existential primer

Martin Buber
post-war Zionism meets existentialism

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The aftermath of World War II shaped Western philosophy in unanticipated ways. Martin Buber was both a Zionist and a proponent of existential philosophy. He argued for a radical authenticity within the Jewish community, which included a call for greater socialism within Israel. For Buber, the Jewish identity included both individualism and collectivism.

One thing I have learned is that writing about Buber is as difficult as writing on Jean-Paul Sartre or Karl Marx: someone is certain to be offended. Some readers think anything positive is too positive, while others cannot bear to have a favorite thinker even slightly doubted. Buber was a Zionist, but he was much more than that. Hopefully, those stumbling into these words will open a dialogue with Martin Buber’s words.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


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.

Religious Scholarship

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.

Like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Buber found religion, social justice, and existential philosophy to be complementary. Buber sought to explain these connections through his scholarship.

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.

Exploring ‘Jewishness’

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?

Between Wars

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.

Final Years

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.


There are conflicting biographies of Martin Buber. As a result, some dates are uncertain. Also, German to English transliterations vary, even when starting with the same source material. When dates are not in dispute, translators could not agree on issues of basic translation or spelling. I hope to standardize the entire Existential Primer at some point, with German spellings paired with the English to reduce confusion.

1878 February 8 Born in Vienna to agronomist Carl Buber and his wife Elise.
1881 (?) Mother leaves family, Martin sent to live with his grandparents in Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine).
1899 Marries novelist Paula Winckler (or Winkler), who converts to Judaism.
1901 Becomes editor of the Zionist weekly Die Welt (The World).
1901 Resigns from Die Welt; Buber drifts towards more radical, non-diplomatic Zionism opposed to British rule of Palestine.
1916 Founds the monthly magazine Der Jude (The Jew). Advocates Jewish-Arab cooperation to fight for independence from British rule in the Middle East.
1904 Presents doctoral dissertation, relating to mystics, art, and culture.
1923 – 1933 Professor of comparative religion at University of Frankfurt.
1926 – 1930 Editor of Die Kreatur, a quarterly journal on religious studies.
1927 Publishes Chassidischen Bücher, a study of the Hasidic Jewish tradition in Eastern Europe.
1933 November Named head of Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus (the Free Jewish Academy) in Frankfurt.
1933 or 1934 Made director of the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, an office supposedly in charge of Jewish adult education and teacher retraining in Nazi Germany. (Buber’s goal was to protect the teachers.)
1938 ? Flees Germany for British Palestine.
1938 – 1951 Professor of social philosophy, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
1949 Founds the Teachers Training College for Adult Education in Jerusalem. This is also translated as the Institute for Adult Education in some biographies.
1949 Paths to Utopia is published, a defense of Jewish communes and socialism.
1951 Retires from Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
1958 Paula Barth dies.
1965 June 13 Dies in Jerusalem.



Religion and Philosophy

Martin Buber was a religious philosopher, not merely a philosopher of religion. His personal choices and experiences shaped his writings. His inclusion among existential thinkers is primarily due to the influence of Søren Kierkegaard’s existential view of Christianity. The Hasidic movement also influenced Buber, with its unique form of Orthodox Jewish faith.

Buber’s only novel, Foe the Sake of Heaven, is set in a Russian Hasidic community during the Napoleonic wars. The work is marked by the inclusion of elements from traditional Hasidic and existential philosophy.

Buber was shaped by historical circumstances. His emigration from Austria to Israel was both reflective of and influential on his philosophy. Buber attempted to reconcile, through his actions and teachings, his roles as educator, Zionist activist, and communitarian socialist. In many ways, Buber was a reflection of the European “intellectual left” throughout his life.

I and Thou (1923)

Buber’s I and Thou is based on the belief in a direct, personal dialogue between God and each individual. Though Buber is not widely read, the influence of this work is apparent in many Judaic and Christian theological works.

Though composed from a religious perspective, I and Thou has also affected secular moral philosophers and social commentators. This is possible because Buber draws from a range of philosophical sources in the work. The atheistic Friedrich Nietzsche is as essential to Buber’s development of concepts as the Hasidic moral traditions. Despite his interest in the Creator-to-Man relationship, Buber draws attention to human interactions. His theory is that our interactions with others reveal our inner natures. How you act is a direct reflection of what you truly believe.

Buber suggested there were two basic attitudes towards existence: orientation and realization. “Orientation” refers to the utilitarian, objective analysis of objects in the environment for use. One potential use is increasing one’s knowledge of yet more objects. “Realization” refers to the metaphysical, subjective experience of life and one’s inner meaning.

I-It: Objective Orientation

The “I-It” perspective leads an individual to experience life as subject-to-object interactions. The ability to analyze objects in utilitarian terms enables human survival. This is a shallow level of existence, requiring only part of the “I” to operate.

Objects, and more importantly the I of the I-It, exists essentially in the past. Understanding of these things is via existing definitions, knowledge that builds on what can be sensed and shared in the physical world.

I-Thou: Subjective Realization

The “I-Thou” perspective enables the individual to experience life subject-to-subject. The I-Thou requires actively choosing to open yourself to spiritual, metaphysical relations. Buber suggested three forms of spiritual relationships:

Any relationship in the I-Thou requires self-knowledge, a meeting of the self. The self is surrendered to the relationship in order to achieve a more meaningful existence. The I-Thou relationships are exclusive, Buber claimed, suggesting only two subjects at a time could be engaged in a dialogue.

Buber described the I-Thou relationships as timeless; they are in the present and eternal. This is because genuine relationships between subjects reflect the Eternal Thou of Creation (God). This glimpse into the nature of God is extremely complex. According to Buber’s theory, God has endowed humanity with the ability to love others — it is God’s love and our consciousness of that love that give rise to this ability. The “Thou” consciousness of the other individual is also essential. Two creations of God, created in love, can love each other… bringing each individual closer to God.

According to Buber, a basic “tragedy” of human existence is that I-Thou relationship is doomed to be reduced to an I-It relationship. All forms of spiritual expression and awareness, from the human arts to nature itself, are reduced to “its” by our minds. We, sentient beings, seek explanations and understanding. As a result, we analyze and define, quantifying the very things given to us by spirituality. The Eternal Thou relationship is never fully realized in life, especially in a scientific and technological society.

There is some discussion among scholars whether Buber considered the I-Thou primary. It seems clear he does, since the I-Thou is the model for all other relationships. It is the template from which all other interactions are supposed to be based.

Free Will

Buber explained that I-Thou relationships require both free will, an intentional choice to interact and empathize with the other, and an act of grace by the individual or spiritual element accepting the relationship. The Eternal Thou, Creation, is always willing to establish a relationship — God is Grace.

Extending grace to others, accepting people despite their flawed nature, demonstrates to God that you are trying to live according to His model.

Men do not find God if they stay in the world. They do not find him if they leave the world. He who goes out with his whole being to meet his Thou, and carries to it all being that is in the world, finds him who cannot be sought.
I and Thou; Buber

What gives meaning to existence is the choice, the freely taken leap of faith, to offer grace to all humanity and all nature to be closer to the Creator. According to Buber, evil can be indecision or a purposeful decision to refuse grace and love to other part of creation. To not care is as evil, in Buber’s view, as to intentionally do harm. Both are a choice, an act of free will.

Buber considered free will more than the application of rules and rigid systems. Because human-created ethical systems are inherently flawed, every moral choice is personal, even when we begin with the norms of a society. Laws and regulations are not always “right,” so free will expressing the I-Thou properly might disregard social norms.

Kant and Morality

Some suggest that Buber’s I-Thou, the suggestion that we must offer grace to all creation, is a restatement of Kant’s Categorical Imperative: others should never be treated as a means to an end. Buber wrote that man does not exist alone, but as “man-with-man” (meaning all humanity coexists), so grace is essential to a functioning society. God, according to Buber, knew this situation would force humanity to either practice grace or suffer horribly.

In this theory, suffering is the result of poor choices. Suffering is the result of not offering grace; it is a failure to follow the design of Creation.

Religious Scholarship

Buber composed a series of texts on Hasidism and biblical interpretation. He also translated Hebrew scriptures into an acclaimed German edition. Buber’s religious works include Tales of the Hasidim (two volumes), The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, and Hasidism and Modern Man. Throughout his works, Buber tried to explore how traditional religious views could be applied to modern existence. Meaning is to be found in the interactions between the individual and God, the I-Thou relationship defined by scriptures.

In his text Daniel, published a decade before I and Thou, Buber first discussed orientation and realization.

Threats to Faith

For Buber, the rapid ascendance of science and technology presented a challenge to faith. Biblical faith was reasonable and defensible, according to Buber, but faith was under attack by those offering false alternatives. Judaism and Christianity were also assaulted by legalistic distortions of the laws within scriptures.

Buber recognized that most people sought a minimally demanding faith — an almost effortless path to Creation. But, Buber rejected this notion of faith; God demands the totality of the individual, every choice must be an effort to live according to God’s rules. To do the will of God, while a choice, is the duty of the truly devout person. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be God-like, so the devout constantly dread or fear making bad choices. Dread or fear is at the core of human existence, according to Buber, if one is trying to live the best life.

Politics and Philosophy

Buber described himself as a “communitarian socialist,” linking his political views to his religious and philosophical beliefs. The American Social Gospel movement, which included Reinhold Niebuhr, also linked religion and socialism. The Jewish kibbutzes, communal farms in Palestine-Israel, were a model of the ideal socialism to Buber and many others. Buber developed his political views in the 1949 work Paths in Utopia.

With research revealing small, homogeneous populations are key to communal social structures, questions have been raised about socialism and larger populations — such as heterogeneous nations.

In the kibbutz, the individuals cooperate while being unified by their religious devotion. The small populations of kibbutzes enabled the members to effectively bond and support each other. Research has found small populations are key to the success of such communal groups, allowing members to know each other personally (see The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell).

Buber imagined a “community of communities” loosely connected, in effect a decentralized society. Importantly, Buber recognized the balance between local and central control would constantly shift, and he made no claim to know what the ideal balance was to prevent disastrous tensions.

Individualism understands only a part of man, collectivism understands man only as a part: neither advances to the wholeness of man. Individualism sees man only in relation to himself, but collectivism does not see man at all; it sees “society.”
Between Man and Man; Buber


You must yourself begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself… . Meet the world with the fullness of your being, and you shall meet God…. If you wish to believe, love.
At the Turning


Any time you only have two sources, you don’t have enough to really appreciate what has been written about someone like Martin Buber. However, I fear that Buber and many other thinkers are being forgotten, as if the events leading to the founding of Israel are ancient history. Even a small paperback biography is hard to locate — and expensive.

Biemann, Asher; The Martin Buber Reader (New York: Macmillan, 2002)

Buber, Martin, and Kaufmann, Walter Arnold; I and Thou (New York: Scribner, 1970)

Friedman, Mauric; Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (London: Routledge, 2002)

Schmidt, Gilya Gerda; Martin Buber’s Formative Years: From German Culture to Jewish Renewal (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1995)

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