About the Philosopher

BIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN BUBER

Martin Buber

(philosopher, born February 8, 1878, Vienna, Austria; died June 13, 1965, Jerusalem, Israel)

Martin Buber (1878-1965) — philosopher, story teller, pedagogue — was born in Vienna. Descending from a family line of brilliant scholars — his grandfather, Solomon Buber, wrote many critical editions of midrashic literature — Buber studied at universities in Vienna, Leipzig, Zurich, and Berlin.

Imbued with the philosophy of Zionism, Buber began to edit the Zionist weekly publication, Die Welt (The World) in 1901. However, his cultural and educational understanding of Zionism conflicted with Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism, and Buber eventually resigned his position.

Still in his twenties, Martin Buber became involved with Hasidism. He tried to translate the tales of the renowned Rav Nahman of Bratslav into German, but decided instead to retell them in his own narrative form. The resultant Hasidic Tales earned Buber an excellent literary reputation. He also penned scholarly works on the historical movement of Hasidism, including Hasidism and Modern Man and The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism.

Martin Buber was a remarkable social activist. He helped establish the Jewish National Commission during World War I in order to help better the lives of Eastern European Jews. In 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, he became director of the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became an increasingly significant position after Jews were prohibited from attending public schools. In 1938, he immigrated to Palestine, where he taught social philosophy at the Hebrew University and served as leader of Ihud, a movement which advocated Arab-Jewish cooperation in a bi-national state.

Yet Buber’s most lasting achievement was his philosophy of Dialogue, described in I and Thou (1923). In this treatise Buber differentiated between the I–Thou and I–It relationships. The former depicts the relationship between man and the world as one of mutuality, openness, and directness — a true dialogue. The latter — the I-It — is explained as the absence of these I–Thou qualities. The partners are not equal in the I–It relationship. However, the I–It dialogue cannot be discarded because it leads to objective knowledge, and must necessarily interact with I–Thou. Yet the ultimate objective is not only the I–Thou relationship between man and the world, but between man and the eternal source of the world, namely, God. God, Buber maintained, can be known through this subjective view of the universe. One can encounter God in the revelation of everyday existence. Indeed, Buber asserted that the Bible is a record of this dialogue experience between man and God. He stated that the essence of religious life is not the affirmation of religious beliefs but rather the way one meets the challenges of existence.

Martin Buber’s influence extended far beyond his age. Contemporary philosophy and theology were influenced by him, including the great Protestant thinkers Paul Tillich and Walter Nigg. The idea of a life of faith as a life of dialogue between man and God has its origin in the Bible, but Martin Buber distilled that concept into a philosophy that has illuminated much of scholarly and religious thought throughout the twentieth century.

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