Commentary Magazine

Martin Buber, the Life of Dialogue, by Maurice S. Friedman; The Writings of Martin Buber, edited by Will Herberg

The Social Buber
by Heinz Politzer
Martin Buber, the Life of Dialogue. By Maurice S. Friedman. University of Chicago Press. 310 pp. $6.00.
The Writings of Martin Buber. Selected, Edited, and Introduced by Will Herberg. Meridian. 351 pp. $1.35.

It is Professor Friedman’s great merit to have shown the gradual growth of Buber’s thought from “an early period of mysticism through a middle period of existentialism to a final period of developing dialogical philosophy.” That this growth was an altogether organic one is affirmed by Will Herberg in his preface to the Meridian volume: “Each of the stages is transcended and subsumed in its successors: one aspect of the mystical reappears in the existential, and the existential is fulfilled and deepened in the dialogical.” Professor Friedman also succeeds admirably in showing the transformation of Buber from a somewhat uneasy mystic isolated with his private meditations into what Paul E. Pfuetze has called a “Social Self” ready and eager to communicate with the Thou of any person or group who might want to lay claim on him. Finally, by focusing his study on Buber’s concept of the dialogue between I and Thou, Professor Friedman is able to see the unity of Buber’s contributions to fields as disparate as epistemology, pedagogy, psychology, ethics, social philosophy, and theology.

Buber wrote I and Thou when he was fighting to free himself from the mysticism of his earlier period. The book is written in an exhortatory, rhythmic style which owes much to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. But the resemblance to Nietzsche does not extend to substance. For whereas the Nietzschean superman can establish his identity only in absolute freedom, cut off from all human ties, Buber’s conception of the genuine person acting in supreme freedom is inextricably involved with the idea of a relationship (Bindung) with a fellow man or fellow being, a Thou. “Only he who knows relation and knows about the presence of the Thou is capable of decision. He who decides is free,” says Buber in I and Thou. But the Thou, in Buber’s view, need not be a human being or group of beings; it can be a tree (here speaks Buber the mystic, the disciple of Jakob Böhme and especially Meister Eckhart); and it can be God, the Eternal Thou.

Buber also takes pains to distinguish the I-Thou from the I-It relationship. “The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.” As long as man merely makes use of a thing—or, for that matter, another human being—as long as he approaches it without opening himself up to it, so long will the relationship remain one between an I and an It, with the I left unfulfilled, unfathomed, inauthentic. And this is the great danger in a world of technology, a world in which man is conditioned to regard the realities around him as so many It’s to be used and manipulated. “Real existence,” says Buber, “that is, real man in his relation to his being is comprehensible only in connection with the nature of the being to which he stands in relation.”

But despite the virtues of Professor Friedman’s analysis, few who have been fortunate enough to come under the spell of a dialogue with Buber himself will close this book completely satisfied. The polymath Buber is there all right; so is the Utopian socialist, the professor, and even the novelist, editor, and translator Buber. What is missing is precisely what Professor Friedman alludes to in his subtitle: the life of the dialogue.



From the time when the Germans marched against El Alamein and threatened the Jewish community in Palestine with destruction, until the time when the British prepared to leave Palestine in a state of utter confusion, I was Buber’s neighbor in Deir-Abou-Tor. This hill, which overlooks the stone walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, is said to be the place where the house of the High Priest Caiaphas stood. For more than four years I had an opportunity of seeing Buber in conversation with the members of his family, his servant Jalil, Jewish students and Arab neighbors, notables, scholars, and clergymen from many countries and of many creeds, and even—or rather especially—with children. I observed his phenomenal gift for communicating, for “embracing” the “otherness” of the many Thou’s who addressed themselves to him, and for taking into account in his answer even the silence behind the other’s word. And it was out of this firsthand experience that I came to understand Buber’s theory of the dialogue.

Jew and Gentile alike have testified to the charismatic character of Buber’s speech. It is not the dialogue itself which Paul Tillich recalls from one of his conversations with Buber, “but the radiation of a mind ‘full of God’. . . . It was a condensed, almost substantial presence of the divine, as I have seldom experienced it—at least to such a degree—among Christians” (Commentary, June 1948). And although, unlike Professor Tillich, I have never been able to feel the presence of the divine in Buber’s conversations with me, I knew that in talking to him I was engaged in a genuine dialogue, a living exchange between personalities. Today I realize that I was the one whose mind was absent whenever a truly dialogical situation failed to develop between us. For Buber never withheld himself, and he was most present, most “spiritualized,” when he discussed the most commonplace subjects. Franz Rosenzweig is said to have remarked once that Buber’s real stature became evident only to those who had seen him in his dressing gown. And indeed, there is in Buber an immediacy, an interest in the Here and Now of his conversant, and a humor, which defy any attempts at translation into a scholar’s sober prose or organization into a staid academic treatise.

Nor do Buber’s supra-rational insights translate easily into the language of positivists and logicians, which is one reason why—as Friedman points out—disturbing traces of his earlier “mystical” style have been carried over into the existential and dialogical stages of his philosophy; even so devoted an interpreter as Will Herberg feels compelled to remark that Buber’s concept of the Thou has brought upon him “the not altogether unmerited charge of mysticizing.”

But the mixture of styles in Buber is only a reflection of the complexity of his thought. For without denying the authority of analytical thinking in those provinces of human existence which are, so to speak, under its jurisdiction, he has opposed the claim of this latter-day enlightenment to rule not as an enlightened but an absolute despot. He has stressed the necessity of complementing the regimen of logic by a true regard for “depth,” the region that lies beyond the causal laws which govern our thinking. Thus, and only thus, can the totality of human existence be grasped; thus, and only thus, consciously and unconsciously, by word and silence, analysis and synthesis, can man achieve the wholeness of being which enables him to enter fully into the social communion of the dialogue.

Is it therefore too much to say that the essence of Buber’s work and personality would best be captured in an anthology of some of his written and spoken words, supplemented perhaps by testimonies of the many people whose lives have been changed through the experience of a dialogue with him; a book very similar to the one in which he himself once gathered the Tales of the Hasidim. Will Herberg’s informative selection in the Meridian series seems to point in this direction. (A similar anthology of shorter and more varied pieces was issued in 1953 under the title Einsichten by the German publishing house Insel Verlag.)

Selection, Herberg says, “is no mechanical operation, and the selection I have made more or less obviously reflects my convictions as to what aspects of Buber’s thinking are of particular significance amidst the problems and perplexities of our time.” Mr. Herberg, of course, is primarily concerned with social thought and its roots in Biblical faith. Yet no selection of Buber’s writings which claims to be representative and more than merely personal can neglect Buber’s work on Hasidism. And a chapter from his too little known novel, For the Sake of Heaven, would have improved the collection, too.

Although Mr. Herberg’s volume contains Buber’s letter to Gandhi on the applicability of satyagraha (non-violence) to conditions in Palestine under the British Mandate and to European Jewry under Hitler, as well as his answer to the “silent questions” raised by Henri Bergson and Simone Weil, one would have liked to see a few more of Buber’s essays addressed to other nations and other creeds. For he is far more than an internal Jewish phenomenon. Martin Buber’s supreme contribution lies in the fullness with which he confronts all peoples and all creeds.


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