Martin Buber

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Martin Buber (1868 -1965)

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The man who has had the greatest influence on modern Jewish thought is Martin Buber. His work belongs to Jewish philosophy, not only because it touches on important philosophical questions, but also because he developed an original principle that distinguishes the religious and the philosophical point of view. He is the latest in a long line of thinkers who set out to determine the boundary between faith and knowledge, one of the main problems in the philosophy of religion, even though he does not formulate this in the traditional manner. His dealing, once again, with the problem of knowledge and belief, his way of establishing the dualism of the religious and the philosophical approach and his concern with both these domains places Buber’s work both inside and outside of the boundaries of philosophy or, at least of philosophical method.

Buber saw himself, in some way, as a ‘guide of the perplexed’ to his contemporaries and, for a certain section of German Jewry, he did indeed fulfil this role. He certainly succeeded in preventing a considerable part of the German Jewish generation that grew up in the early twentieth century from being submerged and absorbed in the surrounding Gentile civilisation, so that they remained within their faith. He achieved this by two means – which he did not, of course, use with conscious intent: One, he emphasised certain values that also ranked supreme in the West’s mentality of that period, namely Art in general and the poetic word in particular. For the second, he turned to the East, to a great source of spiritual power that belonged to an almost forgotten Jewish past, to the religious way of life embodied in Chassidism and brought its still fertile influence into the spiritual desert of Western Judaism.

To make the content of Chassidism available was in itself a highly significant achievement; Buber translated much more than the mere language from one culture to the other. By making the Chassidic way of life the subject matter of a religious work of art in his Chassidische Buecher, he brought it to the attention of a readership whose primary interest was aesthetic. By presenting Western Jews with a flood of wholly strange aspects, doctrines and emotional implications emanating from their own religion, he was able to have an impact that was not aesthetic only. The stream of Chassidic thought and experience carried into the field of vision of wider Jewish circles many fragments of ancient Jewish mysticism and theological speculation that have philosophical importance. Clearly, religious language, religious ideas and facts are capable of yielding different meanings and could reveal perspectives other than those that were accepted under the partially or wholly outworn religious conventions of the day. But besides the great vision of the Universe that is the background of Chassidic life – half Gnostic imagery, half mystical philosophy – Buber found in Chassidism yet another philosophical motif: the community, understood not only as a field of action, but as a product of the religious impulse; and he developed this idea into a social philosophy on which he tried to base his Jewish political theories.

In the dialogue, Daniel (1913) and in his work I and Thou (Ich und Du, 1923), Buber marks out the ground upon which he takes his stand. It is characterised by a peculiar kind of experience and, on the whole, has more in common with a religious than with a cognitive state of mind. Buber does not set out to reach the Divine from this, the phenomenal world by the way of natural reason. He does not move from earth to heaven, but begins at once with the complete world in which he believes – presupposed real without any discussion- with G-d as He is known to the religious man, with His mode of action and His will. We find ourselves in the religious sphere from the beginning; not striving towards it from an initial state of unbelief, but finding it all there, accepted as real before the discussion begins. Only then are the ideas clarified by being confronted with that which is not illuminated by the true light of religion.