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The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue
edited by nahum n. glatzer and paul mendes-flohr
translated by richard and clara winston and harry zohn
schocken books, 722 pages, $45

If a poll were conducted today to ascertain who is regarded to be the preeminent Jewish thinker of this century, Martin Buber (1878-1965) would probably win, though Franz Rosenzweig might give him a run for the money; among active Protestants, Buber would likely win by a landside. Jews, to be sure, might well vote differently; many (including this reviewer) prefer not only Rosenzweig but Hermann Cohen, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Strauss. Almost everyone, however (again including this reviewer), would agree that Buber has earned a significant place in the history of the twentieth century’s life of the mind; his long and productive life merits pondering and appreciation.

This volume helps one do just that. Its philological cleanliness reminds one of the standards set by the Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism), but it is above all a labor of love, translated scrupulously by Richard and Clara Winston and Harry Zohn. The editors, Nahum N. Glatzer, who died while the work was in progress, and Paul Mendes-Flohr, based their selection on an earlier three-volume German edition. The editor of that edition, Grete Schaeder, selected the correspondence from more than forty thousand letters housed at the Martin Buber Archives in Jerusalem. She consulted with the distinguished scholar Ernst Simon; both provide invaluable editorial materials for the book, which has all the earmarks of being at once a successful distillation and a successful collaboration. Most felicitous is the decision to include letters not only from Buber but also to him, so that occasionally one can observe the philosopher of dialogue in actual dialogue. The fact that on numerous occasions he does not exactly overwhelm his correspondents attests to the intellectual integrity of those connected with the book.

The correspondents are an illustrious lot, including as they do (I list them alphabetically as is appropriate for such an all-star cast) S.Y. Agnon, Walter Benjamin, Emil Brunner, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Dag Hammarskjold, Theodor Herzl, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, François Mauriac, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franz Rosenzweig, Bertrand Russell, Gershom Scholem, Chaim Weizmann, Franz Werfel, Israel Zangwill, and Stefan Zweig.

Grete Schaeder’s “Biographical Sketch” helps one to situate these correspondents in Buber’s rich and long life, which began in Vienna, though he grew up in Austrian—later Polish—Galicia. The young Buber rose to prominence in Zionist circles as the editor of the distinguished journal Der Jude. I and Thou (1923) made him famous among students of philosophy and theology, while his failure to emigrate from Hitler’s Germany to Palestine until 1938 caused commotion among a number of Jews, especially the many young people who had heeded his prophet-like voice to the extent of mistaking him for a prophet. Thus it could be, and was, said that he appealed much more to others than to “his own,” though by the time his eighty-fifth birthday came around he had transcended controversy. Ben-Gurion wrote him on the occasion to declare that Buber deserved “praise and glory in the history of our people and our time.” The two men had not always agreed, so that Ben-Gurion could characterize himself as Buber’s “friend, admirer, and opponent.” Buber replied with a characteristic bit of pomposity that alluded to the complexity of “so-called interpersonal relationships.”

The letters afford many glimpses of Martin Buber’s character and personality and almost coerce the open-minded to conclude that Buber was not an altogether attractive human being. He was on an alarming number of occasions given to stepping over the line that separates seriousness from pretentiousness, which is to say that he took himself too seriously; he was a vain man. The philosopher of dialogue often conveys the disconcerting impression that he is none too good at really listening to others; the exponent of authentic human encounters sometimes strikes one as a bit of a poseur. One should, however, be quick to add that impressions also abound of Buber’s courage, of genuine love and tenderness for his wife Paula, and of genuine kindness to those who sought his advice or help. For example, he was an indefatigable reader of manuscripts of others.

In any event, the emphasis of this volume is, as it ought to be, on the public deeds and the thought of Buber; the private lives of people like him usually give little sustenance to human prurience and nosiness.

As an actor in the public arena, Buber frequently generated controversies and chalked up a mixed record. He should be given full credit for his early realization that political Zionism was not enough and needed to be supplemented by a cultural dimension. But history has not dealt kindly with his flirtations with German aspirations in World War I, and this for weightier reasons than that Germany lost the war. Buber’s sympathies were not free of unfortunate Enlightenment-bashing, of unreasonable opposition to the Enlightenment’s admittedly insufficient notions of human reason.

One might be tempted to dismiss such excess as youthful enthusiasm, but Buber was over thirty-five when the First World War broke out, and other political positions advocated by him have not exactly been vindicated by history. He greatly underestimated both Hitler’s political support and staying power in 1933. His hopes for a binational solution to the relations between Jews and Arabs proved to be completely unrealistic.

Forever dovish, Buber seems to have indulged, and overindulged, the illusion that if only Jews turned their swords into ploughshares the Arabs would follow suit, whereas even as I write, only one Arab country has acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. This tendency toward political softness differentiates Buber not only from Zionist revisionists like Jabotinsky, who were right in thinking that Jews would have to fight for their homeland, but also from prominent figures in the Labor Party like Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. The same softness bedeviled Buber’s cultural politics when he was tempted to forgive Heidegger for the latter’s Nazism, apparently oblivious of the fact that a prominent Jew should leave such forgiveness to a Higher Authority.

But to leave it at that would be, once again, to perpetrate an injustice to Buber, who was capable of repeatedly espousing unpopular causes later vindicated. His letters to various anti-Semites are invariably impressive, combining as they do high courage with high intelligence. Never is Buber more impressive than in his long letter of February 24, 1939, to Gandhi, who had the gall—also known as chutzpah—to counsel German Jews to continue to suffer quietly under Hitler, in part because he was convinced that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs.” Buber dealt unflinchingly with all of Gandhi’s dubious assertions, even taking on his celebrated espousal of nonviolence: “[I]f there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands.” Gandhi was unwilling or unable to reply to this letter.

However, most of the letters in this judicious selection do not center on such controversies; quite properly they emphasize the life of the mind as lived by Martin Buber. The most fascinating letters collected here are those between Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), his collaborator and friend who bore up heroically under the strains of a crippling disease during the last seven years of his life. Together they developed what Rosenzweig called “the new thinking,” a kind of Jewish postmodernism whose non-Jewish pagan equivalent was none other than the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. They sought to take Judaism beyond the confines of what they saw as a denuded and arid rationalism, and there is no question that they performed a service in revitalizing the Jewish faith by emphasizing its vitalism, though Gershom Scholem probably did more enduring work in this area by his pathbreaking studies of mysticism.

One must necessarily face the question of the price Buber paid for his mental exertions in this enterprise, and this volume helps one do that. Strange to say, Rosenzweig, in so many ways Buber’s close ally, provides some of the severest criticism of his friend. Thus Rosenzweig alludes gently to Buber’s temptations to indulge in Romantic mysticism, and provides him with the most telling critique of I and Thou. Buber could be quite testy when challenged, especially when Scholem challenged his understanding of Hasidism, but he was, or at least seems, quite sincere when he writes Rosenzweig on September 14, 1922, “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your thorough, magnificent criticism,” and when he asks his younger friend to keep up his “kindly rigor and strongest candor.”

Rosenzweig is especially telling in forcing Buber to confront the latter’s disdain for the Law and for goading him into stating boldly (on June 3, 1925), “Revelation is not legislation. I hope I would be prepared to die for this postulate if I were faced with a Jewish universal church that had inquisitorial powers.” He did not have to die for his postulate, fortunately, but in living for it tenaciously he estranged himself from the core of Judaism, according to which revelation does take the form of Law. Buber never saw that for the Jews Law could be more than a burden or a yoke, more than a deadening of the spirit, but grace itself. By emphasizing the “prophetic faith,” a title of one of his books, he did, of course, draw closer to Christianity—the Gospels, after all, engage in a good deal of criticism of Jewish Law.

Buber’s style of “new thinking,” however, undermined not only vital parts of Judaism, but all religious forms and institutions. He distrusted form in all its forms, and put feeling (“religiosity”) above all, thus becoming the patron saint of those—and they are legion today—who go around saying, “I believe in God but not in organized religion.”

Buber also paid for his forays into “new thinking” with a goodly amount of clarity. I and Thou may be an important work but it is also a murky one. Moreover, Buber’s style, which at its frequent best is poetic, at its not infrequent worst—also found in these letters—is bombastic, mushy, woolly. One should, however, add not only that Buber was bravely willing to pay the price for his brand of the new thinking, but that the later books, especially The Kingship of God, are better than I and Thou in almost every way.

The study of Buber tempts one to generalize that the closer he came to the Bible the better became his style and his thought. Indeed, one can maintain that his translation of the Bible—begun with Rosenzweig but continued and completed by him after Rosenzweig’s death—is his most towering achievement. He brought enormous intelligence along with high respect for the integrity of the text to his task. As a translator, he was willing to court obscurity for the sake of literalness. The result is not only a great translation but a profound commentary. Many have noticed the tragic irony of this accomplishment: the intended beneficiary of the arduous task, German Jewry, no longer existed by the time the task was completed.

The letters illuminate Buber’s genius as a translator whenever they respond to queries about particular details. An even more attractive side of the man emerges in that considerable part of the correspondence connected with his editorship of Der Jude and with other editorial enterprises. As an editor, he displayed an almost awesome openmindedness and clarity. He solicited contributions from an amazing variety of authors, concerned much more with their gifts than with their particular viewpoints. He was not in the slightest worried about their potential or actual disagreements with his own views, and thus could encourage both Scholem and Strauss to express themselves. He wanted to hear from Walter Benjamin as well as Franz Kafka, and he quite naturally asked Lou Salome to write something on the erotic.

He elicited and earned great trust from the writers with whom he corresponded, and there is little doubt that in these efforts he was doing the Lord’s work, as when he wrote the erratic young Franz Werfel in 1914 to reassure him about his torments. He expressed his confidence that Werfel’s self-doubt would not cripple the young writer: “It is a question merely of waiting for and accepting God’s tempo.” In his own long and fruitful life Martin Buber learned to do just that.

Werner J. Dannhauser is Professor Emeritus of Government at Cornell University and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University.