Defining Christianity and Judaism from the Perspective of Religious Anarchy

Martin Buber on Jesus and the Ba‘al Shem Tov

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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This essay explores Martin Buber’s rendering of Jesus and the Ba‘al Shem Tov as two exemplars of religious anarchism that create a lens through which to see the symmetry between Judaism and Christianity. The essay argues that Buber’s use of Jesus to construct his view of the Ba‘al Shem Tov enables us to revisit the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity through the category of the religious anarchist.

Defining Christianity and Judaism from the Perspective of Religious Anarchy

Martin Buber on Jesus and the Ba‘al Shem Tov

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy




See for example Daniel BoyarinBorderlines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press2006). Cf. Jacob Neusner William S. Green and Ernest Frerichs Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era (Atlanta GA: Scholars Press 1987); and Shaye Cohen The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries Varieties Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press 2001).


See Leora BatnitzkyHow Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press2013).


Seth SchwartzImperialism and Jewish Society from 200 BCE to 640 CE (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press2001) 179. Cf. Brent Nongbri “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope” Numen 55 (2008): 440–460.


Daniel Boyarin“Semantic Differences; or, ‘Judaism’/‘Christianity,’ ” in The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Agesed. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress2007) 7071.


Daniel Boyarin“Beyond Judaisms: Metatron and the Divine Polymorphy of Ancient Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 41 (2010): 360. Newer research focuses on the local as opposed to the categorical that is what Jews and Christians may have thought about who they were and what they were doing instead of using categories that may have been foreign to them. On this see Annette Yoshiko Reed “Parting Ways over Blood and Water?: Beyond ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ in the Roman Near East” unpublished paper 1–5. I want to thank Professor Reed for making this paper available before its publication.


Annette Yoshiko Reed and Adam H. Becker“Introduction: Traditional Models and New Directions,” in The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Agesed. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis: Fortress2007) 16.


Ibid.22emphasis mine.


Daniel BoyarinThe Jewish Gospel (New York: New Press2012) 1.


Most recently see Matthew HoffmanFrom Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press2007). Cf. George Berlin Defending the Faith: Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Writings on Jesus and Christianity (Albany: SUNY Press 1989); E. P. Sanders The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books 1993); Geza Vermes Jesus in His Jewish Context (Minneapolis MN: Fortress 2003); Amy-Jill Levine The Misunderstood Jew (New York: HarperOne 2006); Stephen Prothero American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux 2003) 229–266; Paula Fredriksen Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Vintage 1999); Jacob Neusner A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (New York: Doubleday 1993); Susannah Heschel Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1998); and idem The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 2008).


See for example Steven Frankel“The Invention of Liberal Theology: Spinoza’s Theological-Political Analysis of Moses and Jesus,” Review of Politics 63 no. 2 (2001): 287–315.


Martin BuberMoses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York: Harper Torchbooks1958) 123.


On the Brenner affair see Nurit GovrinMe’orah Brenner: Ha-Ma’avaq al-Ḥofesh ha-Biṭui (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi1985); Hoffman From Rebel to Rabbi 90–116.


Pinchas LapideIsraelis Jews and Jesus (New York: Doubleday1979).


For some examples see Samuel SandmelA Jewish Understanding of the New Testament (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight2004); E. P. Sanders Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis MN: Fortress 2004).


Patti SmithJust Kids (New York: Ecco2010) 247.


Martin BuberTwo Types of Faith: A Study of the Interpenetration of Judaism and Christianity (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press; London: Eurospan2003) 99. Cf. ibid. 154: “The immediacy of the whole man is directed toward the whole God that which is revealed in him and that which is hidden. It is the form in which Pharisaic Judaism by its doctrine of the middot renewed the Old Testament Emunah the great trust in God as He is in God be He as He may.” Buber places what he calls Pharisaic Judaism in opposition to Paul although for Buber this pure Pharisaism is not what filters down into contemporary Judaism via Halakhah or Kabbalah. In a 1917 letter to Gustav Landauer Buber asks Landauer to reconsider his critique of the Pharisees in an essay Landauer submitted for publication in Der Jude. Buber writes “I grant you the term [Pharisee] is established and unmistakable; but don’t you think that we Jews should not go along with this tendentious distortion of a concept by the Evangelists at least not when Jewish matters are under discussion so that the real historical Pharisees are inadvertently associated with the term?” The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue ed. Nahum N. Glazer and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York: Schocken 1991) 208.


BuberTwo Types of Faith12.


See Malcolm DiamondMartin Buber Jewish Existentialist (New York: Oxford University Press1960) 174. There were accusations that his depiction of the Yehudi ha-Qodesh (R. Ya‘akov Yosef Rabinowitz of Pryzuscha) in his novel For the Sake of Heaven had a Christian bias. See Grete Schaeder The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press 1993) 393. Buber also refers to Jesus as “the great Nazarene” in his preface to his early work The Legend of the Baal Shem Tov (1908; repr. New York: Harper and Brothers 1955) xi. Yet he seems quite clear about his feelings for Jesus when he writes in his open letter to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939 “I would not deny however that although I should not have been among the crucifiers of Jesus I should also not have been among his supporters. For I cannot help withstanding evil when I see that it is about to destroy the good.” The Letters of Martin Buber 485.


See Kenneth Kramer“Rehearing Buber’s Jesus Deepens Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44 no. 4 (2009): 617–643.


BuberTwo Types of Faith162. Cf. the discussion in Shaeder The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber 399–405.


Donald Berry“Buber’s View of Jesus as Brother,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 14 no. 2 (1977): 211. On Buber’s belief in Zionism as having the ability to unify the Orient and the Occident see Schaeder The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber 134 135.


Gilya Gerda SchmidtMartin Buber’s Formative Years (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press1995) 97.


BuberTwo Types of Faith173–174. Buber hoped that even as Christians remained wedded to their narrative about Jesus Judaism’s openness (facilitated by Buber’s own writings) would enable them to more readily view themselves as companions and not opponents of Jews. See Donald Berry Mutuality: The Vision of Martin Buber (Albany: SUNY Press 1985) 87.


For a discussion of this see Max Brod“Judaism and Christianity in Buber’s Work,” in The Philosophy of Martin Bubered. Paul Arthur Schilpp and Maurice Friedman (La Salle, IL: Open Court1967) 339340. Earlier in that essay Brod notes “Buber admits however that in Judaism there were strong elements comparable to pistis and conversely in Christianity there were components of the personal emunah. The boundaries are not rigidly fixed nor must the common elements be overlooked” (327).


BuberTwo Types of Faith62.


Martin Buber“Redemption,” in The Origin and Meaning of Hasidismed. and trans. Maurice Friedman (New York: Horizon1960) 205.


BuberTwo Types of Faith58 59. On this see Boyarin The Jewish Gospels 43: “In this sense the theological controversy that we think exists between Jews and Christians was already an intra-Jewish controversy long before Jesus.”


BuberTwo Types of Faith79.


Martin BuberVom Geist des Judentums (Leipzig: Kurt Wollf Verlag1916) 94. The Hebrew version can be found in Mordecai Martin Buber Te‘udah ve-Yi‘ud (Jerusalem: Ha-Sifrut Ha-Ziyonit 1963) 1:88. The italicized phrase does not appear in the English translation of this essay that appeared in Buber “Myth and Judaism” in On Judaism ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken 1967) 107.


BialeNot in the Heavens152. Another good example of the counterhistory hypothesis albeit not labeled as such can be found in Isaac Deutscher’s “The Non-Jewish Jew” in idem “The Non-Jewish Jew” and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press 1968) 25–41.


For a further distinction see Brod“Judaism and Christianity in Buber’s Work” 325.


BuberTwo Types of Faith29.


Martin Buber“The Altar,” in Pointing the Way: Collected Essaysed. and trans. Maurice Friedman (New York: Harper and Brothers1957) 18.


Buber“Spinoza” 109 110. For a sustained critique of Buber’s assessment of Ḥasidism see Gellman “Buber’s Blunder.”


Martin Buber“Judaism and Mankind,” in On Judaismed. Nahum N. Glazer (New York: Schocken1967) 3233. In “The Holy Way” (1918) Buber already refers to Jesus as a figure of “realization” quite similar to the way he referred to the Ba‘al Shem Tov in 1908. “The Holy Way” in On Judaism 122–124. I want to thank Martin Kavka for bringing this reference to my attention. It is interesting to note that this citation from Luke and reference to Jesus does not appear in the Hebrew translation of “Judaism and Mankind.” See Mordecai Martin Buber: Te‘udah ve-Yi‘ud 1:37.


Buber“Spinoza” 93.




Buber“Judaism and Mankind” 32.


Buber“Spinoza” 96.




BalthasarMartin Buber and Christianity53.


Buber“Spinoza” 109.


Buber“Judaism and Mankind” 111.


Martin Buber“Christ, Hasidism, Gnosis,” in The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism (New York: Horizon1960) 247248.


Buber“Christ Hasidism Gnosis” 249. For the pejorative description of Kabbalah as gnostic and the distinction between Kabbalah and Ḥasidism see Buber “Symbolic and Sacramental Existence” in The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism 174–178. Buber’s consistent negative assessment of the gnostic in favor of a kind of panentheism should be understood in light of the gnostic-pantheistic debates of early twentieth-century Germany in which he participated. See Benjamin Lazier God Interrupted (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 2008) 93–110.


Buber“Christ Hasidism Gnosis” 252. See Martin Buber “Jewish Mysticism” in idem The Tales of Rabbi Nachman trans. Maurice Friedman (Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press International 1988) 10. The original Die Geschichten des Rabbi Nachman was published in 1906. On Ḥasidism as “hallowing the everyday” see Buber The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism 180–181; and more generally in idem Hasidism and Modern Man trans. Maurice Friedman (Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press International 2000) 171–216.


See David NovakJewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification (New York: Oxford University Press1989) 81 82. Cf. p. 83: “What Buber vigorously rejects however is the ordering of the present I-thou relationship with God by the structure of the law which can only be from the past.


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