Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shelah Lekha - Supplement (Mitzvot)


In memory of Martin (Mordekhai) Buber, whose 43rd Yahrzeit fell on Monday, 13 Sivan; and of our dear departed friend Moshe Klibanoff, who was accustomed to give a shiur in Buber’s memory every year (on Moshe, see below, May 2007, Aharei-Kedoshim (Rashi).

Many years ago, when he was still among the living, I heard a paradoxical description of Martin Buber as “the religious philosopher who never entered a synagogue.” Hence, there are more than a few religious Jews who dismiss him out of hand. I even know one Orthodox rabbi, generally speaking very liberal and open-minded, who sees Buber’s thought and teaching as having nothing in particular to do with either Judaism or Hasidism.

What was the nature of Buber’s religiosity, which so flagrantly, some might even say demonstratively, flaunted or at very lost ignored even the most basic forms and institutions of Jewish religious life, including the practical mitzvot that form their most basic contents? And in what sense was Buber’s thought Jewish? For a traditional Jew, for whom the Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are in some sense identical, the very idea of an a-nomian religiosity, which questions not only one or another detail of the Torah or the halakhah, but the very concept of law as a central element in religion, seems a contradiction in terms.

The contradiction seems all the more jarring in the case of a figure who was so deeply associated with Hasidism, a movement of religious enthusiasm and ecstasy and deep piety. Buber was perhaps the central figure in a certain modernist revival of interest in Hasidism—again, in a clearly heterodox sense—during the early and middle twentieth century. Many Westerners first came to know about Hasidism through his books and essays on the subject: his two-volume compilation of Tales of the Hasidim (Hebrew: Or ha-Ganuz); his Legend of the Baal Shem and his retelling of the Tales of Rabbi Nahman; his essays in Hasidism and Modern Man and The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism; his mystical chronicle For the Sake of Heaven, in which he portrays the messianic tension in the world of the Hozeh of Lublin and the Holy Jew; and so forth. (An interesting sidelight: Moshe Klibanoff used to say that he first decided to become a hasid through reading Buber; memorably, he stood up and stated this at an international academic conference honoring Buber’s centennial, held in Beersheba in 1977, where he was the only person present of Hasidic appearance.)

To try to comprehend Buber’s definition of religion, we shall begin with what he described, most fully in a major essay entitled “Dialogue” (included in the English volume, Between Man and Man), as the pivotal experience in his life. In his early adult years, during the first decade of the century, he was deeply involved in mystical, ecstatic practices and spent long hours in solitary meditation in pursuit of the state of rapture which he identified as mystical unity with God. One day, he was visited by a young man, whom he received courteously enough, and listened to with reasonable attentiveness. But what he failed to notice, as he put it—perhaps because he was preoccupied with his mystical and meditative practices—was the question that was not asked, the “subtext” of this visit. This young man was deeply troubled, and had come to a crossroads in his life, because of which he was seeking the counsel of a “wise man”—Buber—for an answer to the deepest existential question of all: why bother to live at all? And as a result of Buber’s failure to be fully present—or thus he saw it—something tragic happened. Between the lines, it is hinted that the young man took his own life; Buber was possibly the last person who could have pointed him on the path toward meaning and saved him.

Shaken to the core by this experience, Buber began to change direction, and in due time abandoned his pursuit of an individual, rather introverted mysticism and the pursuit of direct knowledge of God, and began to articulate and devote himself to the path of dialogue, which in 1922 took form in his seminal work, I and Thou.

I shall attempt, in a manner that will necessarily be woefully inadequate, to summarize this profound and complex book, and the philosophy that grew out of it and was further developed over the course of Buber’s life, in a few sentences: Buber held that the deepest, and indeed the only true encounter with God that a human being may experience, is through dialogue with the world—with nature, with living creatures and, most especially, with one’s fellow man. God is real. Buber is often referred to as a “religious humanist”: that is, unlike secular humanist thinkers, who embrace humanity as opposed to embracing God, Buber found God within the encounter with humanity, and with the individual man or woman. One must constantly strive to meet the other as a “Thou” and not as an “It”—that is, in the other’s full personhood, and not as an instrumentality, as an object for fulfilling one’s own needs. Then one meets God as “the Eternal Thou”—He whose being underlies the “Thouness” of every other person. Thus, he rejected contemplative mysticism because he came to see the focusing of one’s religious energy upon solitary union with God as illusory, a kind of dialogue with a fantasy of one’s own imagination (echoes of Rambam’s critique of certain kinds of beliefs!). This is so, not because God is not there, but because the true God is to be encountered within the real world of other human beings. The mystic, by contrast, is seen by Buber as preoccupied with his own subjective states of mind.

Was Buber a Jewish thinker? Or was he, perhaps, a universal thinker of Jewish roots and “background?” Clearly, his model for conventional religiosity was far from the world of Jewish halakhah. In his own way, he was deeply rooted in Judaism: two of the central “texts” upon which he built his world-view, and about which he taught and wrote extensively, were the Bible, on the one hand, and Hasidic teaching, on the other—the latter more in its lived sense and through its tales than through its theoretical teachings. He grew up in the home of his grandfather, Salomon Buber, one of the foremost Rabbinic scholars of the nineteenth century, and the editor of many of the critical editions of midrashim that are used to this day—although he himself never took much interest in halakhic or Rabbinic Judaism. He was among the founders and moving forces of the Frankfurt Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus, a new and unique kind of center for Jewish learning. He was a Zionist, who held high hopes for the realization of a new type of spiritual life in Palestine, celebrating the kibbutz in particular as a dialogic framework, and served among the early faculty of the Hebrew University. He was among the founders of Ihud, a movement for Jewish-Arab peace, along with Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon.

If one were to place him among the continuum of “devotion and commandment”—i.e., religious structure vs. the core experience—or of “priest vs. prophet “ (or perhaps “sage and prophet,” to use Ahad Haam’s terms), he was on the side of the directly experiential, bypassing formal structures. Thus, his conversion experience, discussed above, was between two positions along the axis of the directly experiential—i.e., as a movement from the immediacy of unstructured, introverted mysticism to that of the interpersonal, the dialogic. He dismissed formal structures out of hand: one gets the feeling that they simply didn’t interest him.

One must also note that he drew upon many different religions of the world. He was highly erudite and read widely and deeply in Christian mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as in European philosophy, etc., all of which formed the context for his discussions. Indeed, during his “mystical decade,” 1900-1910, he compiled and edited a volume entitled Ecstatic Confessions, which gathered personal documents from a broad variety of religious documents.

At least two central figures among his circle embraced traditional Jewish religious forms: his close associate Franz Rosenzweig, with whom he founded the Frankfurt Lehrhaus and with whom he collaborated on a translation of the Bible into German; and Ernst Simon, a generation younger, who was also a colleague during the Israeli phase of his life. There is an interesting exchange of letter with Rosenzweig on this subject, translated into English in the latter’s On Jewish Learning.

In essence, Buber’s position, and the source of his objection to the mitzvot, or to any set of rules, is that the response to God, the experience of “revelation,” is rooted in genuine dialogue, in the immediacy of the situation, in the living word; hence, by definition, it cannot be foreseen and cannot be codified. Interestingly, even in his discussion of the Ten Commandments, in his book Moses, he takes pains to interpret these as somehow meeting this dialogic criterion, rather than as categorical “do’s” and “don’t’s.” Similarly, his interest in Hasidism was not with the ritual life, but rather with the energy, the vitality of the community, the interaction between Rebbe and Hasidim, and the communal life of the Hasidim as a whole. (This question obviously requires deeper discussion, and we shall attempt to return to it in greater depth at some point in the future.)

One brief comment: it seems to me that there is room to question the sharp dichotomy Buber drew between finding God in the world and finding Him “outside” of it (viz. his critique if mysticism, as he saw it), and whether his sharp criticism of his earlier path of ecstatic mysticism properly applies to engagement in Torah and mitzvot. Do the latter involve creating a spiritual enclave “outside” of the world? Rav Amital used to tell the story of the Rabbi of Lyady, who sat studying Torah in one room while his adolescent son was sitting learning or meditating in the adjacent room, and a baby was sleeping in the third room. Suddenly the baby awoke and started crying: the “Alter Rebbe” got up and attended to the baby. After he had calmed the infant, he turned to his son, who had been sitting closer to the baby and did not react, saying: “If you cannot learn Torah and also hear a Jew crying, something is wrong with your Torah!” The point here is that human sensitivity and awareness, and transcendent spiritual concerns and yearning, are not mutually exclusive, but complementary aspects of the religious life. Halakhah, as a normative system, at least at its best, teaches and sensitizes people to the constant need to rank priorities, to choose among options, to know that that there are value decisions to be made between two goods, and that such choices are not a matter or either/or.

In conclusion, I wish to locate Buber within the context of the mishnah of the “three pillars” upon which the world stands, read in last week’s selection from Pirkei Avot. At first blush, it seems clear that he belonged entirely, exclusively, to the realm of gemilut hasadim, of “acts of kindness” understood in the broadest sense, as aspects of the inter-human, the dialogic. True, dialogue is somewhat different from hesed: it involves not only giving, kindness, acts of generosity, but also openness to the other and relation to him in his own subjectivity, not only as an object of the mitzvah-act. In any event, Buber was clearly not interested in Torah as a fixed legal teaching, nor in abstract dogmas and doctrines about God. Similarly, avodah in the traditional sense of ritualized liturgical prayer, and all the more so as the ancient cult of animal sacrifices, left him cold.

But on another level, one might say that he saw both Torah and avodah as central: Torah as teaching, and avodah as service in the world: dialogue itself as avodah, as rooted in seeing the Divine within the space between two people; of God being present whenever we speak “the basic word Thou” to the other.

Thus, my answer to Buber’s pious opponents is that, at the very least, Buber serves as a valuable corrective to the unfortunate tendency of so many traditional Jews to emphasize the first two pillars—prayer and Torah, i.e., mitzvot between man and his Creator—and to downplay gemilut hesed in the broad sense of inter-human ethics. But beyond that, I see him as one of the great sons of the Jewish people, who has created a religious teaching embracing many and diverse aspects of human life in the world, addressed to the universal human community. And yet, at the same time, he somehow remains deeply Jewish.

Finally, a note of gratitude: Although I first read Buber during my youth, I have recently had the opportunity for prolonged and renewed engagement in his thought, through my professional work as a translator. At this time I am completing work on the English version of a study of Buber’s thought, its roots in Hasidism and his relation to Hasidic thought and mysticism in general: Israel Koren’s Ha-Mistorin shel ha-Aretz (University of Haifa Press, 2005). Much of what I write above has been influenced, both by my own struggles with the text of his book, and by my conversations with its author. If all goes well, the English translation of this excellent study should be available sometime within the next year, under the title The Mystery of the Earth. My thanks go to Yisrael Koren, both for writing this book, for his friendship, and for his always illuminating comments and insights during the course of our work together.


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