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1878: Philosopher Martin Buber Is Born

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Buber’s most well-known philosophical work described a relationship between man and God that was meant to lead to more meaningful relationships between people.Credit: Wikimedia

February 8, 1878, is the birth date of Martin Buber, the philosopher and educator who did much to popularize Hasidic teachings and who served as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity.

Martin Buber was born in Vienna. His parents divorced when he was three and he spent much of his youth living with his grandparents in Lemberg (today Lwow, Ukraine). Salomon Buber, his grandfather, was both a Hebrew scholar and student of Greek linguistics. Although raised in an Orthodox family, Buber began to grow distant from ritual observance as a teenager and found himself drawn to secular philosophy. He studied that subject and art history at the Universities of Vienna, Leipzig and Berlin, and received a doctorate from Vienna in 1904.

Buber became involved in the Zionist movement while in Leipzig and in 1901, at the request of Theodor Herzl, became editor of the movement’s journal Die Welt. He and Herzl soon parted ways on the question of the movement’s goals: Herzl emphasized the need to advance a political solution to the Jewish problem, whereas Buber was more concerned with a spiritual renewal of the Jewish people and the establishment of agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel. Hence, Buber gave up his position at the journal the same year he assumed it. It was also in 1901 that he married Paula Winckler, a Roman Catholic writer for Die Welt, who converted to Judaism. She wrote novels under the pseudonym Georg Munk.

During the five years that followed Buber’s withdrawal from active involvement in the Zionist movement, he spent time living among Hasidic Jews in remote Galician villages and studying their literature and ways. The simplicity and directness of the spirituality of the Hasidim appealed to him and he went on to publish several collections of Hasidic tales.

In 1916, Buber founded and became editor of the Jewish monthly Der Jude and in 1922, he and his friend Franz Rosenzweig established the Lehrhaus center for adult Jewish education in Frankfurt. Although it closed in 1930 after Rosenzweig’s death, Buber reopened it three years later after Jews were expelled from German universities. That same year, he was dismissed from his professorship at the University of Frankfurt and in 1938, after being forbidden from speaking publicly at all, emigrated to Palestine.

Buber was appointed a professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, a position he held until his retirement in 1951. He also helped establish a college for training teachers in adult education in Jerusalem and was a founder of Brit Shalom, an organization that advocated a binational state in Palestine. Even after statehood, he continued to call for the creation of a federation of states in the region.

Probably Buber’s most well-known philosophical work was “I and Thou,” in which he described a relationship between man and God that was also meant to lead to more equal and meaningful relationships between people. The “I-Thou” relationship is characterized by mutuality and duality, rather than by a unilateral nature. Direct spirituality was also something that Buber perceived among the Hasidim, although critics have charged him with romanticizing them. He saw the essence of religious life in its experience, rather than in dogma, and had a less-than-Orthodox approach to Jewish law. His disdain for dogma also explained his rejection of the idea of absolute truths, though he acknowledged the temptation to search for answers in black or white.

"I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the 'narrow ridge,'” said Buber at one point. “I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow, rocky ridge between the gulfs, where there is only the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed."

Buber was shunned by some Orthodox for his lax approach to halakhah, or Jewish law, by some Reform Jews for his promotion of Hasidism, and by many Jews for his reconciliatory attitude to the Arabs. He also opposed the execution of Adolf Eichmann, whom Israel tried and convicted for crimes against humanity in 1961, saying that, “for such crimes there is no penalty.”

Buber died in Jerusalem on June 13, 1965.

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