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I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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Martin Buber | Biography


Early Years

Martin Buber was born in Vienna, Austria, into a prosperous and educated Jewish family on February 8, 1878. Judaism was undergoing an upheaval in this period as two philosophical trends vied for dominance: Hasidism, a devotional mysticism emphasizing God's omnipresence in the world, and Haskalah, an intellectual movement among European Jews of the late 18th to 19th century encouraging assimilation into secular society. (Haskalah was often called the Jewish Enlightenment, as it was inspired by the Enlightenment movement in Europe that approached human reasoning as the way to discover important truths—a stark contrast with Hasidic emphasis on the primacy of emotion and ecstatic worship.) Buber would grow up to be a philosopher who synthesized these streams of Jewish thought.

Following his parents' separation when he was three, Buber spent his early years with his grandparents in the area of modern Ukraine. His grandfather Solomon, a biblical scholar and strong proponent of Haskalah, encouraged the boy's study of languages. Solomon's ties to the Jewish community afforded Buber a view on other theological traditions, including Hasidism, to which he was further exposed during summers with his father. As a teenager, Buber returned to living full-time with his father, a more secular Jew, and ceased observing Jewish practices. After beginning formal studies at age 14, Buber embraced his intellectual side along with the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). At 18 he enrolled in the University of Vienna, studying philosophy, art history, and literature. Later, while studying in Zurich during the summer of 1899, he fell in love with writer Paula Winkler (1877–1958), with whom he had two children out of wedlock. Because she was a Roman Catholic, he initially had to hide the relationship from his family. The couple eventually married in 1901, after she converted to Judaism.

Career and Writing

Buber's first important work, Daniel: Dialogues on Realization (1913), is a series of five dialogues. It anticipates I and Thou (1923) in its articulation of two modes of existence—a rational understanding of the world and an immersion in subjective experience—but lacks the later text's focus on relationality. In 1916 Buber founded a monthly magazine called Der Jude, an influential periodical featuring the writing of many Jewish intellectuals of the time, which he edited until 1924. In Buber's most influential work, I and Thou, he abandons an earlier stance in which he emphasized a mystical union with God as the path to fully realized humanity. Instead, he focuses on the dialogic encounter between the totality of the self and the irreducible other, whether other people, nature, or what Buber calls "spirit." The individual's relationship with spirit—often with God, the eternal You—is the model that makes other I-You relations possible. Buber was a Zionist, a supporter of the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But unlike many Zionists, he supported Jewish-Arab cooperation in the founding of a binational state.

In 1933—the year in which Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), head of the Nazi Party, was appointed chancellor of Germany—Buber left the teaching position he had held since 1923 at the University of Frankfurt. In that same year he became involved in training Jewish teachers who were systematically being excluded from educational institutions under Hitler and the anti-Semitic Nazi regime. From 1933 to 1938 Buber served as director of the Freies jüdisches Lehrhaus (Free Jewish Learning House), a center for Jewish studies in Frankfurt, by invitation from his friend and fellow theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929). After being forbidden to lecture, Buber emigrated to Palestine, modern Israel, in 1938 and thus escaped the Holocaust. He continued to teach, becoming a professor in the sociology department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also directed Beth Midrash l'Morei Am, a teacher training college for adult education, which he founded in 1949.

Death and Legacy

Martin Buber died on June 13, 1965. Because his thinking fell outside the lines of Jewish orthodoxy, he was viewed with suspicion by some traditional Jewish theologians. Nonetheless, he was passionate about Judaism, writing many books on Jewish history, theology, mysticism, and scripture. He even translated, with Franz Rosenzweig, the Hebrew Bible into German. I and Thou was enthusiastically embraced by Christian theologians and its author hailed as a bridge builder between Judaism and Christianity. Nonetheless, Buber remained frustrated, according to American novelist and rabbi Chaim Potok (1927–2002), because he was more appreciated by Christians than by Jews. Although Buber's intent was to embrace all of humanity with his dialogic philosophy (characterized by the exchange, dynamism, and participation inherent in dialogue), readers should still understand him as a man steeped in the Jewish religious, cultural, and philosophical tradition.

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