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Monday, May 20, 2013

Martin Buber -- "I and Thou"

In 1925 the Austrian philosopher, Martin Buber, published his best known work, I and thou which explored the way humanity relates to the world. Last Thursday I attended a lecture that was an absorbing look at the book as well as a study of the man who wrote it.

(Photo courtesy of wikipedia)
We began by looking at this photograph of Buber and many of us gave our impressions of the face that seemed to be looking back very directly at us. To some he seems to have a piercing even mesmerizing gaze. As those eyes interrogate you, they also engage with you and seem to invite you to come on a journey to a better understanding ... The discussion which followed was to discover something of what that understanding was and to clarify Buber’s philosophy by looking at the man. A man who believed that ­real life was about meeting and actual life was about encounter; that the mystical is in the here and now.

Vienna at the time Buber was growing up was a hub of culture and anti-Semitism. His father was a famous scholar and a member of the Zionist movement. By the age of 26, Buber was a student of Chassidic texts and greatly influenced by them. He would have believed that learning is about enlightenment, not about finding a job. He would have believed learning is religious. He also believed in “Tikkum Olam” which is a classical Hebrew doctrine, a pragmatic approach to repairing the world: What’s gone wrong we try to fix. One cannot understand Buber without understanding his emphatically Jewish perception of the world.

Martin Buber is difficult to read. He did not wish to be read quickly and so he tries to slow the reader down. Modern man always in a hurry often fails to read well. He was concerned that we recognize life’s meaning where we are addressed by God as ‘Thou’.

In I and Thou Buber talks about two kinds of relationships: ‘the I-it’ relationship where we use each other to get things done. For example, I want to learn about Martin Buber so I go to the Vicar’s lecture to learn about him!  The Vicar asks me to write about the lecture. Most of our relationships are ‘I-it’ relationships.

The second kind of relationship is ‘I-thou’­. This kind of relationship cannot be engineered or organized. Buber wrote with surprising sensuality and intimacy about I-thou relationships in describing the mystical translated through the ‘every day’. He said “The Sabbath is every day, several times a day.”

Our relationship with God is an ‘I-thou’ relationship. God is the “Eternal Thou”. The ‘sacred’ is here and now and the only God worth keeping is a God which cannot be kept and cannot be seen, but can be listened to in the present. Jews do not visualize God, though they do ‘personalize’ Him. God is to be ‘heard’ or ‘listened to’. God as a person is indispensible. If we can have an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, it cannot be less than personal. God cannot be an object. This is why most Christians do not understand the Jewish objection to the incarnation. God penetrates events in our lives. Event upon event calls upon the human person to endure to be open to the demand of the Divine because “where there is a need there is an obligation.”

The complex and absorbing meeting ended with the moral demand of Tikkun Olam: the duty of repairing the world, little bit by little bit.

Since the lecture last week, I have found some additional and intriguing quotes from the work of Martin Buber, which I think are worth contemplation.

The world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny. There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of man, of human persons, of you and of me.

Creation happens to us, burns itself into us, recasts us in burning — we tremble and are faint, we submit. We take part in creation, meet the Creator, reach out to Him, helpers and companions.

Through the Thou a person becomes I

20 comments:

  1. Fascinating. I had heard of the book and Buber, but this is the most in-depth information I've received so far. I will look into this book. Thank you for the well written post.

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  2. Please go to my blog and type Cro meets Stravinsky into the search box top left corner. You may be surprised!

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    1. I have done just that! Very interesting -- both your meeting Stravinsky and the connection with Buber! I just love 'connections'!

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  3. Thank you, DJan. He's was a very interesting man and I hope to learn more about him myself...

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  4. What an enlightened post! I heard of Martin Buber way back in college, and with most things of that era, his book was passed on. Thank you for shedding the light on a most important man and his wisdom. Off I go to search for the book.

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  5. Thank you, Rosaria! I just love being inspirational!

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  6. Dear Broad, thank you so much for sharing your understanding of Buber's writings and the way in which Jews look at the world. The idea of trying to fix it is an intriguing one and makes me think of the Jewish belief about a number of just men/women always alive in this world and making a difference.

    Many years ago I attempted to read Buber but he was too deep for me then. Now, with the encouragement of your posting and with the understanding I've derived from it, I'll get the book as an e-book and read it at my leisure because as you said, his writing demands time and attention and mulling. I'm so grateful to you for writing this post. Peace.

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  7. Thank you, Dee, for your kind words. I can just imagine you taking your time, whiling away the hours with Martin Buber keeping you company!

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  8. Very interesting. I'm not familiar with Buber and need to research him. Thanks for bringing him to my attention.

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    1. I am sure you will discover him to be very interesting.

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  9. What an intriguing book and author photo! He does have quite a mesmerizing gaze!

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    1. It was very interesting to hear what others attending the lecture saw in that face. After the lecture the Vicar remarked to me that he saw a definite resemblance to Walt Whitman!

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  10. Since my random introduction to Buber I've been a huge fan. It's a pity he's not more widely known of, and read. I suppose there needs to be a TV documentary or a film; that would do the trick. Thanks for an interesting post.

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    1. It would be an extraordinary film -- he lead an amazing life at a time of tumultuous change in the world. But he does demand your attention -- and time...

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  11. A really fascinating and illuminating post, Broad. Your Vicar sounds like a man to be reckoned with. :-) I haven't read I and Thou, but came across a lot of references and excerpts in my theological training for ministry, as Buber's thinking was a powerful influence on a number of modern theologians. I'm not sure my memory and concentration are up to grappling with the whole book nowadays, but you've certainly made me want to attempt it.

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    1. I think you would be 'mesmerized' by it! We are very fortunate to have our vicar -- he always manages to give me a lot to think about!

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  12. I admire your ability to grapple with these ideas Broad. Your vicar does indeed sound like a special person. I'm not sure I would be up to the perseverance I think would be needed to read Buber's work, but reading about him here has been fascinating. J.

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  13. Not having read the book myself, I suspect that having someone explaining it in a lecture is better for me! But I am tempted to have a go!!

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  14. I loved this post
    A bloody interesting read

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    1. Thank you, John -- I'm very glad you enjoyed it!

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Receiving comments is a joy and I thank you all for taking the trouble and showing your interest. Makes me feel all gooey and stuff!