Making Sense of Martin Buber

January 6, 2020 | Yoav Schaefer
About the author:

One of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Martin Buber was an important force behind Germany’s “Jewish renaissance” of the early 20th century, which brought German-Jewish intellectuals of largely secular backgrounds into contact with elements of religious tradition in a way very unlike what could be found in either the Reform or Orthodox mainstreams of the era. A new biography of Buber, by Paul Mendes-Flohr, sheds light on the philosopher’s highly unusual and formative childhood, as Yoav Schaefer writes in his review:

Born in Vienna in 1878, Buber suffered a terrible blow three years later when his mother left him and his father to elope with a Russian officer. She left without saying goodbye. Soon after, his father sent him to live with his own parents in Lemberg, in [Austrian-ruled] Galicia (modern-day Lviv, Ukraine). His grandfather Solomon Buber was a wealthy philanthropist and independent scholar of the “science of Judaism,” known for his scholarly editions of classic collections of midrash; his grandmother Adele was an autodidact who took charge of the young Buber’s education and instilled in him a love for languages. Buber became fluent in seven of them—including German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and English—and learned to read several more. He also received a traditional Jewish education, studying classical sources and rabbinic literature with his grandfather and great-uncle, a prominent Talmud scholar.

What the young Buber didn’t receive was anything that could even begin to alleviate what he later described as the “infinite sense of deprivation and loss” with which his mother’s desertion had left him. Indeed, Mendes-Flohr, following Buber himself, attributes much of his lifelong effort to probe the depths of the interpersonal dimension of human life to his childhood experience of abandonment.

At age fourteen, Buber left his grandparents’ home and the largely traditional world in which he had been raised to live with his father, who had remarried. As an adolescent, Buber gravitated, like so many of his contemporaries, toward the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. . . . Buber remained at heart, Mendes-Flohr writes, “an apostle of Zarathustra,” even though he would distance himself from Nietzsche’s teachings later in life.

It was Zionism, Schaefer notes, that first “brought Buber back . . . to his people.” But he eventually migrated to the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am and then to what can only be termed anti-Zionism, while nonetheless spending the last 27 years of his life in Jerusalem. Still, Schaefer calls attention to the moderating forces in Buber’s politics:

Buber’s political radicalism was tempered by the constraints of reality. “I have accepted as mine the state of Israel,” he declared after the state’s establishment in May 1948. “I have nothing in common with those Jews who imagine that they may contest the factual shape which Jewish independence has taken.” Among the mourners [at Buber’s funeral] were . . . Israel’s prime minister, Levi Eshkol, who delivered one of the eulogies, and its president, Zalman Shazar, who was a pallbearer.

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