An Extraordinary Life | Buber

Martin Buber

Today I look at Martin Buber. Buber who stands in the line of Amos and Karl Marx. What is the common thread? They are internationalists, people who saw universal values at work. Look how the stage has changed across almost 3000 years. Amos felt called by God to announce to the King of Israel, Jeroboam II that not only was God's judgement upon Israel for not caring for the unprotected, the weak, the vulnerable, but it was on the surrounding nations as well.

I believe God raised up Amos for this purpose. He raised him up to be Israel's conscience and if there was a turn around for Israel to be a light to the surrounding nations. By the time Karl Marx lived the world had grown rather larger. But I believe God raised up Marx to be the conscience of the world. Stop child labour, stop virtual slave labour on an international capitalist stage.

Now Martin Buber, a man of God who was called by God to speak on a unique international stage after the worst moment in man's inhumanity to man. After some 6 million of his countrymen had perished at the hands of Nazi criminals, the voice of Martin Buber was to come to great prominence on the world stage at the formation of Israel.

What is needed in Israel today is for God to call another prophet like Buber. He was nominated for Nobel peace prize by none other than Dag Hammersjkold, first Secretary General of the United Nations.

Buber was the champion of ideas that have become an integral part of philosophy, education and building relationships.

Born in 1865 in Galacia, his parents separated when he was 3 years old. He went to live with grandparents. Remarkable people. The grandfather was recognised as a scholar but the grandmother - as a schoolgirl - had collected in secret a small library. She had a love affair with books and learning about things, all of which she managed to communicate to her young grandson.

Buber grew up, went to the Universities of Vien, Berlin, Leipzig, and eventually fell in love, but not with books. One of biographers who knew him well wrote of Paula: "She was a remarkably strong woman. I've been told a very beautiful woman. I've been told how they used to like to read together to each other for hours. I think her impact on Buber could not be overestimated..... "

"And perhaps had it not been for her he might have remained a very gifted poet, dramatist, art critic, so on. But not have become the really great person he was. So I would say that here is one case in the history of philosophy anyway in which a philosophy really derives from a relationship, from the dialogue between Buber and his wife." (

He became a very influential Professor of Jewish Studies until 1938, when he was forced to flee Germany because of the pressure of the Nazis. He went to live in Jerusalem.

During his lifetime he wrote over 800 books and papers, from which you might think he was a total hermit, locked away in an ivory tower. No, he was a fearless prophet, who was unafraid to lock swords with anyone and anyone who demeaned the rights of ordinary people, who trampled on their dignity. His books he considered of little importance compared to meeting people, the encounter of minds and hearts. Listen to this wisdom: "It takes a lifetime to learn how to be able to hold your own ground, to go out to others, to be open to them without losing your ground. And to hold your ground without shutting others out." (ibid)

When David ben Gurion became the first Prime Minister of Israel in 1948 and in a comeback became Premier and Minister of Defence in the 1960s Buber wrote him saying, " I salute you and I oppose you." He wanted as a Jew peace with the Arabs. The way to peace for Israel was not the path Israel is today intent on following.

When Buber died in 1965 at the age of 87, he was recognized by the New York Times as "the foremost Jewish religious thinker of our times and one of the world's most influential philosophers."

His great philosophy can be summed up in four phrases:

  • I - Thou
  • Encounter
  • I - It
  • Dialogue

You see Buber's basic philosophy was forged in the fires of meeting people. Every kind of person. He said, ""When I meet a man, I am not concerned about his opinions. I am concerned about the man."

Buber has said his inclination was to meet people. What is important is the manner in which he met others; the quality of each relationship was vital to Buber. In Buber's own words: "I think no human being can give more than this. Making life possible for the other, if only for a moment."

Now what makes Buber so important for Christians is that he makes us aware of Jesus both as a Jew and as a Jew who sought to expand Judaism. "From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. My own fraternally open relationship with him has grown ever stronger and clearer." Later on he said, "We Jews know Jesus from within, in the impulses of his Jewish being."

He venerated Jesus but not as Christians do. On the doctrine of the Trinity he used to grumble that he understood what we Christians were getting at but did we have to put it in that particular way. Prophetic words indeed. And while we claim Jesus as Messiah, Buber says more modestly, the Jewish community in the course of its renaissance, will recognize Jesus in a unique way.

In all this Buber extended his deep sense of dialogue as a Jew to Christians, to Muslims, to Hindus and far beyond. Our humanity is revealed in the glory of God by taking the risks of dialogue. On God's international stage he was befriended by such diverse figures as Tagore, Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Dag Hammarskjold, Albert Schweitzer and politicians, educationists and philosophers throughout the world.

He was not awarded the Nobel prize. He was awarded the greatest prize of Europe, the Erasmus Prize. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, said in his speech to Buber, "You have worked for the breaking down of barriers between individuals, between peoples and between religions by starting conversations. You have taught us that what matters is not what happens to people but how they act." Aubrey Hobbes, Encounter with Martin Buber, Penguin, 1972, p. 234)

Now, how is it with you today. You can fairly claim that we are far removed from the time and context of Martin Buber's Jerusalem at his death in 1965. But is this man of God's message not as vivid and real as Marx and Amos? Are you willing to move beyond mechanical relationship into the dialogue with God and your fellows?

Do you want to know how to do it? Buber's extraordinary life shows us. It is simple. Keep the faith. Hold the line.


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