“Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent” by Paul Mendes-Flohr— The Life of a Thinker

Mendes-Flohr, Paul. “Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent”,  (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2019.

The Life of a Thinker

Amos Lassen

For a very long time, Martin Buber (1878-1965) has symbolized the Jew as an intellectual.  Now we have the newest biography has been written by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a scholar and intellectual himself and who is a Buber scholar . This is first biography written in English in the last thirty years and Mendes-Flohr is the man to write it. He has organized his book around several key moments of Buber’s life— his abandonment by his mother when he was just three years old and the trauma that was a result of that and led Buber to see the fragility of human relations and the need to nurture them with what he would call a “dialogical attentiveness.”

Buber wrote many philosophical and theological discourses and is most famous  for “I and Thou”. Buber contributed greatly to  religious and Jewish thought, philosophical anthropology, biblical studies, political theory, and Zionism. Mendes-Flohr situates Buber’s life and legacy in the intellectual and cultural life of German Jewry as well as in the broader European intellectual life of the first half of the twentieth century.

Buber was a hugely complicated man: philosopher, activist, who remained committed to a search for a modern Judaism that would remain in touch with the beauty, complexity, and tragedy of everyday life. His life was many-sided and he deserves a great biography and that is what he gets  while at the same time giving is a look at the rich intellectual and cultural life of German Jewry.

Martin Buber is considered to be the seminal modern Jewish thinker so it is only fitting that Jewish scholar Paul Mendes-Flohr has written the first major biography in English in three decades of him. Mendes-Flohr shows that the trauma of being abandoned by his mother left quite an enduring mark on Buber left an enduring mark on Buber’s inner life.

As I review this, I cannot help thinking about how I will structure a review written by a scholar about a scholar and I do not really feel up to the job. Nonetheless, I want to try and I am finding it unavoidable to stay away from Buber as an existential philosopher since that is how I see myself. Buber is best known for his religious philosophy of dialogue that he outlined in his 1923 essay “I and Thou,” and for his critiques of mainstream Zionism.

In “I and Thou” Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object. In contrast, in an I-Thou relationship, each person fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and ethical engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned for the other person. Rereading that, most of you will say that this is very clear. The honor of the other–and not just in utile purposes is what matters.

The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. Buber sees God as the “Eternal Thou” and the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end. What this says to me is quite simple— God is. It is relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship (be it with a person or thing) involves a meeting with God. God, therefore, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world.

When we see the world in this way, revelation occurs. “God speaks to man in the things and beings he sends him in life,” Buber wrote. “Man answers through his dealings with these things and beings.” Now you may wonder what happens when one does not believe in God and I leave that to you to decide. Buber understands the religious experience of the biblical writers also aided his understanding of the works of the Hasidic masters. In many of the teachings Buber collected, God is portrayed as immanent–an immediate and felt presence. God can be found in every encounter, in each experience, and in every aspect of the world. It is Buber’s focus on experiential existence that gives him the title of an existentialist thinker.

Buber was an ardent Zionist in his early adulthood in Germany and became editor of the leading Zionist newspaper, “Die Welt”, in 1901. However, he later broke with the movement because of the  ignoring the needs of the Palestinian Arabs who lived in the Land of Israel.  He became active in a group called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which was founded in 1925 to advocate the creation of a bi-national state.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which played a prominent role in German Jewish life at a time when Jews were increasingly excluded from secular schools, professions and cultural institutions.

Even with his ambivalence about Zionism, Buber moved to Israel in 1938 and became a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He remained an advocate for Arab rights and believed the Israeli government should allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.

I have always been interested in Buber’s feelings about the Eichmann trial and Mendez-Flohr tells us that from the beginning of the trial, Buber questioned the trial’s participants and intent. He felt Eichmann should be tried by an international court, since the Jews should not see themselves as judges but as accusers. When Eichmann’s verdict was pronounced by the Jerusalem district court, Buber telephoned prime minister David Ben Gurion to speak with him about the verdict and the ethical and political consequences. Ben Gurion went to Buber’s home where they spoke for two hours and Ben Gurion informed him that he could not intervene in the decision of the court and besides he did not want to. Buber did not want Eichmann executed but felt he should be sentenced to life in prison to be a symbol of the Nazi Holocaust and not just an ordinary criminal.

Much of what you read here will be new and surprising and I enjoyed that all the way through. Written by a scholar, this is a biography for all of us and I recommend it highly. I may not know Buber any better but I now know where to go to learn more.

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