This review appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent
By Paul Mendes-Flohr
(Yale University Press, 2019)


Martin Buber, one of the leading Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, was a very unorthodox thinker, anathema to most traditionalists yet deeply religious in his own way. Born in 1878, Buber was an ardent Zionist from the earliest days of the movement in the 1890s to his death in 1965. Yet he consistently opposed the creation of a Jewish state and was in the end barely able to make his peace with it. Once a world-famous and highly controversial figure, he is now well remembered only by small crews of modern Jewish thinkers and Zionist historians and not much larger groups of other Jews and non-Jews outside the academy who still derive inspiration from his works and life.

Paul Mendes-Flohr, the leading Buber scholar today, has undertaken the daunting task of chronicling Buber’s rich and eventful life, from his birth in Vienna to his vital, decades-long participation in Jewish cultural activity in Austria-Hungary and in imperial, Weimar, and Nazi Germany to his final years as a dissident intellectual in British Palestine and then the State of Israel. An unabashed admirer of Buber, and a man who, like him, immigrated to Israel and taught for many years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem while remaining a strong critic of Israeli policy, Mendes-Flohr has nevertheless written a book whose objectivity is unimpeachable. It ought to be greatly appreciated even by readers who do not share all of Buber’s—or the author’s—ideals.

Martin Buber was born in a great capital but spent his childhood in the backwater Galician city of Lemberg (today Lviv, Ukraine) with his paternal grandparents, who raised him after his mother deserted his family when he was only four years old. Whatever damage this abandonment did to his psyche, removal to the provinces didn’t prevent him from receiving a solid education. Guided by his grandfather, a formidable rabbinic scholar, and his grandmother, a great lover of German literature, and educated at a Polish-language gymnasium, he emerged from his adolescence with knowledge, tastes, and linguistic skills that equipped him extremely well for an academic career.

The strongest influence on the young Buber, however, was the great contemporary threat to mere bookishness: Friedrich Nietzsche. When he was sixteen, Buber was so enamored with the bold iconoclast that he started translating Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Polish (only breaking off when he learned that a prominent Polish poet already had a contract to do it).

It is easy enough to understand how Buber’s youthful Nietzscheanism led him during his early years as a university student in Vienna to maintain, in the words of Mendes-Flohr, “a studied disinterest in religious subjects generally, and Judaism specifically.” But instead of drawing him outside the Jewish fold, Nietzsche ultimately revitalized Buber’s Jewishness. “The illness of the age,” Buber argued, “was even more acute among the Jews—hence, their urgent need to heed Nietzsche’s healing message of a rebirth.”

This rebirth would have to take place through Zionism, but not the political approach of Theodor Herzl. Although he did serve briefly as the editor of Herzl’s World Zionist Organization’s first weekly, Buber aligned himself with the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, who considered the “problem of the Jews,” i.e., anti-Semitism, to be insoluble. He focused on the “problem of Judaism,” the deeper, spiritual malaise that could be addressed through the consolidation of a vital, but not necessarily large or independent, colony in the Holy Land.

Yet Buber was not, like Ahad Ha’am, a rationalist seeking to construct a new secular Jewish culture that could radiate outward from Palestine to the Jews of the whole world. Liberated as he was from allegiance to tradition (and permanently tied to the Christian woman with whom he had two children out of wedlock before he married her), Buber engaged in a spiritual quest that led him to Hasidism. Inspired by his teacher, the sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey, Buber saw in aspects of the Eastern European mystical movement something of a cure for the spiritual desiccation of culturally assimilated Jews. In the early 1900s, he produced anthologies of Hasidic writings that played a crucial role in rehabilitating the notoriously backward “Ostjuden” in the eyes of many of their Western coreligionists.

In 1909 lectures to a cultural Zionist student group in Prague, Buber sought to articulate “the knowledge that emerged from his immersion in the sources of Hasidism.” He advocated “a spiritual revolution,” one that would result in the emergence of an “Urjude,” which meant, as he put it, “the Jew who becomes conscious of the great powers of elemental Judaism within himself, and who decides for them, for their activation.” Among the many members of the Prague circle who subsequently became Buber’s lifelong disciples were a number of men who also became influential figures in British Palestine, including Hans Kohn, who served there for a time as a high-ranking Zionist official. Summing up Buber’s teaching, Kohn described him as having taught that Zionism was “an ethical movement that relates seriously to both Judaism and humanity.” When Kohn became convinced at the end of the 1920s that Zionism failed to meet these criteria, he migrated to the U.S., where he became a celebrated historian and critic of nationalism but remained an admirer of Buber.

Buber’s Zionism did not prevent him from becoming an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish participation in World War I, quite apart from whatever tangible gains it might bring to the Zionist movement. Whichever side he fought for, Buber declared at a Chanukah celebration in Berlin in 1914, the Jewish soldier has through his involvement in the struggle “overcome his inner duality, and has become a unified [person].” By 1917, however, prodded by his friend Gustav Landauer (a casualty of the postwar turmoil in Bavaria and grandfather of film director Mike Nichols), Buber radically revised his views not only on the war but also on political nationalism, which he came to regard as a dangerous substitute for religion.

Buber’s new reservations about nationalism did not lead him to retreat from Zionism but did intensify his suspicion of purely political Zionism and his concern that the movement retain its ethical character. Rather than viewing the Balfour Declaration as a godsend, like most contemporary Zionists, he worried about the entrance of the Jews into Palestine under the auspices of British bayonets and at the expense of the indigenous Arabs. The solution, he felt, lay in binational arrangements that would preclude either people from ruling over the other and permit their happy cohabitation in one land.

I-Thou Judaism

Zion, however, was not Buber’s sole preoccupation when World War I ended. “At the threshold of his fifth decade,” Mendes-Flohr writes, Buber “found himself torn between his abiding (if conflicted) fidelity to the Zionist project of Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal and an ongoing reevaluation of the fundamental presuppositions of his core religious and political commitments.” The former crystallized in his most famous book, I and Thou, published in 1923.

“I-Thou and I-It,” as Mendes-Flohr puts it, are “two fundamental and dichotomous modes of relating to the world. One may relate to the world, including one’s fellow human beings, as objects, as an It . . . or one may meet the Other as a Presence, as one who awaits to be related to as a Thou.” True life is realized in the I-Thou encounter with one’s fellow human beings, in which the Presence of God makes itself felt. This, not Law, is what Judaism (and not only Judaism) is about.

The importance of the Law was a matter on which Buber engaged in cordial dispute with the equally unorthodox Jewish theologian with whom he was most closely associated, Franz Rosenzweig. The dialogue between these two men, neither of whom believed, like Orthodox Jews, in a law literally dictated by God, has become a locus classicus of modern Jewish thought. Their joint, profoundly literal translation of the Hebrew Bible into German (over the many years that Rosenzweig suffered from ALS) was a monumental achievement, one that was published only in 1936, at the very moment that its potential readership was being demolished. It has, however, inspired imitators who have strived to replicate Buber and Rosenzweig’s efforts in translations of the Hebrew Bible into other languages.

Mendes-Flohr devotes surprisingly few pages to the five years Buber spent in Nazi Germany prior to his migration to Palestine in March 1938, when he was already sixty years old. But he thoroughly surveys Buber’s endeavors both as a political activist and a religious thinker in his new home during the quarter of a century that he lived there. For a decade, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Buber did everything he could to transform the relationship of the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine from, let us say, an I-It relationship to an I-Thou one, and to promote their friendly coexistence in one polity. When this hopeless endeavor failed, not least because it had no support at all among the Arabs, Buber reluctantly accepted the Jewish state, not as a lesser evil but as a lesser good. And he never stopped trying to make it a better place by improving the status and living conditions of the Arab minority that remained in Israel after it achieved its independence.

In the postwar years, Buber was no less conciliatory toward the Germans than he was toward the Arabs. “Turning to the generation of Germans who came of age after the war, Buber called upon them to join with him in the struggle of “homo humanus against contrahumanus. As a Jew chosen as a symbol I must obey this call of duty even there, indeed precisely there when the never-to-be-effaced memory of what has happened stands in opposition to it.” It was thus incumbent upon Jews and Germans to express the solidarity “of all separate groups in the flaming battle for the rise of a true humanity.”

Despite his status as a strong and widely unpopular dissident, Buber received ample public recognition in Israel. In 1953, for instance, he received the Israel Prize for the Humanities. The prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, personally awarded him the prize, and then had to sit through the lecture in which Buber implicitly upbraided him for trying to mobilize culture in the service of the state and its interests.

Outside Israel, where his political stance barely registered, Buber became an increasingly famous religious thinker and biblical scholar, the recipient of innumerable awards and invitations to lecture throughout Europe and the United States, where one might not expect a man of his sort to generate much excitement. But he did. On his first visit to this country, in 1951, he was lionized to such a degree that his longtime friend, colleague in Jerusalem, and intellectual rival, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, reported to Hannah Arendt (perhaps a little enviously) that “since Pepsi-Cola hit America there was nothing like Buber!”

That was a long time ago, though. It’s hard to imagine a resurgence of interest in Buber that would inspire new readers to follow in either the religious or the political path that he marked out. It’s also hard, I would say, to regret that this is the case. Buber’s understanding of revelation was too nebulous to be of enduring value; his politics were too idealistic to be effective. It is, however, easy to believe that Mendes-Flohr’s superbly written, deeply sensitive, and far-reaching biography of this seminal and semi-forgotten figure will stimulate new interest in him among students of twentieth-century religious thought and politics.

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic Studies at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.