Martin Buber

A Life of Faith and Dissent

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Paul Mendes-Flohr
Jewish Lives
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , March
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anyone who writes a biography, Sigmund Freud once observed, “is committed “to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattering,” (Letter of Sigmund Freud, ed. E. L. Freud, trans. T. and J. Stern, Dover 1992) and misunderstanding bordering on self-deception. Having produced studies of figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Moses, and even Woodrow Wilson (not to mention the now legendary individuals in the case studies), Freud was acquainted with the elusive quality of “biographical truth.”

Martin Buber, the subject of Paul Mendes-Flohr’s long-awaited treatment and someone not unknown to Freud, might have agreed, warning that the biographical enterprise risks entangling both writer and subject in the ultimately impoverishing dynamics of what Buber famously dubbed the I-It relationship. The great value Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, the best biography now in English, is its ability to face the full force of these challenges and portray Buber not as id but as the “you” so well known to both collaborators and critics during his lifetime—one marked by dissent, discord, and of course dialogue of many different kinds. Fittingly, the book concludes not in third person but in second—with philosopher Hugo Bergmann’s remarks at Buber’s 1965 funeral, addressing the body of his deceased colleague wrapped in the tallit of conventional Jewish practice: “thank you, dear Martin Buber” (324).

According to the biographical truth that emerges from Mendes-Flohr’s work, though, Buber in his eighty-seven years was not always appreciated or endeared, and he hardly ever donned his tradition’s ancient garment of prayer. The image of the gray-bearded Buber that serenely gazes upon the contemporary reader from the dustjacket of I and Thou (trans. W. Kaufmann, Touchstone, 1970) or Two Types of Faith or Eclipse of God (Harper, 1952) is no reliable window into the volatile life that gave rise to the 20th century’s most influential philosophy of interpersonal dialogue. Even the facial hair, habitually referred to as worthy of a prophet, was a mask of sorts, designed to camouflage an injury sustained at birth. An internal scar, caused by his mother’s abandonment of the family three years later, was, as Buber confessed, the secret source of virtually everything he did and wrote during his uncommon career. The fact that he evidently felt the need to hide his lover Paula Winkler (and their children) from his grandparents for nearly a decade suggests a family character and personality makeup accustomed to mystery and inviting further analysis. The biographer of Buber confronts a consistent pattern of paradoxical belief and behavior.

Born in Vienna two decades after Freud, Buber received a private education in his grandparents’ home and was never truly fluent in Jewish practice before he departed as a teenager from anything close to orthodox observance. His gymnasium studies prepared him for success in the secular world, and his university work at Vienna, Zurich, and Berlin, placing him at the intersection of philosophy, literary criticism, art history, and the new discipline called sociology, set the pattern for an adventurous intellectual life and an irregular professional life unrecognizable to most academics today.

Furthermore, his doctoral dissertation on the Christian mystics Nicolas of Cusa and Jakob Boehme set the stage for his longstanding outlier status in Jewish culture. At the University of Frankfurt, his only genuine colleague was the Protestant theologian and fellow religious socialist Paul Tillich. During negotiations for a chair at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he struggled, at the age of sixty, to define exactly the nature and name of his area of scholarly specialization. Buber was the rare combination of independent, interdisciplinary scholar and freelance public intellectual, even humanist entrepreneur, attuned to the arts and politics but always somewhat institutionally homeless.

Mendes-Flohr is at his best as he presents this barely classifiable Buber. His Buber is a religious anarchist, a nonconforming Zionist, an anomalous Jew, an unacademic scholar, a champion of dialogue who cannot teach, and, in Yiddish, an apikoros, or heretic, but “a profoundly reverential one” (154).

Throughout the book, Buber is in conflict—with himself on the justice of the First World War and the future of I and Thou (the promised second part never materialized), and with others on the proper interpretation of Hasidism, the secular aims of Zionism, the modern relevance of the Bible, his opposition to the execution of Adolf Eichmann, his post-Holocaust visits to Germany, his collegial relationship with the unrepentant Nazi Martin Heidegger, and his unapologetic defense of the Palestinian cause.

Moreover, even his physical locations were contested spaces. His German library was looted on Kristallnacht, his first residence in Jerusalem was the former home of Edward Said’s evicted family, and his second Jerusalem apartment was commandeered alternately by Israeli and Iraqi troops as a defensive position—with piles of books for cover. Mendes-Flohr’s Buber is no two-dimensional icon of tranquil encounter with the other. His was a life of Vergegnung, “mismeeting,” as much as anything else.

This Buber, a rewarding advance from portraits offered by Malcolm Diamond, Maurice Friedman, Aubrey Hobbes, and many others in the past half-century, is a much-needed corrective to uncritical appropriations of the author of I and Thou, assimilations that have too often detached the audacious thinker from the complexity of the life he himself could have never predicted.

Drawing generously from the Buber archives in the National Library of Israel and a career-long immersion in Buber and his contemporaries, Mendes-Flohr excels as Buber’s most self-conscious biographer, aiming for points of contention and not ignoring them or wishing them away. This title in Yale’s impressive Jewish Lives series, featuring other examples of unscripted existence, including Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Freud, points to a life of faith and dissent, still enigmatic, now more engaging.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter A. Huff is a Professor of Religious Studies and academic administrator at Benedictine University in Illinois.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Mendes-Flohr is Editor-in-Chief of the twenty-two-volume German critical edition of the collected works of Martin Buber and the author of German Jews: A Dual Identity. He is Professor Emeritus of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel.


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