Commentary Magazine

Buber's Hasidism

To the Editor:

Those who have read my essay criticizing Martin Buber’s presentation and interpretation of Hasidism [“Martin Buber’s Hasidism,” October 1961] will be able to judge for themselves to what extent his article [“Interpreting Hasidism,” September, 1963] constitutes an answer to the considerations I advanced. I shall therefore limit myself to two remarks which may nevertheless be necessary.

Concerning Buber’s passages on the Hasidic teaching and legend and their relation to the life of the community, there is the following to be said: what is missing from these statements—which are in any case offered here in such generalities that they will scarcely encounter any fundamental contradiction—is the main point at issue between us. The teaching of Hasidism was developed by the immediate disciples of the Baal-Shem and the Maggid of Mezritch, and in fact with the use of concepts which the first Masters themselves employed; these concepts came to them from the Cabbala. But these disciples were writing at the same time under the full impact of the new group life, which to a great extent they themselves had helped to create. There is in the Hasidic tradition no basis whatsoever to attempt, as Buber does, to construct a possible contradiction between the particulars of this group life and the concepts through which it unfolded. The very writings in which the original impulse was still most effective and attained immediate expression, those where the epigonic element, in Buber’s sense, is least prominent, do reproduce, to be sure, many maxims of the Baal-Shem (in clear enough contrast to the style of the disciples), but they contain no legends in Buber’s sense of the term. The salient point of my critique was that these writings completely contradict Buber’s general assertions about the meaning of Hasidic life as formulated in his later writings, and that he silently passes over this contradiction in order to rely on anecdotes, which are more susceptible to reinterpre-tation in his sense. He attempts, to be sure, to make it plausible that these anecdotes could be as old as the theoretical writings, but in concrete this can rarely be proved, while in many cases just the opposite is demonstrable. It is precisely the critical analysis of the oldest sources of the Hasidic legends that makes this clear. The older and more authentic the historical and social frame in which many of these oldest legends revolve are enclosed, the less do they stand in real contradiction to the theoretical writings of the same milieu, produced at least at the same time or substantially earlier. I do not say, of course, that the legends are worthless as evidence. What I say, rather, is that Buber’s interpretation, where it establishes such a contradiction, must be false to anyone familiar with the texts. Buber does not like it when the manifest subjectivity of his selection is emphasized, and by way of reply, appeals to the “reliability of the man in the face of his special task.” But his appeal to that “special task” which he has set for himself, and which determined his procedure in selecting the material and his attitude toward the sources, is of no avail here. I am convinced that his selection corresponds as far as possible to his own sense of his message. I am not convinced, however, that the sense of his message, as he has formulated it in his later writings, is that of Hasidism.

I would like further to say a few words about the parallel which Buber draws between the Hasidic anecdotes and the Zen stories, a parallel that I do not believe to be valid. The Zen stories are not legends at all, but rather—and this does not appear in Buber’s exposition—problems set for meditation, and therefore belonging to a completely different category. That they are garbed in narrative form does not make them legends. Without exception, they are statements that are at first glance senseless or paradoxical in the highest degree—statements upon which the disciple is instructed to meditate for weeks or months, in an endeavor to progress toward illumination. They transmit a mystical reality which cannot be grasped by words of doctrine and which therefore revels in the assertion of extreme paradoxes. But the Hasidic anecdote, precisely as canonized by Buber’s masterful reformulations, is altogether another matter. Its sense and meaning disclose themselves immediately and transmit something that is transmissable. Thus it moves in a completely different sphere of religious experience. I cannot believe, therefore, that there is anything to be gained for the understanding of the specific character of the Hasidic stories by confronting them with the Zen stories. The anecdotal embodiment of the “Koan,” which names names and events, is more closely related to the form in which great teachers of jurisprudence used to give seminar assignments to their students, than it is to religious legend.

In order to make clear how little Buber’s selection of Hasidic material can be categorically compared with the provocatively unintelligible Zen utterances, I would like to tell a little story about Buber himself. I once asked Buber—it was three years ago—why he had suppressed in his writings the significant and abysmal words about the messianic age which were transmitted in the name of Rabbi Israel of Rishin. His answer is unforgettable to me. He said: because I do not understand them.

Gershom Scholem
Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel



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