Martin Buber was one of the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. He was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878, but sent at the age of three to live with his grandfather in Lvov, Galicia, because of his parents' failing marriage. Buber ended up spending his entire childhood in Lvov, and was greatly influenced by the towering figure of his caregiver, Solomon Buber. Solomon Buber was a successful banker, a scholar of Jewish law, and one of the last great thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah. He was also a deeply religious man who prayed three times daily, shaking with fervor. Solomon Buber exposed his grandson to two of the three obsessions that would guide the younger Buber's thought: the mystical Jewish movement of Hasidism which tries to imbue the ordinary routines of daily life with a divine joy rooted in communal living, and the more intellectual movement of the Haskalah which tries to link the humanist values of the secular Enlightenment to the tenets of Jewish belief.
From 1896 until 1900, Buber studied philosophy and art history at the University of Vienna. There he discovered the intellectualism of philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, as well as the Christian mysticism of Jakob Bohme, Meister Eckehart, and Nicholas of Cusa. It was probably while eagerly reading these works, and relating them to the spiritual childhood he had known in Lvov, that Buber began to formulate the questions that would lead him on his lifelong search for religious meaning: he began to ponder the sense of alienation (from fellow man, from the world, even from oneself) which overcomes every human being from time to time. He wondered whether this temporary alienation is an essential aspect of the human condition and whether it might indicate a deep-seated yearning for something necessary to human life, that is, for a true unity with the world and with God.
As an adolescent, Buber began his search for religious meaning by separating himself from the Jewish community. He ceased to observe the myriad strict Jewish laws and immersed himself in his own questions. He described himself as living "in a world of confusion." In 1897, early in his university career, Buber returned to the Jewish community, drawn by what would become the third fundamental influence in his life: modern political Zionism. Zionism sought to redefine Judaism as a nationality rather than simply a religion, with Hebrew as the Jewish language and Israel as the Jewish homeland. Buber quickly became active in the movement, particularly in its cultural and religious aspects. In 1901 he was appointed editor of the Zionist periodical "Die Welt", and in 1902, after leaving "Die Welt", he founded the publishing house of Judische Verlag.
By late 1902 Buber began to break away from Zionism and to rediscover Hasidism. He searched out the early literature of the Hasidic movement, and he became convinced that in its earliest incarnation, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it embodied the ideal religious stance: a relationship between god and man that is based in dialogue. He examined other religions as well, studying their history and thought, and developed his conception of this divine relationship in greater detail. In 1923 he published the result of two decades of thought in his greatest work, I and Thou.
In 1924, having finished and published I and Thou, Buber began to study the Hebrew Bible, and claimed to find in it the prototype of his ideal dialogical community. While continuing to collect Hasidic legends and to develop his theories of religion, he also began to translate the Hebrew Bible into German. In 1930 he was appointed professor of Jewish religion and ethics at the University of Frankfurt at Mainz. In 1933, when Hitler rose to power, Buber was forced to leave his university post and began to teach in the Jewish ghettos. He spent this period strengthening the religious and spiritual resources of German Jewry in the face of the overwhelming dangers they faced, primarily through adult education.
In 1938 Buber fled Germany for Palestine where he became professor of the sociology of religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. As he had been in Germany, Buber quickly became an active community leader in Palestine. He directed the Yihud movement, together with Y.L. Magnes, which sought to bridge Arab-Jewish understanding and to create a binational state. He also served as the first president of the Isreali Academy of Science and Humanities. In his later years, Buber began to apply his unique conception of man's relationship to the world to diverse fields. He developed a theory of psychotherapy based on the dialogical relationship and a theory of social philosophy intended as an alternative to Marxism.
Though Buber's philosophy has influenced thinkers in all religious traditions, he was first and foremost a Jewish thinker, and his intellectual development is best viewed in that historical context. Buber lived through a time of radical transition in the Jewish community: he saw the secular enlightenment seducing Jews away from their religious convictions, he witnessed the subsequent marshalling of orthodox forces in response to this secular threat, and he was an active part in the birth of modern political Zionism, which arose as an alternative to both the secularism and orthodoxy. All three of these trends affected Buber's life in tangible ways, and all three fed into his conception of the ideal relationship between man and world. As a Jew living through the age of secular seduction, Buber was exposed to the Western philosophical cannon that he reacted to and eventually joined; from his associations with Zionism and orthodox Judaism and Hasidism he obtained a unique understanding of the role that community should play in religious life.
Though Buber lived through a tumultuous period of Jewish history, the period that most influenced his thought actually took place a hundred years before his birth, in the late 18th century. It was then, in the wake of mass slaughters and staggering poverty, that the mystical movement of Hasidism first arose. It appealed to the working masses who felt alienated from traditional Judaism. As preached by the rabbis at that time, the essence of Judaism was thought to be the intellectually demanding and time consuming study of Jewish law, and the only way to be holy was to be a scholar. In practice this meant that only a small elite, who had both the money and the intelligence necessary to spend their days immersed in learning, could really consider themselves good Jews. The vast majority of Jews, impoverished and intimidated by anti-Semitism, felt that they did not even have their religion to turn to in their time of need.
Hasidism first arose in response to this need, expounded by the religious healer the Baal Shem Tov (meaning Master of the Good Name). Hasidism offered a new understanding of Judaism, one that could reach out to all members of the community. In this new view of Judaism, prayer, not study, was considered the most important religious activity. Ecstatic song and dance replaced solemn piety. Hasidism asserted that since all men can pray, and love God, and take joy in fulfilling God's rituals, all men can be equally holy. The movement had wide appeal among the lower classes, and it spread quickly throughout the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Traditional rabbis were unhappy with its rapid spread and tried to outlaw Hasidism. Within a few decades, however, these two branches of Judaism were forced to unite against the common enemy of secularism.
By the 19th century, Europe was involved in a mass political enlightenment which was a direct result of the 18th century Enlightenment movement in philosophy. Societies began to recognize the equality of all men and to value a man for his actions rather than his birth. This change offered an exciting opportunity for individual Jews, who seized the chance to shed their cultural background and enter the mainstream (which, until then, had made it clear that Jews were not welcome). As a result, this enlightenment was cataclysmic for the Jewish community as a whole, which saw its numbers dwindling rapidly. Jewish community leaders were alarmed and sought methods of stemming the destructive influence, in particular by instituting stricter laws against secular study. In the fight against secularism, the rift between traditional Jews and Hasidic Jews became untenable; the rabbis needed to unite. As a result, Hasidism obtained the official stamp of approval from traditional rabbis and became even more popular than it had been before. By the 1920's, when Buber wrote I and Thou, fully half of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were Hasidic communities.
Buber's grandfather, Solomon Buber, was both a devout Jew with Hasidic leanings and a great thinker of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. Buber, therefore, was exposed to both the rationality of the Enlightenment and the reactive strictures of the rabbinic leaders. He learned, in other words, both how to reason like a philosopher, and how to believe like a Hassid.
As Buber reached maturity, a new reaction to secularism was emerging: political Zionism. As championed by Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizman, political Zionsim sought to revive a Jewish national spirit, focusing on Hebrew (rather than Yiddish) as the Jewish language, and on Palestine as the Jewish homeland. Buber became actively involved in this movement. He was particularly attracted by the Zionist idea that community can afford a special sort of spiritual education. Zionist ideas led him to ask certain questions about the essence of Judaism and the role that community plays in that essence.
Soon after discovering Zionism, Buber became more familiar with Hasidism. He was impressed with the mystical community's focus on the individual's relationship to God and with the fact that the grounding of that individual relationship lay in community. Hasidic community, at least as Buber understood it, was the embodiment of the individual relationship to God, and through participation in the community all mundane acts became sacred.
As a part of the Western philosophical cannon, Buber's thought is best understood as a reaction to two previous attitudes toward the question of religious meaning. The first, which can be loosely termed "enlightenment theology", tried to carve out a place for God within the new, modern, rational understanding of the world. The second group, which were atheistic philosophers, attempted instead to deny religion any legitimate place at all within human experience. On the surface, Buber's ideas seem to have more in common with the first group, since he does, after all, believe that there is a place for God in the world. But Buber was deeply influenced by atheistic philosophers, particularly by Friederich Nietzsche, and his theory bears strong resemblance to their thought.
In trying to forge a place for God within the rational world, enlightenment theologians often reduced the deity to a rational principle. Instead of the personal God familiar from traditional religions, these philosophers viewed God as something abstract and fundamentally rational. These philosophers used God as a basis for enlightenment values, for ethics, for tolerance, and for rationality itself. But in their view, God had almost no other qualities or capabilities. In a way it was only a small step for the 19th and 20th century atheists, such as Karl Marx, Freiderich Nietzsche, and Siegmund Freud, to claim that there was, in fact, no divine being. Enlightenment theologians had made God into an abstract principle, with no anthropomorphic features; the atheists simply took the next step and made God into a myth.
According to the atheistic philosphers, the human notion of God is nothing but a sign of weakness or distress. Religion, in fact, prevents us from addressing the most fundamental problems of humanity by creating an opiate which dulls human suffering without actually healing the problem. According to Karl Marx, for example, religious desire is a symptom of social conditions that are not providing people with the proper environment for their flourishing. He sees religion as a drug which helps soothe the pain caused by the improper conditions, without doing anything to actually improve the situation. For Nietzsche, religion is a crutch that is used by the weak to avoid facing life in its full power and unpredictability. For Freud, religion is an obsessional neurosis that keeps us from reconciling ourselves to the burden of culture.
Buber partly directed his thought towards answering these atheist philosophers. He wanted to prove, first and foremost, that religious experience is not deceptive: it is not a mask that hides deep human problems. Instead, it is a true experience of communion with a higher power, an experience that has tangible and wholly desirable results. But Buber was also unsatisfied with the religious thought of the enlightenment thinkers. He saw that the God they envisioned was merely a tool for human reasoning, a principle that they used rather than a being with whom we can relate. Nietzsche, then, Buber claims, was absolutely correct when he argued that such a God is dead; such a God, in fact, could not possibly be alive.
While the enlightenment theologians tried to carve out a space for God within the realm of reason, and the atheists tried remove God completely from the picture of human life, Buber takes a third path: he removes God from the realm of reason, but does not therefore discard Him. Buber claims that there are two modes of engaging with the world. There is the mode of experience, in which we gather data, analyze, and theorize; and there is also the mode of encounter, in which we simply relate. The first mode is that of science and reason. When we experience something in this mode, we treat it as an object, a thing, an It. If God existed in this realm, as the enlightenment theologians believed that he did, then He would have to be a thing, something we use, such as an opiate, a crutch, or an obsessional neurosis. But religious experience is not a part of this realm, Buber claims; religious experience can only be achieved through the second mode, encounter. Through encounter we relate to another as a You, not as an object to be used, but as an other with whom we must relate.
Relations are not either / or, but varry in degree. The closer one comes to a genuine I-You relationship, the more likely one is drawn to service, and increasing I-You relationships.