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Martin Buber

(1878 - 1965)


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Martin Buber was born in Vienna in 1878. He lived for a period of time with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, a famous midrash scholar. Powerfully influenced by Ahad HaAm, he was a member of the Third Zionist Congress in 1899.

When he was 26, Buber began studying Chassidic texts and was greatly moved by their spiritual message.

During World War I, he founded the Jewish National Committee, which worked at helping Eastern European Jews suffering under Axis domination.

Buber was a utopian Zionist. He believed strongly that the most important possibility for Zionism was in changing the relationships between people. He wrote powerfully in favor of Arab rights in Palestine. Even in later years, he worked for the establishment of a joint Arab-Jewish state. Obviously, he failed

In 1938, Buber settled in Palestine and was a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University. He died in 1965.

Martin Buber is best-known for his book I and Thou, which he wrote in 1923. It focused on the way humans relate to their world. According to Buber, frequently we view both objects and people by their functions. Doing this is sometimes good: when doctors examine us for specific maladies, it's best if they view us as organisms, not as individuals. Scientists can learn a great deal about our world by observing, measuring, and examining. For Buber, all such processes are I-It relationships.

Unfortunately, we frequently view people in the same way. Rather than truly making ourselves completely available to them, understanding them, sharing totally with them, really talking with them, we observe them or keep part of ourselves outside the moment of relationship. We do so either to protect our vulnerabilities or to get them to respond in some preconceived way, to get something from them. Buber calls such an interaction I-It.

It is possible, notes Buber, to place ourselves completely into a relationship, to truly understand and "be there" with another person, without masks, pretenses, even without words. Such a moment of relating is called "I-Thou." Each person comes to such a relationship without preconditions. The bond thus created enlarges each person, and each person responds by trying to enhance the other person. The result is true dialogue, true sharing.

Such I-Thou relationships are not constant or static. People move in and out of I-It moments to I-Thou moments. Ironically, attempts to achieve an I-Thou moment will fail because the process of trying to create an I-Thou relationship objectifies it and makes it I-It. Even describing the moment objectifies it and makes it an I-It. The most Buber can do in describing this process is to encourage us to be available to the possibility of I-Thou moments, to achieve real dialogue. It can't be described. When you have it, you know it. Buber maintains that it is possible to have an I-Thou relationship with the world and the objects in it as well. Art, music, poetry are all possible media for such responses in which true dialogue can take place.

Buber then moves from this existential description of personal relating to the religious experience. For Buber, God is the Eternal Thou. By trying to prove God's existence or define God, the rationalist philosophers automatically established an I-It relationship. This is Buber's major problem with Hermann Cohen.

Like a person we love, we can't define God; we can't set up preconditions for the relationship. We simply have to be available, open to the relationship with the Eternal Thou. And when we experience such an I-Thou relationship, the moment doesn't need words. In fact, the most intense moments we experience with another person take place without words. Nor is the intensity of the experience significant. Buber wasn't encouraging mystical moments. The I-Thou relationship changed the sharers, but it did so naturally, sometimes almost imperceptibly. For Buber, it is possible to have an I-Thou relationship with God through I-Thou moments with people, nature, art, the world.

Finally, Buber offers us a Jewish insight into the I-Thou relationship. After our redemption from Egypt, we as a people encountered God. We were available and open, and the Sinai moment was an I-Thou relationship for an entire people and for each individual. The Torah, the prophets, and our rabbinic texts were all written by humans expressing the I-Thou relationship with the Eternal Thou. By reading those texts and being available to the relationship inherent in them, it is also possible for us to make ourselves available for the I-Thou experience with the Eternal Thou. We must come without precondition, without expectation because that would already attempt to limit our relationship partner, God, and thus create an I-It moment. If we try to analyze the text, we again create an I-It relationship because analysis places ourselves outside of the dialogue, as an observer and not a total participant.

For Buber, to do an action because it has been previously legislated is meaningless. Only our response at the moment of I-Thou can have meaning. Because of that premise, Buber disagreed with Rosenzweig over the importance of traditional practice in daily life. It was enough to respond to the I-Thou encounter in whatever individualized way the moment created.


Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage

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