Meeting Martin Buber
Over half a century after his death, Martin Buber is still an iconic Jewish philosopher. His white-bearded face is immediately recognized as the face of modern Jewish thought, one that reconnects a post-1945 world with the world of prophets on the one hand, and with contemporary politics on the other. Alongside philosophers, theologians, and historians, pets, journalists, and song-writers continue to find in him as a major source of inspiration. A favorite example for this impact is a recent essay, titled “Meet Justin Bieber,” by the author Zadie Smith. Reflecting about Martin Buber’s notion of “encounter” she adopts his model of love for “where life is lived and man recovers from institutions.” Smith, like other public intellectuals, is impressed by Buber’s ability to shape a language of affiliation without hierarchy and capital. Buber’s understanding of the I-Thou, that is, is the opposite to the I-it understanding of the Bieber, commercialism, and manipulation.
Martin Buber became an iconic figure already in the early 1900s. The historian Michael Brenner placed him in the start of “The Jewish Renaissance,” the title of Buber’s essay from 1900. Buber’s close relationship with the intellectual representatives of that generation became a repeating reference point to both supporters and critics of his work. Some, like Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Hannah Arendt, responded with a degree of skepticism. Others, like the anarchist thinker Gustav Landauer, the philosophers Franz Rosenzweig and Hugo Bergmann, and the essayist Margarete Susman, responded warmly. The latter group, members of Buber’s closest circle, remained devoted to him for the rest of their lives. Both admirers and critics treated Buber’s interpretation of Jewish and Christian scripture as the essence of his prophetic thought, what one might call a political-theological pathos.
Buber is known, for the most part, as the author of “I and Thou” (1923), a theological interpretation of relationship between self and other that suggested a radical inter-personal and inter-religious or inter-cultural stress on equality before and through the divine. In his exchanges with the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and the Protestant theologian Christian Rang, Buber emphasized the dialogical principle of the I-Thou relations. As he explained in a letter to Rosenzweig written on 13 July 1924, “God is not for me a lawgiver; only man can be a lawgiver. For that reason, for me the law is personal, not universal.” (Martin Buber to Franz Rosenzweig, 13 July 1924, in Martin Buber, Briefwechsel aus sieben Jahrzehnten, vol. 2 (Heidelberg: L. Schneider, 1972), 200.)
Liberal theologians and advocates of democracy regarded I and Thou a key piece in a new, hopeful, dialogical culture; in a memorial speech Paul Tillich gave shortly after Buber’s death in 1965 he characterized him as a life-long “partner in a dialogue.” For half a century the work done by Buber’s biographer Maurice Friedman, the historian Paul Mendes-Flohr, the political scientist Dan Avnon, and the literary interpretation of Laurence Silberstein, among others, made Buber into the model of humanism, tolerance, and hope. More recently, a growing body of work sees his philosophy as a model of political theology, or religious and political anarchism. Martina Urban and Claire Sufrin stress the radical intellectual strands; Samuel Brody, Yaniv Feller, Christoph Schmidt, Sam Berrin Shonkoff and Miguel Vatter, to mention only a few from a growing crowd of interpreters, follow Gershom Scholem’s observation that Buber is a “religious anarchist,” at the heart of their own recent interpretations of Buber. While both groups supported Buber’s plea to “recover from institutions,” the first was inclined to stress Buber’s utopian tone, while the latter is disposed to emphasize radical critique. If the first read him in terms of I and Thou, before the rise of fascism, the second moves to the post-fascist period, after 1930. For example, Friedman’s monumental three-part biography is divided between pre-1945 and post-1945, while sidelining the apparent change of tone during the early 1930s. More recent scholarship, in contrast, read his earlier, affirmative work against the background of his later political-theological critique.
Recent scholarship, more attuned to the shocking resurfacing of populism and neofascism accentuates a Buber who became increasingly preoccupied with political failure, not political hope, and with a general crisis of the I-Thou relationship rather than its success. Buber’s theopolitics, a concept he started using during the early 1930s and that became the heart of his work in the 1940s, testifies to this growing critical tone.
It is during this period, shortly after the death, in 1929, of his closest collaborator and co-translator of the Bible, Franz Rosenzweig, that Buber began mentioning “the crown jurist of the Third Reich,” Carl Schmitt, in private letters and in his writings. As I have argued elsewhere, Buber’s concentrated analysis of theopolitics sprouted from his engagement with Carl Schmitt’s political theology, beginning with Buber’s Kingship of God (1932) and Question of the Self (1936). He referred to Schmitt in the introduction to The Kingship of God and criticized him openly in the Question of the Self. From that point on, Buber’s critique of Schmitt was more or less consistent.
Buber adopted Schmitt’s critique of Liberal institutions and of secularization, but also harshly criticized Schmitt’s emphasis on granting sovereignty to a human “decider”—a consistent term in Buber’s texts used to denote those who ignore a higher ethical principle, whether divine or prophetic. As Buber repeatedly noted, Schmitt’s blind faith in political authority makes way for “the possibility of physical killing.” In his own political theology, the “theopolitical hour” or “theopolitical realism,” Buber made the decision a prerogative of the prophet (Prophetic Faith, originally published in Hebrew, 1942).
Standing between God and man, the prophet is he who speaks in the voice of the divine without institutional mediation. In that sense, the prophet is standing against the very principle of authority, even the authority of the divine: “The world of prophetic faith is in fact historical realty, seen in the bold and penetrating glance of the man who dares to believe. What here prevails is indeed a special kind of politics, theopolitics, which is concerned to establish a certain people in a certain historical situation under the divine sovereignty, so that this people is brough nearer the fulfilment of its task, to become the beginning of the kingdom of God.” (Prophetic Faith, 167-8)
Buber did his best to apply his critical notion of sovereignty evenhandedly. Philosophically speaking, the only institution that answered his theopolitical realism was the Kibbutz, or the Socialist utopian collective undertaken by Socialist Zionists. Beginning in the 1930s, and especially in the wake of the dissolution/disbanding of the Brith Shalom [Covenant of Peace]––a movement of Socialist intellectuals dedicated to a federative and binational state– Buber became more and more critical about the failure of Zionism. His early warnings, to Herzl and later Ben-Gurion, that political Zionism could lead in the wrong direction were realized in the rise of nationalist institutions and a Zionist tendency to follow populist and authoritative models. In the Kingship of God Buber described the theopolitical as the epitome of Jewish politics, for “there is no political sphere except the theo-political, and all sons of Israel are directly related to JHWE, who chooses and rejects, gives an order and withdraws it.” (KG, 136) In 1947 he warned that Zionism itself was adopting the “possibility of physical killing.”
Buber scholars see in these theopolitics not only an anarchic worldview but a theocratic one, i.e. the rule of clergy, or the notion that there is no distinction between a religious and secular politics. As shown above, however, Buber reveres above all those prophets who object even to God in the name of equality. In other words, Buber takes another swing at authoritative politics, including theocracy, turning the theopolitical from a passive form of resistance (to human sovereign, a king) into an active hermeneutic system.
Buber reception, whether early or late, was inclined to view him from the perspective of history of ideas or history of concepts. But focusing on ideas or concepts tends to ignore the context in which they were written, or the discourse and the power-relations in which ideas and concepts thrive. When Buber was writing about theopolitics, he was writing not only with and against Schmitt’s stress on the “secularization of theological concepts.” He was writing with and against his closest friends among the liberal theological institution; with and against his academic colleagues in Palestine (he emigrated to Palestine in 1938); with and against political and institutional authorities such as David Ben-Gurion, with whom he cooperated on a series of initiatives. But how loyal was Buber to his own theopolitical principle or his own discursive claims? When examining Buber’s activities at the Hebrew University during the 1940s, one cannot but realize he was working and speaking as a senior administrator, an official of the newly created university, the higher education system, and a variety of publishing houses. His correspondence shows him taking pride in his role as the shaper of the education system. If he spoke as a religious or even a secular anarchist, he acted more as a political authority.
Meeting Martin Buber, in other words, means meeting the voice behind the words, a man who did not always know how to “recover from institutions.” Sh’muel Hugo Bergman—a deep admirer of Buber—offers a comment in a diary entry from 12 May 1949 that allows us to see to some degree the contrast of the man and the mission, the theopolitical principle and the institutional setting: “I feel a strong sense of estrangement. Heard Buber’s opening only partially, outside the hall, because I could not stand the pathos.”
Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Touchstone, 1996)
Published in 1923. The core of Buber’s Dialogical approach. A theory of communication connecting I and Thou or self and other, contrasted with an instrumental I-It relation. The I-Thou relation is potentially equal and divine or eternal.
Martin Buber, Kingship of God, trans. Richard Scheimann (New York: Harper, 1967)
The first part of a planned trilogy about Messianism, published in 1932. The book follows a Biblical and chronological order, moving from the judges, to kings, prophets, and finally the exile. It is critical of human sovereignty in general, and the kings in particular.
Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)
Published in Hebrew in 1942. Extending central aspects from Kingship of God, especially the critique of human sovereignty and the Prophet’s understanding of the “theopolitical hour.” In that “hour of need” the prophet mobilizes resistance to hierarchy and calls for social equality.
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