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The 1920s and ’30s were a time of intense intellectual ferment in Germany. Radical questioning was the order of the day in every domain of thought, including religion. Take, for example, the uncompromising de­bate that took place between the young Leo Strauss and Julius Guttmann, a student of the great neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen and author of the formidable Philosophy of Judaism(1933). In his early work of 1935, Philosophy and Law, Strauss criticized Guttmann’s attempt to understand Jewish philosophy as an aspect of “culture” rather than “law.” For Strauss, Guttmann’s attempt to assimilate Jewish thought to culture showed him to have bought in to questionable liberal presuppositions about the common cultural roots of philosophy and revelation, which, even at this early stage of his career, Strauss insisted on keeping sharply distinct from one another. Against Guttmann’s liberal (and liberalizing) view, Strauss contrasted the thought of medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers who understood religion neither as a “field of validity,” nor as a subjective “turn of consciousness,” nor, least of all, as a “field of culture.” Rather, the medievals never wavered in grounding religion in divinely ordained law .

Martin Buber, another major figure to emerge from the tumultuous interwar years in Germany, is often thought to be, like Strauss, a critic of the cultural and political assumptions of the “scientific study of Judaism.” Yet viewed against the background of the stark alternatives proposed in Strauss’ book, Buber appears to be much closer to liberal German-Jewish thought than many of his subsequent interpreters, and perhaps even Buber himself, have recognized. As the essays collected in the Martin Buber Reader clearly show, Buber’s central preoccupation in his remarkably broad and vast writings was the modern meaning of religion, defined precisely as (to use Strauss’ description of Guttmann’s position) a field of culture that is marked by a “turn of consciousness.” Strauss’ uncompromising critique of Gutt­mann thus provides a useful way of thinking about and evaluating the essential ideas in Buber’s “essential writings.”

Buber’s rejection of the authority of Jewish law is most famously memorialized in his 1924 debate with Franz Rosenzweig on the topic. Unfortunately, the debate is not included in this collection, but it does contain a lesser-known, and perhaps more telling, discussion of the Ten Commandments. In this text, Buber asks: In what sense can the commandments be thought of as laws? His reply is that they are not laws in an ordinary sense at all. As Buber writes,

The Ten Commandments are not part of an impersonal codex governing an association of men. They are uttered by an I and addressed to a Thou . They begin with the I and every one of them addresses the Thou in person. An I “commands” and a Thou —every Thou who hears this Thou —“is commanded.” . . . The word does not enforce its own hearing. Whoever does not wish to respond to the Thou addressed to him can apparently go about his business unimpeded. The He who speaks the word has power, . . . [but] He has renounced this power of His sufficiently to let every individual actually decide for himself whether he wants to open or close his ears to the voice, and that means whether he wants to choose or reject the I of “I am.”

For Buber, God is neither a lawgiver nor an enforcer of law. Rather than “an impersonal codex,” the Ten Commandments represent for him the mark of a personal relationship each individual has with the divine. This relationship is marked not by God’s power to enforce His laws but by the relinquishment of power by the divine for the sake of human freedom to accept or reject the divine. It is in this sense that religion properly understood (what Buber calls “religiosity”) requires and culminates in a change in consciousness. “Religiosity” for Buber reflects the dynamic relationship between God and the human being in which both partners freely relinquish some of their autonomous freedom and power in order to relate to one another.

Buber’s view of Jewish law is best understood as a component of the “dialogical philosophy” contained in his I and Thou(1923). An I-Thou relation, for Buber, is one between two subjects, neither of which is static. It does not serve a particular purpose, and neither is any specific content (such as a law) intrinsic to it. By contrast, religion understood as an external law, as Strauss would have it, constitutes an I“it relation, which Buber defines as one that is fundamentally instrumental in nature. I-it relations are oriented toward power because they are relations in which the subject (the “I”) takes its partner (the “it”) as an object. Law qua law falls into the realm of I-it relations because the law, precisely by applying to all equally, treats each of its subjects impersonally—that is, as an “it.”

The themes about which Buber wrote, like the contexts in which he wrote, changed considerably over the course of his life as he moved from being a leading Weimar intellectual and educator to a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem active in Israeli political and cultural debates to, finally, a post-Holocaust religious thinker extremely influential in both postwar Germany and the United States. But Buber’s lifelong work, while exceptionally varied and textured, also shows a striking consistency of themes. The seven parts into which Asher Biemann has divided the remarkably concise and accessible Martin Buber Reader clearly show this consistency as Buber discourses on topics ranging through the Bible, Hasidism, Judaism, anthropology, philosophy, Zionism, and communal identity. Just as Buber’s understanding of law goes hand in hand with his philosophy of language, so Buber’s emphasis on transformation through dialogue marks his views of culture and politics, both in Germany before the Holocaust and in Israel after it.

Already in his 1911 essay on “The Renewal of Judaism,” Buber emphasized that a “renewal” [ Erneuerung ] of Judaism should be “something sudden and immense”by no means a continuation or an improvement, but a return [ Umkehr ] or transformation [ Umwandlung ].” Buber could thus be highly critical of Jewish liberal and rationalist approaches to culture and politics as blocking the way back to the founding myths of Jewish religiosity. Accordingly, in his translations and writings on Hasidism, Buber criticized not only what he considered the deadening effects of rabbinism on Jewish culture, but also German-Jewish liberal reformers. While Buber shared with these reformers an interest in reinvigorating the prophetic tradition, he claimed that the Reform movement remained an enterprise trapped on the surface of things. What was needed was a way to enliven the past from the inside out (through a transformation of our relations with others) rather than from the outside in (through the reform of Jewish law). Hence the importance of a 1916 letter to Hermann Cohen, thankfully included here, in which Buber describes Jewish Reform as being “without memory [ gedächtnislose ].”

For readers today, the term evokes Heidegger’s notion of “commemoration” ( Anden­ken ). Just as Heidegger claimed that “commemorating” the philosophy of the pre-Socratics held the key to retrieving a non-objectified relation to the truth of Being, so Buber found a similar capacity in the lived reality of Hasidism. Buber, in fact, anticipates Heidegger’s later articulation of the relation between the superficial outer forms of existence and the possibility of gaining access to the inner truth of being through commemoration or memory. As Buber put it in his 1911 essay “Judaism and the Jews,” “My question is not concerned with life’s outer forms but with its inner reality . . . . As for inner reality, Jewish religiosity is a memory , perhaps also a hope, but it is not a presence.”

Buber’s Zionism”in the Weimar Republic, the Jewish community in Palestine, and finally after the establishment of the State of Israel”also emphasized the transformation of the Jewish people through Zionism rather than the external securing of a homeland for Jews. Aligning himself with the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, Buber was deeply opposed to the goals and impetus of Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism. Where Herzl saw Zionism as necessary because of a decay in the world in which Jews lived (anti“Semitism), Buber believed Zionism to be necessary because of a decay in Jews themselves (assimilation to modern liberal culture). Strikingly, Buber never changed his mind on the matter, even after the Nazi genocide. He continued to maintain that cultural renewal, not resistance to anti“Semitism, was the essential task of his time. Buber’s “Hebrew Humanism” stood opposed to what he called Jewish “national egoism.” While the latter emphasizes the “normalization” of the Jewish people in focusing on “land, . . . language, and independence,” the former seeks “a concrete transformation” of the individual and the community.

At the end of the day, it is arguably Buber’s optimism about the possibility of personal and communal transformation that is most characteristic of his thought. In contrast to the deep pessimism of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Buber always insisted that biblical morality, or “biblical humanism,” would survive the throwing off of the externalizing shackles of liberal culture. In fact, for Buber, not only would biblical morality remain, it would be reinvigorated. Despite his criticism of liberal Jewish attempts to make Jewish life, and indeed human life as such, a servant of reason and progress, Buber shared certain convictions with the broader tradition of liberal German-Jewish thought. Buber’s disdain for the authority of Jewish law, like his refusal to consider the (external) threat of anti-Semitism to the existence of the Jewish people to be the fundamental one, was rooted in his belief that humanity can begin to achieve its highest ends through a turn of consciousness. Reflecting in 1933 on the growing danger to the Jews in Germany, Buber wrote: “This stormy night, these shafts of lightning flashing down, this threat to destruction—do not escape from them into a world of logos, of perfected form! Stand fast, hear the word in the thunder, obey, respond!” By transforming ourselves from the inside out through our relations with others we could, Buber believed, avoid perhaps even the worst that history had to offer.

Buber thus implicitly denied what Strauss later called Jewish law’s “deeper understanding of the power of evil in man.” After the Nazi genocide, Buber wrote movingly about God’s absence during the Holocaust, but he nevertheless remained faithful to his fundamental belief that dialogue with the divine could come about only through transformative human relations. What we make of Buber’s philosophical, theological, and political legacy will depend, in the end, on what we make of his optimism.

Leora Batnitzky is Assistant Professor of Religion at Princeton University.