Martin Buber
Martin Buber; drawing by David Levine


Early this year a ninety-year-old man was driving Israel crazy. In January Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was declared the winner of the Israel Prize, which is awarded by the minister of education in a formal ceremony on Independence Day to honor an Israeli citizen for his life’s work. The winners are usually highly respected Israelis whose activities are not controversial. Leibowitz is different. According to the judges, the prize was awarded to him partly because he has been a “rebuker at the gates.” In biblical times the courts of law were located at the city gates, and a “rebuker at the gates” was a person who defended the rights of the oppressed. The expression came to mean a social critic with religious inspiration, practically synonymous with a prophet.

However, as the prophet Amos said, “They hate him that rebuketh in the gate” (Amos 5:10). Yitzhak Shamir had an immediate comment: “The very decisions to award the Israel Prize to Leibowitz disgusts me” (Ha’aretz, January 18). Yitzhak Rabin inquired at a cabinet meeting whether the prize committee’s decision could be changed. The answer was no: the prize had been awarded by an independent, nongovernmental committee. Embarrassingly for Rabin, it turned out that on the committee was a former general who had been the chief intelligence officer on Rabin’s own staff.

But at the same time an appeal was made to the Supreme Court to cancel the award because Leibowitz urges Israeli soldiers to refuse to do military service in the occupied territories. The cabinet spent an hour and a half discussing the award to Leibowitz, and Rabin and most of the ministers in his government announced that they would not attend the ceremony at which the prize would be given. Leibowitz, for his part, said that the actions of the Israeli army undercover units in the occupied territories were no different from those of the Muslim group Hamas. At last Leibowitz announced that he would relieve the government of the burden of giving him the prize.

Isaiah Berlin—who, like Leibowitz, was born in Riga—has called Leibowitz the “conscience of Israel,” yet very few outside of Israel have heard of him. The recent English translation of his collected articles provides a useful introduction to his work. Leibowitz writes marvelously clear Hebrew, heir to the crystalline language of Maimonides and the editor of the Mishna. It is very far from the broken Hebrew of the rabbinic period. The English translation is precise and responsible, although it cannot convey the power of the original.

In contrast to the Israel Prize award that never took place, the Hebrew University, in 1958, held a grand ceremony in honor of Martin Buber’s eightieth birthday. Ben-Gurion came and sat in the first row to show his respect for Buber, to whom he sent birthday greetings as “a friend, an admirer, and an opponent.” Ben-Gurion was neither a friend nor an admirer—he was only an opponent. But Buber, in contrast to Leibowitz, was a very polite critic of the Israeli establishment. If Rabin had Ben-Gurion’s sense of history, he would have understood, as De Gaulle once said of Sartre, that “Leibowitz is also Israel.” In Israel, Buber and Leibowitz have both acquired the ambiguous status of “prophets.” It is worth comparing them and considering how the halfserious, half-mocking title of “prophet” applies to each of them.

Buber believed that his life was exemplified in his writings, and he never encouraged anyone to write his biography while he lived. Perhaps he expected that his many letters would be edited and published to reveal a “life in letters,” and, indeed, an impressive collection of Buber’s letters has recently appeared, with a useful introductory biographical sketch by Grete Schaeder. “The bare facts of Buber’s biography can be quickly stated,” she writes, for “his life was not marked by many external developments.”

I’m not sure she is right. It is true that Buber was married to the same woman for over sixty years, and that he spent most of his life at his desk. But he was active in the Zionist movement from its beginnings in Central Europe. He lived and worked under the Nazi regime almost until the “last possible moment” (1938). He moved from Vienna, where he was born in 1878, to Galicia, then a part of Poland under Austrian rule, then to Germany, and, in 1938, to Palestine. But I agree that the impression one gets of Buber’s life—an impression that is only strengthened by reading his latest biography, by Maurice Friedman—is that Buber succeeded in living a sheltered life even when in hostile surroundings.

Buber’s parents were divorced when he was three years old, and he was separated from his mother. When he finally saw her again after many years, he felt that something was missing in their longed-for meeting. This “encounter that never was” with his mother was an important experience for him and a source of his longing for what he called a “significant encounter.” Until the age of fourteen, Buber lived with his grandfather Solomon, a patrician Jew who owned an estate in Galicia and was a scholar and a great collector of Jewish manuscripts. He then went to Lvov to live with his father, an immensely rich Polish Jew, and studied in a Polish gymnasium. At eighteen he went to Vienna, where he tried to combine university studies with his Zionist activities, but after a year of “study and thought” in Florence, instead of following the career in academic life that had been expected of him, he became an editor in a Berlin publishing house. For ten years, until 1916, he lived in Berlin and then, until he left for Palestine in 1938, he lived in the little town of Heppenheim near Frankfurt. At the same time he became the director of Jewish adult education programs under the Nazi regime. In Jerusalem Buber was professor of sociology at the Hebrew University until his retirement. He died in 1965.


Leibowitz came to Palestine by a somewhat different route. Born in Riga in 1903 to a religious family, he acquired a religious education at home while studying at the local Gymnasium. When he was sixteen he emigrated with his family to Berlin, where he studied chemistry and philosophy at the university, and received a doctor’s degree. Leibowitz served as assistant to the noted biochemist Karl Neuberg, and in 1928 he began the medical studies in Cologne that led him to take his medical degree in 1934. He left for Jerusalem later that year to become a professor at the Hebrew University, where he has taught chemistry, biology, neuropsychology, and the history and philosophy of science. Although he has retired he continues to teach philosophy of science to this very day.

Both Leibowitz and Buber mastered an exceptional range of knowledge and have been willing to make their learning available not only to students but to adults in lectures, courses, and informal seminars. Buber became well known among German Jews to a large extent because of his popular lectures, and much the same could be said about Leibowitz’s reputation among the educated classes in Israel. Leibowitz served brilliantly as the chief editor of the Hebrew Encyclopedia and wrote many of its entries on science and philosophy, including “Bernard, Claude” and “Ben-Gurion, David.”

On the first page of his biography of Buber, Friedman writes: “It was Buber’s beard that made many speak of him as a biblical prophet.” (I remember how surprised I was to see the beardless prophet Habakkuk in Donatello’s group statue of prophets, Lo Zuccone.) Yet of course it was not so much his beard that made people see Buber as a prophet as his “spirituality,” his sublime Zarathustra-style rhetoric full of biblical imagery, and his criticism of society from a religious perspective—all these, combined with a particularly photogenic beard, created the prophetic image.

Yet Buber “the prophet” aroused deep suspicion in Israel. A prophet is a person who takes risks, and Buber was unjustly perceived as spoiled, a spiritual dandy. His collection of ties could compete with Imelda Marcos’s collection of shoes. Buber had close friends who were also compared to prophets—Gustav Landauer, who was murdered by right-wing extremists after the failure of the 1919 “German revolution” in Munich, and Franz Rosenzweig, the tortured religious thinker, who suffered from total paralysis. But these men were exempt from the suspicions that clung to Buber including the harshest accusation of all—that Buber, when speaking to his people, kept looking out of the corner of his eye to see what impression he was making on the goyim. When a literary critic compared Buber to Jeremiah, another critic immediately attacked him: “How can you compare the spontaneous Jeremiah to the cerebral Buber, who always seems to look around after writing a beautiful line as if to say, ‘Look how beautifully I write’?” By “cerebral” this critic apparently meant “calculating.”

Yeshayahu Leibowitz is often called a prophet in Israel, mostly a prophet of wrath. He has the sharp ascetic face of Savonarola and a tall, thin, monkish body. (A French movie about Leibowitz was entitled “No One is a Prophet in His Own Country”: Nul n’est prophète en son pays, but this was nonsense: Leibowitz is very much a local prophet.) The image of Leibowitz as a prophet is sustained by his fierceness, and his fearlessness, as a social critic who writes from a religious viewpoint, by his dramatic ability to make his audience confront a fateful “either-or” decision, and by his razor-sharp rhetoric, which is combined with the humor of a standup comedian. Either we get out of the occupied territories, he would say, or we meet our moral downfall. Either we create a Jewish state that observes the Torah or we become a nation that has no connection with historical Judaism. Leibowitz is capable of supreme moral provocation. He used the expression “Judeo-Nazis” to describe the mentality of some of Israel’s right-wing politicians—words no one else in Israel would dare use. After the Six Day War, when the Wailing Wall became the site of many national festivities, he called it the “Disco Wall.”


Leibowitz is not impressed by the record of prophecy in Israel, for, in his opinion, “All the prophets that arose in Israel did not succeed in reforming even one soul.” The period of the prophets in Israel was the peak of idol worship. For Leibowitz, the Jewish law, Halakha, rather than prophecy, is the secret of Jewish survival through two millennia of life in the Diaspora.

The Halakha is the normative part of the Jewish religion, which has been compiled during the last 2,000 years, mainly in the Talmud and the commentaries on it. Buber, for his part, sees the success of Halakha as the catastrophe of Judaism: “The strength of Judaism was not held down from without, but also from within by the despotism of the Law, which is to say, by a mistaken, disfigured, distorted religious tradition.”

Thus it is not prophecy but their view of Halakha that divides Leibowitz from Buber. For Leibowitz the Halakha is the most appropriate expression of man’s attitude toward God. For him religious awareness cannot be formulated meaningfully in words; it is an attitude toward the world, which places God at the center of life. Obeying the Halakha with its many rules governing every aspect of daily life is the supreme act of human choice that comes from the need to worship God. It is not meant to fulfill any other sort of human need. It is a free expression of the belief that the purpose of worshiping God is to place God at the center of the world.

Leibowitz says that Gershom Scholem, the foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism, once told him: “You believe in the Law and not in God.” The philosopher Ernst Simon, a friend and student of Buber’s, said that Leibowitz “observes the Torah commandments in order to irritate God.” What he meant is that Leibowitz so carefully avoids giving reasons for observing the religious law that it seems as if the only reason left is that he wants to irritate God by doing so. Buber was not an observant Jew, but Leibowitz, who sees the essence of historical Judaism in the worship of God according to the Halakha, scrupulously observes its many commandments.

Leibowitz is prepared to accept Scholem’s remark that he believes in the Law, but for him this is the only meaning of the expression “I believe in God.” Belief for Leibowitz is accepting the obligation to worship God according to the Halakha rather than believing some propositions about God. Moreover, in his view the word “God” has meaning only in the phrase “worshiping God,” as if this were a single word, “Godworshiping,” in which “God” has no independent meaning. It is as if we said that “home” has a meaning only in the word “homework.” Leibowitz believes that metaphysical talk about divinity has no meaning. In this respect he is a radical positivist; the only meaning the concept of God can have is to be found in “worshiping God”—a description of an activity.

What remains difficult, of course, is the inevitable question: At whom is all this activity directed? Why are we to believe that an Old Testament personal God is there, worshiped by Jews observing the Law? Leibowitz cannot extricate himself from the basic difficulty posed by this question, and he does not try. He characterizes Judaism only descriptively, as a historical phenomenon, and normatively, as a way of life centered around the observance of the commandments.

As one might expect, Buber and Leibowitz differ over the texts they consider central to Judaism. In contrast to Leibowitz, whose hero is Maimonides, for Buber the Bible is central, and he is himself one of its most interesting modern commentators. This can be seen from his and Franz Rosenzweig’s translation of the Bible into German, as well as from his own many books about the Bible, among them The Kingship of God (1932), The Prophetic Faith (1942), Abraham the Seer (1955), and Moses (1964).

Buber and Rosenzweig dealt extensively both in lectures and in articles with the methodological problems of translating the Bible into German. In 1936 their essays were collected into an impressive volume that bore the Teutonic title Scripture and its Germanizations (Die Schrift und Ihre Verdeutschung). This collection is about to appear in English under the title Scripture and Translation. The translators rightly say in their preface that the key ideas of Buber and Rosenzweig with respect to the Bible—its unity, its stress on a linked series of messages, its grounding in oral recitation, and the importance of repetitive patterns of kernel words—are all present in this volume. Buber returned to the original Hebrew meanings of the words, using literal translations that had become corrupted by being invested with theological significance. Thus, for example, instead of the usual German translation of the Hebrew word Qorban as Opfer—sacrifice—Buber used the word Darnahung, which preserves the Hebrew root of “coming near.” Bringing a sacrifice is a way of coming nearer to God. (This interpretation is based on Buber’s sensitive reading of the story about Korah in Numbers, chapter 16, where one can see a connection between holiness, bringing sacrifices, and coming near.)

Among all the different leaders in the Bible—patriarch, law giver, prophet, judge, king, wise man—Buber chose to emphasize the suffering prophet, who was for him more important than the king-messiah figure of David. The tradition of rabbinic Judaism, to which Leibowitz belongs, brought the prophet down from his high station; leadership through inspiration is hard to reconcile with the religious authority based on the exegesis of texts. Protestant thought revived interest in prophecy, and this brought Buber close to Protestantism.

At the center of Buber’s world, alongside the Bible, are the Hasidic writings that emerged in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and Ukraine in the eighteenth century. About this literature, as well as about the kabbalistic literature underlying it and the extensive research that has been done on it, Leibowitz might at best be prepared to say what has been attributed to the great Talmud scholar Saul Lieberman: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.”

To many readers Buber is primarily the Buber of Hassidic stories. A typical example is the story called “The Signature.”1

When Rabbi Menahem (Mendel of Vitebsk) wrote letters from the Land of Israel he always signed himself: “He who is truly humble.”

The rabbi of Rizhyn was once asked: “If Rabbi Menahem were really humble, how could he call himself so?”

“He was so humble,” said the rabbi of Rizhyn, “that just because humility dwelt within him, he no longer regarded it as a virtue.”

Leibowitz, echoing the judgment of Scholem and his followers, accuses Buber of “kitsch” and “fabrication” of Hassidic writings. He finds the tales sentimental and fuzzy in their meaning. But Buber’s interest in Hassidism was not only religious but nationalist—like the interest that the Brothers Grimm had when they collected fairy tales as part of the German national cultural revival. Buber’s critics agree that he had vast knowledge of Hassidic literature, but claim that he shifted attention away from the more than one thousand works of philosophical thought in the Hassidic literature in favor of the Hassidic tales, creating the impression that Hassidism is a sort of Zen-Judaism, with the stories of rabbis comparable to the profound but obscure stories of the Zen masters.

No doubt Buber was sometimes attracted to the “vast, vague and sentimental,” but there is also some truth in a remark of the novelist Agnon, who briefly helped Buber to collect Hassidic stories, that Buber managed to turn “provincial anecdotes into universal legends.” The price for this achievement was the “improvement” of the stories. Buber was faced with the typical translator’s dilemma of whether to be faithful to the texts or to make them more attractive, and he chose to make them more attractive. He saw Hassidism as a movement that renewed Judaism’s interest in the “here and now”—a religious trend that sanctified everyday experience and overcame the sterility of endless scholarly disputation over the texts. He therefore believed that Hassidism should serve as a model for Zionism, as a redemptive movement with spiritual significance. Only by imparting religious significance to the Zionist enterprise would it be possible to prevent it from degenerating into just another “national liberation movement.”

Scholem, by contrast, saw Hassidism as a “quietistic” movement, a religious trend in which the worship of God involves the abandonment of the ego, the annihilation of the human will. In Scholem’s view Hassidism is not the sanctification of the everyday but just the opposite: it is a gnostic attempt to remove “divine sparks” from concrete experiences in order to return them to their harmonic divine source. It is not the individual of the “here and now” that is the central idea of redemption in Hassidism, as Buber thought, but the gnostic denial of the individual’s will and selfhood.

For Buber the essence of Judaism is not commandments but the Jewish people’s unique encounter with God, which is magnificently documented in the Bible. The message of the Jewish people is neither monotheism nor any other sort of theology but the discovery that one can speak to God. Both Buber and Leibowitz are antitheological theologians, opposed to metaphysical justifications of religion. For Leibowitz such justifications have no cognitive meaning—there is no way to verify or refute religious claims. Buber’s distaste for religious metaphysics is existential: God is not a triangle—you pray to Him, you don’t prove theorems about Him. And you most certainly don’t pray to Him with Anselm’s prayer—asking God to give you the strength to prove His existence.

Buber describes an encounter he had in Berlin with the aged, influential pastor Wilhelm Hechler. After several hours of conversation Hechler was suspicious of Buber and before they parted asked him directly, “Do you believe in God?” Buber tried to reassure Hechler that he did, but the answer he thought he ought to have given him, the answer he spent his whole life trying to articulate, came to him on the way home: “If belief in God means speaking about Him in the third person, then I don’t believe in God. But if belief means being able to speak to Him in the second person, then I do believe.”

Buber thought that belief is the authentic biblical belief in God, and that it was Paul who “Hellenized” biblical belief. Paul replaced “belief in” by “belief that,” thus changing belief from encounter to a doctrine with a church. But Buber’s idea that we can converse with God without having any notion (independent of the conversation itself) of who it is we are speaking with is no less dubious than Leibowitz’s idea that we can worship God without having any notion (independent of the act of worship itself) of who this God is that we are worshiping.

Leibowitz loathes Christianity for two central reasons. The first, unoriginal, one involves the perception of Christianity as the most ancient anti-Semitic movement, which has sustained all other such movements. According to this view the source of anti-Semitism is theological, in contrast to an ordinary xenophobia based on economic or social competition. It is hatred for the “murderers of God’s son.” Leibowitz believes that there is a continuous line from the anti-Semitism of the Church Fathers to the Auschwitz crematoria.

His second, theological, reason for loathing Christianity is that in rebelling against the Halakha as the way of worshiping God, it became the supreme expression of the idolatrous world’s abuse of Judaism. For Leibowitz the contrast between Christianity and Judaism can be seen in the clash of their basic symbols: Abraham’s binding of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus. Abraham expressed a theocentric attitude central to Judaism: Man is willing to sacrifice his son for God. In contrast, the Christian attitude is anthropocentric: God sacrifices His son for Man. Almost any educated schoolchild in Israel could quote Leibowitz on this contrast between Judaism and Christianity, but the source of the contrast is actually Buber: “The prophetic idea of man who suffers for God’s sake has here given way to that of God who suffers for the sake of man.”

There is not a little irony in Leibowitz’s emphasis on Abraham, in which he takes the willingness to sacrifice Isaac as the symbol of Judaism. After all, it was Paul who used the example of Abraham in his attack on rabbinic Judaism—i.e., the “Pharisees.” In Romans 4 and II Corinthians 3, Paul described Abraham as the model of the non-Halakhic believer who was prepared to perform the supreme non-Halakhic act of sacrificing his son, in contrast to Moses, the legislator of the commandments and symbol of the Halakha. Abraham is the evidence Paul gives that Man is justified by his faith, and not by Halakhic acts.

Leibowitz detests Christianity, but he tries not to hate Christians. He nevertheless detests Jewish converts to Christianity, since he sees the act of conversion as an act of ultimate betrayal of the Jewish people. He made this clear in the case of Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, who, after he revealed information about the reactor to the British press, was kidnapped by the Mossad. Before he sold Israel’s atomic secrets Vanunu had converted to Christianity in Australia. Leibowitz, who had been one of the chief opponents of Israel’s nuclear program in the early Sixties, was asked to comment on the treatment of Vanunu, and he uncharacteristically refused to respond. “There is nothing to say about Vanunu,” Leibowitz asserted, “since he’s a traitor. He converted to Christianity.”

In the long tradition of harsh, bitter, public disputations between Jews and Christians, the last one to take place—in Germany in 1933—was between Buber and the pastor Schmidt. Buber’s defense of Judaism and the Jews is one of the proudest and most moving documents in the history of Christian-Jewish debate. He said:

I live not far from the city of Worms, to which I am bound by the tradition of my forefathers, and from time to time I go there. When I go, I first go to the cathedral. It is a visible harmony of members, a totality in which no part deviates from perfection…. Then I go over to the Jewish cemetery consisting of crooked, cracked, shapeless, random stones…. The dust is there, no matter how thinly scattered. There lies the corporeality of man…. I have stood there, have been united with the dust, and through it with the Patriarchs. That is a memory of the transaction with God which is given to all Jews. From this the perfection of the Christian house of God cannot separate me, nothing can separate me from the sacred history of Israel.

Even Buber’s stand in this debate did not quiet the suspicion among the Zionist settlers that he was always trying to please the goyim.


Buber’s fame is based primarily on his religious thought. Yet it is my impression that his ultimate concern was not encounter with God but encounter with people. It is not so much God himself that is the center of his concern as the kingdom of God. Buber sees the kingdom of God as a society founded on “I-You” rather than “I-It” relationships. The English translation of the book’s German title, Ich und Du, changed the everyday word “Du” (the familiar form of “you”) into the sublime word “Thou.” This led to a skewed interpretation of Buber, as if the only thing he intended to talk about was the human relationship with the divine.

Buber arrived in Palestine in 1938 and taught at the Hebrew University until his retirement in 1950. He did not teach theology but served first as professor of social philosophy and then as head of the sociology department. He had been interested in the study of society ever since he was George Simmel’s leading pupil and the editor of the important series Gesellschaft (Society).2

But he was not a sociologist in the usual sense of the word. He was interested in anthropological philosophy, which, as he understood it, is concerned with defining the nature of man by discovering the conditions and relations that make a society possible. He was not interested in the empirical conditions of any particular society, but in “social ontology”—that is, the general conditions for creating a community. The term “society” as he used it derived from traditional German sociological Romanticism, and is ambiguous between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft—that is, between “society” in the sense of an association based on formal relations that serve social functions, and “society” in the sense of a community based on primary relations of immediate contact and belonging. Buber was mainly interested in society in the sense of community—Gemeinschaft. As he recognized, the longing for community in modern society is based to a large extent on utopian hopes, since the familiar forms of association in capitalist societies are not based on communal ties.

In Buber’s work we find something odd yet familiar: utopian thought coming from a social and cultural pessimist. He is concerned with the “kingdom of God” as a supreme example of community, as opposed to the “kingdom of Man” described by sociology. For him the most thoroughgoing religious socialism is that in which the kingdom of God is an established society ruled directly by God. This would be a society in which people interpret their actions toward one another out of the awareness that they are all able to speak with God. Their discourse with God would guide their spontaneous behavior and lead to an anarchistic society founded on community relationships, which are relationships of dialogue.

Buber was influenced by Gustav Landauer to conceive of the utopian community of the kingdom of God as a society in which no one has power over another—that is, as an anarchistic community. He influenced Landauer in turn to see the anarchistic community as religious in character. Buber’s “city of God” is not meant to be a theocracy of clerks in the name of God, but a primary community ruled by relations of absolute mutuality. Such a society could be based on the primary relation of belonging, in the sense that one belongs to one’s family regardless of one’s achievements. In Buber’s view, a clerical theocracy is one of the ugliest manifestations of the “city of Man,” and does not belong to the “city of God.”

Buber’s anarchist views were anchored in Jewish sources. The key biblical phrase he uses to support his view is Gideon’s response when he was offered the monarchy: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23). Buber devoted an entire book to the biblical idea of the kingdom of God. But “Jewish sources” can be used to support virtually any political position. Leibowitz, who has an anarchist temperament, but holds no anarchist views, is a Hobbesian and he too draws on Jewish sources. For him the key phrase is the Mishnaic saying, “If not for their fear of the kingdom, people would swallow one another alive” (Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 3). In other words, the justification for any ruling authority is the fear of war of all against all. The government has to assure the continuation of life and it is none of its business to determine what the good life is.

Buber’s original thought is expressed in his “dialogic” philosophy, built on his famous work, I and Thou. This book too met with deep suspicion. Ben-Gurion wrote to Buber’s friend the philosopher Hugo Bergmann, who was a classmate of Kafka’s and one of the founders of the Hebrew University:

Buber’s “I–Thou” is actually nothing but a double “I.” He talks to himself—and creates a conversational partner in his imagination…. This may be pleasant but it is nothing more than self-deception.

Ben-Gurion was considered psychologically obtuse even by his admirers, but he was astute enough to discern Buber’s narcissism. Leibowitz, who fought hard against Ben-Gurion, seeing him as Israel’s Bismarck, nevertheless had a view of Buber that was not far from Ben-Gurion’s:

I would say that he was a ladies’ philosopher, and I say “ladies” rather than “women,” since if a philosophy is good, it is equally good for men and women. But there is a type of person called “ladies,” and if they start to think philosophic thoughts their philosophy cannot be taken seriously. He was not a professional philosopher, and I do not consider him of any importance, from any angle or aspect.

Here Leibowitz was expressing the opinion of many people who disparaged Buber as a philosopher. In my view they are mistaken.

Buber’s “I–Thou” philosophy suffers greatly from having been twisted into a cliché of preachers, psychiatrists, social workers, and flower children. But if bullshit, in Harry Frankfurt’s classic definition, is lack of concern with truth, then Buber cannot be accused of it. In spite of all the suspicion directed at him, Buber had something important to say in philosophy.

The first philosopher to do justice to Buber’s thought was Michael Theunissen, whose penetrating book The Other devotes an important chapter to Buber’s dialogic philosophy.3 As Theunissen shows, Buber’s philosophy is a response to phenomenology—that is, to the philosophical enterprise that attempts to “constitute” the world by means of consciousness. To constitute the world does not mean to create the world, but to carry out the mental act by which an object is built up in consciousness. The objects in our consciousness are an achievement of such activity. To constitute an object, such as a table, is not to do the carpentry work that creates the table, but to perform the mental operation that makes the table an object in consciousness. When we think, we are always thinking about something, whether it exists or is imaginary. What needs to be clarified is which features of our thought allow it to bring into being the objects that we think about.

The point of origin for phenomenologists is the same as Descartes’s, the thinking ego. A central question here is how, among all the objects that the ego succeeds in thinking about, another person comes to be perceived not as just another object but as another subject, i.e., a being who itself originates thoughts. Heidegger’s contribution to the enterprise of constituting the world in general, and another person in particular, was his idea that consciousness is not the only source of constituting objects, but that human activity also has a crucial part in it. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty contributed to the enterprise of describing how the world is constituted by stressing that the subject’s body, as well as the body of the other, has a central place in the constitution of the self and of the other.

In considering how the subjective world is created, Buber shifted the point of origin of this subjective world. For him it is not Descartes’s conscious ego or some sophisticated version of it. I would describe the point of origin with the phrase “We meet. Therefore I am.” The basic element of the human world is relations rather than objects, and these relations consist of unmediated encounters. The “I” is derived from these relations. Buber attempted to characterize the basic “I-You” relation underlying all human experience and to distinguish it from the “I-It” relation. The latter is the “objective” relation to the world—that is, the relation to objects, not to subjects. Buber attempted to deduce the ontological consequences as well as the moral and political consequences of these two fundamental relations. In religion the fundamental encounter is also between I and Thou, where the Thou is now the Big Other.

Buber’s shift of basic ontology also involves a shift in the way we come to know things. If for Husserl the central sense for constituting objects is vision, while Heidegger perhaps adds the sense of touch, for Buber the main sense is hearing, the sense that is vital for listening to others. Buber’s reading of the Bible pays special attention to hearing and listening. Some of Buber’s critics felt that he himself was not capable of a real dialogic relationship with others, and that actually he felt at home only with books, while many others have described encounters with Buber in which they noted “what a great listener” he was. My own impression is that Buber had the gestures of a good listener—gestures that are well known to psychiatrists—and include focusing the gaze on the eyes of the other, bending toward him “so that nothing should disturb us,” asking questions about details that attest to the complete interest of the questioner in the person being questioned. These can be “tricks of the trade” and not necessarily a relationship of listening with immediacy and absolute mutuality. Perhaps Ben-Gurion was to some extent right in his nasty claim that Buber was capable of a dialogic relationship only with himself.


Buber and Leibowitz are both Zionists, in the sense in which both Kropotkin and George Orwell are socialists. Leibowitz’s Zionism could hardly be simpler: We are sick and tired of living under the rule of the gentiles and the time has come for us to have our own state. No more but also no less. He does not ascribe any spiritual significance to Zionism, let alone redemptive significance, and he detests the arrogance of the desire to create a “new Jew.” The goal, for him, is a political one: a state for the Jews, but a state that has purely instrumental value. Any attempt to ascribe intrinsic value to the state he considers a blatant manifestation of fascism.

In this he is mistaken. Ben-Gurion and De Gaulle, for instance, both ascribed supreme value to the state, but they were statists, not fascists. In Leibowitz’s view Zionism in the State of Israel has turned the state into a goal instead of an instrument, thus leading to a fascist Israel. What distresses him most is the use made of religion in Israel. In his instructive introduction to Leibowitz’s book Goldman writes: “Most disturbing for Leibowitz himself is the debasement of religion by its use as a rationalization for vicious chauvinism and fetishistic irredentism.” Leibowitz would, of course, prefer that all the Jews in Israel observe the commandments, but to coerce them to do so would for him be wrong, since accepting the commandments ought to be the supreme expression of human choice.

Leibowitz denounces the attempt of secular Zionism to provide the State of Israel with a secular Jewish identity. For him this is a travesty of Judaism. A State of Israel with a secular identity would be no more closely connected to the historic Jewish nation than the modern Greece of Papandreou is to the ancient Greece of Pericles. Leibowitz believes that the task of religious Judaism is to offer the State of Israel an attractive opportunity for creating a Jewish polis. He once tried to argue that this requires adapting the Halakha to the reality of sovereignty. He wanted, for example, to update the Halakhic rules according to which it is forbidden to decode dispatches in the foreign ministry on the Sabbath, since this does not involve the saving of life, which is the only rationale for violating the Sabbath.

The demand that the Halakha be adapted to the new reality of a sovereign state has disappeared from Leibowitz’s writing in recent years, apparently because of his despair over Israel’s religious public. His main demand is now for the absolute separation of state and religion in Israel, for he believes that only such a separation can save religion from being prostituted by a secular state that makes use of it as an ideological fig leaf. Leibowitz sees the messianic Zionism of the Gush Emunim group as a return to the darkest trend in Jewish history—the false messianism of Sabbatai Zevi, which ended in the conversion of the “messiah” to Islam. He sees the Gush Emunim rhetoric of “blood and soil,” in the name of the holiness of the land, as idolatry. The combination of blood and soil is to Leibowitz, as it was to Karl Kraus, something that leads only to tetanus infection.

The roots of Buber’s Zionism, in contrast to Leibowitz’s, are in myth—the beginning of God’s kingdom over all the nations of the earth. Buber’s Zionism is a strange mixture combining the themes of nationalism, the brotherhood of man, and the connection with the earth. The connection man-soil-blood (these words are etymologically connected in Hebrew) has a symbolic meaning which Buber locates in the Bible. In Buber’s view, Zionism is justified only if it leads to a renewal of Judaism within the setting of an “organic nation” that will express “human solidarity” with the Arabs who live in the Land of Israel. Humanity must be placed above the state, and one must not ascribe holiness to power politics. Zionism must create the basis for a creative community life that would be superior to that of the decadent West.

For many years the Zionist movement concealed its ultimate aim, which was the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. In fact, until the 1942 Biltmore Plan this was not the movement’s declared aim. There were, of course, factions within Zionism, inspired by Jabotinsky, that fought for declaring as a goal the creation of a Jewish state, but most Zionists believed that in order to acquire the support of the great powers this ultimate goal must be blurred. For some, concealing Zionism’s ultimate aim also relieved their conscience, since they knew that a Jewish state could be achieved only through violent confrontation with the Arabs. Buber was clearly one of those whose Zionism was made possible only because its ultimate goal had been blurred; he consistently advocated a “binational state.”

Leibowitz’s and Buber’s criticism of Israel is most telling when it comes to the “Arab question.” Leibowitz’s image as a prophet has been strengthened by his “prophecy” during the euphoria following the Six Day War that Israeli colonial rule over the territories would lead to moral corruption. Leibowitz gave no credit to the “Jewish morality” that was supposed to provide moral immunity against a corrupt occupation. He insisted that the logic of the occupation would lead many of Israel’s most qualified people to join the Secret Service, while only quislings would be considered good Arabs by the Israelis.

Many people remember Leibowitz’s prophecy about colonial rule, but what is most interesting about it is that he took seriously, from the outset, the possibility that Israel would remain in the territories for a long time. Leibowitz’s proposed solution since 1967 has been unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all the territories—the only way, he says, for Israel to save itself from moral suicide. He has never made his solution conditional on what the Arabs would do. He was prepared to assume the worst with respect to the Arabs’ attitude, namely, absolute refusal to accept the existence of Israel. He nevertheless believes that his solution is the only one that can save Israel from the curse of ruling over another people. He has called for uncompromising civil disobedience against the occupation, and he urges young Israelis to refuse to do their army service in the territories.

Leibowitz does not consider the struggle between Jews and Palestinians in the Land of Israel as a clash between rights. In his view the term “rights” has meaning only in a legal setting. The struggle is rather between aspirations which each side considers legitimate. The only way to reconcile these aspirations without the destruction of both sides is by dividing the land. Concerning the recent accord between Israel and the Palestinians, Leibowitz said in an interview with his friend Michael Shachar, “It is a big step in the right direction. I must admit that I was completely wrong. I did not believe that Rabin’s government would make this move. Every rational person can now see that the Palestinian state has been founded. It was the right position to advocate during the last twenty-five years. I was wrong in my judgment of Rabin’s government.”

Buber too objected to Chaim Weizmann’s formula, which described the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine as a clash between legitimate rights on both sides. To Buber this formula led to a “moral tie” that gave legitimacy to the use of force as a “tie-breaker.” On the other hand, Buber took exception to the solution of his friend Hans Kohn, who, confronted with the Arab problem in Palestine and unable to imagine a just Zionist solution to it, left the country for America. Buber favored a “prophetic politics,” which in his view means always doing the moral thing in the specific situation in which you find yourself, rather than basing your morality on principles and doctrines. Not only did he believe in a binational state, he was exceptional among those who favored such a state in being prepared to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine until an arrangement could be reached with the Arabs.4 Buber died in 1965 two years before the Six Day War, and it is a loss not to have had his views on the policies of annexation.

Although Buber and Leibowitz are both thinkers with a particular interest in religion, their admirers in Israel are to be found mostly outside religious circles. It will be said of Leibowitz what Ernst Simon once said of himself: “I cannot speak to the people I pray with, and I cannot pray with the people I speak to.” But in both cases, even though their main audience for many years has been secular, their force as “prophets” comes from their religiosity. Of them both one can say: A prophet is one who saves the honor of his country, even if the prophet has honor everywhere save in his own country.

This Issue

November 4, 1993