(1878 - 1965)
"Having awakened to an awareness of their universal being, individual beings open themselves to one another, disclose themselves to one another,
help one another."
Martin Buber was born to a Jewish family on February 8, 1878 in Vienna, Austria. He was educated at the Universities of Vienna and Berlin, and soon
after entered the Zionist Movement, for religious and cultural reasons. Some of his noteworthy early works include
The Tales of Rabbi Nachman and
The Legend of the Baal-Shem.
His most famous work,
I and Thou
is an exquisite poetic expression of his own religious philosophy. Other notable works like
no doubt established him as an intellectual leader of the German-Jewish community.
Buber founded a monthly journal entitled Der Jude or The Jew, which he also edited from 1916 - 1924. For nine years (1924 - 1933) he taught
comparative religion at the University of Frankfurt during which time he was instrumental
in translating the Old Testament into German. He also directed a Jewish adult education
program there until he was forced to flee to Palestine in 1938 to escape the Nazis. He later became a professor of social philosophy in Jerusalem. He
dedicated a good deal of his efforts to improving the understanding between the Israelis and the
and in the postwar period worked diligently to reestablish dialogue between Jews and Germans.
Buber had a philosophy of dialogue which saw the human existence in relationship, that he divided into two fundamentally different kinds of
relations: the way human beings relate to the things that surround them, and the way human beings relate with other human beings. He asserted that man
often views his fellowman from a distance, like an object, a thing, little more than a part of the environment. This he set in contrast with the
ideal relationship where two humans meet as whole beings in a genuine dialogue. He felt that intimate human relationships were in reality a reflection
of the human meeting with God.
In Buber's philosophy of dialogue, he made the distinction between relationships where each person confirms the other as unique and valuable
(the I - Thou relationship of dialogue) versus a relationship in which each person is known and used but not really seen as valuable in and of
themselves (the I - It relationship of monologue). Buber's distinction between "dialogue" and "monologue" as it pertains to religion, then becomes the
difference between talking to God, or merely talking about God. The dialogue between man and God allows man to become aware of being addressed by God
in every encounter if only he is willing to remain open to God's address and willing to respond to it.
With his philosophy, Buber illustrated that there is no statement about God, which does not at the same time state something about man. To
Buber, the faith of his fathers represented a living tradition, a history of dialogue between God and man. He based his faith on this dynamic ongoing
dialogue not on its static and potentially dogmatic contents. He advocated living as if always in the presence of God, for he believed that God is
ever present within his creation, being the eternal Thou, the essential relationship.
Martin Buber was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1953 and the Erasmus Prize by the Erasmus Foundation in Holland in 1963.
His philosophy of dialogue has profoundly influenced great thinkers of many faiths.
Excerpt from I and Thou
To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives what exists round about him - simply things, and beings as
things; and what happens round about him - simply events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualifies, events of moments; things entered in
the graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by other things and events, measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives
an ordered and detached world. It is to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organization can be surveyed and brought out
again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes. It is always there, next to your skin, if you look on it that way, cowering
if you prefer it so. It is your object, remains it as long as you wish, and remains a total stranger, within you and without. You perceive it, take it
to yourself as the "truth," and it lets itself be taken; but it does not give itself to you. Only concerning it may you make yourself "understood"
with others; it is ready, though attached to everyone in a different way, to be an object common to you all. But you cannot meet others in it. You
cannot hold on to life without it, its reliability sustains you; but should you die in it, your grave would be in nothingness.
Or on the other hand, man meets what exists and becomes as what is over against him, always simply a single being and each thing simply as
being. What exists is opened to him in happenings, and what happens affects him as what is. Nothing is present for him except this one being, but it
implicates the whole world. Measure and comparison have disappeared; it lies with yourself how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. These
meetings are not organized to make the world, but each is a sign of the world-order. They are not linked up with one another, but each assures you of
your solidarity with the world. The world, which appears to you in this way, is unreliable, for it takes on a continually new appearance; you cannot
hold it to its word. It has no density, for everything in it penetrates everything else; no duration, for it comes even when it is not summoned, and
vanishes even when it is tightly held. It cannot be surveyed, and if you wish to make it capable of survey you lose it. It comes, and comes to bring
you out; if it does not reach you, meet you, then it vanishes; but it comes back in another form. It is not outside you, it stirs in the depth of you;
if you say "Soul of my
you have not said too much. But guard against wishing to remove it into your soul - for then you annihilate it. It is your present; only while you
have it do you have the present. You can make it into an object for yourself, to experience and to use; you must continually do this - and as you do
it you have no more present. Between you and it there is mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives
itself to you. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold
your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its comings and the solemn sadness of its goings it leads you away to the Thou in which
the parallel lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity.
Reprinted from Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), pp. 31-33.
RELIGIOUS THOUGHT OF MARTIN BUBER
Re-entry into Tradition
At the beginning of Buber's thought, there is the discovery of Hasidic tradition, which coincided with Buber's discovery of his own religiousness.
Meeting Hasidism meant for him his "re-entry into tradition", he learned that tradition is not preserving the past, but passing on, providing the
human being of today with the access to the primary source from where the stream of life flows.
What is so special about this Hasidic tradition? The most important root idea is that God takes his dwelling-place within man, God takes his dwelling-
place within his creation. This idea in not peculiar to Chassidism, it is already contained in the Torah:
(see Leviticus 26,11)
"Where does God live?"
With this question, the Kosker surprised some scholars who were guests of his.
They laughed at him: "How do you speak! The world is full of his glory!"
But he answered his own question: "God lives, where he is let in."
(Tales of the Hasidim)
But what does it mean: "God takes his dwelling place within man"?
At first, it means the actual annulment of the difference between religiousness and secularity. Everyday life is no less imbued with belief than the
"deified high hours". It is only this way that the unity of life is achieved, and only a
religion which does not view religiousness merely in some kind of sentimentality and
rejects all reason can lead humans to this unity. The human being does not fight against urges, he does not have to expel evil out of him: he is
supposed to live in the world and with God; he is supposed to become the vessel of holiness within the world.
And by sanctifying the whole everyday life, Hasidism takes "the other world into this world". The present time, the world, is the place where faith is
made real, where God reveals Himself. God is not the far-away ruler of the world who will bring redemption some time (this is said against the
exaggerated messianic hopes), but God wants "to conquer the world he created through the human being".
God does not want to complete his creation in any other way than with our help. He does not want to reveal his realm before we have founded it. He
does not want to put on the crown of the King of the World but by receiving it from our hand.
(The Hasidic Message)
It is from here that the true dialogical relation between God and man becomes possible: on the one hand, the difference between God and man is not
given up in any way (thus no pantheist "God in all"), man is believed to be able to contribute to the history of salvation himself - and even called for to do so -, on the other hand, God's nearness is
emphasized as strongly as in hardly any other religious movement: God dwells within the world, but he is not absorbed by it (immanence and
Rabbi Bunam once told: Watching the world, it sometimes seems to me as if every man is a tree in the wilderness, and God has in this world no-one but
him alone, and he no-one to turn to but God alone.
(Tales of the Hasidim)
From here, he calls this twofoldedness, the basis for any dialogical relation: Primary distance and relation.
As Buber himself wrote in his autobiographical fragments, his dialogical thought evolved from his occupation with Hasidism. In the relation to God
(which he calls the relation to "the eternal thou" in his dialogical philosophy), Buber realized that human existence is determined by two
fundamentally different kinds of relation: I-It relations and I-Thou relations. It is characteristic for I-Thou relations that only in them real
encounter happens when all is left behind, all preconceptions, all reservedness is given up, when one fully engages in the encounter with the other
and carries on a real dialogue with him.
The relation to the Thou is immediate.
Between I and Thou there is no terminology, no preconception and no imagination, and memory itself changes, since it plunges from singularity into the
Between I and Thou there is no purpose, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself changes, since it plunges from dream into appearance.
All means are impediment. Only where all means fall to pieces, encounter happens.
(I and Thou)
The real nova in these thoughts is the expansions of the notion of relation over inter human and God-man relations to the whole of existence. My whole
existence is determined by the kind of relation I have to the elements. I can have an I-It relation toward my life when I imagine it as a destiny
imposed upon me, or a pointless accident, but I can also have a dialogical relation toward it, I can conceive it as an address to me, as a request to
give answer. This means that I have to respond to the actual situation - and not to have to make plans for it and realize them, i.e. self-
responsibility instead of self-realization, or in short: response.
And it is the same with history, an element of life extremely important to Buber and man in general. How do I conceive the river of times: without
target or determined by a ruler of the world? Or after all as a dialogue between this "ruler of the world" and man:
If history is a dialogue between God and mankind, then we can perceive its purpose respectively there where the address hits us, and only in so far as
we let ourselves be hit by it.
The purpose in history is no idea I can formulate independently of my personal life; it is only with my personal life that I can absorb it, for it is
a dialogical purpose.
With man being called to respond, man having to be able to be responsible, it should not be misunderstood that a human being only finds his I with the
help of a Thou. For at the same time it has to be clear: there can be no Thou without an I, for without an I there can be no facing, no encounter:
It is true that a child first says Thou before it learns to say I; but on the height of personal existence one must be able to say truly I in order to
experience the secret of Thou in its whole truth.
Human relations are the place where dialogic life takes place; that does not mean that one has much to do with people; but it is a life "in which one
has really to do with the person one has to do with."
Then, it requires me time after time to thank my fellow man even when he has not done anything special for me. But for what? For encountering me for
real when he encountered me; for opening his eyes and perceiving reliably what I had to tell him; yes, for opening what I talked to: the well-closed
After this landmark discovery in his thought, he turns back to religion. Starting at the
central thought of dialogue between God and man, Buber sets out for the primary source of biblical tradition from where religious thought in Judaism
took and takes its life. He finds back to the occurrence at Sinai, back to the
of God's name to Moshe:
Moshe spoke to God:
There I come then to the sons of Yisrael,
I speak to them:
The God of your fathers has sent me to you,
then will speak to me: What about his name?
What do I speak to them?
God spoke to Moshe:
I will be there as the one I will be there.
And he spoke:
That's what you shall speak to the sons of Yisrael:
I AM THERE sends me to you.
Proceeding from this passage, Buber develops the principles of the faith in God in early Judaism. God is the God being there, the God freeing,
leading, going along, and feeling with you, but at the same time also the unsiezable, the unavailable God of whom you cannot make an image. In their
translation of the passage, Buber and Rosenzweig liberate it from the incorrect Septuagint translation "I am who I am" (which is clearly influenced by
Hellenism), a translation still included in many "modern" translations. "I am who I am" would mean that it is philosophically forbidden to speculate
about God's existence.
In this central occurrence, together with its national: the exodus out of
and its social pendant: the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Buber views the
primary source which has not become irrelevant for modern man. In an age of subsiding scientism and intellectual atheism, he offers to this "modern
man" the rediscovery of biblical tradition. He does not try the impossible (which is, by the way, tried by many religious groups hostile to any form
of progress): calling back a time of naivet‚, no, he views the reality of the modern times having brought fundamental and irreversible changes:
It is not about a "return to the Bible". It is about resuming of the original biblical unity life with the whole of our existence entangled in our
time, with the whole weight of our late diversity on our
the unseizable matter of this historical hour undimishedly present in our minds; it is about standing our present situations with biblical openness
toward faith in dialogical responsibility.
(Modern Man and the Jewish Bible)
The rational "modern man" is not responsible because he does not respond, and he does not respond because he does not hear the question anymore, which
approaches man from generation to generation in form of human life and tradition. Man must once again hear the question, hear the questioner, he must
learn anew asking questions and answering. In short: he has to learn dialogue.
In his religious life, Buber is not occupied with dogmatic issues, he accomplishes the anthropological turn-about of theology more thoroughly, more
credibly, and more methodologically founded than most of his Christian colleagues, who have seen this problem as well. One cannot speak about God as
if being not involved, as if watching from outside the universe, as if being able to decide what is almighty, as if being able to know what truth is,
as if being able to track and evaluate God's acting, man is always involved, he does not know what almighty is, how he can seize truth, he does not
have any undeceivable sense organ for God's acting. The world of faith has to be opened from the point of view of human possibilities, of human
existence, and faith has to be lived in the middle of human possibilities, lived in every minute of existence, lived in the field of tension between
Creation for Buber, like for Jewish tradition, happens in every second, one only has to perceive it: in every second new life comes into being.
But also redemption happens already today and not only in a far-away future, already today man can experience traces of what will happen some day. And
only because man does experience creation and redemption, he can conceive from his human point of view what they mean, only because man experiences
in his present time, God's revelation to him, the encounter of two beings.
And just from the experience of the divine in one's own life, one can conceive why Buber, who shows respect for tradition in general and the Bible in
particular, also states that one always has to decide in favor of the God in whom one believes and against the God whose image was handed on to me, in
case that one cannot believe in the God of tradition. This is one point that makes up Buber's living relation to tradition.
Translation of the Bible into German
The Bible is for Buber the one document of the great facing of God and man where happened and happening history are interpreted as one big dialogue
between God and man.
Judaism, for which all events in world history, from creation to redemption, stand under the sign of
feels that the course of human existence is nothing but a dialogue. Man is called by all that happens to him, what is sent to him, by his destiny; in
his acting and not acting he can answer to this call, he can answer for his destiny.
Buber realizes the necessity of a new translation of the Bible soon, even though he lacks the methodic principles for its accomplishment. He realizes
inadequacy of the former translations, he realizes most of all that the Bible is only read as a well-known classic, but no longer encountered, man no
longer faces the Bible:
The Hebrew Bible itself is read as a translation, as a bad translation, as a translation into the worn down
of terms, allegedly well-known, in reality only current. Respectful intimacy with sense and sensuality as required by
has been replaced by viewless familiarity.
The methodic principles of the Translation of the Bible, which Buber owes mostly to his co-operation with Franz Rosenzweig are reflected by his
philosophical principles. He wants to retransform the Bible into
For this, Buber uses a language rich in images and sensitive to rhythm; instead of
verses, he divides the Bible into short passages determined by meaning and breathing technique. By reproducing the Hebrew
Buber uses a feature that helps to conceive the inner biblical coherence immediately - with nothing but the word. Like a red thread, one can follow a
word or a root throughout chapters and books of the Bible. The unique about Buber's translation is that he does not only try to translate word
uniformly, but whole roots. This leads him to the frontiers of German
and the first impression of the translation often bewilders the reader.
But the importance is only realized when it is faced existentially: Buber opens up many terms and inner biblical connections anew by working out the
relation component out of terms of the "detached mind", which originates in its primary Hebrew meaning. Truth becomes faithfulness, inner and outer
faithfulness, justice becomes proving, and the judicial term becomes a state of living, a "relation to reality":
The truth that can be owned is not even a creature, it is a ghost, a succubus, with which to live man can only effectively fancy, but he cannot really
live with it. You cannot devour truth, it is not cooked in any pot of the world, and you cannot even gape at it, for it is not a thing. And
nonetheless there is a taking part at the existence of the inaccessible truth - for the one who proves himself. There is a "real relation" of the
whole human person toward the unowned, unownable truth, and it is only completed in proving. This "real relation" is, whatever called, the relation to
And he breathes life back into the sacrificial terms which have lost their meaning for us by translating as a nearing, an offer-nearing (Darnahung), a
giving high and thus as a contrast to traditional sacrifice as an aiming at meeting God. If people nowadays are no longer ready to sacrifice, it is
not their "self-centrism", but the fact that sacrifice does no longer mean meeting for them. Instead of that, the God of the Old Testament is
portrayed imperious and despotic because he required sacrifices. But in reality, this God enabled and enables people to meet him.
The spiritualized term of the Holy Ghost gains back its sensual life by translating it from its Hebrew primary meaning as "God's breeze".
The new opening of God's name JHWH in Early Judaism as "I will be there as the one I will be there" puts the stress onto the relation, onto the
nearness in the relation and onto the distance in the relation. Buber and Rosenzweig have long thought it over how to translate this name of God in
the text, adequate to German language's need. They have decided on the pronoun, since only this can reflect the nearness and familiarity of the
primary meaning: the old "God the Lord" becomes a plain "HE".
Martin Buber the Critic
It was inevitable that Buber had to face Christianity when freeing the Bible from a patina laid on it mostly by two thousand years of Christian
theology. But its results are different from what one could expect: he does not stoop to polemics, he does not attack openly, and his voice is low and
matter-of-fact, like among good friends. He does not deride what he cannot believe in. And the fact that Christian view the Messiah in Jesus was always a "fact of highest seriousness" to him, even though Jesus could be "no more"
than an outstanding and unparalleled person in Jewish tradition and a "brother". And last but not least, he viewed him, Jesus of Nazareth, as a Jew
who radically tried to make real with God's address-ability.
But at the same time, his criticism is unmerciful: he uncompromisingly points out that Hellenism perverted Paul's understanding of faith. The relation
of faith in Christianity is no longer viewed a relation of trust as in Judaism, but as a holding-true of facts, facts of faith. This is what leads to
disputes on dogmatism and heretics:
There are two, and after all only two, types of faith facing one another. There are a large variety of contents of faith, but faith itself is only
known in two primary forms. Both of them can be illustrated by plain facts of our lives: that I have trust toward somebody without being able to give
reasons for it, the other evolves from the fact that I, also unable to give sufficient reasons, acknowledge facts as true.
The person of Paul already is the point of time where Christianity branches off from the Jewish type of faith and becomes an inferior type of faith,
whereas the message of Jesus still is deep-rooted in Judaism.
Of course, Jesus asked as whom he is seen, but he does not require somebody to see him as anyone. For Paul it is the gate to salvation that one
acknowledges Jesus with the whole power of faith as the one he teaches.
But it is not only the notion of faith that Christianity has given up, but also the prohibition of images. By deifying Jesus, people make an image of
the unseizable God, He is brought down to earth, his presence is forced in form of an image - and thus the real access to that God who "will be there
as the one he will be there" is shut:
Imageless and full of images is the Christian God at the same time, more imageless, however, in the religious idea, full of images in the lived
presence. The image covers the imageless.
This translation of the German original "Vertrauen und Dialog" is still a draft. Any corrections or suggestions for clarification will be appreciated.