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OF DIALOGUE AND TRUST

RELIGIOUS THOUGHT OF MARTIN BUBER

Andreas Schmidt


Re-entry into Tradition

At the beginning of Buber's thought, there is the discovery of Hasidic tradition, which coincided with Buber's discovery of his own religiousness. Meeting Hasidism meant for him his "re-entry into tradition", he learned that tradition is not preserving the past, but passing on, providing the human being of today with the access to the primary source from where the stream of life flows.

What is so special about this Hasidic tradition? The most important root idea is that God takes his dwelling-place within man, God takes his dwelling-place within his creation. This idea in not peculiar to Chassidism, it is already contained in the Torah:

(see Leviticus 26,11)

"Where does God live?"
With this question, the Kosker surprised some scholars who were guests of his.
They laughed at him: "How do you speak! The world is full of his glory!"
But he answered his own question: "God lives, where he is let in."
(Tales of the Hasidim)

But what does it mean: "God takes his dwelling place within man"?

At first, it means the actual annulment of the difference between religiousness and secularity. Everyday life is no less imbued with belief than the "deified high hours". It is only this way that the unity of life is achieved, and only a religion which does not view religiousness merely in some kind of sentimentality and rejects all reason can lead humans to this unity. The human being does not fight against urges, he does not have to expel evil out of him: he is supposed to live in the world and with God, he is supposed to become the vessel of holiness within the world.

And by sanctifying the whole everyday life, Hasidism takes "the other world into this world". The present time, the world, is the place where faith is made real, where God reveals Himself. God is not the far-away ruler of the world who will bring redemption some time (this is said against the exaggerated messianic hopes), but God wants "to conquer the world he created through the human being".

God does not want to complete his creation in any other way than with our help. He does not want to reveal his realm before we have founded it. He does not want to put on the crown of the King of the World but by receiving it from our hand.
(The Hasidic Message)

It is from here that the true dialogical relation between God and man becomes possible: on the one hand, the difference between God and man is not given up in any way (thus no panentheist "God in all"), man is believed to be able to contribute to the history of salvation himself - and even called for to do so -, on the other hand, God's nearness is emphasized as strongly as in hardly any other religious movement: God dwells within the world, but he is not absorbed by it (immanence and transcendence).

Rabbi Bunam once told: Watching the world, it sometimes seems to me as if every man is a tree in the wilderness, and God has in this world no-one but him alone, and he no-one to turn to but God alone.
(Tales of the Hasidim)

From here, he calls this twofoldedness, the basis for any dialogical relation: Primary distance and relation.

Dialogical thought

As Buber himself wrote in his autobiographical fragments, his dialogical thought evolved from his occupation with Hasidism. In the relation to God (which he calls the relation to "the eternal thou" in his dialogical philosophy), Buber realized that human existence is determined by two fundamentally different kinds of relation: I-It relations and I-Thou relations. It is characteristic for I-Thou relations that only in them real encounter happens when all is left behind, all preconceptions, all reservedness is given up, when one fully engages in the encounter with the other and carries on a real dialogue with him.

The relation to the Thou is immediate.

Between I and Thou there is no terminology, no preconception and no imagination, and memory itself changes, since it plunges from singularity into the whole.

Between I and Thou there is no purpose, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself changes, since it plunges from dream into appearance.

All means are impediment. Only where all means fall to pieces, encounter happens.
(I and Thou)

The real novum in these thoughts is the expansion of the notion of relation over interhuman and God-man relations to the whole of existence. My whole existence is determined by the kind of relation I have to the elements. I can have an I-It relation toward my life when I imagine it as a destiny imposed upon me or a targetless accident, but I can also have a dialogical relation toward it, I can conceive it as an address to me, as an request to give answer. This means that I have to respond to the actual situation - and not to have to make plans for it and realize them, i.e. self-responsibilty instead of self-realization, or in short: response.

And it is the same with history, an element of life extremely important to Buber and man in general. How do I conceive the river of times: without target or determined by a ruler of the world? Or after all as a dialogue betweeen this "ruler of the world" and man:

If history is a dialogue between God and mankind, then we can perceive its purpose respectively there where the address hits us, and only in so far as we let ourselves be hit by it.

The purpose in history is no idea I can formulate independently of my personal life, it is only with my personal life that I can absorb it, for it is a dialogical purpose.
(Geschehende Geschichte)

With man being called to respond, man having to be able to be responsible, it should not be misunderstood that a human being only finds his I with the help of a Thou. For at the same time it has to be clear: there can be no Thou without an I, for without an I there can be no facing, no encounter:

It is true that a child first says Thou before it learns to say I; but on the height of personal existence one must be able to say truly I in order to experience the secret of Thou in its whole truth.

Human relations are the place where dialogic life takes place; that does not mean that one has much to do with people; but it is a life "in which one has really to do with the person one has to do with."

Then, it requires me time after time to thank my fellow-man even when he has not done anything special for me. But for what? For encountering me for real when he encountered me; for opening his eyes and perceiving reliably what I had to tell him; yes, for opening what I talked to: the well-closed heart.

Religion

After this landmark discovery in his thought, he turns back to religion. Starting at the central thought of dialogue between God and man, Buber sets out for the primary source of biblical tradition from where religious thought in Judaism took and takes its life. He finds back to the occurence at Sinai, back to the revelation of God's name to Moshe:

Moshe spoke to God:
There I come then to the sons of Yisrael,
I speak to them:
The God of your fathers has sent me to you,
then will speak to me: What about his name?
What do I speak to them?
God spoke to Moshe:
I will be there as the one I will be there.
And he spoke:
That's what you shall speak to the sons of Yisrael:
I AM THERE sends me to you.
Exodus 3:13-14

Proceeding from this passage, Buber develops the principles of the faith in God in early Judaism. God is the God being there, the God freeing, leading, going along, feeling with you, but at the same time also the unseizable, the unavailable God of whom you cannot make an image. In their translation of the passage, Buber and Rosenzweig liberate it from the incorrect Septuagint translation "I am who I am" (which is clearly influenced by Hellenism), a translation still included in many "modern" translations. "I am who I am" would mean that it is philosophically forbidden to speculate about God's existence.

In this central occurence, together with its national: the exodus out of Egypt, and its social pendant: the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Buber views the primary source which has not become irrelevant for modern man. In an age of subsiding scientism and intellectual atheism, he offer to this "modern man" the rediscovery of biblical tradition. He does not try the impossible (which is, by the way, tried by many religious groups hostile to any form of progress): calling back a time of naiveté, no, he views the reality of the modern times having brought fundamental and irreversible changes:

It is not about a "return to the Bible". It is about resuming of the original biblical unity life with the whole of our existence entangled in our time, with the whole weight of our late diversity on our souls, the unseizable matter of this historical hour undimishedly present in our minds; it is about standing our present situations with biblical openness toward faith in dialogical responsibility.
(Modern Man and the Jewish Bible)

The rational "modern man" is not responsible because he does not respond, and he does not respond because he does not hear the question anymore which approaches man from generation to generation in form of human life and tradition. Man must once again hear the question, hear the questioner, he must learn anew asking questions and answering. In short: he has to learn dialogue.

In his religious life, Buber is not occupied with dogmatic issues, he accomplishes the anthropological turn-about of theology more thoroughly, more credibly, and more methodologically founded than most of his Christian colleagues, who have seen this problem as well. One cannot speak about God as if being not involved, as if watching from outside the universe, as if being able to decide what is allmighty, as if being able to know what truth is, as if being able to track and evaluate God's acting, man is always involved, he does not know what allmighty is, how he can seize truth, he does not have any undeceivable sense organ for God's acting. The world of faith has to be opened from the point of view of human possibilities, of human existence, and faith has to be lived in the middle of human possibilities, lived in every minute of existence, lived in the field of tension between creation, revelation and redemption.

Creation for Buber, like for Jewish tradition, happens in every second, one only has to perceive it: in every second new life comes into being. But also redemption happens already today and not only in a far-away future, already today man can experience traces of what will happen some day. And only because man does experience creation and redemption, he can conceive from his human point of view what they mean, only because man experiences revelation in his present time, God's revelation to him, the encounter of two beings.

And just from the experience of the divine in one's own life, one can conceive why Buber, who shows respect for tradition in general and the Bible in particular, also states that one always has to decide in favor of the God in whom one believes and against the God whose image was handed on to me, in case that one cannot believe in the God of tradition. This is one point that makes up Buber's living relation to tradition.

Translation of the Bible into German

The Bible is for Buber the one document of the great facing of God and man where happened and happening history are interpreted as one big dialogue between God and man.

Judaism, for which all events in world history, from creation to redemption, stand under the sign of language, feels that the course of human existence is nothing but a dialogue. Man is called by all that happens to him, what is sent to ihm, by his destiny; in his acting and not acting he can answer to this call,he can answer for his destiny.

Buber realizes the necessity of a new translation of the Bible soon, even though he lacks the methodic principles for its accomplishment. He realizes inadequacy of the former translations, he realizes most of all that the Bible is only read as a well-known classic, but no longer encountered, man no longer faces the Bible:

The Hebrew Bible itself is read as a translation, as a bad translation, as a translation into the worn down language of terms, allegedly well-known, in reality only current. Respectful intimacy with sense and sensuality as required by Scripture has been replaced by viewless familiarity.

The methodic principles of the Translation of the Bible, which Buber owes mostly to his co-operation with Franz Rosenzweig are reflected by his philosophical principles. He wants to retransform the Bible into spoken word. For this, Buber uses a language rich in images and sensitive to rhythm; instead of verses, he divides the Bible into short passages determined by meaning and breathing technique. By reproducing the Hebrew pivot style, Buber uses a feature that helps to conceive the innerbiblical coherence immediately - with nothing but the word. Like a red thread, one can follow a word or a root throughout chapters and books of the Bible. The unique about Buber's translation is that he does not only try to translate word uniformly, but whole roots. This leads him to the frontiers of German language, and the first impression of the translation often bewilders the reader.

But the importance is only realized when it is faced existentially: Buber opens up many terms and innerbiblical connections anew by working out the relation component out of terms of the "detached mind", which originates in its primary Hebrew meaning. Truth becomes faithfulness, inner and outer faithfulness, justice becomes proving, the judicial term becomes a state of living, a "relation to reality":

The truth that can be owned is not even a creature, it is a ghost, a succubus, with which to live man can only effectively fancy, but he cannot really live with it. You cannot devour truth, it is not cooked in any pot of the world, you cannot even gape at it, for it is not a thing. And nonetheless there is a taking part at the existence of the inaccessible truth - for the one who proves himself. There is a "real relation" of the whole human prson toward the unowned, unownable truth, and it is only completed in proving. This "real relation" is, whatever called, the relation to existence.

And he breathes life back into the sacrificial terms which have lost their meaning for us by translating as a nearing, an offer-nearing (Darnahung), a giving high and thus as a contrast to traditional sacrifice as an aiming at meeting God. If people nowadays are no longer ready to sacrifice, it it is not their "self-centrism", but the fact that sacrifice does no longer mean meeting for them. Instead of that, the God of the Old Testament is portrayed imperious and despotic because he required sacrifices. But in reality, this God enabled and enables people to meet him.

The spiritualized term of the Holy Ghost gains back its sensual life by translating it from its Hebrew primary meaning as "God's breeze".

The new opening of God's name JHWH in Early Judaism as "I will be there as the one I will be there" puts the stress onto the relation, onto the nearness in the relation and onto the distance in the relation. Buber and Rosenzweig have long thought it over how to translate this name of God in the text, adequate to German language's need. They have decided on the pronoun, since only this can reflect the nearness and familiarity of the primary meaning: the old "God the Lord" becomes a plain "HE".

Martin Buber the Critic

It was inevitable that Buber had to face Christianity when freeing the Bible from a patina laid on it mostly by a bimillinarian Christian theology. But its results are different from what one could expect: he does not polemize, he does not attack openly, his voice is low and matter-of-fact, like among good friends. He does not deride what he cannot believe in. And the fact that Christian view the Messiah in Jesus was always a "fact of highest seriousness" to him, even though Jesus could be "no more" than an outstanding and unparalleled person in Jewish tradition and a "brother". And last but not least, he viewed him, Jesus of Nazareth, as a Jew who radically tried to make real with God's addressability.

But at the same time, his criticism is unmerciful: he uncompromisingly points out that Paul's understanding of faith was perverted by Hellenism. The relation of faith in Christianity is no longer viewed a relation of trust as in Judaism, but as a holding-true of facts, facts of faith. This is what leads to disputes on dogmatism and heretics:

There are two, and after all only two, types of faith facing one another. There is a large variety of contents of faith, but faith itself is only known in two primary forms. Both of them can be illustrated by plain facts of our lives: that I have trust toward somebody without being able to give reasons for it, the other evolves from the fact that I, also unable to give sufficient reasons, acknowledge facts as true.

The person of Paul already is the point of time where Christianity branches off from the Jewish type of faith and becomes an inferior type of faith, whereas the message of Jesus still is deep-rooted in Judaism.

Of course, Jesus asked as whom he is seen, but he does not require somebody to see him as anyone. For Paul it is the gate to salvation that one acknoledges Jesus with the whole power of faith as the one he teaches.

But it is not only the notion of faith that Christianity has given up, but also the prohibition of images. By deifying Jesus, people make an image of the unseizable God, He is brought down to earth, his presence is forced in form of an image - and thus the real access to that God who "will be there as the one he will be there" is shut:

Imageless and full of images is the Christian God at the same time, more imageless, however, in the religious idea, full of images in the lived presence. The image covers the imageless.

This translation of the German original "Vertrauen und Dialog" is still a draft. Any corrections or suggestions for clarification will be appreciated.