Martin Buber's Theopolitics

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Samuel Hayim Brody
New Jewish Philosophy and Thought
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Martin Buber died in 1965, he was known as an expert on Jewish mysticism, a philosopher of dialogue, a political innovator who pressed for peace in the Middle East, and an enlightened “Yekke” (German Jew) who believed wholeheartedly in individual experience as a path to religious experience, communal truth, and constitutional democracy, all of which could be shared by Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. In contemporaneous discussions he was usually mentioned in either a religious context—as a reader of scripture and mystical texts—or a secular, political context: as an avid follower of Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism. For Samuel Brody, the separation of the religious and the political in Buber’s thought is reductive and misleading in light of Buber’s own integration of the two as theopolitics.

As he explains near the end of the book, Brody is working against “a long historiographical tradition [that] treats modern ideologies as secular versions of religious and messianic ideas” (251). His innovative work suggests much more than a simple movement forward: Buber’s theopolitics, “long overshadowed by the popularity of his other work, invisible to those for whom any unconventional politics is an antipolitics, scrambled through its presentation between the lines of obscure works of biblical scholarship, may now emerge to speak to this pathless hour” (11).

Brody’s contribution and obvious strength lie in his close reading of texts, a reading he weaves with the help of the theopolitical shuttle. Theopolitics made its appearance in Buber’s work even before he used the term. This stress on continuity is not an anachronistic and retrospective refashioning; by focusing on the triad Moses-Samuel-Jeremiah, Brody points up “the continuity of the theopolitical vision that Buber considers the essence of the project that goes under the name ‘Israel’” (124). By insisting on this sequential order, in biblical terms, while proceeding chronologically through Buber’s intellectual biography, Brody places the theopolitical theme at the center of his book. He traces the prehistory of the concept before its explicit appearance during the 1930s (43); its crystallization and conceptualization during the next decade, especially in Buber’s Königtum Gottes (Kingship of God, 1932); and finally its further theorization as an immediate path to the “theopolitical hour,” mostly in Torat Ha-Nevi’im (The Prophetic Faith, 1942). For Buber, the theopolitical thesis, as laid out in chapter 8 of Königtum Gottes, is: “There is in pre-kingly Israel no eternality of ruler-ship; for there is no political sphere except the theo-political, and all sons of Israel are directly related (kohanim in the original sense) to JHWH, who chooses and rejects, gives an order and withdraws it” (quoted in Brody, 86). For Brody this implies a plea for an “anarcho-theocracy” (87), a concept that he recognizes as the political realization of theopolitics.

Anarcho-theocracy may be said to have grown out of Buber’s friendship with the anarchist Gustav Landuaer (1870-1919) and then to have blossomed in his work on the critical prophets. Both Landauer and the biblical prophets, says Buber, proposed “a special kind of politics, theopolitics, which is concerned to establish a certain people in a certain historical situation under the divine sovereignty, so that this people is brought nearer the fulfillment of its task, to become the beginning of the kingdom of God” (quoted in Brody, 191). For Buber, this was an active rebellion against monarchy—and human sovereignty in general—juxtaposed with the passive embrace of eschatology and messianism.

Brody’s twin themes, undergirded by his adherence to chronological development, ensure a clear narrative, which is at all times carefully explained. The reader is guided slowly but surely through the different textual modes Buber used beginning in his youth, and the change that has preoccupied biographers and historians—the struggle with Landuaer during the mid-1910s that turned a more mystical thinker into a political one—receives special attention. The book beautifully connects all of the important moments in Buber’s development, and together with the recent incisive analyses of Dan Avnon, Leora Batnitzky, Dominique Bourel, Martin Kavka, Claire Sufrin, and Martina Urban, among others, should be regarded as an important analytical contribution and an update to Paul Mendes-Flohr’s From Mysticism to Dialogue (Wayne State University Press, 1989). 

Where should future scholarship go from here? While Brody ties many of Buber’s more abstract reflections to his political views, he does not really assign much space to exploring Buber’s political views and how and when he acted on them. The general discussion at the end of the book, outlining Buber’s cooperation with members of Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) and Ichud (Unity) is pretty basic and needs further explication with particular attention to theopolitics. The same may be said of Buber’s contributions to the administration of the Hebrew University and to the different intellectual circles and activities of the young Israeli state. Such topics matter because they involve a theoretical element Brody brushes aside, namely Buber’s commitment to constitutional democracy rather than anarchic politics. Furthermore, exploring such topics highlights the discursive understanding of Buber’s theopolitics at the expense of ideology, as appealing as the latter may be. From this angle, Buber’s commitments to realization (Verwirklichung), experience (Erlebnis), living connections, action, flow, and ecstasy, become part of a post-Nietzschean revolutionary rhetoric that opens itself to internal critique rather than to external anarchistic drive. Brody almost admits as much: “One could almost read Buber,” he writes, “as implying that this book [Deuteronomy] read to Josiah resembles the old Social-Democratic Party program. It seeks to co-opt the dangerous prophetic power and reharness it to the benefit of the state and the sanctuary, that is, it seeks ‘the closing of a social revolutionary movement’” (198). Indeed! And if that is the case, then Buber might well have approved Hannah Arendt’s co-optation of revolutionary instincts for the benefit of democracy, while turning his back on Landauer the anarchic revolutionary. Did Buber come to such views gradually or did he consistently embrace them as part of his theopolitics? This question is left to future scholars. Brody’s book opens a large gate; I am very curious to see who passes through.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nitzan Lebovic is Associate Professor of History and Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh Univresity.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samuel Hayim Brody is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He is editor of Martin Buber Werkausgabe, volume 15.


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