German philosopher, Martin Buber
- The fin de siècle period (late 19th and early 20th century) was the golden age of German scientific papers and philosophy.
- The period was also an age of great poverty in Eastern Europe.
- The differences between the two sides of Europe manifested themselves in many ways. Western Europe was rich, cultured and sophisticated.
What was true for general European society, was also true of the Jewish world. Napoleon’s liberation of Jews from the ghettos of France and Germany had resulted in Jewish acculturation into Western European society.
Western European Jews spoke their nation’s language and adopted European cultural patterns. Many were educated at Europe’s best universities. Just as in the case of their countrymen, many Western European Jews tended to look down on Eastern European Jews. The masses of Polish, Russian and Ukrainian Jews were poor and uneducated in western language and culture. They lived in villages called shtetls (as described in “Fiddler on the Roof”). Western European and American Jews saw their eastern brethren as symbols of everything they sought to escape.
It is in this divided continent that the great Jewish German philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965), spent the first part of his life.
During the early decades of the 20th century, Buber was one of Germany’s greatest philosophers. He became enamored with Jewish life of Eastern Europe and served as the bridge that connected these two worlds.
Prior to the rise of Nazi Germany, Buber was a professor at the University of Frankfort and a prolific writer in both German and Hebrew. His classic philosophical work “Ich und Du” (I and Thou) is still read around the world.
Many literary critics and philosophers considered Buber to be a giant of early 20th century philosophy and social thought. His academic work has had a major influence on a variety of fields, including medical anthropology, philosophical psychology, and pedagogic theory. He was also a Biblical translator. Buber and Rosenzweig’s translation of Hebrew Scripture is a classic of German literature.
Buber became fascinated with the world of Eastern European Jewish life. Although his colleagues looked down on the shtetl, Buber found that beneath these communities’ rough surfaces, there lay a deep and vibrant social world, a world that was highly complex and sociologically sophisticated. His famous literary work “Chassidic Tales” not only gave dignity to a despised society, but it demonstrated that deep philosophical thought was not the sole province of western academics.
Buber brought to life not only the communal side of shtetl life but also its spiritual relationships with God.
Buber “invites” us into the life of the shtetl. He demonstrates that these villages, although poor in worldly goods, were rich in traditions and spirituality.
Reading Buber’s works we come to learn that people forced to live in the midst of poverty and bigotry were able to transform hopes into actions and hatred into love.
We can read Buber’s “Chasidic Tales” on two levels. On the first level, we read folk tales about people trying to thrive in a hostile world, a world in which merely surviving was close to miraculous. On a more profound level, we find a sophisticated philosophy that teaches the reader an exuberance toward life in the midst of despair.
Throughout Buber’s work, we see how the shtetl’s inhabitants became God’s partners. Unlike the “sophisticated” Western Europeans, these “unsophisticated” inhabitants did not attempt to define God. They simply lived an ongoing relationship with God. The people of the shtetl used words sparingly. Even when speaking with God, emotions were often expressed through the music of the “neegoon”: a song without words, whose chanting brought them closer to God.
Martin Buber collected these legends, wrapped them in academically sophisticated packaging, and won for them a sense of respect throughout the Western world.
His books: “Hundert chassidische Geschichten” (A hundred Chassidic tales) and “Die Erzählungen der Chassidim” (Hasidic Stories) showed the depth of spirit in the midst of poverty and presented to the world new insights into wisdom.
He succeeded in bridging the vibrant faith of Eastern European Jewry with the dry academic life of the sophisticated West, leaving us the question was that group was really better off?
Buber showed how western academics fragmented reality, while in the world of the shtetl there was the seeking of wholeness. Buber also exposed Western philosophy to the concept of tzimtzum: the idea of the divine contraction and thus allowing for the sanctification of the ordinary. Reading Buber, we see how the shtetls’ inhabitants found God everywhere because God made space in which humans might grow.
Buber does not stop with describing the relationship between humanity and God (bein adam la-makom) but also enters into the world of human interpersonal relationships (bein adam l’chaero).
For Buber it is only the the interactions between people that creates a blanket of love and protection against the cold of hatred and prejudice. In Buber’s world, there is no division between the political and the spiritual, between work and prayer, between the household chore and the majestic. Truth is not found in the unknown, in the mysterious but in the obvious, in the interaction between a person and life. Buber shows how these relationships change a heartless world and by means of traditions make life worth living.
In Buber’s depiction of the shtetl, no one is totally good or evil. Instead, there is the search for teshuvah, the turning and returning to God with one’s total being.
Buber presents us, as did Sholom Aleichem about whom I wrote last month, ordinary people who find God in the mundane routines of life. Buber’s personages do not reach beyond the human, but rather live their lives in a way that by being human they connect with God. Buber exemplifies this action through the personage of the tzadik (spiritual and communal leader). The tzadik honored each day, made it holy, through the miracle of sanctifying the tedious and unexciting routines of life.
Buber ‘s writings describe a world that is no more.
Destroyed by the hatred of Nazi Europe and its sea of prejudice, we are left with nothing more than stories, but these are tales that make life worth living, and it is due to the rational German philosopher who fled Germany and re-established his life in Israel, that we too can sanctify the ordinary and find God in everything we do.
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.