Buber, Martin

views updated May 18 2018


BUBER, MARTIN (18781965) was a Jewish philosopher and educator. Born in Vienna to Carl and Elise Buber, he was raised by his paternal grandparents, Salomon and Adele Buber, following the breakup of his parents' marriage. He studied at universities in Vienna; Leipzig, Germany; Zurich, Switzerland; and Berlin. In 1904 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, writing his dissertation on Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) and Jakob Boehme (15751624). In 1899 Buber married Paula Winkler, a well-known German writer, with whom he had two children.

During his late teens and early university years, Buber experienced a sense of alienation from Judaism and the Jewish community. The newly formed Zionist movement opened the way to a renewed connection to the Jewish community. Embracing Zionism as a form of Jewish spiritual renewal, Buber began to write extensively on Judaism and Jewish nationalism. From 1901 to 1904 he edited the official journal of the Zionist movement, Die Welt.

A five-year (19041909), intensive engagement with the sources of Hasidism, an eastern European movement of Jewish religious renewal, helped revive Buber's connection to the religious and spiritual dimensions of Judaism. In Hasidism, which he first encountered as a child living with his grandparents in central Europe, Buber experienced a spiritual energy that he considered missing from most forms of Jewish life. This five-year period of study resulted in two volumes in German, The Tales of Rabbi Nachman (1906) and The Legend of the Baal-Shem (1908). These were followed by volumes of essays and translations, including For the Sake of Heaven (1945), Tales of the Hasidim (1947), and The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism (1960), which first appeared in Hebrew, and Hasidism and Modern Man (1958). Other early writings include studies in mysticism, Ekstatische Konfessionen (1909) and Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (1910), as well as two collections of essays on Jewish national and religious renewal, Die Jüdische Bewegung (2 vols., 19161920) and Reden über das Judentum (On Judaism, 1923). He also edited a monographic series on social thought, Die Gesellschaft (19041912), and a journal, Die Jude (19161924), that focused on Jewish history and culture.

Buber taught at the University of Frankfurt from 1923 to 1933 and had a powerful spiritual impact on Jewish youth. Active in Jewish cultural life, he also lectured at the Frankfurt Jüdische Lehrhaus directed by Franz Rosenzweig (18861929). During the 1930s Buber's lectures and writings served as an important source of spiritual inspiration for the besieged German Jewish community. In 1938 Buber immigrated to Palestine, where he served as professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and actively engaged in adult education. Buber was a founder and active participant in Brit Shalom and Ihud, movements for Arab-Jewish rapprochement. A staunch advocate of a binational state in Palestine, he wrote and lectured on its behalf.

Philosophy of Judaism

Buber's imaginative reading of Hasidism served as an important foundation for his distinctive interpretation of Judaism and religion. He was particularly drawn to Hasidism's emphasis on the hallowing of the everyday. Rather than seek the sacred in special places, moments, or ritual practices, Hasidism, according to Buber, found it in everyday encounters with other people, animals, and nature. As he read them, the Hasidic teachings provided a viable path whereby his generation could bridge the gulf between the sacred and the profane.

Buber did not consider becoming a member of a Hasidic community to be a viable possibility. Rejecting Orthodoxy, he espoused spontaneous, experiential "religiosity" over static, institutionalized "religion." Eschewing the formal rabbinic practices and structures of classical Hasidism, he instead encouraged an existential engagement with Hasidic teachings as a path of religious renewal for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Taking issue with both Jewish historical scholarship and rationalist Jewish theology, Buber emphasized the mystical and mythic components of Judaism. Gershom Scholem (18971982), a leading modern scholarly interpreter of Jewish mysticism, objected to Buber's interpretations of Hasidism. His criticisms and Buber's response resulted in one of the most significant debates among modern Jewish scholars concerning the interpretation of religion in general and Judaism in particular. Diverging from the canons of Western academic scholarship, Buber, according to Scholem, produced a subjective, idiosyncratic, misleading representation of Hasidism. Ignoring such basic sources of Hasidic teachings as liturgical texts and biblical commentaries, Buber focused exclusively on the Hasidic tales. Moreover, ignoring the nihilistic tendencies in Hasidic teachings, Buber, according to Scholem, focused solely on Hasidism's affirmation of everyday life. Finally, swayed by his own anarchistic tendencies, Buber had neglected the central role of formal religious practices (halakhah) in Hasidism.

Responding to Scholem in "Interpreting Hasidism," Buber distanced himself from conventional historical scholarship that "addresses the past as an object of knowledge with the intention of advancing the field of historical knowledge" (Buber, 1963, p. 218). To Buber the study of the past was important not for its own sake, but because of its power in assisting people to confront the spiritual crisis of the present. While never explicitly denying the validity of historical inquiry, Buber considered it an ineffective way to address the spiritual demands of the present.

To Buber, Hasidism incorporated a spiritual power that could help the modern person overcome the alienation that separated people from one another, from the world of nature, and from the divine. More than a system of theological concepts and ritual practices, Hasidism, argued Buber, was a way of life. As such, its dynamic power is best revealed through tales and legends that emerged out of life situations.

Biblical writings provided another important foundation for Buber's interpretation of Judaism. In such works of biblical interpretation as Kingship of God (1932), Moses (1945), Prophetic Faith (1942), and On the Bible (1968), Buber sought to recover the living situations from which the biblical text emerged. While his biblical writings reveal a great appreciation for critical scholarship, his primary concern was to engage the Bible as a living record of Israel's ongoing dialogue with God. In his German translation of the Hebrew Bible, Buber, together with his collaborator Rosenzweig, sought to recover the sensuous, poetic force of the spoken language. (The first volumes of this translation were published in 1925; following Rosenzweig's death, Buber finally completed it in 1962.)

Philosophy of Relation and Dialogue

Following in the tradition of existential philosophers (Søren Kierkegaard [18131855], Friedrich Nietzsche [18441900]) and German social theorists (Ferdinand Julius Tönnies [18551936], Georg Simmel [18581918], Max Weber [18641920]), Buber believed that modern society and culture estranged people from their authentic selves, and from other persons, nature, and God.

After World War I, Buber's philosophical orientation increasingly privileged interpersonal encounters over individual mystical experiences. His neologism das Zwischenmenschliche (the interhuman) reflects his effort to uncover and represent a unique, overlooked dimension of human life. In Ich und Du (I and thou, 1923) he sought to formulate a philosophy that highlighted the fundamental importance of this realm and to elucidate the relations that derive from it.

Buber's philosophical discourse may be understood in terms of Richard Rorty's distinction between normal and edifying philosophers. Like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Buber's basic concern was not to construct a philosophical system but to render visible the alienating forms of contemporary society and provide an alternative way of thinking and relating. In evaluating Buber's edifying philosophy, the question is not whether or not it accurately mirrors reality, but whether or not it can transform one's life and relations to other persons, the divine, and the nonhuman world. Buber distinguished between two basic modes of relation, "I-You" and "I-It." The I-It mode is characterized by a practical, goal-oriented, instrumentalist perspective. In it, people relate to others according to their usefulness and value. From a detached stance, people measure and type others in terms of their own needs and objectives. Whereas this mode of relation may be appropriate to technological and practical endeavors, Buber denounced the extent to which the I-It mode had come to dominate human relationships. In social relationships, rather than relate to others as unique beings, the modern person tends to reduce them to the status of objects or tools, valuing them solely for their use in helping one fulfill his or her own goals and purposes.

A major concern of Buber's was to formulate an alternative to the dominant I-It form of human relationship. This alternative, which he referred to as the I-You mode, is marked by direct, nonpurposive relations. In the I-You mode one relates to the other as an end (You), rather than a means (It). In so doing people accept, confirm, and nurture the unique qualities of the other. Such relations infuse lives with meaning and purpose.

Whereas structured, ordered I-It relations perdure, I-You relations are fleeting and fluid and cannot be planned. When they do occur, they quickly revert back to I-It relationships: "Every you in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing, or at least to enter into thinghood again and again" (Buber, 1970, p. 69).

According to Buber, people are as they relate: "In the beginning is the relation" (Buber, 1970, p. 69). Through I-You relations, people actualize their humanity. In later writings Buber grounded the I-You relation in a person's basic wish "to be confirmed as what he is, even as what he can become, by men; and the innate capacity to confirm his fellow men in this way" (Buber, 1965, p. 68). In genuine dialogue, rather than frame the other in terms of one's own needs, one accepts, affirms, and confirms the other as the person that he or she is and can become. In a series of writings, Between Man and Man (1947) and Knowledge of Man (1965), Buber sought to formulate a philosophical-anthropological grounding for his philosophy.

Buber and the Dao

Buber's encounter with the teachings of ancient China provides an important context for understanding his philosophy. In particular, he seriously engaged and was influenced by the Dao de jing and Zhuangzi, two fundamental texts of Daoism. As early as 1914 Buber produced a pioneering German translation of and commentary to sections of Zhuangzi. A series of unpublished lectures on the Dao de jing, delivered in 1925 in Ascona, Switzerland, reveals important connections between the teachings of this text and Buber's philosophical views. Several articles, published at different periods of his life, provide further examples of his attraction to, as well as his reservations about, the Chinese teachings. Buber's attraction to, and use of, concepts drawn from Chinese teachings distinguished him from other Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century. More recent studies in Chinese philosophy have enhanced our understanding of the connections between Buber's philosophy and Daoist teachings. These studies help to clarify the importance of concepts such as wu-wei to Buber's understanding of human relations.

As formulated in the concept wu-wei, one accommodates oneself to the other's values and perspectives, doing nothing to impose one's own views. Wu-wei, like I-You relations, contrasts sharply with dominant Western modes of relation, where effectiveness is measured in terms of power and goals. Both wu-wei and I-You conceive of human relationships based upon noninterference.

The I-You relation, like wu-wei, emphasizes "action without doing, action through nonaction" (Buber, 1967, 190). Both concepts provide a major alternative to the prevailing Western conceptions of action and relation. In each people engage the other not by imposing themselves on him or her but by helping him or her actualize his or her inherent qualities.

Buber's description of the I-You relationship as "election and electing, passive and active at once" (Buber, 1970, p. 62) is no less applicable to wu-wei. In both instances, while seemingly passive, one acts with one's whole being while refraining from imposing on or interfering with the other or the world around one. In both cases action is spontaneous rather than calculated and natural rather than forced.

Religious Faith and the Eternal You

In his writings on religious faith, elaborated in such texts as I and Thou (1923), Two Types of Faith (1951), Eclipse of God (1952), and Good and Evil (1953), Buber emphasized the centrality of divine-human relation. Although he admitted the possibility of direct divine-human encounters, he situated the primary locus of genuine religious life in the realm of the "interhuman." I-You relations between persons, when extended, "intersect in the Eternal You" (Buber, 1970, p. 123). As he made clear in his Hasidic writings, one lives religiously by hallowing the beings that one encounters, human and nonhuman alike. In confirming their unique qualities and potentials, nurturing the divine spark in each of them, one actualizes God in the world.

Speaking of the divine as the "Eternal You," Buber denied that people could relate to it through the objectifying I-It mode. Revelation, in his view, occurs when one directly encounters a "presence," receiving a ground of meaning that one must translate into action. Moments of divine-human encounter, like all significant moments of relation, elude conceptual speech and are best conveyed through myth and poetry.

Genuine relation both presupposes and fosters genuine community, characterized by authentic relations between members and between members and leader. Like his mentor, the Romantic socialist and anarchist Gustav Landauer (18701919), Buber advocated a community based on "utopian socialism," that is, mutual ownership and mutual aid.

Judaism and Genuine Community

To Buber the Jewish people's unique vocation is to actualize true community in daily life. Israel fulfills its responsibility as a specific nation by actualizing in its social life genuine, nonexploitative, confirming relations between people. As conveyed in the Bible, the Jews, a people united by common kinship, fate, and memory, accepted this task as an obligation. In Buber's view the Israeli kibbutz, a unique social experiment, stands out as one of history's most successful efforts to establish genuine community based upon mutual responsibility.

To live as a Jew means to dedicate oneself to actualizing genuine relation in all spheres of life. Rejecting all prepackaged recipes, norms, and principles, Buber emphasized the people of Israel's continuing responsibility to draw anew the "line of demarcation" separating just from unjust action.

For Buber, the Arab-Jewish conflict is the greatest test of the Jewish people's ability to actualize its vocation. His efforts on behalf of Arab-Jewish rapprochement can best be understood in terms of his philosophy of relation. A major figure in a small group of Jews espousing such rapprochement, he advocated a binational state in which Jews and Arabs would live together as two culturally autonomous people with absolute political equality. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, he reluctantly abandoned this idea, accepting a separate Jewish state as a necessary outcome of historical realities. An active critic of the policies of the new state, he repeatedly rebuked Israel's political leaders for approaching Arab-Jewish relations in terms of power politics rather than genuine relations between persons.

Buber viewed the State of Israel as a microcosm of general humanity. Like Israel, all nations share a responsibility to actualize true community and dialogue in people's daily lives. Acceptance of this responsibility is a prerequisite for world peace. Criticizing both the centralization of power in the modern nation-state and the existential mistrust that permeates modern society, Buber envisioned a network of decentralized communities grounded in mutual production and direct relations between people.


Buber's influence among European Jewish youth was great. In Israel, however, most of his fellow Jews, religious and secular, considered his unique synthesis of religious existentialism and cultural nationalism unacceptable. Consequently his influence was limited to small groups of intellectuals and kibbutz members. In the United States many rabbis were put off by his strongly anti-institutional orientation to religion. He had a great impact, however, on a small but significant group of Jewish theologians, including Will Herberg (19021977), Arthur A. Cohen (19281986), and Eugene B. Borowitz (b. 1924). His impact on Christian theologians, such as Paul Tillich (18861965) and H. Richard Niebuhr (18941962), was extensive, and his writings were widely read in Christian seminaries.

Beyond the borders of the religious community, Buber's teachings had a strong impact on psychiatrists such as R. D. Laing, Irvin Yalom, and Leslie Farber; on philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel, Phillip Wheelwright, and Ernst Becker; and on the anthropologist Victor Turner. Deeply attracted by the political implications of Buber's philosophy of relation, Dag Hammarskjöld (the secretary general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961) was, at the time of his death, engaged in translating Buber's writings into Swedish.

See Also

Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Modern Thought.


A comprehensive bibliography of Buber's writings is Margot Cohn and Rafael Buber, Martin Buber: A Bibliography of His Writings, 18971978 (Jerusalem and New York, 1980). Other important works by Buber are Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis, 2d ed. (New York, 1963), which includes important essays on Judaism, the Bible, and Zionism; A Believing Humanism: My Testament, 19021965, translated and with an introduction and explanatory comment by Maurice S. Friedman (New York, 1967); Pointing the Way, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Friedman (New York, 1957); I and Thou, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1970); and The Knowledge of Man (New York, 1965). A valuable collection of writings on the Arab question is A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited with an incisive introductory essay and notes by Paul R. Mendes-Flohr (New York, 1983). A collection of Buber's writings in English is The Martin Buber Reader, edited by Asher D. Biemann (New York, 2002). An important selection of Buber's correspondence, drawn from the three-volume German edition, is The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and Mendes-Flohr with a biographical overview by Grete Schaeder (New York, 1991). In addition to Schaeder's biographical essay, the specifics of Buber's life, previously available only in German in Hans Kohn's fine study Martin Buber: Sein Werk und seine Zeit (Cologne, Germany, 1961), are now available in Friedman's three-volume biography, Martin Buber's Life and Work (New York, 19811983), a work marred by its hagiographic approach. Friedman's Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, 3d ed. (Chicago, 1976), was one of the early introductions to Buber's thought. Schaeder's The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber, translated by Noah J. Jacobs (Detroit, Mich., 1973), emphasizes the aesthetic and humanistic dimensions of Buber's writings, traced biographically. Important criticisms, with Buber's responses, are in Paul Arthur Schilpp and Friedman, eds., The Philosophy of Martin Buber (La Salle, Ill., 1967); and Sydney Rome and Beatrice Rome, eds., Philosophical Interrogations, pp. 15117 (New York, 1964).

For discussions of Buber's philosophy, see the proceedings of the Buber Centenary Conference, held in 1978 at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, in Haim Gordon and Jochanan Bloch, eds., Martin Buber: A Centenary Volume (New York, 1984). On Buber and Daoism see Jonathan R. Herman, I and Tao: Martin Buber's Encounter with Chuang Tzu (Albany, N.Y., 1996); and J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought (London and New York, 2000). Works enabling a wider appreciation of the impact of Chinese thought on Buber include David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture (Albany, N.Y., 1998); and Dao de jing: Making This Life Significant: A Philosophical Translation, translated with commentary by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (New York, 2003). Valuable critical insights into Buber's life and thought as they relate to modern Jewish culture are provided in several articles by Ernst Simon, including "Martin Buber and German Jewry," Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute 3 (1958): 339; "The Builder of Bridges," Judaism 27 (Spring 1978): 148160; and "From Dialogue to Peace," Conservative Judaism 19 (Summer 1965): 2831. These and other articles on Buber are in Simon's Hebrew work, Yeʿadim, tsematim, netivim: Haguto shel Mordekhai Martin Buber (Tel Aviv, 1985). An insightful effort to situate Buber's interpretive approach is Steven Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber's Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington, Ind., 1992). For further discussion and analysis, see Laurence J. Silberstein, Martin Buber's Social and Religious Thought: Alienation and the Quest for Meaning (New York, 1989).

Laurence J. Silberstein (1987 and 2005)

Buber, Martin

views updated May 08 2018


BUBER, MARTIN (1878–1965), philosopher and theologian, Zionist thinker and leader. Born in Vienna, Buber as a child lived in Lemberg with his grandfather Solomon *Buber, the noted Midrash scholar. From 1896 he studied at the universities of Vienna, Leipzig, and Zurich, and finally at the University of Berlin, where he was a pupil of the philosophers Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel. Having joined the Zionist movement in 1898, he was a delegate to the Third Zionist Congress in 1899 where he spoke on behalf of the Propaganda Committee. In this speech, which bore the influence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish writers, notably of Aḥad Ha-Am, Buber emphasized the importance of education as opposed to a program of propaganda. In 1901 he was appointed editor of the central weekly organ of the Zionist movement, Die Welt, in which he emphasized the need for a new Jewish cultural creativity. This emphasis on cultural rather than political activity led, at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, to the formation of the Zionist *Democratic Fraction which stood in opposition to Herzl. Buber, a member of this faction, resigned before the Congress as editor of Die Welt. Together with his friends, he founded the *Juedischer Verlag in Berlin, which went on to publish (in German) books of literary quality. At the age of 26 Buber took up the study of Ḥasidism. At first his interest was essentially aesthetic. After attempting to translate the tales of Rabbi *Naḥman of Bratslav into German, he decided to retell them in German in the form of a free adaptation. Thus originated Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman (1906; The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, 1956) and Die Legende des Baalschem (1908; The Legend of the Baal-Shem, 1955). Later Buber's interest turned from the aesthetic aspect of Ḥasidism to its content. Deeply stirred by the religious message of Ḥasidism, he considered it his duty to convey that message to the world. Among the books he later wrote on Ḥasidism are Gog u-Magog (1941, in Davar; translated into English under the title For the Sake of Heaven, 1945), Or ha-Ganuz (1943), and Pardes ha-Ḥasidut (1945; translated into English in two volumes Ḥasidism and Modern Man, 1958, and The Origin and Meaning of Ḥasidism, 1960).

In 1909 Buber resumed an active role in public affairs. He delivered three addresses to the Prague student organization, *Bar Kochba, in 1909, 1910, and 1911 (At the Turning, Three Addresses on Judaism, 1952; see also Bergman, in Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 26 (1912), 549–56), which had a great influence on Jewish youth in Central Europe, and also marked a turning point in Buber's own intellectual activity. With the outbreak of World War i Buber founded in Berlin the Jewish National Committee which worked throughout the war on behalf of the Jews in Eastern European countries under German occupation, and on behalf of the yishuv in Palestine. In 1916 he founded the monthly Der Jude, which for eight years was the most important organ of the Jewish renaissance movement in Central Europe. In the spring of 1920, at the convention of *Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir-Ẓe'irei Ẓiyyon in Prague, Buber defined his Zionist socialist position and his adherence to utopian socialism in an address which reflected his affinity to Aharon David *Gordon and Gustav *Landauer. He was opposed to the current concept of socialism which looked upon the state, and not upon a reaffirmation of life and of the relationship between man and man, as the means of realizing the socialist society. Buber envisaged the creation of Gemeinschaften in Palestine, communities in which people would live together in direct personal relationship. During the years following World War i Buber became the spokesman for what he called "Hebrew Humanism," according to which Zionism, described as the "holy way," a notion explained in Der heilige Weg (1919), was different from other nationalistic movements. Buber also emphasized that Zionism should address itself also to the needs of the Arabs and in a proposal to the Zionist Congress of 1921 stated that "… the Jewish people proclaims its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development." In 1923 Buber published his Ich und Du (I and Thou, 1937) which contains the basic formulation of his philosophy of dialogue. In 1925 the first volumes of the German translation of the Bible appeared as the combined effort of Buber and Franz *Rosenzweig. In Die Schrift und ihre Verdeutschung (1936) the translators set forth the guiding principles of their translation: today's reader of the Bible has ceased to be a listener; but the Bible does not seek to be read, but to be listened to, as if its voice were being spoken today. The Bible has been divested of its direct impact. In the choice of words, in sentence-structure, and in rhythm, Buber and Rosenzweig attempted to preserve the original character of the Hebrew Bible. After Rosenzweig's death in 1929 Buber continued the work of translation alone and completed it in 1961.

In 1925 Buber began to lecture on Jewish religion and ethics at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1930 he was appointed professor of religion there, a position he retained until 1933, when with the rise of the Nazis to power he was forced to leave the university. In 1932 Buber published his Koenigtum Gottes, which was to be the first volume of a series dealing with the origins of the messianic belief in Judaism. This work was never completed. The third German edition (1956) was translated into English (Kingship of God, 1967). In 1933 Buber was appointed director of the newly created Central Office for Jewish Adult Education (Mittelstelle fuer juedische Erwachsenenbildung) established to take charge of the education of Jews after they were prohibited from attending German educational institutions. In the same year he was invited to head the Juedisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt. During the beginning of the Nazi period Buber traveled throughout Germany lecturing, teaching, and encouraging his fellow Jews, and thus organized something of a spiritual resistance. In 1935 he was forbidden to speak at Jewish gatherings. He was then invited to speak at Quaker meetings until the Gestapo prohibited his appearing there as well.

In 1938 Buber settled in Palestine and was appointed professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, where he taught until his retirement in 1951. In 1942 his first book written in Hebrew, Torat ha-Nevi'im (The Prophetic Faith, 1949) was published. This book, a history of biblical faith, is based on the supposition that the mutuality of the covenant between God and Israel testifies that the existence of the Divine Will is as real as the existence of Israel. Another book born out of Buber's efforts to penetrate the essential meaning of the Bible is his Moses (1946). Buber in his later years remained very active in public affairs and in Jewish cultural endeavors. He was one of the leaders of Iḥud, formerly *Berit Shalom, which advocated the establishment of a joint Arab-Israel state. Even after the outbreak of the Arab-Israel war, Buber called for a harnessing of nationalistic impulses and a solution based on compromise. Recognizing the importance of the cultural assimilation of immigrants to Israel, especially those from the Islamic countries, Buber was one of the founders of the College for Adult Education Teachers (Beit Ha-Midrash Le-Morei Am) established to train teachers from among the new immigrants themselves. Buber was the first president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1960–62), one of the founders of Mosad Bialik, and active in many other cultural institutions. In the years following World War ii Buber lectured extensively outside Israel, visiting the United States in 1952, and again in 1957–58, and became known throughout the world as one of the spiritual leaders of his generation, making a deep impact on Christian as well as Jewish thinkers.

[Samuel Hugo Bergman]

Buber made a substantial contribution to the ethical thought and the religious consciousness of the 20th century. In his Hebrew humanism, he considered Judaism principally as a pioneering way of life in ethical openness. Philosophically he influenced many thinkers, including Gabriel Marcel, Theodor Steinbuechel, Ernst Michel, Paul Tillich, Wilhelm Michel, Walther Nigg, J.H. Oldham, M. Chaning-Pearce, John Baillie, H.H. Farmer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Sir Herbert Read, Karl Heim, Friedrich Gogarten, Eberhard Grisebach, Karl Barth, Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt and Emmanuel Levinas.


Buber refused to be called a philosopher because he thought that philosophical language did not adequately render the idea of dialogical life. He wanted to conduct a conversation. He tended to disqualify systematic thinking as belonging the I–it domain, which he, in almost Manichaean fashion, separated from the I–you (I–Thou in Smith's translation) sphere. He only used the philosophical discourse because he had no alternative. The book "What is Man," first published in Hebrew in 1943, contains his philosophical anthropology: it discusses the self-understanding of man from Aristotle to Max Scheler, and defines human being as dialogical. However Buber's philosophical masterpiece is the small book, Ich und Du, "I and you." (The German "Du," which has widely been translated in archaic English as "Thou," is used in German for an immediate and intimate relationship, e.g., within the family or with children, and is also how God is addressed in prayer, in contrast with the formal form "Sie.")

The first outline of "I and you" goes back to May 1916. The book received its final form in the spring of 1922. The two English translations are of Ronald Gregor Smith (first edition 1937) and of Walter Kaufmann (1971).

"I and you" develops the idea that the I exists in-relation rather than as a separated Cartesian thinking entity. In a non-fragmentary attitude to what surrounds it, the I is I–you. It becomes I–it in a partial approach. In I–it there is a dichotomy between subject and object: things, persons, and ideas are situated in time and space. Causality reigns in the I–it realm. In the authentic relationship there is presence, mutuality, and directness.

The I as the related I welcomes without interpreting, and is distinguished from the dominating, controlling, and mastering I. The other is to be approached not first of all by knowledge but in answerability as the one to whom one owes response from the whole and united I. Response leads to responsibility. Buber uses the term Umkehr, turning, to describe the return to the center of the self by the recognition of "you." The I is called to answer a you and to turn back to perfect relation. The I (Ich) by turning to a you (Du) becomes I–you.

The two types of relationship, I–you and I–it, are mutually exclusive. When I experiences, utilizes, thinks, or imagines the other, the relation is characterized as I–it. When I relates with his whole being, in immediacy, the relation is characterized as I–you. There is a connection between I–it and I–you, since everything in the world can become you, but it necessarily also becomes an it, because one can not always live on the intense plane of I–you. The link and tension between the two ways of relating and Buber's own hesitations in this respect gave way to different interpretations in secondary literature (see Theunissen and Bloch). In Buber's perspective, I–it is to be overcome. Man stands for a choice: either to address the world as "you" or to treat it as an object. The world of relation arises in three spheres: in our life with nature, with man, and with spiritual beings (geistige Wesenheiten). Relation (Beziehung), as the I that recognizes a you, leads to encounter (Begegnung) as the peak of relation. Encounter is the graceful moment of reciprocal openness of the I and you. Buber's I–you is not the result of a mere idealistic attitude: the relating I is part of an event that occurs between (zwischen) I and you. Encounter cannot be sought out. There is a task, man has to initiate it, but the grace of a real encounter can never be acquired in activism.

The relation between the I and the eternal You is explicitly discussed in the third part of "I and you." In every you, one addresses the eternal You. One can only address God as You. He cannot be made object of speculation. Buber made one significant change in a subsequent edition of his "I and you." He found the biblical backing for his eternal You in the divine words in the episode of the burning bush, which he translated (with Rosenzweig) as "I am there such as I am there" (Ex. 3:14; the translation of Exodus was published in 1926; cf. Rashi's commentary on the verse). Buber now wrote: "The word of revelation is, I am there such as I am there (Ich bin da als der ich da bin)" and expressed thereby that revelation is divine Presence, the everlasting voice that sounds, nothing more.

Various thinkers influenced Buber's thinking in "I and you," especially Franz Rosenzweig. Buber felt that his dialogical thoughts were close to those expressed in Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption, which he read as early as December 1921. The two friends had many parallel thoughts. But there were also disagreements. In the essay "Atheistische Theologie" (1914), Rosenzweig had attacked Buber's early thought as excessively immanent. He further criticized "I and you" for not appreciating the I–it and focusing too exclusively on the I–you, as if God did not create the world of objects. He also thought Buber ignored the we-it relation. Rosenzweig finally disagreed with Buber's rejection of positive, institutional religion in favor of informal and personal religiosity, which he regarded as the real kernel of all religions.

According to Buber's own testimony, it is fruitful to compare his "I and you" with Ferdinand Ebner's "Das Wort und die geistigen Realitaeten" (Innsbruck, 1921; "The World and the Spiritual Realities") and with the work of the Protestant theologians Karl Heim, Friedrich Gogarten, and Emil Brunner. Buber knew Ebner's work, parts of which were first published in the periodical Der Brenner in 1920. Ebner formulated the dialogical principle of the I in relation with the divine You, who remains a-cosmic and exists only in the second person. Buber also speaks of God in the second person: God had always to be addressed in the second person and could not to be spoken of in the third person, which would degrade Him to an object and displace Him in the it-world. Like Ebner, Buber did not lend importance to religious forms. There are also divergences between the two thinkers: Ebner denied the world, Buber highlighted the relation between people.

Rivka Horwitz analyzed the inception and development of Buber's "I and you" in his lectures "Religion als Gegenwart" ("Religion as Presence") which he delivered in Rosenzweig's Freies Juedisches Lehrhaus and contain the themes that later appeared in "I and you." (Buber's Way to I and Thou, 1988).

Thinking about God

Buber thought that God is spoken to, not spoken about. His is a living God, to be met in dialogue, not a philosophical God. One has to get rid of the concept of God, in order to meet Him through the inter-subjective encounter. His living presence comes through the presence of a "you." In his essay "The Question to the Single One" ("Die Frage an den Einzelnen," 1936), Buber attacked Søren Kierkegaard's notion of the "single one," and contrasted this notion with that of the "person," who lives in the presence of others and, consequently, in the presence of the eternal You. There is no contact with the eternal You, except through relations with finite beings. God does not help or intervene: He is linked to the inter-human relation. By saying "you," one catches a glimpse of God.

After the Holocaust, Buber had to cope with the idea of God and the problem of evil. In his Eclipse of God (1952), he maintained that God's face has been temporarily obscured by the deeds of humans. Emil *Fackenheim has maintained that Buber did not cope with the Holocaust in his thinking. Others, including David Forman-Barzilai, have shown that this reading of Buber is incorrect. Buber's God is not magical: human beings are responsible for His absence.

For Buber, revelation is an ongoing event. The content of revelation, however, remains undefined. Revelation is the meeting of the divine and the human, not a divine content poured into an empty human vessel.

Whereas Ebner, under the influence of the Gospel of John and of Kierkegaard, developed a Gnostic view of God, Buber gradually internalized Rosenzweig's criticism and came to accept God as Creator of the world. His attack on Kierkegaard, who fully neglected the Creator and the inter-human relation to You, should be seen in this perspective, and gradually Buber put aside the Gnostic tendencies that are palpable in his early writings.


Buber opposed religion as a domain apart. He developed a ḥasidic way of thinking in which the entire life should be hallowed. In contrast to Ḥasidism in its historic appearance, however, Buber opposed religious observance. He advocated religiousness as the recognition of divine Presence in daily life. He had a negative attitude towards religions which were an "exile." Consequently, he had an aversion to any kind of mission.

Buber is critical of institutions, especially political and religious ones. His is a religiousness that combined humanism with a way of life inspired by the Bible and Ḥasidism. Ritual in this perspective is problematic and precludes the immediacy of God's presence. Buber felt that institutionalization of relations depersonalizes and that authentic life lies outside institutionalized religion. His emphasis was on religiosity, which is spontaneous, informal, and personal, rather than on positive religion, which he regarded as institutionalized, formal, and historical.

Buber inherited the term "religiosity" from his teacher Georg Simmel. He defined it as the attitude that needs not to be expressed in observances, prescriptions, or dogmas, which reduce it to a conditional universe. This explains why he wrote extensively on Ḥasidism without committing himself to the ḥasidic way of life, based on Halakhah and ritual observance. He was linked to the tradition, but felt himself free of its shackles. He laid bare the deeper layers of the Jewish tradition without considering the different commandments and ritual prescriptions as divinely promulgated. Religiosity brings no security, but is rather the difficult demand to become an answerable being.

Buber appreciated the plurality of religions. He was one of the three editors of Die Kreatur, an inter-religious journal, the other two editors being the Catholic Joseph Wittig and the Protestant Viktor von Weiszaecker.

In Two Types of Faith (1950) he distinguishes between the Greek word for faith, pistis, and the Hebrew one, emunah. Emunah is trust, belief "in" God, pistis is belief "that" God exists. Community creates emunah, pistis causes community. The first type of faith is that of a community that lives in teshuvah, in return to real life. The second is that of an individual who comes to faith through a mental act, metanoia. In his description of both types of faith that are different and related, Buber is influenced by Rosenzweig's theory in the third part of the Star of Redemption. Pistis is typical of Christianity, which is mainly a community of converted individuals, whereas emunah as characteristic of Judaism, which is a community of covenant into which one is born. Despite their fundamental differences, Buber sees the possibility of a true relationship between Christians and Jews.

He held original Christianity in high esteem. The teaching of Jesus is authentically Jewish. Jesus is his Jewish "big brother." Nevertheless, with time, Buber became more and more critical of Christianity. He came to associate Christianity with a Gnostic dichotomy of matter and spirit and with a faith that lacks demands and realization. He severely criticized Kierkegaard's position and his "suspension of the ethical."


True religiosity for Buber is anti-magical and anti-Gnostic. Magic and Gnosis threaten true religiosity, i.e., true meeting: in magic, one manipulates the higher reality in a childish way and in gnosis, there is mastery through secret knowledge. Buber's Judaism is a believing humanism, a humanism which cannot exist without faith, and vice versa. The real humanum is the capacity of meeting other existing beings. Against Kierkegaard, who recognizes only the meeting between humans and God, and against Ludwig Feuerbach, who excludes any transcendent element from the inter-subjective relation, he sees the I–you relation as a relationship with God and humans.

The Jewish people have the vocation of realizing unity. Buber was convinced that no other community had entered with such fervor into the experience of the dialogical situation as had the Jews. His position on the Jewish law (halakhah) is a much discussed topic in the secondary literature. In Buber's eyes, Judaism comes before the Law. The Law is addressed to the soul, which cannot be understood outside of this Law. But the soul is not the Law. For Buber, the soul of Judaism is pre-Sinaitic. He disliked halakhic Judaism, afraid as he was of objectivization and neutral codification. His attitude is not Lawless, yet he regarded all ritual as potentially magic.

In Buber's eyes, symmetrical communication is the only authentic relation. Strategic rationality would belong to the domain of I–it. Buber made strategic rationality responsible for the evil in the world. He emphasized that this functional rationality in the economic, political, or scientific sphere is not enough. He separated the relating I–you from the controlling, knowing and comparing I–it. Yet, one may ask if institutions do not reduce man's problematic natural state. Buber could have placed more emphasis on the conjunction of I–you and I–it. Nonetheless, by his prophetic criticism of the institutions of Israel, by his stressing the prophet rather than the priest, he wanted to bring a healthy correction of structures that tend to eternalize themselves at the expense of dialogical, living reality.

Buber called for a renewed, dialogic lifestyle of which Jews are destined to be pioneers. His Judaism was far from pious or dogmatic, and he approached it in terms of engagement with the world at large.

Mysticism and Dialogue

Buber was attracted to mysticism. The subject of his doctoral thesis (Vienna, 1904) was: "The History of the Problem of Individuation: Nicolas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme." In 1909 he published his Ekstatische Konfessionen on ecstatic mystics, mostly Christians, but also Jewish, Sufi, Chinese, and Hindu mystics. Later, he moderated his initial enthusiasm and became a religious existential thinker for whom the realization of a true community was imperative. In "I and you" he rejects mystical union with God: I and You remain distinct and the one cannot be absorbed by the other. Paul Mendes-Flohr described Buber's transition from his earlier asocial interest in mysticism to dialogue, and illuminated the shift of the axis of Buber's thinking from pathos to ethos. Whereas Buber in his mystical enthusiasm initially overlooked the moral dimension, his later philosophy of dialogue required alertness to the interpersonal and to the moral dimension of reality.

Buber wanted a true community such as he found in Ḥasidism, and it is not surprising that he became famous for his retelling of ḥasidic tales. Real life for him is meeting in which the I transcends itself. In the words of Daniel, it is "realization" (not "orientation"), or in the words of I and you: it is I–you, not I–it.


Buber advocated dialogue with the Palestinian Arabs. Very early, he distanced himself from Theodor *Herzl's Realpolitik, which was first criticized by *Ahad Ha-Am and later by *Weizmann, *Feiwel, and Buber himself. The renewal of the Jewish spirit would depend upon coexistence with the Palestinian Arabs. Buber took part in the group Iḥud (Unity) that strived for cooperation between Jews and Arabs and for a bi-national state. This group, to which belonged Judah Magnes, Henrietta Szold, Ernst Simon, Chaim Kalvarisky, Gavriel Stern, and Moshe Smilansky, saw Palestine as the land of two peoples. Buber feared, as did the prophet Samuel, that the nation of Israel would become like all other nations, and wanted Zionism to be the teaching and realization of righteousness.

Buber was critical of Israeli politics. Already at the Twelfth Zionist Congress in Karlsbad, in 1921, he pleaded that Arabs and Jews unite their life interests. Made aware of the pathology of nationalistic chauvinism by his friend Gustav Landauer, he became allergic to nationalism in the form of collective egoism. Before World War ii, he thought, as did many Jews at that time, that a Jewish State was not necessary. Social units could be linked in a federation and form a greater society. After the foundation of the Jewish State, he had a dovish standpoint in the Jewish-Arab dispute. Buber believed that Israel is more than another nationalism.

Buber conceived Zionism as the possible embodiment of Jewish Renaissance. His socialist, cultural Zionism, influenced by Ahad Ha-Am, hardly matched the practical, national approach of the movement. Although in 1901 he became editor of the Zionist periodical Die Welt, his Zionism was much more spiritual than political. He proclaimed that the renewal of Judaism and the renewal of the world were one. Judaism had had its creative periods: it was renewed in the time of the prophets, in early Christianity, through the ḥasidic masters, and finally, in the period of the Zionists pioneers. Buber longed for a just society in Israel and conjoined ethics and politics. He wanted the creation of a new community of Hebrew humanism.


Buber studied and translated the Bible, and adopted biblical criticism as well as the unity of the Bible. However, what finally interested Buber, like Rosenzweig, was not the critical question of how the Bible was written (the Bible as Scripture, Ketuvim), but the spiritual question of how it is read (the Bible as Mikra). Biblical scholars did not consider him to be one of their own, because his aim was not so much the reconstruction of history as the hearing of the voice of the supreme Presence. He came to an existential-dialogical understanding of the biblical text, which was seen as an example of dialogue. In 1925 he started a new German translation of the Bible with Rosenzweig. In this project, Buber translated and sent his translation to Rosenzweig, who commented upon it. They discussed the translation in their correspondence and in regular meetings. In their translation, they wanted to recapture the spoken character (Gesprochenheit) of the Bible, so that the reader could become a listener of the ongoing Divine voice. They stayed close to the Hebrew original, to the Hebrew sentence structure and rhythm, to the Hebrew words and sounds. They did not Germanize Hebrew, they surprised German with Hebrew culture. The very fact of the translation itself was a bridging of German and Jewish cultures. At the time of Rosenzweig's death in 1929, they had reached the book of Isaiah. Buber finished the translation of the entire Bible only in 1961. Buber's other works on the Bible include Das Kommende. Untersuchungen zur Enstehungsgeschiche des messianischen Glaubens. I. Koenigtum Gottes (Kingship of God, 1932; Eng., 1967), Moses (first published in Hebrew, 1945; English, 1946; German, 1948), and Der Glaube der Propheten (The Prophetic Faith) (first published in Dutch translation, 1940; Hebrew, 1942; English, 1949; German, 1950).


In Paths in Utopia (English, 1947; Hebrew 1949) he gives vent to his utopian socialism from which he expected the birth of an authentic and true "religious" society. He discusses the theories of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and finally Gustav Landauer. He further discusses Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The last chapter of the book is entitled "An Experiment that Did Not Fail," which deals with the kevutzah (village commune) and kibbutz (working collective) as small groups that did not fail. In his social as in his political thinking, Buber contributed to the ethical renewal of society.

[Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

Centenary of Buber's Birth

The centenary of Buber's death (1978) was marked in a number of ways. A four-day conference on his philosophy, attended by 300 scholars from Israel and abroad, was held at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in January, and a one-day conference in New York in February, sponsored jointly by Fordham University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The West German Government issued a special commemorative stamp to mark the centenary and the Hebrew University initiated a fund to endow a Buber Chair in Comparative Religion.

Buber's former home in Heppenheim became headquarters for the International Council of Christians and Jews in 1979.

A comprehensive bibliography of Buber's writings (1897–1978) was published in 1980, edited by M. Cohen and R. Buber.


P.A. Schilpp and M. Friedman (eds.), The Philosophy of Martin Buber (1967), includes comprehensive bibliography; M. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (1955), includes comprehensive bibliography; idem, Martin Buber: Encounter on the Narrow Ridge, 2 vols. (1969–70); M.A. Beele and J.S. Weiland, Martin Buber, Personalist and Prophet (1968); G. Schaeder, Martin Buber: Hebraeischer Humanismus (1966); A.S. Cohen, Martin Buber (Eng., 1957); Der Jude, 10 no. 1 (1928), special issue for his 50th birthday; H. Kohn, Martin Buber, sein Werk und seine Zeit (1961); G. Scholem, in: Commentary, 32 (1961), 305–16. add. bibliography: G. Schaeder, Martin Buber: Hebraeischer Humanismus (1966) = TheHebrew Humanism of Martin Buber, trans. N.J. Jacobs (1973); idem, Martin Buber: Briefwechsel aus sieben Jahrzehnten, 3 vols. (1972–75; E. Simon, "Martin Buber and German Jewry," in: Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, 3 (1958), 3–39; H. Kohn, Martin Buber: sein Werk und seine Zeit (19612); G. Scholem, "Martin Bubers Deutung des Chassidismus," in: Judaica, 1 (1963), 165–206; idem, "An einem denkwürdigen Tage," in: Judaica, 1 (1963), 207–15; M. Theunissen, Der Andere. Sudien zur Sozialontologie der Gegenwart, Berlin (1965) = The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Buber, trans. C. Macann (1984); S. Ben-Chorin, Zwiesprache mit Martin Buber (1966); P.A. Schilpp and M. Friedman (eds.), The Philosophy of Martin Buber (Library of Living Philosophers 12, 1967); B. Casper, Das dialogische Denken. Eine Untersuchung der religionsphilosophischen Bedeutung Franz Rosenzweigs, Ferdinand Ebners und Martin Bubers (1967); J.S. Weiland, Martin Buber, Personalist and Prophet (1968); G. Scholem, "Martin Bubers Auffassung des Judentums," in: Judaica, ii (1970), 133–92; J. Bloch, Die Aporie des Du. Probleme der Dialogik Martin Bubers (Phronesis, 2, 1977); H. Gordon and J. Bloch (eds.), Martin Buber: A Centenary Volume (1978); W. Licharz (ed.), Dialog mit Martin Buber (1982); M. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (19763); idem, Martin Buber's Life and Work, 3 vols. (1983); R. Horwitz, Buber's Way to I and Thou. The Development of Martin Buber's Thought and His "Religion as Presence" Letters (1988); P. Mendes-Flohr, From Mysticism to Dialogue. Martin Buber's Transformation of German Social Thought (1989); M. Friedman, Encounter on the Narrow Ridge, 2 vols. (1969 – 70); S. Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber's Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (1992); P. Vermes, Buber on God and the Perfect Man (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1994); A. Shapira, Between Spirit and Reality. Dual Structures in the Thought of M.M. Buber (Heb., 1994); D. Barzilai, Homo Dialogicus. Martin Buber's Contribution to Philosophy (Heb., 2000); H. Gordon, The Heidegger-Buber Controversy. The Status of the I–Thou (Contributions in Philosophy 81, 2001). (On this work, see E. Meir in Revue des études juives, 161:1–2 (2002), 280–83); D. Barzilai, "Agonism in Faith: Martin Buber's Eternal Thou after the Holocaust," in: Modern Judaism, 23:2 (2003), 56–179; E. Meir, Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue, trans. M. Meir (2004), 68–83. P. Atterton, M. Calarco, and M. Friedman (eds.), Levinas and Buber. Dialogue and Difference (2004).

Buber, Martin

views updated May 14 2018

Buber, Martin



Martin Buber (1878–1965) was primarily a religious and social philosopher and a Zionist leader, whose work is of great relevance to the social sciences. He was professor of religion at Frankfurt until 1936. Moving to Israel (then Palestine), he became professor of sociology of culture (social philosophy) and later the first chairman of the department of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and taught such subjects as the sociology of religion and ethics, social philosophy, and the history of sociology. He was the first president of the academy of sciences and humanities in Israel.

Buber’s studies ranged over a great variety of fields, beginning with his work on the Hassidic communities and traditions (The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism. 1921–1954), which brought the stream of Jewish sectarianism and mysticism to the attention of a wide Western public. In his works on educational and religious philosophy (for instance, Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relations Between Religion and Philosophy 1952a; Daniel: Dialogues on Realization 1913; For the Sake of Heaven 1943–1944; “Rede über das Erzieherische” 1926; “Urdistanz und Beziehung” 1951; “Das Problem des Menschen” 1948), and most explicitly in his book I and Thou (1936), he developed the principle of the “dialogue.” He studied Biblical thought, especially the conception of kingship and polity in Biblical times (The Prophetic Faith 1942) and, mainly through his translation (with F. Rosenzweig) of the Bible into German, he became involved in Biblical exegesis. His publications in social philosophy centered on Utopian social thought and the experiments in collective life in Palestine and Israel (Paths in Utopia 1947) and on Judaism and Zionism (At the Turning: Three Addresses on Judaism 1952b; Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis 1921–1943). For a time he was editor of the series Gesellschaft, which published articles by leading German sociologists, for example, Tönnies (on custom), Simmel (on religion), and Oppenheimer (on the state).

Buber’s methodological and analytical approach combined influences from many sources. In his philosophical emphasis he was close to the traditions of social philosophy associated with Max Scheler and Martin Heidegger, and those of religious existentialism identified with Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jacques Maritain. He was also close to those German sociologists, like Lorenz von Stein, who first asserted that the “social” is independent of the “political,” and to such Utopian and religious thinkers as Saint-Simon, Proudhon, Landauer, and Eduard Heimann, who looked for regenerative forces in society.

However, Buber’s approach to the problems of social and cultural transformation, creativity, and regeneration was different from the usual Utopian approach. Utopian views tend to be static, emphasizing a flight from various constraints of modern society or presenting an unattainable model of a desirable society. Buber’s central sociological or social philosophical concern was to define the conditions of social and cultural transformation and the conditions of the stagnation or demise of cultures and societies rather than to prescribe simple structural or organizational change. He sought to identify the situations where creativity really can occur, and he believed that these situations exist to some extent in all cultures but that their fullest development occurs only rarely.

Cultural creativity, according to Buber, is the product of four basic forms of opposition: tradition versus innovation; the shaping of concrete, instrumental social relations versus the creation of an independent sphere of cultural products and values; the growth of forms of culture versus the development of self-awareness or self-consciousness on the part of the actors; and the plurality of institutional spheres versus the existence of some central common core of cultural tradition.

The possibilities of cultural creativity and social regeneration appeared to Buber to be greatest in those situations where the opposites exist in a state of tension that preserves the autonomy of each. The domination of any one element over the others may produce organizational or structural change unaccompanied by any cultural or value tranformation, or it may lead to the stagnation or demise of a society or culture. Buber was especially concerned with the possibility that the state might dominate the more generative forces of social and cultural spontaneity. He thought this an inherent possibility of all political systems, but one that had reached its culmination in modern totalitarianism. However, he refused to denigrate political activity as such; rather, he saw it as a basic, essential, autonomous component of social life, which if kept within proper limits—limits that change according to circumstances—constitutes a positive force in the process of social creativity.

The central characteristic of situations producing creativity is the existence of a dialogue, of communicative openness—a dialogue between man and man and between man and God. Such communicative openness is maximized in situations having certain structural characteristics: the participants have a strong commitment both to direct personal relations, transcending and cutting across more institutionalized and formalized frameworks, and to direct relations to the sphere of ultimate values—that is, the realm of the sacred.

Buber never thought that the conditions of communicative openness and creativity were tied to any concrete social, organizational, or cultural contents. Historically, he saw the apex of cultural creativity in the great classic civilizations, China and Greece, during their periods of transition from tribalism to universalism. He also saw it in the instances of the historical Judaic political-religious community, of the Hassidic community, and of some modern Utopian communities, especially the communal settlements in Palestine. All these manifest a strong commitment to worldly activity, but an activity that transcends the goals of any given concrete community and that is based on general, universal, and transcendental orientations.

Unlike many of the Utopians, Buber also tried to identify situations that permit some creativity of this kind within the more routinized and formalized situations generally prevalent in societies, especially in modern ones. He found these favorable conditions in modern religious and international dialogue, in educational institutions, particularly those devoted to adult education, and, in fact, in any situation which promises to break up communicative closure among national, professional, and religious entities. Buber’s search for the multiplicity of concrete situations in which communicative openness and dialogue can be maintained is evidence of his belief that these situations are not tied to any concrete contents: cultural and social regeneration does not come from a social system established according to some formula; rather, it results from a continuous, ongoing process.

Through his examination of the conditions of cultural creativity, Buber’s analysis contributes to the understanding of the proper place of charisma in social processes and helps reveal both the creative and destructive possibilities inherent in charismatic orientations. Of crucial importance here is his analysis of the variety of social and cultural forms that permit the creative possibilities of charismatic orientations to find expression. By not limiting the charismatic to any given contents, such as the political or religious, Buber connected it directly with the total process of cultural creativity and social regeneration. This related the authenticity of charismatic attitudes to the existence of direct, unmediated relations of man to man and man to the sacred. Thus Buber defined the nature and structure of the open situations through which the charismatic quality can become effective in the processes of social and cultural transformation.

Shmuel N. Eisenstadt

[Directly related are the entriesPsychology, article onexistential; psychology; Religious specialists; Utopianism. Other relevant material may be found inCreativity, article onsocial aspects; Judaism; Social institutions; and in the biographies ofScheler; Stein.]


(1913) 1964 Daniel: Dialogues on Realization. New York: Holt. → First published in German.

(1921–1943) 1963 Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis. 2d ed. New York: Schocken. → Contains essays originally published in German and Hebrew.

(1921–1954) 1960 The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism New York: Horizon. → Contains essays originally published in German and Hebrew.

(1926) 1962 Rede über das Erzieherische. Volume 1, pages 787–809 in Martin Buber, Werke. Munich: Kösel.

(1936) 1958 I and Thou. 2d ed. New York: Scribner. → First published in German.

(1942) 1949 The Prophetic Faith. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Hebrew. A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Harper.

(1943–1944) 1953 For the Sake of Heaven. 2d ed. New York: Harper. → First published as Gog und Magog.

(1947) 1950 Paths in Utopia. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Hebrew.

(1948) 1962 Das Problem des Menschen. Volume 1, pages 307–407 in Martin Buber, Werke. Munich: Kösel.

(1951) 1962 Urdistanz und Beziehung. Volume 1, pages 411–423 in Martin Buber, Werke. Munich: Kösel.

1952a Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relations Between Religion and Philosophy. New York: Harper.

1952b At the Turning: Three Addresses on Judaism. New York: Farrar.

1957a Distance and Relation. Psychiatry 20:97–104.

1957b Guilt and Guilt Feelings. Psychiatry 20:114–129.

1962— Werke. Vols. 1–3. Munich: Kösel. → A projected multivolume work.


Cohen, Arthur A. 1957 Martin Buber. New York: Hillary House.

Diamond, Malcolm 1960 Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Friedman, Maurice 1955 Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Martin Buber

views updated May 17 2018

Martin Buber

The Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was one of the most creative and influential religious thinkers of the 20th century. His book "I and Thou" has had a wide impact on people of all faiths.

The life and thought of Martin Buber are intimately related to the problems and the fate of modern Judaism. He experienced as a young man the spiritual estrangement and confusion which have often been the lot of modern Jews; as a Jewish scholar and teacher in Germany during the 1930s, the increasingly ruthless suppression of Jews by the Nazis; and as a Zionist, the building of the nation of Israel during and after World War II. Yet precisely in and through his reverent exploration of the Jewish tradition and his concrete identification with his people's destiny, Buber was a truly universal man whose life and insights belong to everyone.

Martin Buber was born on Feb. 8, 1878, in Vienna. When he was 3 his parents were divorced, and he was raised by his paternal grandparents in what is now Lvov in the Ukraine. The natural piety and learning of both his grandparents were an important influence on Buber, although he gave up Jewish religious practices shortly after he celebrated his bar mitzvah (at age 13).

From 1896 to 1904 Buber studied philosophy, religion, and art history at the universities of Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, and Zurich, receiving a doctorate from Vienna in 1904. His dissertation was on mysticism, which attracted him both intellectually and personally. He was also influenced by existentialism through the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky.

Although religiously estranged from Judaism, Buber as a student became a member of the Zionist movement, which sought a center and sanctuary for the world's Jews in the ancient Palestinian homeland. In 1901 Buber edited the Zionist journal Die Welt, but he soon found himself out of sympathy with the purely political program of the majority, aligning himself instead with a smaller group who believed that Zionism must be built upon a Jewish cultural and spiritual renaissance. He retired from active participation for a number of years but returned to the movement in 1916 by founding and editing the very influential journal Der Jude.

Relevance of Hasidism

Buber's explorations into Hasidism, the result of his resolve to become better acquainted with the Jewish tradition, led him into the spiritual dimension of Judaism and thereby into his mature philosophy. The Hasidic movement (hasid means pious) revitalized eastern European Jewry in the 18th century, although by Buber's time it had become isolated and fossilzed. Original Hasidism was a deeply joyous, world-affirming mysticism which sought God in a "hallowing of the everyday" and in human community. Buber believed this to be the essence of Judaism and of religion itself. Buber believed that the peculiar genius of Hasidic piety was the encounter with the divine in the midst of everyday life with its neighbor-to-neighbor responsibilities and joys. This insight, reinforced by existentialism's intense focus on concrete human life and ethical decision, provided the basis for Buber's "philosophy of dialogue," in which the presence of the divine Thou is encountered within, and for the sake of, the concrete relationships "between man and man."

Buber became an eminent authority on Hasidism, preserving its treasures by translating its literature and interpreting its spiritual genius to the contemporary Western world. Among his translations of Hasidic classics and studies of Hasidism are For the Sake of Heaven (1945), Hasidism (1948), Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (1947) and The Later Masters (1948), The Way of Man according to the Teachings of Hasidism (1950), The Legend of the Baal-Shem (1955), and Hasidism and Modern Man (1958).

"I and Thou"

Buber contributed importantly to 20th-century philosophy by offering a creative alternative to the impasse between science-dominated philosophies which reduce human reality to mechanistic terms and idealistic philosophies which abstract the human spirit from its embeddedness in the world and human community. In I and Thou (1922) he analyzes man's two types of relationship to reality, I-It and I-Thou. In the I-It relation, I deal with the world and other persons functionally, manipulatively, as "things" to be investigated and used. This is an inescapable and necessary relation to reality which is not evil in itself but becomes evil insofar as it constantly tends to dominate and shut out another, more profound relation, the I-Thou. In the I-Thou relation, I encounter the world, other persons, and God as Thou in interpersonal dialogue which opens up the true depths of reality and summons to ethical responsibility in the midst of life. Among Buber's philosophical writings, besides I and Thou, mention should be made of Between Man and Man (1947) and Eclipse of God (1952).

Career as a Teacher

In 1923 Buber became the first appointee to the chair of Jewish religious thought at the University of Frankfurt, where he taught for 10 years. During this period he collaborated with his friend, the distinguished Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, on a new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German which was acclaimed a masterpiece. Buber's deep involvement with the biblical literature led to profound studies in biblical interpretation, such as Moses (1946) and The Prophetic Faith (1949).

In 1933 Buber was made director of the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education in Germany, carrying out a "spiritual war against Nazism" until forced to leave in 1938. He went to Palestine to become professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, where he taught until his retirement in 1951. Buber worked tirelessly until the end of his life for the new nation of Israel and was widely respected for his integrity and moral passion. Ranging over a wide variety of modern issues, such as education and politics, Buber's writings focus especially on the state of Israel, as in Israel and the World (1948). Buber also dialogued sensitively with Christians and deeply admired Jesus. His book Two Types of Faith (1951) compares Judaism and Christianity. Honored by people all over the world, he died on June 13, 1965.

Further Reading

Full-length studies of Buber's life and thought in English include Maurice S. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (1955); Malcolm L. Diamond, Martin Buber: Jewish Existentialist(1960); Maurice Friedman and Paul Arthur Schilpp, eds., The Philosophy of Martin Buber (1967); Ronald G. Smith, Martin Buber (1967); and Lowell D. Streiker, The Promise of Buber: Desultory Philippics and Irenic Affirmations (1969). Aubrey Hodes, Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait (1971), is a personal study by a close friend.

Additional Sources

Friedman, Maurice S., Encounter on the narrow ridge: a life of Martin Buber, New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work: the early years, 1878-1923, New York: Dutton, 1981.

Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work: the later years, 1945-1965, New York: Dutton, 1983.

Friedman, Maurice S., Martin Buber's life and work: the middle years, 1923-1945, New York: Dutton, 1983.

The other Martin Buber: recollections of his contemporaries, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1988. □

Buber, Martin

views updated May 11 2018


Existentialist philosopher; b. Vienna, Feb. 8, 1878;d. Jerusalem, June 13, 1965. Buber's wife, Paula, was a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Georg Munk. In 1904 Buber received a Ph.D. in philosophy and history of art from Berlin University. He then served as editor of the social-psychological monographs Der Jude, Die Kreatur, and Die Gesellschaft. In 1923 he was appointed professor of Jewish religion and ethics and history of religions at Frankfurt University, serving in this post until 1933, when he became director of the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus in Frankfurt. From 1938 to 1953 he was professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He then became editor-in-chief of the Israeli Encyclopedia of Education and director of the Israeli Institute, a training center for teachers working among the immigrants. Buber was awarded the Goethe, Peace, Munich, and Erasmus prizes.

Thought. Buber's influence has been worldwide, especially through his translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible; his re-creation and interpretation of the legends and teachings of Hasidim, a popular communal mysticism of East European Jewry; and his philosophy of dialogue, in which he expounds the "I-Thou" relationship. Buber was a leading representative of the type of existentialism that begins not with the self, but with the relations between selves; through this he has influenced contemporary education, psychotherapy, ethics, and social philosophy. Buber's thought has affected Protestant, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish and Catholic theology through an emphasis on the dialogue between man and the "Eternal Thou," as opposed to dealing with God as an object of knowledge.

Works. Buber's works include I and Thou, Between Man and Man, Good and Evil, Eclipse of God, The Prophetic Faith, Two Types of Faith (Jesus and Paul), Pointing the Way, The Knowledge of Man, Tales of the Hasidim, For the Sake of Heaven (Hasidic novel), Hasidim and Modern Man, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, Paths in Utopia, and Daniel.

Bibliography: m. friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York 1960). p. a. schilpp and m. friedman, eds., The Philosophy of Martin Buber (La Salle, Ill. 1966). d. avnon, Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue (Lanham, Md. 1998). p. vermes, Buber on God and the Perfect Man (London 1994). s. kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber's Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington 1992).

[m. friedman]

Buber, Martin

views updated May 23 2018

Buber, Martin (1878–1965). Jewish philosopher and Zionist leader. As a Zionist, influenced by Ahạd ha-ʿAm, Buber emphasized the importance of education. As a ‘Hebrew humanist’, he emphasized the rights of the Arabs, stating ‘the Jewish people proclaims its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland’. His Ich und Du (I and Thou) was published in 1923 (Eng. edn. 1937) and contains his famous philosophy of dialogue. He distinguished between ‘I-It’ relationships, which are impersonal interactions designed to achieve a particular end, and ‘I-thou’ relationships which are mutual, direct, and open. This leads to the characterization of God as the ‘eternal thou’—the one who is only known through direct personal relationship.

Buber, Martin

views updated May 18 2018

Buber, Martin (1878–1965) Austrian Jewish philosopher. An ardent early advocate of Zionism, he edited Der Jude (1916–24), the leading journal of German-speaking Jewish intellectuals. He opposed the Nazis in Germany until forced to move to Palestine in 1938. His most important published work is I and Thou (1922), on the directness of the relationship between man and God within the traditions of Hasidism. He also wrote on the ideals of the state of Israel.

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