The Hasidism of Martin Buber

The last two years in the religious book field, it’s been like Old McDonald’s farm, with here a Buber, there a Buber, everywhere a Buber, Buber. There is a good reason for this. Martin Buber is practically the only religious writer a nonreligious person could take seriously today. Paul Tillich probably runs him a close second, but Tillich is too much a technical theologian for secular, let alone atheist, taste. Yet Buber is one of the most important living theologians. I should say that the determinative theological works of this century have been Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Barth’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, and, to go back to the very beginning of the century, a selection, difficult to make, from the works of Baron von Hügel and Father Tyrrell, and, conversely, from the work of their opponents, the Neo-Thomists, before Neo-Thomism became a fad with French journalists and spoiled Surrealists. Towards the top of this list belongs Buber’s I and Thou, one of the most moving books ever written.

I and Thou is a little book, a true pocket book, a vade mecum, to go with you on your way, like The Little Flowers of St. Francis, or Angelus Silesius, or The Imitation of Christ, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or Carus’s Gospel of Buddha — “vade mecum . . .” and I imagine it has gone with many a person on many a strange and tortured way. After all, it is a book by a German Jew. I read it, long ago, in French on the recommendation of — of all people — Hugh MacDiarmid, and it was one of the determinative books of my life. For twenty years I have given away copies of the paperbound Scottish edition to whomever I could get interested. Scribner’s announces a new edition of I and Thou for this fall [1958]. That will mean that somewhere close to twenty-five books by Martin Buber will be in print in English, many of them in paperback editions. A large number of these latter have been published in the last two years.

What kind of religious writer is Martin Buber? He is a Romantic Traditionalist. His approach to doctrine and ritual is pragmatic, symbolist, experiential. This is a tradition, actually a kind of revolution, known to most educated people as exemplified by Cardinal Newman, Father Tyrrell, Monsignor Duchesne, Baron von Hügel, William James, Carl Jung. Hard as it might be for the uninitiated to believe, this was once the prevailing philosophy of the Romanist clergy in America, until it was suppressed early in the century by the famous Papal Bull against “Modernism.” The great popularity of Carl Jung has led to its proliferation in every sect. In so far as they have any, it is the philosophy of most occultists, Vedantists, self-styled Zen Buddhists, a considerable percentage of Anglo-Catholics, and a small but significant percentage of Roman Catholics who, perforce, are not very communicative about it. Since the terrible events of the war years it has become a common attitude amongst previously nonreligious Jews. It is not so common amongst Protestants, for the reason that Protestantism does not provide this kind of an apologetic with sufficient materials to work on. These materials are myth, miracle, mystery, ritual, dogma. As far as the religious American Protestant layman is concerned, his religion has just spent three difficult centuries getting rid of precisely these characteristics and he does not care to return to them. Kierkegaard and Barth he never heard of; Reinhold Niebuhr he thinks of as a rather moralistic politician — like John Foster Dulles — and hence unreliable and unrealistic.

It is a clever apologetic, with a wonderful ability to sneak up on the most sophisticated and catch them unawares. Mystery, miracle, myth, ritual are considered anthropologically, in terms of their significance for a community — its living contact with its past, its internal coherence and tone, its ability to act in the present and envisage the future — exactly, of course, the way one would consider the role of religion in the study of an exotic primitive tribe. It is assumed that since some primitive tribes have been reported to be in a better state of social health than our admittedly sick civilization, the pervasive role of mystery, miracle, myth, ritual, is responsible for this difference. They give life dignity and significance, and with their rites of passage at birth, death, sexual maturity, marriage, eating, drinking, bathing — the matter of all sacraments everywhere — give it a kind of grandeur which lifts it out of the frustrations and tedium and ultimate meaninglessness of “materialistic existence.” It is then assumed that since this constitutes social health, the individual in modern society who belongs to an artificial community which preserves these characteristics will have greater mental health than his nonreligious fellows.

If miracle, mystery, myth, ritual, are group symbols of psychological realities which can be taken over by the individual to the great improvement of his mental health, why not dogma too? It is easier to believe an obvious impossibility — such as the Catholic doctrine that Christ came out of the Virgin’s womb like light through glass and left her a virgina intacta, “Blessed Mary Ever Virgin” — than it is to believe a simple misstatement of fact, for the simple reason that an impossibility, to be believed, must be immediately etherealized, made part of a system which is transmundane altogether. This is why so estimable a religion as Mormonism has so hard a time holding its young intellectuals. It is almost impossible to etherealize the simply wrong geography and history of the Book of Mormon. Anybody, even mathematical physicists, can believe the Athanasian Creed by an act of transfiguration of its statements.

So today we have large sections of our most literate population voluntarily adopting the religious behavior and beliefs of more primitive communities for purely pragmatic, psychologistic, personal reasons. The assumption is that this is a kind of symbolic behavior by which greater spiritual insight into reality, better interpersonal relations, and finally true realization of the self, will follow. The fact that there is not the slightest statistical evidence for this assumption does not matter. The fact that the entire Judeo-Christian-Muslim period in human history has been an episode of unparalleled personal and social psychosis and international barbarity is beside the point. People have Hanukkah lights in the window or Christmas trees at the winter solstice and take Communion at Easter or make a Seder on Pesach because the society in which they live provides them with no valid life aim and robs them of all conviction of personal integrity. All “neo” religions are cults of desperation in a time of human self-alienation and social disintegration. Rigid orthodoxies like Neo-Thomism are just archaizing pragmatisms of the same kind which as a final act of faith reject the personal and social instrumentalism which is their initial assumption.

It is in this context — that of the only effective apologetic of our time — that Buber functions. But this is not to belittle him. It is obvious that what I have been describing is not really the role of religion in society at all. It is the role of art. Just as the Surrealists and others have tried to substitute art for religion, so the Romantic Traditionalist, be he Jew, Catholic, Vedantist, or Buddhist, turns religion into a kind of compulsive poetry — poetry with an imperative attached. (I might point out that sometimes it isn’t very well attached.)

The real reason for the popularity of the Occult Ancient East was pointed out long ago by Kipling: “Ship me somewhere East of Suez . . . where there ain’t no ten commandments . . .” If your religion is just exotic enough, you don’t need to bother about responsibility. You can get away with anything. There is nothing of this in Buber. For him the faith is the faith of his fathers, and the highest expression of that faith is its prayer, and prayer is the highest form of responsibility, the ultimately committed dialogue. This is an aesthetic statement, not a religious one, and in the final analysis all of Buber’s major works are works of art. I and Thou is one of the greatest prose poems, an Isaiah, and a Song of Myself.

From I and Thou to his latest collection of essays, all of Martin Buber’s work has been a celebration of the joys of communion. Will Herberg has recently included him in his collection, Four Existentialist Theologians. Now when Will Herberg was young and giddy and a Marxist, he had the reputation of being the only American of that persuasion whom the Kremlin ever took seriously as a thinker. He once wrote a pamphlet which I still treasure, called The Stalinist Position on the American Negro, which pretty well disposed of that folly forever. As he has grown older and got religion, he seems to have lost his sense of discrimination. “Existentialism” may be a fashionable term that helps sell books, but Martin Buber’s connection with Existentialism is of the simplest and most fundamental kind — he is against it, and he has written more cogent polemic against it than anybody else who has ever bothered with it. He is the leading anti-Existentialist amongst modern religious writers. Maritain, one of the five, is neither a theologian nor an Existentialist. He is a religious journalist with a keen nose for catchwords that sell books.

Religious Existentialism descends directly from Augustine to Luther to Kierkegaard to Barth. It is obsessed with the absolute transcendence of the creator and the utter contingency of the creature, and it recognizes no mediation except a sort of historically instantaneous thunderbolt, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, which must be accepted as an act of blind faith. It has no use for the responsibilities of community: Augustine put aside his wife, married after the rites of a slightly different sect, as a whore, and Kierkegaard’s love life was a pitiable farce. It pictures man as ridden by the anxieties and terrors of his only spiritual ability — his realization of his own insignificance. This is why atheist Existentialism is a philosophy of despair, “the philosophy of the world-in-concentration-camp,” a kind of utterly thoroughgoing masochism. Take away God and there is absolutely nothing left. Nothing but black bile. Nobody there. However Martin Buber might disagree doctrinally, take away his God and nothing important in his philosophy has changed. It remains a philosophy of joy, lived in a world full of others.

Actually, Buber’s philosophy, technically speaking, is much like that of the English Hegelians, especially McTaggart, and the great forgotten American, Josiah Royce, just as his epistemology and his position in the Existentialist controversy is close to that of the contemporary English thinker, John Wisdom. The Beloved Community may not be for him, as a quasi-orthodox Jew, the Absolute, but it is the garment of the Absolute. And his epistemology is founded on the answer to the question “What is out there?” — “Other minds.” And that answer is the title of John Wisdom’s most seminal book. I am well aware that Buber’s philosophical writings are an integral part of the modern Existentialist dispute. Between Man and Man is concerned almost entirely with the question of personality, the person as human being, the person as a member of society, the absolute personality. As such, written in Germany in the second quarter of this century, it is perforce a running commentary on Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler. But this does not make Buber an Existentialist any more than Aquinas is a Nominalist or an Averroist. Again, the American lectures gathered as The Eclipse of God deal with God as absolute person and man as contingent. This is the favorite stamping ground of the Existentialists, and also, of course, American lectures must be about things up-to-date audiences want to hear.

Existentialism is a frame of mind. For people who do not know the maximum state of insecurity bred in most men caught in our disintegrating social fabric as in a thicket of fire, its dilemmas, like the epistemological dilemma that bothered the British for three centuries, simply do not exist. The dilemma does not exist for Buber. He cannot project himself with any success into the psychosis of total insecurity. He is too much at home in the world. Nothing shows this better than his treatment of Simone Weil in the essay, “The Silent Question” (from At the Turning), or of Sartre in The Eclipse of God. Neither Weil nor Sartre is very great shakes as philosopher, but both are certainly pure Existentialist personalities, high-level Beatniks. Buber is very funny. Forced by popular demand to discuss an outrageous and pathetic girl, whose writings are a farrago of terror and misinformation, and a plain vulgar journalist, it is all he can do to control himself. His distaste for life lived on this level, for the most important issues exploited purely for sensationalism, for a kind of metaphysics of delinquency, is more than his sympathy can bear. He takes refuge from Simone Weil in his own orthodoxy. Sartre he dismisses with a compliment as a great literary artist. Coming from the author of Tales of the Hasidim and I and Thou, this is the most ironic innocence.

He is so polite, this man with the most beautiful beard since von Hügel. He is so nice to Carl Jung. He picks his way so nicely, so kindly through and over the disjecta membra of that beached whale, the chubby corpse of Madame Blavatsky, which is the gnostic theosophy of Jung, and even after Jung “answers” him in a half-cocked polemic full of pleas about the “science of psychology” from one of the most unscientific minds of all time, Buber so gently points out that the controversy is beneath the level of a second-year student in a good theological seminary — any time in the past fifteen hundred years. He does this, of course, purely by implication. Jung, I am sure, was completely unaware that he was thoroughly told off. Buber likes people. Had he met Simone Weil in person, he would have liked her, and it is a pity he didn’t, because, had she listened, he would have done her a lot of good. Many girls and young men exactly like her must have come to him down the years. He is the kind of man whom any person in trouble would recognize on sight, or on the sight of a single book of his work, as the ideal confessor. Simone Weil did not like such people and avoided them. To her, they were what her more vulgar sisters call “the fuzz,” representatives of her “Great Beast,” the Social Lie.

Is Buber in any sense a representative of the Social Lie? Max Weber long ago pointed out that the use of a transcendental ideology to justify the betrayals and compromises of politics and economics is the essential social falsehood. The oncoming war is not going to be fought on either side for any sort of values whatsoever, and anybody who says it is is a liar or a dupe. We have finally reached a point where the very conditions under which they operate expose the fiction of politics and economics for what they are. If Buber were a spokesman for Judaism, or any other religion as an institution, or for Israel or any other State, then of course Simone Weil would be right.

This brings us at last to the meat and crux and essence of Buber’s thought, his idea of community, his interpretation of the vocation of prophet, and hence, by implication, of his own social role vis-à-vis Hasidism. Buber’s Existentialism is terminological — an accident of current talk; his Hasidism is at his heart. Now Buber’s Hasidism is a very special thing, and for those who know nothing about the subject, his presentation can be not just very, but almost totally misleading. That is, for anybody seeking ordinary information. He has, practically single-handedly, brought Hasidism to life for educated people. (The actual sect is still very much alive, especially among poorer Jews in, for instance, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.) But he has revivified only certain elements of this Jewish sect; much, in fact what most actual Hasids would have considered the most important parts, he has left dead and forgotten or has subtly reinterpreted. What is Hasidism — not Buber’s Hasidism, but the historical movement as it appears in the record?

Hasidism is an ecstatic religious movement which resulted from the impact of popular Kabbalism on the folk culture of the eighteenth-century Polish ghetto. Many elements went to produce it. In part it was a pressure phenomenon like the pentecostal religions of the American Negro. Polish Jewish life in the eighteenth century was especially hard. The Messianic movement of Sabbatei Zevi collapsed in spiritual demoralization when he became a Muslim. The partition of Poland subjected the Jewish communities to new problems. Life was insecure and unstable and full of disabilities and petty annoyances. Pogroms and persecutions increased. The community was driven in upon itself more than ever before, but it was driven in upon a specially rich folk culture, some of which was ancient, some of which was Russian or Polish in origin, some of which had developed in situ. All those folkways which one’s Polish Jewish friends reminisce about with such gusto gave life in the ghetto and in the Jewish villages an intensity unlike anything in the peasant cultures of Western Europe. At the same time similar pentecostal and charismatic movements were sweeping through the Christian peasant communities of that part of the world. This was a time of great proliferation of the sects of Russian Dissenters, and of the Eastward movement of German Mennonites, Anabaptists, and Pietists.

Jews have been in Poland longer than anyone knows. The Persians settled Jewish communities on their northern borders beyond the Black Sea. The Khazar kingdom, Jewish in religion, competed with the Vikings, A.D. 600-800, for control of the waterways and the fur and amber trade of what is now Russia. In the Dark Ages the Jews were voyageurs much like the fur traders of French Canada centuries later, over all the Baltic-Black Sea river connections. These Jews were not Talmudists, and remnants of them still survive as Karaites — non-Talmudic Jews — in the Crimea and elsewhere.

Into the same borderlands, the Byzantine Empire had for centuries expelled incorrigible heretics. First the Paulicians and Gnostics, later the Bogomils. At one time much of the South Slav world was ruled by Bogomil dynasties. From the Bogomils by direct propaganda came the Cathari — the Albigenses of Provence. Russian dissent is strongly influenced by Bogomilism. Any unprejudiced study of Hasidism immediately reveals all sorts of ideas shared with Catharism.

Kabbalism dates back into the most obscure past of Judaism. It claims to be at least as old as Jewish orthodoxy, and it may well be right, but its basic document, The Zohar, was written in Spain in the Middle Ages. It is simply Jewish Gnosticism. This is disputed but it is none the less true. It shares every important feature with all the leading Gnostic sects. From the inscrutable Godhead, Ayn Soph, emanate ten sephiroth, with names like Rigor and Mercy, the aeons of Valentinian. The final one, Malkuth, the Queen, is the physical manifestation of Deity in the universe. This is the Wisdom that danced before Him before the beginning of days, of the Book of Proverbs, the Shekinah, the Glory that hovered over the Ark and blessed with her presence all the great rites of passage and the festivals of the year. She is thought of as a hypostasis, a Divine Woman, the Bride of God, exactly like the Shakti of Shiva. She is also the abomination of desolation against whom the prophets continuously cry out. Ishtar, Astarte, Ashtoreth, the Baalat of Baal, the most ancient Canaanite goddess reasserts herself in eighteenth-century Poland.

A great deal of Kabbalism is taken up with alphabetical magic, and the manipulation of Biblical texts, numerologically and otherwise, to make them mean something quite different from what they say. Finally, the “innermost secrets” of the Kabbalah are what are occult in all occultism, various autonomic nervous system gymnastics of the sort we identify with Yoga, and erotic mysticism. For the Kabbalist the ultimate sacrament is the sexual act, carefully organized and sustained as the most perfect mystical trance. Over the marriage bed hovers the Shekinah. The Glory of God is revealed in the most holy of duties, and new souls are reborn into the sacred community of Israel. There are other notions — reincarnation, light metaphysics, worship of the planets and the moon, the latter identified with the Shekinah. (When Hasids dance in the public parks of New York under the new moon with their hands over their heads, they are showing her her stigmata, found in the lunes of their fingernails, and celebrating her as their Great Mother.)

Kabbalism is thus one with the most ancient heterodoxy, and it well may be more ancient than any orthodoxy. Emanationism and some other doctrines are set forth in the so-called Memphite Theology, an Egyptian tractate older than the days of Moses and the Exodus. Kabbalism differs little from any other form of Gnosticism, whether of Kobo Daishi or Bardesanes, and as a full-fledged system it is certainly a few centuries older than the Christian Era. People who know of all this only through modern cultists or occult Freemasonry are under the impression that it was all thought up a couple of generations ago by Eliphas Levi and Madame Blavatsky. On the contrary, its claims to antiquity are quite valid. There is one important particular in which Kabbalism differs from many Gnosticisms, and especially from Manicheanism-Paulicianism-Bogomilism-Catharism. It is not dualistic. The final source of all reality is One, a hidden and unknowable God. Evil is explained in the various orthodox fashions — as a term of creation, as a manifestation of the recalcitrance of matter, as the result of a Fall, the Fall of the Angels and the Exile of the Shekinah, of Adam, and a falling apart of the manifest and the transcendent worlds, and finally — a notion shared with Indian Tantrism — as the “shells” left over, like burst vessels, from previous creations. The Biblical epic, from Abraham to the closing of the canon and on to the Fall of the Temple is considered to be the essential process of the return of the sephiroth. Hovering above the Torah, the Rite and the Law, the Shekinah is wed, the Creative Act is a closed circuit. Outside the Covenant or in the Diaspora, she is still in Exile. The Community of Israel is the Bride of Jehovah.

It must be pointed out that the various sects descended from Manicheanism have all disclaimed dualism. The accusation comes from the orthodox. All this is repeated in the mystical doctrine of the Blessed Virgin — the names in the Litany of the BVM, the etherealization of the Song of Songs and the Books of Esther and Ruth, are common to Kabbalah and Mariolatry. For this reason and similar ones, conventional Jews have always been suspicious of Kabbalah as a transmission belt to Christianity. It has been so in the past and the leading twentieth-century Kabbalist, Paul Levertov, became an Anglo-Catholic priest.

This is very heady stuff. History has proved, time and again, that when it gets out amongst the masses it can be extremely intoxicating and subversive of all decent social order. Except, reputedly, for the ancient Babylonian city of Harran, the last outpost of paganism to survive, and possibly for the Assassin inner community of Alamut, there has never been a stable polity reared on Gnosticism. The Kabbalists kept their speculations carefully confined to a very small elite. Much of the present Prayerbook is the work of one of the greatest Kabbalists that ever lived, but not one Jew in ten thousand is aware of it. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer Baal-Shem, the founder of Hasidism, turned it into a popular cult, with an extremely active propaganda. He gave it a kind of organization. He imbedded it in the Yiddish folk culture. He did much more than this. He gave it an ethical content of a sort we do not know to have existed in any other Gnostic movement. Again, we know the ethical aspects of heresy only from the polemics of the orthodox. If Albigensian Provence, with all its wealth and culture, was anything like the poor villages of Poland gripped in the enthusiasm of the Hasidic movement, Europe was dealt a deadly blow by the Albigensian Crusade. Simon de Montfort and the Pope, Hitler and Himmler — perhaps there is something about the rage of the Great Beast at the sight of the pure joy of living which can be appeased only with the savor of burning human flesh.

Hasidism came to have a whole group ritual, special ways of celebrating the old Jewish holidays and rites of passage. Most conspicuous was ecstatic dancing of a peculiar character. It is like nothing else in the world, although I suppose its antecedents go back to the dancing dervishes of the Levant and through them to the Corybantic brotherhoods of the Baals and Baalats of Canaan. Great emphasis was placed on the bath of purification. For the antiquity of this we have physical evidence amongst the Essenes of the Dead Sea settlement. The Baal Shem frowned on asceticism and taught that the holy man “redeems” food and drink by consuming it. Alcohol was consumed, especially before dancing, to produce a kind of holy intoxication. Erotic mysticism and direct adoration of the Shekinah as the Bride of God were central to most rites. The ritual dance was customarily performed to singing in which all took part, dancing in a circle around a young boy with a pure unchanged voice who stood in the center of the ring dance on a table, and who was understood as a surrogate for a woman. Dances like this are referred to in both the Jewish and the Christian Apocrypha and they are common in other Gnostic sects from Japan to Bengal. This, however, did not result in any sort of orgiastic sexual promiscuity. There is no question but that sacred prostitutes, male and female, were part of the temple ritual until the revolution which “discovered the ancient documents” of the present Torah. In Hasidism their place is taken by each married couple — a temple unto themselves. All Hasidim, and especially their leaders, the Zaddiks, were expected to marry, and the final expression of erotic mysticism was centered in the marriage bed and the family. In this way Hasidism, after all its colorful and emotional detour, returns to be at one with the most orthodox mystery of Judaism — the seed of Israel.

Hasidism was organized exactly like the Albigenses. There was an elite, called Zaddiks, which means the Righteous, corresponding to the elite of the Albigenses, the Cathari or Purified Ones. They were usually rabbis, but not always, and like the imams of the Shi’ite Muslims, there were supposed to be always thirty-six Hidden Zaddiks, or sometimes only one who was a sort of bodhisattva or latent Messiah, and from whom flowed the holiness of the others. Around each of these especially devoted and illuminated leaders (they were thought of, like the Cathari, as literally filled with light) were grouped little fellowships of the rank and file Hasidim, an ecstatic, dancing, singing, gesticulating band who greatly resemble the first Franciscans and may well have resembled in actual behavior the first disciples of Christ (who, we may be sure, did not comport themselves like the Bench of Bishops).

The Zaddiks were direct sources of mana, holy power, which could be tapped by less saintly laymen, and they were equally direct advocates with God. To each Zaddik the laity brought little slips of paper inscribed with all the troubled petitions of life and with the petitioner’s name and, not his father’s, as is the Jewish custom, but with his mother’s name. The Zaddiks spent long hours in meditative prayer, in the course of which all the day’s petitions were presented before the Throne of Mercy. If this constitutes the essence of priesthood the Zaddikim were priests, and as such the only priesthood surviving in Jewry outside of the Falasha of Abyssinia. In the course of time this custom and another like it, which greatly resembled the sale of indulgences that disgraced Renaissance Roman Catholicism, came to corrupt Hasidism, and many Zaddiks ended up rich, vain, drunken exploiters of ignorant slum and village superstition. The Hasidic community was a genuine fellowship. The laity spent a great deal of time with their masters, in the synagogues and schools, and at table, eating with them if possible on all the holidays and on every Sabbath, especially the third Sabbath meal — the Feast of the Queen. Alcohol, dance, song, sex all played a part, but above all else, Hasidism was a religion of conversation. In this, once again, it must have been very like the earliest days of Christianity. The Marriage Feast at Cana, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, the Last Supper — these are all intensely Hasidic episodes.

This special temper seems to have been always latent in Jewry and in eighteenth-century Poland the Hasidic propaganda fell on fertile soil. Almost everything which the nonreligious American treasures as part of the Jewish contribution to modern culture comes from the intense and intensely gregarious life of the Polish ghetto. Above all else it is a frame of mind, an insouciance in the face of the cruel absurdities of life, a very special kind of whimsical irony, which has passed over, emasculated, to become our typical modern American (New Yorker) humor, an inexhaustible, mocking fantasy, a special kind of intimacy which is compounded of a general ebullient love of man and of life and a very active interest in the immediate partner of any dialogue. This is the Hasidic temper. It gives the characteristic color to those typical Jewish jokes and anecdotes which are so much funnier than other jokes. From it come all the great Yiddish writers, from Sholem Aleichem to Moishe Nadir, the visionary poets like Yehoash. It gives the Yiddish theater its effervescence and poignancy. Zak, Zakkine, Soutine, many Americans — my friends Doner and Zakheim amongst them — these are all Hasidic artists, and the greatest of all, of course, the pure illustrator of the Hasidic spirit, is Marc Chagall, whose paintings find their parallel in the Tales of the Hasidim of Buber. The intended canard of chauvinists that jazz is Negro and Jewish music is perfectly correct. It is the ecstatic Hasidic heritage that made it possible for American musicians from Avenue A and Maxwell Street and Williamsburg to meet the Negro half way.

The Hasidic movement at its height included close to half the population of Jewish Poland. What effect did such an explosion have on the orthodox? Surprisingly little, considering. In the first place, Kabbalism as long as it was veiled in the decent obscurity of learning was a perfectly respectable part of Judaism. In the second place, all their opponents, the misnagdim, shared the same folk culture, unless they were assimilated — renegades — a good deal worse than being Hasids. Many of the doctrines and ideas and practices of the Hasidim were paralleled in the regular Jewish community. The Hasidic movement just gave them a new emotional content and so shaped them to a more ecstatic form. Eventually many of the Zaddikim became very learned, with a rather crazy kind of learning, and were able to dispute the rabbis on their own ground, and the power of learning, Jewish learning, is respected by even the most bigoted.

And then, finally, there is no Jewish orthodoxy in the sense a Christian would understand. It is possible to believe in heaven, hell, and purgatory, or in reincarnation, or in no after life at all, and still be a good Jew. The emanationism and hypostases of Kabbalah have never been challenged as either polytheism or pantheism. It is inconceivable that the world of Jewry could ever tear itself asunder over speculations as to the exact nature of subtle psychological processes in the structure of the Deity, or as to the exact nature and occasion of God’s saving grace. If you preserve the unity of the Godhead and keep the Torah, you are a Jew and no rabbi, however learned, can say you nay. The Jews are the only people who have ever met the supposed threat of a widespread movement of the Gnostic type without persecution to the point of extermination. True, misnagdim means “persecutors” — but the defensive measures of the conventional communities of Poland were affectionate compared with the Albigensian Crusade, the Persian crusade against Mani — and in our own day against the Bahai movement, or the Lutheran suppression of the Anabaptists of the Münster Commonwealth. In fact, all Judaism, from Frankfort to Jerusalem, from Lithuania to Rumania, felt the influence of the Hasidic movement and shows it to this day. (There exists another province of Hasidism, the popular Kabbalism of Levantine and Sephardic Jews. It had demonstrable connections with the movement of Baal Shem Tov but it is not important in a consideration of Martin Buber’s neo-Hasidism.) Hasidism itself is still very much alive and typical Hasidim can be seen any day — but the Sabbath — by anyone who cares to visit the fur district of New York at lunch hour. It is not only powerful in Israel, but its rites and ceremonies with their dancing and songs and joy of life are the direct source of the folk customs of the neo-Judaism of the kibbutzim, the Jewish cooperative communes in Israel. The “Israeli” songs and dances that have become so popular a part of the Zionist propaganda in America and that can be heard at parties of the most sophisticated Jewish young people are Hasidic, not Palestinian, in origin.

Hasidism owes its power and durability to its ethical content, and to the specific kind of ethical content. Partly this is simply Jewish, but much of it is the teaching of the Baal Shem and his first disciples. There have been lots of Baal Shems; the term means the “master of the name,” a Kabbalist who has discovered or inherited one of the secret names of God and can work magic with it and summon up powers and demons. Baal Shem Toy, as Rabbi Eliezer was called, is the master of the Good Name, the Kabbalist who can work miracles in the souls of men. Actually, Baal Shem Tov seems to have been an almost illiterate man as far as Kabbalistic learning went, and many of the early Zaddikim were simple workmen, woodcutters, coachmen, potters, butchers, tanners — many of them from occupations of dubious purity from the strict Jewish point of view. Hasidism is ethical mysticism. Its dominant characteristic is joy in the good — in the good in every sense of the word, in life, in the good things of life, in the beauty of creation, in the good in all men, and in doing good. The joke, “Good food, good drink, good God, let’s eat,” could well be a brief Hasidic “grace.”

The great trouble with Talmudic Judaism is that it was used up emotionally — it had become a religion of rules and prescriptions, very difficult to get excited about. Hasidism changed all this. The Torah, the Law, became a source of endless intoxicating joy. To use the vulgar phrase of a bad American revivalist, they discovered that it was fun to do good and to be good. It is curious that with the exception of the Quakers, Christianity and the religions influenced by it teach or at least imply that it is very, very hard to be a good human being. This is simply not true, not at least for a person uncorrupted by manufactured guilts. It is not only easy to avoid lying, stealing, fornication, covetousness, idolatry, lust, pride, anger, jealousy, and the rest, it is a positive pleasure. Essential to such a life are magnanimity, courage, and the love and trust of other men. These are above all others the Hasidic virtues, along with humility, simplicity, and joy. These are all virtues of direct dealing with other men — the virtues of dialogue. To the Hasid the mystical trance is a dialogue. The self does not unself itself, but “forgets itself” in conversation with the Other; and from the Other, i.e., God as the ultimate and perfect partner of dialogue, flows out the conversation with all others — the life of dialogue, the philosophy of Martin Buber.

What Buber has done is divest Hasidism of its Gnosticism, and of the extremities and eccentricities of conduct which are the marks of isolated sectarianism. Unless he himself has some personal esoterism he has not divulged to us, he has discarded all of its occult lore and practice. What he has kept is the folk spirit, the ethical gospel, and above all the specific temper. Baron von Hügel says somewhere that one of the essential signs of sanctity in the process of canonization is a certain pervasive sweetness of temper — a kind of holy good humor — or possibly just plain good humor. It is this courtoisie which Hasidism shares with the early Franciscans and which is so rare a virtue amongst the professedly religious. Least of all is it common amongst the Romantic Traditionalists, the inventors and followers of our modern archaizing neo-religions. Let a contemporary intellectual start reading Thomas Aquinas or Dr. Suzuki and he immediately adopts all those lovely virtues preached by Christ or Buddha — pride, arrogance, intolerance, bigotry, ill temper, anger. It is not for nothing that the Pope condemned L’Action Française. It was a parade of all the deadly sins in literary guise — in the guise of Catholic polemic and apologetic. Von Hügel of course was not a convert, he was a born Catholic of great power and influence; he rather was trying to convert the Church. Possibly Buber is in the same position. He has taken a movement of ghetto, slum, and peasant enthusiasts of which most educated Jews were secretly ashamed, and has used it to reform, restate, and give new emotional meaning to what he considers to be the essence of Judaism. It is quaint to notice that his American exponent, Will Herberg, is still embarrassed by the ruffianly antecedents of Buber’s philosophy and tries as best he can to ignore his Hasidism altogether and to make him out a fashionable existentialist. You can get a far more reliable picture of Buber as man and thinker from Maurice Friedman, to whom Buber’s Hasidism is central and paramount.

I and Thou — the life of dialogue. We have heard something like this from that most bankrupt of all sectarian sects, American Liberal Protestantism (or Reformed Judaism). Does this mean “sharing,” folksiness, “group dynamics”? I know of no more obnoxious experience than to be approached after a lecture or reading by some ass in well-shined face and well-shined shoes who says, “I’d like to share your thinking about Red China — or Birth Control — or Juvenile Delinquency.” Who is he to ask a piece of my mind for a piece of his? At this moment America is bedeviled by the popinjays of Togetherness. Recently my little daughter came home from school and asked for twenty-five cents for her Good Citizen Milk. Anybody who, at this stage of the game, starts talking about this subject is treading on dangerous ground and should rightly be viewed with the greatest suspicion. What sort of dialogue is this? Certainly our current Togetherness is simply the massing of frightened ciphers and only adds up to a compulsory vacuum.

This of course is not Buber’s notion. For him the reciprocal response I and Thou is the only mode of realization of the fullest potential of each party. The one realizes itself by realizing the other. The ego is by definition the capacity to respond. It does not lie in some inner recess of the person, but is “out there,” it is built in the fullness of our intercourse with others. We respond to a person, we react to things. True, a great deal of our relations with other men is systems of reaction, but morality is the art of substituting response for reaction. In so far as another human being is treated as a thing he is dehumanized. This is not a new concept. We have heard the term “reification” before, here in America. Conversely, Buber says somewhere that all things come to us as more or less manifest or remote perspectives on persons, and this, certainly, is pure British Hegelian Idealism of fifty years ago. In fact, it is pure McTaggart. “All real living is meeting,” says Buber.

“Pure,” “Absolute,” “Ideal” — such a philosophy deals in the most transcendent material and therefore, as it presents itself in the world, must show its bona fides. We have been far more than twice burned and the baby goes reluctantly back to the candle. McTaggart’s philosophy of love led him to demand the expulsion of Bertrand Russell from his university because he was a conscientious objector, on humane grounds, to the least justifiable war in history. How much is Buber open to the accusation of Max Weber?

It is possible to put together an irreproachable catena of quotations on all the crucial questions of our violently sick social order. The community emerges out of the I-Thou relation, not conversely. “Only men capable of truly saying Thou to one another can truly say We with each other.” “Individualism understands only a part of man, collectivism understands man only as a part; neither advances to the wholeness of man. Individualism sees man only in relation to himself, but collectivism does not see man at all; it sees ‘society.’ Individuation is a reciprocal process and hence cannot exist in autonomy. There is nothing to confirm.” “Confirmation of the self through the collective is pure fiction.”

Against individualism and collectivism, Buber advocates communism — that communism with a small “c” which is almost forgotten today. His ideas can be paralleled in dozens of “communitarian” writers, from the socialists Engels dismissed as “Utopian” to Bakunin, Kropotkin, the Russian Socialist-Revolutionaries, Berkman, Gorter, as well as some Roman Catholic radical social thinkers. All of these people envisaged their communities as coming about after either an overthrow of the existing society or in isolation after a total turning away, geographically as well as physically and morally, from our own moribund competitive society. Buber [in Paths in Utopia] identifies his communitarian ideal with the actually existing kibbutzim in modern Israel. Now these are, most of them, committed to a peculiarly unreal Bolshevism-without-the-Bolsheviks of their own, a kind of etherealized Stalinism. Others are religious communities of various states of orthodoxy. They are quasi-military in their internal life. All basic relationships and duties are compulsory. They are directly military in their external relations. Most of them are armed outposts, constantly on the defense against Arab invasion or infiltration. They are almost completely devoid of privacy. The I-Thou relation requires that the parties have an always open opportunity to be alone together. This simply is not permitted in the typical kibbutz. They are, of course, part of the state policy of the aggressive State of Israel. They are the perfected fulfillment of the “movement” — a depersonalizing thing of delegated responsibility, of ideological command and obedience, of Zionism. Finally, without a continuing stream of American money, from Jews still deeply committed to competitive individualism and patriotic collectivism, they would not exist at all.

Buber tries hard to etherealize both the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. He considers this the redemptive role of prophecy, the continual confrontation of the secular state with the transcendental demands of an intention, a destination, beyond the world. This may give him comfort, but it does not alter the facts. Zionism remains an imperialist maneuver, invented by Napoleon and taken over by the British and used with considerable effectiveness in the First World War. Israel remains the final outcome of this maneuver, an aggressive nationalist State founded on invasion and war, and perpetuated by conscription of both girls and boys and by the militarization of wide sections of life. In New York the Hasidim of Williamsburg rioted against the conscription of women.

We have dozens of articles and speeches of Buber’s, first to Zionist meetings and conferences, later to groups in the State of Israel. Again and again he stresses the responsibility of the Jews as the chosen people to redeem the world, and he states specifically that to do this, to even begin to do it — to be a chosen people in the full sense of the word — the Jews must have a “homeland,” a nation with a political structure of power and discipline and a geographic location — Palestine. Of course the notion of a chosen people is a foolish and dangerous superstition which has caused untold harm in the world. If a chosen people, say the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are utterly without real temporal power, it is possible to etherealize this calling into a spiritual vocation. But it is not possible to etherealize actual temporal power. You cannot etherealize the State of Israel any more than you can etherealize the Vatican or the Kremlin. All three are actually there, they are not rash ideas but concrete physical masses of political power. And if you go back to the foundations of Buber’s philosophy and religion, and go logically from there to the question of political power, to the nation and the State, it is all too apparent that they are evil as such, the manifest contradiction of the basic principles of his morality.

Israel he tries to etherealize by equating it with the Israel of the Old Testament. This is the people with whom the Lord swore a covenant. This is the people Moses led out of Egypt as the deputy of God. Buber’s political and social writings are full of appeals to Biblical religion and to the personality of Moses. This is strange talk for a neo-Hasid. The great stumbling block for all Gnosticism has always been the Old Testament. Many Christian Gnostic sects held that it was written by the Devil. Certainly Kabbalah is nothing more nor less than an elaborate device to juggle the plain words of the Biblical narrative and make them mean the opposite of what they all too obviously do mean.

It is rather late in the day to have to recall that the Old Testament is one of the most disagreeable books in all the unpleasant history of religion. The Children of Israel are no better and no worse than the Children of Egypt or the Children of Athens. They are simply vain, foolish, and irresponsible, a prey to rumor and appetite, and always ready to let go a greater ultimate good for any immediate satisfaction. But their God is another matter. He is vindictive, jealous, angry, bloodthirsty, given to the tantrums of a child, and so thoroughly dishonest that he did not dare include “Thou shalt not lie” amongst his own ten commandments. The story of the invasion of Canaan is no more bloody and unscrupulous than any other tale of conquest, but the narrator is insufferably self-righteous about it. The early Gnostics were perfectly right. What the Old Testament teaches is not virtue but “sin,” murder, adultery, deception, anger, jealousy, above all, disloyalty, Buber’s primary sin. No other sacred book is so utterly immoral.

Buber stresses over and over again that Jehovah reveals himself to the Jews in history, that Judaism is a religion of historical revelation. It is precisely for this reason that its god is such a wretched creature. “God” does not work in history, man works in history. If God is the sum total of being viewed as a “Thou,” this sum total is always frivolous. This is why the Iliad is so superior to the Old Testament. The universe and its separate great natural forces are neither good nor bad, but over against the works of men they are always senseless. The virtues, all the enduring values of life are products of the transient associations of mortal men — they are the heroes, and the proper attitude of a virtuous man towards the universe viewed as a whole is that it is dangerous. Viewed as a person, it is a fool. Buber goes back always to the Song of Deborah, presumably because it is the oldest of the documents of the Old Testament. It is an exciting poem, but a people who persist in believing that the stars in their courses fight for them is nothing but a nuisance and a menace. The stars in their courses do not fight, they burn, and eventually they burn out. The Heroic Age produces moving poetry, but a people who believes in its own heroic epics does so not just at its peril, but at the peril of everybody else.

Buber’s Moses is a curious document. It is his attempt to etherealize the most obnoxious part of the Old Testament narrative. He throws overboard at the beginning all the results of two centuries of Biblical criticism as beside the point and strives to return to what the experience of Exodus meant immediately to the participants. He then proceeds to pick and choose from the very textual, anthropological, and historical research he has discarded and to construct a narrative and a personality of Moses to suit himself. What emerges is simply a self-portrait, a kind of symbolic autobiography. In a footnote he regrets the rash and ill-informed Moses book of Freud’s, but his is no different. It is better, yes, but because Buber is a far better man than Freud, not for any reasons connected with the text, Moses, or the wanderings of the Children of Israel.

It is pitiful to watch a man of Buber’s intelligence and goodness struggling in the toils of an outworn and abandoned social paranoia. For thousands of years men of good will have been trying to make Judaism and Christianity morally palatable to sane and civilized men. No other religions have ever required such efforts at etherealization. Today we think of Islam as a rather elementary and provincial religion — or at least of the Koran as such a book. But we forget, confused by centuries of misleading apologetics, what an enormous advance over both Christianity and Judaism Islam was. Why do people bother? If they must have a religion, the basic texts of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism need no such reworking. It may be necessary, particularly of the Buddhist documents, to trim off the exotic rhetoric, but it is not necessary to make them mean exactly the opposite of what they say.

Buber does not succeed as well as the Kabbalists and Hasidim before him. Neither Moses nor Jehovah was an enlightened, humane unitarian and socialist of the Weimar Republic. There is only one kind of writer that we can afford to forgive for such willful perversions of history and present fact, especially in spiritual matters, and that is an artist. If we lay aside all Buber’s pretensions as theologian and religious leader, we are left with him as poet. I and Thou, Tales of the Hasidim, For the Sake of Heaven — we can judge these as works of art, as symbolic criticism of value, as works of spiritual insight with their kind of veracity. Even here there are limits. We can forgive Dante for a narrow vindictive mind of shocking cruelty, very like his Old Testament god, by the way. We can, if we confine ourselves to the two great novels, forgive Céline for being an anti-Semite, but when, as the Communists used to say, “Art is a weapon,” then we cannot forgive. We cannot forgive the direct, depraved political tendentiousness of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Guillevic.

The religion of the Old Testament is morally obnoxious in the extreme. Does Buber as artist preach it? Of course he does not. There is no empiric justification for the logical drive toward simplification and concentration that leads to monotheism. Entities are multiplied without sufficient reason. The universe is not orderly in the same way as the mind of man. Only as a concept is nature a unity. Is this monotheistic deity, dredged up from the shores of the Red Sea out of the midst of a petty battle — is he essential to the understanding of these works as works of art? Certainly not. Behind all the ontological confabulation into which Buber’s enthusiasm and the weight of his tradition drive him is a simple response to the most ordinary fact of life — the presence of other persons and the possibility of love.

I and Thou is a sort of Rochester in reverse. As Rochester’s poems are typical seventeenth-century hymns in which the name of the Deity has been replaced by the name of his mistress, Buber’s wonder and excitement at the discovery of love in a loveless world, his astonishment that there is another “out there,” mount steadily to such a pitch that by the second half of the book no human object can contain the burden of awe and ecstasy. Love is essentially a relationship — it and its parties are relative, contingent, it is this which gives it its pathos. At the end of a long life, the husband of one woman, the Japanese poet says, “We thought our love would last a thousand years, and we were together only a little while.” Love can be made the final value, or the most important one in the shifting and flowing of contingency, but if too great a burden is placed on it, any vehicle must break down. The contingent collapses into the absolute. The wine overflows the vessel and shatters it and spills into the sea. But the sea is not a person. “Being as a whole viewed as a Thou” self-evidently is a product of insatiable desire, not of any evidence at all. We are familiar with these love poems — Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, John Ruysbroeck, Walter Hilton — the beautiful but insatiable lust no earthly lover can satisfy. But saying so does not make it true, any more than saying so makes Moses a liberal traditionalist or an ethical mystic of the twentieth century, or an armed kibbutz a Brotherhood of Love. The pious who believe that if you just want something hard enough and pray for it hard enough you get it are alas, but fortunately, wrong. Voltaire to the contrary, no need is great enough to create an absolute satisfaction. Death perhaps, certainly nonexistence, is the only absolute man can imagine.

As a poem, I and Thou is very beautiful. But it is this metaphysical greed which removes it from the category of the highest art. There is amongst men no absolute need. The realization of this is what makes Homer and the Greek tragedians so much sounder a Bible than the Old or New Testaments. Love does not last forever, friends betray each other, beauty fades, the mighty stumble in blood and their cities burn. The ultimate values are love and friendship and courage and magnanimity and grace, but it is a narrow ultimate, and lasts only a little while, contingent on the instability of men and the whims of “Nature viewed as a Thou.” Like life, it is Helen’s tragedy that gives her her beauty or gives Achilles and Agamemnon their nobility. Any art which has a happy ending in reserve in Infinity is, just to that degree, cheating. It is, I think, this pursuit of the absolute, the Faustianism of Spengler, which vitiates most Western art. We feel embarrassed at Goethe’s paeans to the Eternal Feminine as the conclusion of his pitiful drama.

Early in life Buber turned away from what he considered the self-obliterative mysticism of the East. But he was wrong. Taoism is not self-obliterative. In a sense it is not even mysticism. It is rather just a quiet and fairly accurate assessment of the facts. Perhaps the self which demands an Absolute Partner for its life of dialogue is obliterating itself, or at least crippling itself. It seems to me that the fullest realization of the self comes in the acceptance of the limits of contingency. It is harder, but more ennobling, to love a wife as another human being, fugitive as oneself, than it is to carry on imaginary conversations with an imaginary Absolute. The demand to be loved totally, irrevocably, destroys first the love and then the lover. It is a kind of depersonalization — the opposite pole, but exactly like prostitution. It is this over-ambition which haunts all of Buber. Israel, Zion, “God” — these are all power concepts; they represent “success.” But the real essence of Buber’s philosophy has no place for success and no place for power. “Live unknown.” “Own nothing you can’t leave out in the rain.” “Never think of men except in terms of those specific individuals whose names you know.” These old saws are exemplified once more in his Hasidism. Why bother? They are so easy to act on, and the passion for power and success is so tiring, so depersonalizing.

I think this is the reason that the most fruitful social result of I and Thou is to be found not in religion, but in psychiatry. Buber’s concepts and those of his followers have given new life to the American schools of so-called “interpersonal psychology.” He is a far greater man than any of the leaders of the Baltimore-Washington movement — Adolph Meyer, William Alanson White, Harry Stack Sullivan, Trigant Burrow. None of these men was a very clear thinker and they were all very bad writers. They were on the right track, but they expressed themselves abominably. Now they are all dead and a group of younger men, strongly influenced by Buber, are giving their concepts new clarity and depth. Once again, as so often in dealing with Buber’s ideas, we return to the tradition of William James.

Tales of the Hasidim, the books about Rabbi Nachman and Baal Shem Tov, the novel For the Sake of Heaven, are hardly fiction at all, but collections of anecdotes of the Hasidim. They are filled with joy, wonder, modesty, and love. It is their own peculiar moral character which lifts them above the general run of Oriental pious tales, whether of Sufi or Shi’ite saints or of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu and the Taoist adepts. Now the remarkable thing about the Hasidic response to the wonder of the world is that it implies an unconscious but nonetheless enthusiastic acceptance of its contingency. God is there, as he is in I and Thou, as a center and referrent, as the ultimate reduction, as the repository of all excess demand — but what comes through most is joy and wonder, love and quiet, in the face of the continuously vanishing world. It is called God’s Will, but the movement of the universe — not from Infinity to Eternity, but just endless — is accepted on very similar terms to those of the Tao Te Ching. Song and dance, the mutual love of the community — these are the values; they are beautiful precisely because they are not absolute. And on this foundation of modesty and love and joy is raised a moral structure which heals and illuminates as hardly any other Western European religious expression does. “Heals and illuminates” — again we come back to the health which can be found only in a true community of true persons.

There are faults, not least of which is the careful expurgation of the erotic and intoxicated elements of Hasidism. The Shekinah herself is always referred to as “It,” never as “She,” whole realms of Hasidic practice and experience are quietly ignored. These are Buber’s Hasidim, not the real eighteenth-century ones, and in this sense the books are fictions. But nowhere else does his philosophy come through with such poignant simplicity — or, for that matter, with such complexity. Not only does he face the actual complexities of real human relationships amongst individual men and women — rather than abstractions like “Israel” or “Zionism” — but many of the cryptic Kabbalistic sayings of the Zaddiks are given a kind of surrealist, symbolic burden, so that they function as little poems, illuminating experience in their own dark way. And finally, the morality, the ethics, the religion are all so much clearer in this living context. Nowhere is there a better criticism of the folly of using the transcendent to affect the mundane world of power politics than in For the Sake of Heaven. Buber has written his own best answer to his Zionism and nationalism.


This essay was first published in Bird in the Bush (1959) and reprinted in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (1987). Copyright 1987 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

[Excerpts from Buber’s I and Thou]