The essays in this volume are drawn from waves of reflection on Martin Buber that swelled in 2015, the year marking one half-century since his death. One of the most towering figures in modern Jewish thought, Buber’s religious, philosophical, and political writings on topics ranging from the Hebrew Bible and Christianity to Hasidism, Zionism, and Existentialism attracted remarkably diverse audiences throughout the world. To this day, Buber means many different things to many different people, and the book before you is designed to exhibit the ramified nature of this legacy.
The first four essays pertain to Buber’s dialogues with Christianity. Elliot Wolfson (University of California, Santa Barbara) employs Buber’s notion of “theomania” to offer a penetrating analysis of Buber’s thought with special attention to the influence of Meister Eckhart on him. Wolfson meditates particularly on how both thinkers navigated the philosophical-cum-theological conundrum of representing a divinity that exceeds all representation, highlighting paradoxical relations between presence and absence, image and invisibility, faith and atheism. As a philosopher with expertise in the history of religions, Wolfson engages carefully with Buber’s discussions of Kabbalah and Hasidism, identifying what is most subversive in his representations of these manifestations of the Jewish mystical tradition, while also drawing parallels between Buber’s distinctive views and much overlooked positions in both Eckhart and the history of Jewish mysticism. Shaul Magid (Indiana University) then identifies striking affinities between Buber’s depictions of Jesus and the Ba‘al Shem Tov, suggesting that Buber cast the founder of Hasidism as one who sought to revive and revolutionize the primordial religiosity of Jesus that had been eclipsed by what Buber saw as Pauline and Rabbinic deviations from biblical faith. For Magid, Buber’s Hasidism presents a “meaningful convergence” between Judaism and Christianity that gestures beyond the very category of “religion.” Shifting to the Christian reception of Buber across the Atlantic, W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago Divinity School) reflects both personally and historically on why, exactly, American Christian theologians embraced Buber’s writings so ardently in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, Gilpin recalls that in his own Protestant seminary training between 1967–1970, Buber was one of the only theologians whom virtually all of his peers read outside of course assignments. In the post-war era, Gilpin suggests, when modernity’s grand promises of moral progress and social justice were cast into doubt, Buber offered a religiously grounded concept of self that was neither solitary withdrawal from society nor passive acquiescence to prevailing social systems—a middle way that H. Richard Niebuhr termed “companionable being.” Finally, Christoph Schmidt (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) offers an incisive analysis of Buber’s portrayal of Christian versus Jewish faith. Buber differentiated famously between what he saw as the original faith of Jesus the person and the later Pauline faith in Jesus Christ—and while Buber identified the former with dialogical Hebrew trust (emunah), he identified the latter with doctrinal Greek-Christian belief (pistis). Schmidt contends, however, that this distinction amounts to no less than Buber’s own “diagnosis” of modernity, as the dichotomy corresponds to opposed visions of political life and the place of religion therein. For Buber, whereas Paul’s type of faith buttressed contemporary political theologies directed toward the sovereign power of the state, Jesus’s faithfulness gestured toward an anarchist theopolitics in service of genuine community. Schmidt situates Buber’s views in their turbulent intellectual historical context, drawing conclusions about Buber’s relation to Christianity that are at once illuminating and provocative.
The next four essays in the volume deal with Buber’s political thought. Samuel Brody (University of Kansas) evaluates the reception—or lack thereof—of Buber’s political works, and interrogates the common claim that Buber was a naïve or utopian thinker. Brody contends that this conventional dismissal derives, in part, from the widespread but mistaken assumption that Buber’s political stances were essentially extensions of his philosophy of dialogue. Moreover, through examinations of particular critiques of Buber during his lifetime, as well as close readings of Buber’s political and biblical writings, Brody demonstrates that what may appear to be signs of Buber’s “softness” may actually be precisely some of the most radical and revolutionary aspects of his thought. Subsequently, Judith Butler (University of California, Berkeley) investigates Buber’s visions of binationalism in Israel/Palestine, which have been utterly eclipsed in recent decades of Zionist discourse. The notion of binationalism is, of course, relevant today regarding proposals for “one-state” versus “two-state” solutions. However, with reference to Edward Said, Butler contends that there can be no legitimate or genuinely productive conceptualization of binationalism within the context of settler colonialism. As politically dovish and ethically attuned as Buber may have been compared to mainstream Zionists of his day, Butler concludes, he remained insufficiently sensitive to this reality. With characteristic acuity and vision, Butler exemplifies here what it means to both think with and think beyond Buber. Michael Löwy (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris) then examines in detail what Buber himself identified as the “utopian” element of his thought, namely, his socialism. Through insightful explications of three key documents in Buber’s corpus, Löwy demonstrates what is most innovative, distinctive, and, at times, problematic in Buber’s socialism. Finally, Paul Mendes-Flohr (University of Chicago Divinity School) reflects on Buber’s lifelong courage to be an outsider in the name of what Foucault, following the Greeks, called parrhesia, speaking truth at any cost. Above all, Mendes-Flohr suggests, this courage was evident in Buber’s modes of engagement with Zionism and the incipient State of Israel. From his early involvement with Zionist politics in Europe until his death in Jerusalem in 1965, Buber’s concern for the moral integrity of the movement—particularly with respect to the Arab population in Palestine—led him to take stands that were unpopular, to say the least, among most Zionists. Amidst ongoing inquiries into why Buber was not accepted by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, Mendes-Flohr proposes to shift the focus of the question: “Why did they not accept Buber?”
The third section of essays in this book considers Buber’s dialogues with philosophy and philosophers. Sarah Scott (Manhattan College) challenges the notion that Buber’s well-known shift from mysticism to dialogue was one from aesthetics to ethics. Rather, she claims that Buber’s vision of dialogical encounter involves simply a different type of aesthetics, one that Kant called “taste,” and which, for Buber, requires the subject to be maximally perceptive and present before the dynamic particularities of a given situation. Thus, whereas some of Buber’s critics have insisted that even his later philosophy remains “aesthetic” and thus insubstantial from an ethical standpoint, Scott suggests that moral response may demand, in fact, an appropriate aesthetic orientation. Martina Urban’s contribution then takes us even further into Buber’s aesthetics and ethics, and beyond. Through examining his distinctive approach to one of the most pressing philosophical problems of his generation, namely the foundations and functions of “world images” (Weltbilder), Urban sheds light on the very core of Buber’s philosophical anthropology. Buber was wary of any system or society that absolutized fixed images, but he also appreciated the hermeneutical function and existential value of images. Urban demonstrates with great acumen how he navigated this tension, how he urged for a dialogical alertness to the fundamental “insecurity” of existence whereby people strive continually to realize utopian or religious world images within the protean realness of space and time. Urban also shows how Buber illustrated this approach to the problem of Weltbilder through reference to what he regarded as the prophetic and theopolitical sensibilities of the Hebrew Bible. Philipp von Wussow (Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main) then offers a detailed exposition of the relationship between Buber and the highly influential German-Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss. Although their personal relations were distant and often indirect, Strauss and Buber were keenly aware of one another, and von Wussow outlines ways in which they may have impacted each other’s trajectories. He does not seek to adjudicate on the various disagreements between them but rather to elucidate those clashes in their biographical contexts. Von Wussow’s intriguing analysis focuses primarily on Strauss’s opinions of Buber, reminding us how profoundly the latter’s legacy has been shaped by his admirers and critics alike. Finally, Hans Joas (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) probes the extent to which Buber was actually a foundational figure in the dialogical turn in philosophy and social theory. In fact, Joas points out, only a small minority of social theorists would identify Buber as such. However, Joas indicates that Buber contributed immensely to the development of dialogical thought insofar as he grounded this discourse in religious experience, which not only infused the discussion with an element that Joas deems crucial, but also served to introduce the dynamics of “mundane intersubjectivity” to a far broader audience.
The final four essays in the volume explore Buber’s dialogues with Jewish sources. First, Michael Fishbane (University of Chicago Divinity School) shares a rich meditation on how Buber’s intensive readings of the Hebrew Bible both inspired and illustrated central elements of his oeuvre. A masterful exegete in his own right, Fishbane identifies key Leitwörter or “theme-words” throughout Buber’s biblical corpus and offers thereby a manifestly “Buberian” reading of Buber’s writings. Above all, Fishbane reveals how study and action, hermeneutics and life, were utterly inseparable for Buber. This becomes especially clear through treatments of Buber’s biblical teachings in the 1930s and early-1940s as acts of spiritual resistance amidst the deafening dehumanization of National Socialism. Next, Jonathan Cohen (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) reflects on ways that Buber impacted his own development as a professor and philosopher of education. In particular, Cohen turns to Buber’s Biblical writings as a resource for grasping the role of the teacher in mediating canonical Jewish sources for students. Cohen writes here in an exceptionally personal voice, interweaving thoughts about his own evolving understanding of Buber with anecdotes about his own learning experiences with students while teaching on Buber. As readers, then, we encounter a living example of a contemporary educator whose pedagogy bears deep traces of Buber’s influence. The last two essays of the volume then turn to Buber’s engagement with Hasidic sources. Fumio Ono (Doshisha University, Kyoto) focuses on Buber’s much overlooked novel Gog and Magog, which documents a major dispute between Hasidic leaders and communities over matters of messianism surrounding the Napoleonic wars. Ono offers enlightening literary and philosophical analyses of this work, shedding light on the genre of “chronicle” that Buber attributes to the project, as well as Buber’s complex conception of history that animates the narrative. Moreover, Ono clarifies the shape of the “tragedy” in Buber’s presentation of this episode in Hasidism, drawing our attention to a potent dialectic that Buber located at the heart of religious reality. Finally, Sam Berrin Shonkoff (Oberlin College) investigates the theological dimension of Buber’s phenomenology of dialogue. Although Buber denied consistently that he was a “theologian,” insofar as he repudiated all abstract statements about God, he affirmed nonetheless that concrete events of dialogical encounter in the world manifest or “express,” as it were, theological meaning—even if that meaning remains irreducible to doctrinal content. Shonkoff introduces a concept of “embodied theology” to elucidate this aspect of Buber’s religious thought, and he illustrates it through recourse to Buber’s philosophical writings and essays on Hasidism, and—most significantly—through hermeneutical analyses of Buber’s Hasidic tales.
Each of the essays in this volume was either delivered as a lecture or published in 2015, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Buber’s death. Those by Wolfson, Magid, Gilpin, Brody, Löwy, Scott, and Shonkoff are based on their lectures at the conference “Martin Buber: Philosopher of Dialogue” held at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in October 2015, and these also appeared together in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 25, no. 1 (2017), a special issue on Buber co-edited by Shonkoff and Mendes-Flohr. The essays by Schmidt, Mendes-Flohr, Fishbane, and Cohen are based on their lectures from a symposium on Buber at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in June 2015. Butler’s contribution is based on lectures she delivered at a number of institutions, including the University of California at Irvine and the University of Arizona in 2015, and is reprinted with the author’s permission from Conflicting Humanities, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Paul Gilroy (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). Urban’s essay appeared originally in The Journal of Religion, vol. 95, no. 1 (2015). The contributions by von Wussow and Ono are based on their lectures at the conference “Multiple Dialogues: Martin Buber in Palestine and Israel,” which took place in Jerusalem in May 2015 and was sponsored by the Leo Baeck Institute of Jerusalem, the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Goethe University Frankfurt.
In addition to each of the contributors, I would like to thank Deborah Baker, Meghan Connolly, and Jennifer Pavelko at Brill for their work on this volume. I am grateful as well to Puck Fletcher for their thoughtful construction of the index, and to my teacher Paul Mendes-Flohr for all his words of wisdom along the way.