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Martin Buber

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Biography of Martin Buber

Martin Buber  (Hebrew name: מָרְדֳּכַי, Mordechai) Buber was born in Vienna on February 8, 1878. Buber was a philosopher, theologian, philologist, peace activist, mystic and Zionist leader. Buber's major contribution to philosophy was his exploration of "I-Thou" versus "I-it" relationships. His major contribution to Zionism and Israeli culture was the sense of moral humanitarian mission in the positive sense that pervaded the Zionist movement for many years, and in particular Labor Zionism.


The occupation of Buber's father is unclear. He may have been an agronomist. His mother, Elise, left the family in 1881, and  Marin Buber lived with his grandfather, Solomon Buber in Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) from 1881 to 1892.


Solomon Buber was a noted Jewish theological scholar, who no doubt influenced the young Martin. Buber, like many other central European Jews,  had a multilingual education. He spoke Yiddish and German at home, was taught Hebrew and French in childhood and learned Polish in secondary school.

In 1892, Buber left his grandfather and returned to his father's house. He broke with orthodox Jewish religious customs.  He  read the works of secular philosophers including  Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Kierkegaard and Neitzche were particular influential in his formative years.  

In 1896, Martin Buber left Lemberg for Vienna, where he would study philosophy, art history, German studies, and philology. Eventually he attended universities in Vienna, Liepzig, Zurich and Berlin. In Berlin he studied under Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel.

In 1898, Martin Buber joined the Zionist movement, participating in congresses and organizational work. He was a delegate to the third Zionist congress in 1899. He identified with the Cultural Zionism program of Achad Haam. In that year,  while studying in Zürich, Buber met Paula Winkler, a non-Jewish novelist and Zionist writer from Munich, whose works were published under the pseudonym George Mundt. She converted to Judaism, and who became his wife.

Buber became editor of Die Welt, the journal of the Zionist movement in 1901. However, he soon joined the newly formed "Democratic Faction"  that opposed Herzl, and he quit the editorship of Die Welt before the fifth Zionist Congress in 1901. Evidently, he was unhappy that the Jewish state envisioned by the Zionist movement would be a secular state, and would not have a state religion.

 He founded the Judischer Verlag in Berlin, a publishing house which produced German books about Jewish subjects. In 1904, Buber received his doctorate; his dissertation topic was German mysticism.

Buber became interested in Hasidism and retold the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev and the legend of the Baal Shemtov in German. These works were later published in English. Presently, he became interested in the religious and philosophical content of Hasidism, which he remade according to his own understanding, emphasizing positive aspects and ignoring the problematic ones. He has been criticized for romanticizing Hasidism, but his rendition of Hasidism should be understood in the context of trying to deliberately extract from Hasidism the content, approach and theology that remains valid and constructive for the modern world and times, and which could form a basis for Jewish cultural renewal, which was the main concern of this work. 

Beginning in 1909, Martin Buber resumed public political life with his "At the Turning: Three addresses on Judaism," originally delivered to the Prague student organization. These were very influential in forming the ideology of Jewish youth in central Europe. In 1916, Martin Buber founded the monthly Der Jude, which became a major political organ of central European Jews for 8 years.

The Socialist Zionism of Martin Buber

In 1920, at the Prague convention of Hapoel Hatzair, Martin Buber set forth his utopian Zionist socialist position, calling for the formation of closely knit (gemeinschaft) communes in the land of Israel. He described Zionism as a "holy way," different from other national movements and destined to create a state and a society that would be morally superior to other states. An integral part of this vision was the understanding of the imperative need for peace with the Arabs of Palestine. In 1921, Buber submitted a resolution to the Zionist congress stating:

...the Jewish people proclaims its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development.

In 1925, Martin Buber joined the newly formed Brit Shalom movement, which called for a bi-national state. Buber's anti-materialist view of nationalism and Zionism, interestingly enough, attracted the Marxist Hashomer Hatzair movement. Following the establishment of the state of Israel, Buber advocated Israeli membership in a wider Middle East framework.

Martin Buber in Germany

Martin Buber published his seminal philosophic work on dialogue, Ich und Du in 1923 ("I and thou"). He published a German free translation of the Hebrew Bible with Franz Rosenzweig in 1925. He was appointed lecturer at the University of Frankfurt in 1925, and in 1930 was awarded a professorship.

In 1926 Buber co-founded the religious journal Die Kreatur, which he co-edited with Joseph Wittig, a Catholic theologian, and Viktor von Weizsaecker, a Protestant, for several years.  His work at Die Kreatur and his speeches on faith resulted generated routine correspondence with the Christian theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Based on these experiences, Buber later published Two Types of Faith in 1952.

With the rise of the Nazis in 1933 however, Martin Buber was either forced out with other Jewish academics or resigned in protest. Buber then became active in the adult education organization that was set up by the Jewish community. He traveled and spoke throughout German until 1935, when he was forbidden to speak to Jews. He was then invited to speak to the Quakers, until that too was forbidden by the Gestapo. In 1938, Martin Buber finally left Nazi Germany and came on Aliya to Palestine, where he was appointed professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Buber's Zionism was different from that of any of the official Zionist groups, but he was most certainly a Zionist and settled in the land of Israel out of conviction and made active contributions to the Zionist cause both before and after independence. This aspect of his life and work has been strangely minimized by some authors. However, his relationship to Zionism, like his relationship to religion and to socialism was complex, original and often misunderstood.

In Palestine, Martin Buber became active in Zionist political and intellectual life. He published his first Hebrew book, Torat Haneviim, The Prophetic Faith, in 1942. He remained concerned with shaping Zionism to humanistic values. In 1942 he wrote:

[There is] Jewish nationalism which regards Israel as a nation like unto other nations, and recognizes no task for Israel save that of preserving and asserting itself. But no nation in the world has this as its only task, for just as an individual who wishes merely to preserve and assert himself leads an unjustified and meaningless existence, so a nation with no other aim deserves to pass away.
Ha-Ruah veha-Metziut; Buber

In postwar Israel, Buber was active in promoting adult education, and also gave numerous lecture abroad. In 1951 he received the Goethe award of the University of Hamburg and in 1953 Buber was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Buber's wife Paula died in 1958, the same year he won the Israel Prize. In 1963, he won the Erasmus Award in Amsterdam. Martin Buber was first president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities from 1960-1962. Martin Buber died on June 13, 1965 in Jerusalem.

Buber and I and Thou

Buber's philosophical outlook underwent many alterations. His masterpiece was undoubtedly "I and Thou" (Ich und Du)  published in 1923. Its basic premise is that man can relate to others in two ways, each expressed by a "primary word," that is really made up of a pair of words. The I - It (Ich - Es) relationship expresses man viewing the world and the people in it in an instrumental way, as means to an end, with external qualities only.  Man can also relate to others and to God through love, in an "I-Thou" relationship. It is somewhat tempting to believe that Buber's inspiration for this concept was Ferdinand Tonnies' Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.  Gemeinschaft signifies a community of affection such as a family, whereas Gesellschaft is an association based on utility. Buber believed that the way to grace and to God was necessarily through building the I-thou relationship. From this basis, he built a philosophical approach to freedom within a deterministic universe as well.  

Ami Isseroff

March 15, 2009

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Martin Buber