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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.
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