Martin Buber (1878-1965)

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 and grandfather, 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. After World War II and the founding of Israeli state in 1948, Buber lectured extensively in the United States and Europe. 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. Buber died in Jerusalem at the age of 87 in 1965.