of the Holo­caust, was wide­ly con­demned. In trans­lat­ing the tales of Rab­bi Nach­man of Brat­zlav, he sought to restore a great buried her­itage of faith to the light,” but was crit­i­cized for roman­ti­ciz­ing Hasidism. He did not prac­tice Judaism after his four­teenth birth­day, but his life was infused with a deep love for Judaism and its spir­i­tu­al force.

Mendes-Flohr con­cen­trates on Buber’s thought with only brief ref­er­ences to his per­son­al life. Buber grew up in his grand­par­ents’ rig­or­ous­ly obser­vant Ortho­dox home after his moth­er ran off with a Russ­ian offi­cer when he was only three years old. Mendes-Flohr sug­gests that Buber’s aban­don­ment by his moth­er left a per­ma­nent mark and under­scored his height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ty to oth­ers and his insis­tence on ful­ly open and atten­tive dia­logue — the I‑Thou meet­ing expressed in I and Thou, his best-known work. Buber’s ded­i­ca­tion to dia­logue, to meet­ing oth­ers in total hon­esty, attract­ed Chris­t­ian as well as Jew­ish thinkers and laid a foun­da­tion for inter­faith dialogue.

Buber’s life divides into sev­er­al stages. Arriv­ing in Vien­na at eigh­teen years old, he threw him­self into its heady cul­tur­al life. He was active­ly engaged in Zion­ism as a lec­tur­er and edi­tor in the unre­al­ized hope that Zion­ism would fos­ter a cul­tur­al Jew­ish renais­sance. As a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Zurich, he was influ­enced by promi­nent Ger­man thinkers and philoso­phers. At the out­break of World War I, he was car­ried away by the tran­scen­den­tal” uni­ty of the war effort and urged Jews to see in the war an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence the spir­it of com­mu­ni­ty,” a posi­tion he reversed two years lat­er. His response to the Nazi per­se­cu­tion in 1930s Ger­many was Jew­ish adult edu­ca­tion to build a com­mu­ni­ty of moral strength that will stand firm.” He and his wife did not leave Ger­many for Pales­tine until 1938. On the per­son­al side, Mendes-Flohr touch­es upon Buber’s lov­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tive mar­riage to Paula Win­kler, whom he met as a stu­dent and with whom he had two chil­dren out of wed­lock, and on his friend­ship and work with Franz Rosen­zweig through Rosenzweig’s debil­i­tat­ing illness.

Fun­da­men­tal to all Buber’s work was his deep love of Judaism, his com­mit­ment to dia­logue, and his effort to inte­grate the tran­scen­dent and the every­day.” He wrote a poet­ic prose that could inspire, but laid out few specifics: I have no teach­ing. I only point to something….I take him who lis­tens to me…to the win­dow. I open the win­dow and point to what is outside.”

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions