Theolatry and the Making-Present of the Nonrepresentable

Undoing (A)Theism in Eckhart and Buber

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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In this essay, I place Buber’s thought in dialogue with Eckhart. Each understood that the theopoetic propensity to imagine the transcendent in images is no more than a projection of our will to impute form to the formless. The presence of God is made present through imaging the real, but imaging the real implies that the nonrepresentable presence can only be made present through the absence of representation. The goal of the journey is to venture beyond the Godhead in light of which all personalistic depictions of the divine person are rendered idolatrous. Perhaps this is the most important implication of Eckhart’s impact on Buber, an insight that may still have theopolitical implications in a world where too often personifications of the God beyond personification are worshipped at the expense of losing contact with an absolute person that cannot be personified absolutely.

Theolatry and the Making-Present of the Nonrepresentable

Undoing (A)Theism in Eckhart and Buber

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy



Cyril O’ReganThe Heterodox Hegel (Albany: State University of New York Press1994) 250–263.


Michael Löwy“Romantic Prophets of Utopia: Gustav Landauer and Martin Buber,” in Gustav Landauer: Anarchist and Jewed. Paul Mendes-Flohr and Anya Mali in collaboration with Hanna Delf von Wolzogen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter2015) 65.


Raymond B. BlakneyMeister Eckhart: A Modern Translation (New York: Harper & Brothers1941) xiii. More contemporary with Buber we think for instance of Heidegger whose early study of Eckhart influenced his reflections on the nothing (das Nichts) and the notion of releasement (Gelassenheit). Previous works that have contributed to this discussion are John D. Caputo “Meister Eckhart and the Later Heidegger: The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought: Part One” Journal ofthe History of Philosophy 12 (1974): 479–494; idem “Meister Eckhart and the Later Heidegger: The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought: Part Two” Journal of the History of Philosophy 13 (1975): 61–80; idem The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought (Athens: Ohio University Press 1978); Holger Helting Heidegger und Meister Eckehart: Vorbereitende Überlegungen zu ihrem Gottesdenken (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot 1997); Sonya Sikka Forms of Transcendence: Heidegger and Medieval Mystical Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press 1997); Bret W. Davis Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to Gelassenheit (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press 2007).


Miklós VassányiAnima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy (Dordrecht: Springer2011).


Martin Buber“Bücher, die jetzt und immer zu lessen sind,” Wiener Kunst- und Buchschau 9–10 (1914): 7 cited in Martina Urban Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2008) 18.


UrbanAesthetics of Renewal18–19. The use of the adjective “heretical” is not without complication both in Eckhart’s time and through the centuries up until the present. Eckhart was accused of heresy by the church authorities of his time since some of his ideas were deemed to be dangerous to orthodox dogma but that is not conclusive proof of their dissenting or sacrilegious nature. Closer to the bone as it were is the observation of Blakney: “Eckhart was a breaker of shells not as an iconoclast breaks them but as life breaks its shells by its own resurgent power.” Blakney Meister Eckhart xiv. See however p. xx where the author writes about Eckhart “moving toward heresy a heresy of degree if not of idea” and p. xxi where he writes that the “passionate radicalism of his application of the dogma of the God-man” was enough to make “him a heretic that is to say one dangerous to the church as an institution.” Invoking a distinction made by Wittgenstein we would say there is a world of difference between bending the branch and breaking it. See Ludwig Wittgenstein Culture and Value ed. Georg Henrik Von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyman trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980) 1 cited and discussed in Elliot R. Wolfson Venturing Beyond: Law and Ethics in Kabbalistic Mysticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006) 241. Availing myself of the Wittgensteinian language I would say that Eckhart was a master at bending the tree without allowing it to break. This might serve as a caution against the offensive use made of Eckhart as we discover in the hands of some exponents of National Socialism who saw in him the basis for their own nihilism and atheism. See Blakney Meister Eckhart xv.


UrbanAesthetics of Renewal18. See also Yossef Schwartz “The Politicization of the Mystical in Buber and His Contemporaries” in New Perspectives on Martin Buber ed. Michael Zank (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2006) 205–218.


Schwartz“Gustav Landauer” 175.


Gustav LandauerSkepsis und Mystik: Versuche Anschluβ an Mauthners Sprachkritik (Münster: Büchse der Pandora1978) 47 translated in Schwartz “Gustav Landauer” 175 n. 9.




LandauerSkepsis und Mystik47–48. See Mendes-Flohr From Mysticism to Dialogue 133 n. 21.




LunnProphet of Community154.


Gustav Landauer“Sind das Ketzergedanken?,” in Vom Judentum: Ein Sammelbuch (Leipzig: K. Wolff1913) 253.


Ibid. 254 translated in Schwartz“Gustav Landauer” 182.


Mendes-FlohrFrom Mysticism to Dialogue57–58. See as well Lunn Prophet of Community 146.


Sarah K. Pinnock“Holocaust, Mysticism, and Liberation after the Death of God: The Significance of Dorothee Soelle,” in Resurrecting the Death of God: The Origins Influence and Return of Radical Theologyed. Daniel J. Peterson and G. Michael Zbaraschuk (Albany: State University of New York Press2014) 98.


LunnProphet of Community153; Schwartz “Gustav Landauer” 174.


LandauerSkepsis und Mystik1. I have used the translation in Landauer Revolution 94. See Schwartz “Gustav Landauer” 190.




Gershom WeilerMauthner’s Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1970) 293; Paul Mendes-Flohr “Editor’s Introduction” in Buber Ecstatic Confessions xv.


LandauerSkepsis und Mystik6. The passage is translated into English by Mendes-Flohr in Buber Ecstatic Confessions xv. Compare the analysis of Mauthner’s view on language in Lunn Prophet of Community 155–157.


BuberEcstatic Confessions5; Ekstatische Konfessionen 54.


BuberEcstatic Confessions5–6; Ekstatische Konfessionen 54–55.


BuberEcstatic Confessions153; Ekstatische Konfessionen 208.


Dagmar Gottschall“Eckhart and the Vernacular Tradition: Pseudo-Eckhart and Eckhart Legends,” in A Companion to Meister Eckharted. Jeremiah M. Hackett (Leiden: Brill2012) 549–550. See also Franz-Josef Schweitzer Die Freiheitsbegriff der deutschen Mystik: Seine Beziehung zur Ketzerei der “Brüder und Schwestern vom Freien Geist” mit besonderer Rücksicht auf den pseudoeckartischen Traktat “Schwester Katrei” (Frankfurt am Main: Peter D. Lang 1981); Raoul Vaneigem The Movement of the Free Spirit trans. Randall Cherry and Ian Peterson (New York: Zone Books 1994) 149–152; Barbara Newman From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1995) 172–181; E. D. Sylla “Swester Katrei and Gregory of Rimini: Angels God and Mathematics in the Fourteenth Century” in Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study ed. Teun Koetsier and Luc Bergmans (Amsterdam: Elsevier 2005) 249–272.


LandauerRevolution98. Landauer considered Eckhart to have been the author of Schwester Katrei.


SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation2:612. This source is noted by Phil Huston Martin Buber’s Journey to Presence (New York: Fordham University Press 2007) 65–66.


SchopenhauerThe World as Will and Representation2:612–613.


BuberEcstatic Confessions156; Ekstatische Konfessionen 210–211.


BuberI and Thou133; Ich und Du 102–103.


HustonMartin Buber’s Journey107–108.


BuberWerkausgabe 1245. I have utilized albeit with slight modifications the translation in Huston Martin Buber’s Journey 175–176. For an alternative rendering see Buber Daniel 143–144.




Martin BuberBe-Fardes ha-Ḥasidut: Iyyunim be-Maḥashavtah u-ve-Hawayatah (Tel Aviv: Mosad Bialik1945) 98.


BuberI and Thou135; Ich und Du 104–105.


BuberI and Thou182; Ich und Du 159–160.


Bernard McGinnThe Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing (New York: Crossroad2001) 145.


BuberThe Origin and Meaning of Hasidism187.






Landauer“Sind das Ketzergedanken?” 252.


BuberThe Origin and Meaning of Hasidism190.




BuberThe Origin and Meaning of Hasidism196.


Shneur Zalman of LiadiLiqquṭei Torah (Brooklyn: Kehot1996) Balaq 70d.


Elliot R. WolfsonOpen Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press2009) 78 84 88–89 97–98 105–106 168 213. My perspective is encapsulated in the assertion that “apophatic panentheism” presumes “a reciprocal transcendence whereby God and world abide in the difference of their belonging-together indeed they belong together precisely in virtue of their difference” (91).


Shneur Zalman of LiadiTorah Or (Brooklyn: Kehot2001) 27d. On Shneur Zalman’s teaching that the pronoun attah signifies the essence of the infinite (aṣmut ein sof) see the following note.


WolfsonOpen Secret244.


Solomon ben Ḥayyim EliashivLeshem Shevo we-Aḥlamah: Ḥaqdamot u-She‘arim (Jerusalem: Aaron Barzanai2006) 42c.


Solomon ben Ḥayyim EliashivLeshem Shevo we-Aḥlamah: Ḥeleq ha-Be’urim (Jerusalem: Aaron Barzanai2011) 5a. Compare Solomon ben Ḥayyim Eliashiv Leshem Shevo we-Aḥlamah: Sefer ha-De‘ah (Jerusalem: Aaron Barzanai 2005) pt. 1 160–161.


Ḥayyim ViṭalEṣ Ḥayyim (Jerusalem: Sitrei Ḥayyim2013) 3:3 17a.


BuberThe Origin and Meaning of Hasidism195.




BuberI and Thou180–181; Ich und Du 158.


See Elliot R. WolfsonGiving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania (New York: Fordham University Press2014) 21–29.


CohenReligion of Reason86; Religion der Vernunft 100.


CohenReligion of Reason212–214; Religion der Vernunft 248–250.




BuberI and Thou68; Ich und Du 24.


BuberBetween Man and Man218.




BuberI and Thou134; Ich und Du 104. See also idem Between Man and Man 59 and the German Die Frage an den Einzelnen in Martin Buber Das dialogische Prinzip (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 1986) 216.


BuberEclipse of God28. The reality of faith according to Buber means “living in relationship” to the “absolute Being” that one believes in unconditionally (31).


BuberI and Thou143; Ich und Du 113.


BuberI and Thou63–64; Ich und Du 19–20.


BuberI and Thou181–182; Ich und Du 158–159.


BuberTwo Types of Faith130.


Ibid.130–131. Compare Martin Buber Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (Amherst NY: Humanity Books 1998) 51–53: “As reply to his question about the name Moses is told: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This is usually understood to mean ‘I am that I am’ in the sense that Yhvh describes himself as the Being One or even the Everlasting One the one unalterably persisting in his being. . . . It means: happening coming into being being there being present being thus and thus; but not being in an abstract sense. . . . Yhvh indeed states that he will always be present but at any given moment as the one as whom he then in that given moment will be present. He who promises his steady presence his steady assistance refuses to restrict himself to definite forms of manifestation; how could the people even venture to conjure and limit him! . . . That Ehyeh is not a name; the God can never be named so; only on this one occasion in this sole moment of transmitting his work is Moses allowed and ordered to take the God’s self-comprehension in his mouth as a name.” See ibid. 117–118: “The saga of the Fathers . . . has something to tell of human figures in which Yhvh lets himself be seen. But there is nothing supernatural about them and they are not present otherwise than any other section of Nature in which the God manifests himself. What is actually meant by this letting-Himself-be-seen on the part of Yhvh has been shown in the story of the Burning Bush; in the fiery flame not as a form to be separated from it but in it and through it. . . . And it is in precisely such a fashion . . . that the representatives of Israel come to see Him on the heights of Sinai. . . . He allows them to see Him in the glory of His light becoming manifest yet remaining invisible.” See also Martin Buber Kingship of God 3rd ed. trans. Richard Scheimann (Amherst NY: Humanity Books 1990) 105–106.


BuberTwo Types of Faith131–132.


BuberEclipse of God45.






Leo StraussSpinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken Books1965) 11–12.




Alexander Altmann“The God of Religion, the God of Metaphysics and Wittgenstein’s ‘Language-Games,’ ” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 39 (1987): 291.





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