Martin Buber was born in 1878 in Vienna, Austria. Biographers describe his father, Carl Buber, as either an agronomist or a farmer. It is possible that Carl was both an agricultural consultant and farmer. Martin’s mother, Elise, left the family in 1881. Soon after his mother left, Martin was sent to live with Carl’s parents in the Ukraine, which was a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the time.
Names of Places…
Martin was raised in Lemberg, Galicia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The city was later known as Lviv, Ukraine, within the USSR. As of 2008, the preferred Anglicized name seems to be Lvov, Ukrainian Republic.
Salomon Buber was a noted Jewish scholar with a general interest in all religions. Martin’s grandfather taught the young boy Hebrew and introduced him to Jewish mysticism. The Hasidic community of Galicia had a tradition of Kabbalah, the interpretation of scriptures via ciphers, numerology, and symbolic substitution. Kabbalism fascinated Martin, especially the concept that God could be understood by individuals through dedicated thought.
As a university student, Buber studied art history and philosophy in Leipzig, Zurich, Berlin, and Vienna. During his university studies, Buber read extensively, especially classic German idealism and romanticism of the nineteenth century. Buber’s philosophical views were also shaped by Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1904, Buber received his doctorate; his dissertation topic was German mysticism.
Based on two biographies, it appears Buber married Paula Winkler in 1899, when he was approximately 21 years old. Winkler was a novelist and creative writer, publishing under the name George Mundt (or Georg Munkl). Paula converted to Orthodox Judaism, though it is unclear if she completed the conversion before her marriage to Martin. (Conversion is not a simple process, involving study of Jewish history, rituals, and beliefs.) The Barth’s would have two children: Rafael and Eva.
Early Embrace of Zionism
Zionism was embraced by a relatively small percentage of Jewish believers. Many Jewish Europeans were secular, especially at the start of the twentieth century. There was not a mass migration to Israel, but a significant migration nonetheless.
Zionism, the belief that Jewish people should return to historical Israel, was already controversial at the close of the nineteenth century. Small numbers of European Jews had started to migrate to region, usually buying small plots of land on which to settle.
As a student, Buber embraced the Zionist movement organized by Theodore Herzl. The goals of the Zionists varied, with some seeking a Jewish-Palestinean state where British Palestine was. The more radical Zionists, including Buber, dreamed of a Jewish state defined by the religious beliefs of its residents. Buber called for more than a return to Israel, but a return to the spiritual and cultural roots of Judaism. Nationalism was insufficient, according to Buber. Instead, Jewish people needed to be united by common beliefs, not simply their heritage.
As editor of Die Welt, a Zionist publication, Buber argued in editorials that faith was essential to the Zionist movement. However, in 1901 the Fifth Zionist Congress rejected the concept of a purely religious Israel, instead calling for a secular state that recognized the Jewish faith. European nations often have an “official faith” to this day, even if few citizens are actively religious. This seems to be the model most Zionists sought in the early movement.
Upset that Zionists did not share his enthusiasm for a nation based on Judaism, and unwilling to embrace even a moderately secular Zionism, Buber withdrew from participation in Zionist groups. He focused his energies on teaching Jews about Judaism, wanting to bring about a spiritual renewal among European Jews.
Buber had been deeply influenced by his grandfather, so it is little wonder that when he dedicated himself to religious studies that Martin Buber would begin with Hasidism’s place within the greater Jewish traditions. Buber found Hasidism and its communal approach to living an fascinating paradox: individual dedication to God resulted in group dedication to the community.
No brief discussion of Hasidism can explain both Judaic and Hasidic traditions. Reading Buber’s works is best done with some knowledge of Judaism and its history.
However, Buber did think that Hasidism in Europe was drifting away from traditional values. As a result, Buber decided to study the writings of the Hasidic sects founder, Baal-Shem-Tov (Israel ben Eliezer), who lived and wrote during the eighteenth century (27 August 1698 – 22 May 1760). In addition to Baal-Shem-Tov, Buber studied the works of Nachman ben Simcha, the great grandson of Hasidism’s founder.
Hasidic tradition is based on establishing a direct, personal relationship with God. The personal connection to the Creator is the primary purpose of religion, according to Hasidic teachings. One studies scriptures and Jewish history not to master the information, but as ways to appreciate God. From its founding, Hasidism embraced music, dance, poetry, and other forms of self-expression as valuable ways to communicate with God.
Many Orthodox Jews, especially the rabbinical scholars, were appalled by Hasidism. Rabbinical tradition values learning and adherence to legalistic “rationalism” within the Jewish faith. Dancing and singing? Not when one should be memorizing scripture and chanting only traditional Jewish prayers. Hasidism was declared heresy by some rabbis.
While traditional Orthodox leaders rejected Hasidism, and many rejected faith-based Zionism, Buber thought both the Hasidic and Zionist movements would contribute to a renewal within the Jewish faith. It should be noted that a Christian “Revival” movement was also occurring between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, this movement included Social Gospel proponents, embracing socialist politics. Buber was proposing much the same within Judaism.
Buber decided to translate all major Hasidic works into modern German. Because Hasidic literature was largely unknown outside the sect, Buber’s effort made these texts available to many scholars outside the Jewish community for the first time. In 1906, The Tales of Rabbi Nachman were published in Berlin. Two years later, in 1908, Buber’s The Legend of the Baal-Shem was published.
While translating and editing collections of Hasidic literature, Buber was also translating and commenting on literatures of other religions. This knowledge of others faiths, Christianity in particular, increased Buber’s reputation as a religious scholar.
Before World War I, Buber traveled Europe and delivered a series of influential speeches on Judaism. The earliest, and best known, of these speeches were included in the 1911 text Drei Reden ueber das Judentum. Looking back with the benefit of a century, these writings are easy to misread as nationalistic or supremacist. Buber was actually influenced by the German neo-romantic (volk) movement. His comments on the unique nature of Jews and their link to Palestine was not a dismissal of other faiths or ethnicities, but rather an attempt to rekindle a “Jewish pride.” Unfortunately, translation from the German make Buber’s speeches read like statements of Jewish superiority.
Zionism has been equated with racism, and this is an ongoing debate. However, since one can convert to Judaism, and all religions consider adherents the only “right” believers… isn’t all religion inherently prejudiced? Buber struggled with this question later in life.
From 1916 to 1924, Buber was the editor of Der Jude. This was an openly pro-Zionist publication, though it was primarily interested in promoting Jewish traditions and values. Buber’s support for Zionism was based not merely on Jewish scripture, but also on a conviction that even Hasidism and ultra-Orthodox movements had failed to revive Judaism in Europe. Within the pages of Der Jude it was argued that separation from Europe was needed to rekindle a sense of community and obligation among Jews. Legal, territorial independence was viewed as a way to achieve that social segregation.
Philosophy of Dialogue
Though he was dedicated to Judaism, Buber consistently reached out to people of all faiths. He strongly desired a “philosophy of dialogue” that would encourage sharing insights into the nature of humanity and its relationship with God. In Orthodox Judaism, tasks are ritualized to make even routine tasks significant. Hasidic Jews call this “hallowing the everyday.” Buber thought this desire to see God in everything was not uniquely Jewish — rather, it was human.
Faith, and not only the Jewish faith, was about communal and personal commitments to the Creator. To have faith was to actively define yourself, to engage in acts of faith. Active self-definition is core within existentialism, including the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard. Buber also connected the radical self-definition of Friedrich Nietzsche to religious existentialism.
His 1913 text Daniel explored conflict between the scientific, objective view of the world and the phenomenological experience of the world. This text appealed to Jewish and Christian theologians, as well as philosophers, because Buber dared to ask questions many had but were not expressing before the two World Wars. What if science failed to help humanity find meaning? What if facts and observational data cannot answer some questions?
In 1926 Buber helped co-found the religious journal Die Kreatur. He co-edited the journal with Joseph Wittig, a Catholic theologian, and Viktor von Weizsaecker, a Protestant, for approximately four years. His work at Die Kreatur and his speeches on faith resulted in routine correspondence with Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Based on these experiences working with Christian theologians, Buber would publish Two Types of Faith in 1952.
Buber’s biblical research led him to conclude that German translations of the Hebrew scriptures were deeply flawed. After World War I he teamed with German Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig to translate the entire Christian Old Testament into German. Though Rosenzweig died in 1929, Buber continued the arduous task, resulting in the publication of Die Schrift in 15 volumes. The translation is noted for its approximation of Hebrew prose. Instead of trying to merely translate the words into modern German, Buber had tried to recreate the feel of the original texts.
His reputation as a scholar resulted in Buber being appointed chair of Jewish philosophy and theology at the University of Frankfurt, a post he held from 1923 until 1933. The National Socialists removed Jews from higher education, and most public education, in 1933. However, from 1933 until 1938, Buber was allowed to serve as director of the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education and the non-governmental Frankfurter Juedische Lehrhaus, a free college for German Jews.
The United States turned away the SS St. Louis on
4 June 1939, on orders of President Roosevelt, as the ship was anchored
between Florida and Cuba. The ship carried more than 900 Jewish passengers
on this “Voyage of the Damned.” Forced to return to Europe, only 288
of the passengers escaped the Holocaust.
— Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust.
Buber and his family fled Germany in 1938, relocating in Jerusalem. He took a post as a professor of philosophy at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Most Western countries, including the United States, were limiting Jewish immigration; even many Jews opposed to Zionism fled to the Middle East.
Buber never completely abandoned his faith-based belief that Israel was a Holy Land, one linked to members of the Jewish faith by the Creator. But even before Israel declared independence, Buber was starting to suggest the nation could only succeed if it embraced some humanistic values. In 1942, Buber wrote:
[There is] Jewish nationalism which regards Israel as a nation like unto other nations, and recognizes no task for Israel save that of preserving and asserting itself. But no nation in the world has this as its only task, for just as an individual who wishes merely to preserve and assert himself leads an unjustified and meaningless existence, so a nation with no other aim deserves to pass away.
— Ha-Ruah veha-Metziut; Buber
Buber, the Zionist, became an advocate for two autonomous states or provinces within a greater Jewish-Arab national boundary. Working with Hebrew University chancellor Judah Magnes, Buber helped draft a formal proposal to Jewish leaders advocating “two states within a state” in 1946. The term “binanational” has also been used to describe this proposal.
Israel declared independence in 1948. The complicated history of Israel is evidence that even history is a matter of both facts and human perspectives. A history of the region is, thankfully, largely beyond the scope of this discussion of Martin Buber. What is relevant is that Buber was appointed the director of the Institute for Adult Education in Jerusalem, a special school dedicated to preparing teachers throughout Israel to deal with the burgeoning number of immigrants.
Living in Israel, Buber came to admire the kibbutz movement. Always a dedicated socialist, the communal nature of kibbutz living appealed to Buber. He imagined such communal relations forming across Jewish-Arab identities and never stopped advocating for a greater, global socialism.
By 1950, Buber was speaking out vigorously to defend the civil and political rights of Arabs within Israel. Buber recognized the minority status of Palestinians within the new nation would be a problem in the future if the rights of all citizens were not protected.
In 1953 Buber was awarded the Goethe Prize, a German literary honor. Two years later, he received the German Book Trade Association Peace Prize for advocating reconciliation. Buber never held the German people responsible for World War II, instead considering the war a result of many factors.
Paula Buber died in 1958. Martin continued lecturing and writing, increasingly trying to reach across religious and ethnic lines.
When Buber died in 1965, Arab students placed a wreath at his memorial. Two years later, the very tensions Buber feared would be realized as the 1967 Six-Day War.