Martin Buber’s Believing Humanism

A Life of Dialogue
Martin Buber (INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)

“I am unfortunately a complicated and difficult subject.” With these words of Martin Buber, Paul Mendes-Flohr lays down the challenge for his meticulous biography of the distinguished Jewish scholar, humanist, and author of I and Thou. “Complicated,” to be sure, and “difficult,” certainly; that goes with the territory of Buber’s at times maze-like philosophical explorations and heavily Germanic articulation. And one may add to these challenges the fact that—to quote this biographer—Buber was a “contested figure who evoked passionate, conflicting opinions about his person and his thought.” Yet these obstacles are by no means insurmountable, thanks to Mendes-Flohr’s philosophical acumen and gift for succinct expression. Indeed, in his capable hands Buber’s life makes for an engrossing, instructive tale, and an exemplary contribution to Yale’s “Jewish Lives Series.”

Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has long been a scholar of German Jewry and of Martin Buber, serving as editor-in-chief of the twenty-two-volume German critical edition of Buber’s collected works. His previous publications include the English translations of Buber’s 1909 treatise on mysticism, Ecstatic Confessions (Harper & Row, 1985), and collected writings on Jews and Arabs, A Land of Two Peoples (Oxford University Press, 1983). While Mendes-Flohr never met Buber (as did such previous biographers as Grete Schaeder and Maurice Friedman), he was a longtime confidant of Buber’s late son, Rafael, and the beneficiary of significant manuscripts and correspondence not previously available to biographers. These allow him to present Buber’s serious thought in depth as he builds a textured, comprehensive portrait of the man and his life.

Buber was born in 1878 to a wealthy Polish Jewish family in Vienna. His father, Carl, was an agronomist and entrepreneur; while not particularly religious, he was, in Buber’s words, “an elemental storyteller.” Buber’s mother, Elise, was an actress with “astoundingly beautiful eyes,” as Buber himself later attested; she abandoned the family for a Russian officer when Buber was three, and the separation had a seismic effect on Buber’s life, including his subsequent philosophy, religious sense, and social understanding. The boy was sent for ten years to live with his paternal grandparents in Lemberg, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). His grandfather, Solomon Buber, was a legendary midrash scholar and philanthropist; his grandmother, Adele, was steeped in a love for German literature, a love she passed on to her precocious grandson.

Buber’s early education took place largely at home, in a household where Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, and English were all understood and encouraged. At ten he was sent to gymnasium, where he devised dialogues between a German and a Frenchman, a Hebrew and an ancient Roman, foundational exercises for his later philosophy of dialogue. When questioned about one of Sophocles’s choruses during a final exam, he recited the entire chorus by heart—in Greek. It was at the age of thirteen that he coined the German word Vergegnung, or “mismeeting,” a word that would spring spontaneously to mind when he was reintroduced decades later to his mother. The term would come to play a key role in his description and analysis of “the life of dialogue.”

Carl Buber eventually remarried, and at fourteen Martin Buber went to live with his reconfigured family. His father would occasionally take him to an outlying village of Hasidim, where Buber was introduced to Hasidism’s vibrant mystical worship, lore, and community. The experience would echo in his subsequent understanding of Judaism and his written works on Hasidism. Yet soon after his bar mitzvah, Buber put away the tefillin of an observant Jew. Having already started reading Nietzsche, he was embarking on a new course, exploring what it meant to be a free, self-actualizing human being.

At eighteen, Buber entered the University of Vienna. He was interested in art, literature, music, and drama, and his reading of Nietzsche reinforced his quest for greater experience. He became a proponent of the fledgling Zionist movement, and caught the attention of Theodor Herzl, the movement’s founder, who appointed him editor of its journal, Die Welt. Buber’s studies took him onward to Leipzig, Zurich, and finally Berlin. Along the way, he met Paula Winkler, a Catholic from Munich and a budding novelist who had briefly been a member of a syncretistic ashram in Tyrol. The two fell passionately in love, and within two years, though unmarried, had two children. (They would only marry—and inform Buber’s family of the children—in 1907, following the death of Solomon Buber.) Paula became Martin Buber’s lifelong “Thou.” According to Mendes-Flohr, her “unbending integrity and insight...made her Buber’s most trusted critic and intellectual collaborator.”

In Berlin, Buber studied under Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel; through the latter, he met Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edmund Husserl. During this period, underwritten by his family’s largesse, he traveled to Florence to study medieval art and spirituality. Back in Germany, he turned his focus to Judaism and Hasidism. By 1903, he had broken with Herzl over the direction and purpose of the Zionist movement. Would it be largely a political, statist enterprise, as Herzl envisioned; or would it seek to renew Judaism and the Jewish people—as Buber desired—through a rediscovery of Judaism’s historic communal and spiritual core? Buber’s first book on the Hasidim was published in 1906 (and dedicated to his ailing grandfather). In evoking the folklore of the early Hasidic masters, Buber experienced a calling and a lifelong work. In Mendes-Flohr’s words, Buber’s early work on Hasidism furnished him “with a spiritual home” that grounded all his later thinking. Though his take on the Hasidim was subsequently criticized by Jewish scholars and others, his friend and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that “if you want to know Hasidism as it was, begin with Buber.”

Buber’s early work on Hasidism furnished him “with a spiritual home” that grounded all his later thinking

Mendes-Flohr expends a great deal of effort explicating the controversies over Buber’s presentation of Hasidism, and does so with commendable evenhandedness. He relates a wonderful story, told to him by Buber’s son Rafael, about one of Buber’s severest critics, Gershom Scholem. When Rafael was nineteen, he heard someone shouting at his father from behind closed doors in the family study. The door opened, and out walked Scholem, then a young man and not yet the renowned scholar he would later become. Wondering why his father had let Scholem excoriate him so, Buber presciently replied, “My son, some day that young man will attain intellectual renown.”

In the first decade or so of the new century, Buber eschewed academic positions in favor of writing, publishing, and speaking to Jewish audiences throughout Central Europe. Keenly aware of anti-Semitism, he encouraged his young listeners to embrace the suffering masses of Jews, and to deepen their own response “to the whole of Jewish existence.” Then came the First World War. It set loose a profound confluence of personal experiences that changed the tenor of Buber’s thought and life, reversing his previous Nietzschean romanticism and personal attachment to mystical experience. While never a German nationalist, when the war broke out he initially supported it as a means of deepening German solidarity. He would soon change course. In his remembrances, Meetings (English translation, 1973), Buber told of a young man who had come to him for advice. Buber recalled being less than fully attentive to the young man’s “unasked question”: whether he should enlist. When the young man did enlist and was killed at the front, Buber took his death as a thunderous judgment. Henceforth, human communication—both listening and responding—were to become hallmarks both of Buber’s personal dealings and of his philosophy.

A second crucial event during the war was a confrontation with his good friend, the socialist Gustav Landauer. When Landauer, with a scathingly witty play on Buber’s name, criticized him in 1916 as the Kriegsbuber (the “War Boy” or “War Scoundrel”), Buber was taken aback; a subsequent meeting and lengthy discussion with Landauer helped speed the transformation of Buber’s views on the war and German nationalism, and further deepened his misgivings about Nietzschean romanticism. Together, these events helped pave the way for his subsequent philosophy of dialogue, expressed in his 1923 classic I and Thou. Concerning Landauer’s murder in Munich in 1919 at the hands of a rabid nationalist mob, Buber later told Grete Schaeder he experienced Landauer’s assassination as “his own death.”

Throughout the war and until 1923, Buber edited the highly regarded German monthly Der Jude. It was during this period that his friendship and collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig developed. Author of The Star of Redemption (1921) and nine years Buber’s junior, Rosenzweig was the more orthodox of the two, both as a thinker and believer. He liked to refer to Buber—not without humor—as “a reverential apikoros” (Yiddish for heretic). Mendes-Flohr has a moving chapter on their friendship, culminating in Rosenzweig’s premature decline and death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1929. Rosenzweig was in awe of Buber—he remarked to a friend that Buber seemed almost superhuman in the “genuineness of his person.” For Buber’s part, the great lesson he received from his younger friend and his health travails “was the merging of faith and humor in such a test.” It would seem hard to exaggerate the importance of this friendship. In 1925—at the invitation of a Catholic publicist—Buber and Rosenzweig had begun a translation of the Hebrew Bible into modern German, the first such major translation since Luther’s. It was a monumental undertaking, one Buber carried on after Rosenzweig’s death and would not complete until 1961. At the ailing Rosenzweig’s request, Buber assumed his professorship at the University of Frankfurt (he would be ousted by the Nazis in 1933), as well as his leadership in adult Jewish education at the Frankfurt Lehrhaus, which Buber carried on until its suppression.

The capstone of Buber’s writing and philosophy is I and Thou, published in 1923 but drafted over many years. The singularity of this book—and the form Buber chose for his conclusion that “all real living is meeting”—was perhaps best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1967 Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, in which he recalled his initial impression of the book as a collection of “wonderful poems,” and his subsequent “astonishment,” some time later, to realize “that Martin Buber was a philosopher and that all his philosophy lay in the books I read as poetry.” Borges went on to observe that “I accepted these books because they came to me through poetry, through suggestion, through the music of poetry, and not as arguments.”

 

Buber’s life can be divided into three periods: his youthful Nietzschean-mystical period; his second, “dialogical” period (which produced I and Thou, along with his 1929 Dialogue and other works), including his public leadership of German Jews up to his 1938 emigration to Palestine; and his final period, one of wide educational instruction, prolific writing, speaking, and traveling, and support of Jewish-Arab reconciliation. Mendes-Flohr treats each period with admirable thoroughness and objectivity. He might have said more about Buber’s Paths in Utopia, published in Hebrew in 1946, or written more about A. D. Gordon (1856–1922), whom Buber admired (with the possible exception of Rosenzweig) more than anyone, according to his longtime colleague Ernst Simon. Gordon was one of the early Jewish settlers who returned to cultivate the land in Palestine. In Buber’s words, he was “better able than anyone else in the modern Jewish national movement to renew the insight into the unique relationship between the people and the land.” Mendes-Flohr lists Gordon’s name once, but only in passing.

Buber’s middle age was interrupted by an avalanche of ugly history. In 1933, his and Paula’s home in Heppenheim, halfway between Frankfurt and Heidelberg—a home where Albert Einstein had been a frequent visitor—was targeted by National Socialist brownshirts; two of the Bubers’ grandchildren, living at the time with Martin and Paula, were ostracized at school. Despite Hitler’s rise, Buber continued to address and encourage public audiences; as Hannah Arendt wrote in 1935, “In our day, Martin Buber is German Jewry’s incontestable guide.” But following a February 1935 address to a crowd of two thousand at the Berlin Philharmonic, Buber was forbidden from further lecturing. Looking to the future, he and Paula visited Palestine in 1935 and again in 1937, shipping fifteen thousand books to Jerusalem for safekeeping. The Bubers finally emigrated in 1938, shortly before Kristallnacht, at which point their home was ransacked and the remaining three thousand books destroyed. (Today the house serves as headquarters for the International Council of Christians and Jews.)

In Jerusalem, where his arrival coincided with his sixtieth birthday, Buber said the air revitalized him. Reestablishing himself professionally proved challenging; not religious enough for some, not scholarly enough for others, in the end he was grudgingly given a chair—not in religion or philosophy, but in sociology—at the Hebrew University, where his first challenge was to master spoken Hebrew. When Buber delivered a series of lectures in Poland in 1939—lectures given, one listener reported, in “elegant Polish”—he and Paula were disturbed by the “war psychosis” they encountered in the German border regions, and disheartened at “the extent of Jewish poverty and the elemental hatred of Jews.” Back in Jerusalem, they watched in horror as war exploded across Europe.

Buber called for a “believing humanism,” one that would permeate all aspects of life, including human culture, the economy, and the state

In Jerusalem, the Bubers lived initially in a Palestinian neighborhood. There Buber put in fourteen-hour workdays; he no longer felt the need for sleep, he said. Books poured out: on Scripture, Hasidism, Zionism, communal socialism, even a novel, For the Sake of Heaven (Gog u-Magog in Hebrew). As a Jewish thinker and writer, Buber was something of a paradox: loved by his Arab neighbors and the champion of a binational state for Palestinians and Jews (anathema to some Zionists), he was criticized by the Orthodox for his apparent lack of belief and religious practice. With the war of 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel, the Bubers relocated to a Jewish neighborhood in partitioned Jerusalem. Buber gave up his quest for a binational state, but continued to argue for a Near Eastern Federation of states, both Arab and Jewish. Until the end of his life, he supported efforts at Palestinian-Jewish rapprochement.

In 1952, the German Catholic theologian Romano Guardini sent Buber a paper, “Responsibility: Thoughts on the Jewish Question,” pointedly addressing German culpability for the Holocaust. Guardini’s candor allowed Buber to consider, for the first time, returning to speak in Germany. He did so later that year, first to accept the Goethe Prize, then to receive the peace prize of the German Book Trade. Telling his German audiences that he could never “presume to ‘forgive’” what had taken place in Germany, he nonetheless took the opportunity to commend those Germans who had resisted the Nazis.

Mendes-Flohr writes at length about Buber’s meeting with Martin Heidegger in 1954—what Buber later described as a mismeeting or Vergegnung—and about his later criticism of Heidegger, offered while accepting the Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam in 1963. There, Buber argued that Heidegger had betrayed classical German humanism, and faulted him for separating everyday life and experience from any sense of faith. In contrast, Buber called for a “believing humanism,” one that would permeate all aspects of life, including human culture, the economy, and the state. This humanism steered him toward principled commitments. In 1928, he had spoken against the death penalty in Germany. Still, it surprised many in Israel when he argued in 1961, first, that Adolf Eichmann should be tried in an international court, not in Israel; and, second, that Eichmann’s death sentence should be commuted to life at hard labor, preferably tilling the soil of Israel on a kibbutz. Greeting Buber officially in 1963 on the occasion of Buber’s eighty-fifth birthday, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion commented, “I honor and oppose you.”

Buber’s last years were lived in the shadow of a devastating personal loss. Paula Buber died suddenly in Venice in 1958 as the two were returning to Israel from an extended stay in the United States. Buber himself would never feel whole without her. Still, he continued to work indefatigably until shortly before his death in June 1965. He died at home, amidst his children and grandchildren. At his death, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol eulogized him as “one of the spiritual giants” of the century, a teacher whose thought and achievements “revealed the soul of Judaism with a new philosophical daring.” Buber’s body, wrapped in the traditional tallith, was interred at the Hebrew University.

With Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, Mendes-Flohr has added to the man’s legacy. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Buber’s lifelong friends and colleagues, remarked that “There was magic in his personality, richness in his soul,” adding that “his sheer presence was a joy.” Heschel recalled that Buber “loved to listen and to talk, and our conversations sometimes lasted twelve to thirteen hours.” Something of that bounty is generously conveyed in Mendes-Flohr’s superb biography.

 

Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent
Paul Mendes-Flohr
Yale University Press
$26 | 440 pp.

Published in the June 2020 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

Also by this author
Eye on Sudan

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections