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Buber and His Jewish Critics
Eugene B. Borowitz (Sh'ma 8/152, April 14, 1978)
Buber's Jewish critics have always been disturbed by his attitude toward history and law. Since they are central to the Jewish religious experience, his apparent negation of them discredited his interpretation of Judaism. The root of this dispute is Buber's view of revelation. Since he equates revelation with the I-thou relationship, it is an ever-present possibility rather than a once-and-for-all time past event. Buber knew that a contemporary relationship with the Eternal Thou might authenticate an old religious tradition. Such a present possibility of confirming revelation made it possible for Buber to read the Bible more seriously than any other non-Orthodox thinker. Yet no past text can have more authority for Buber than a present experience. Now the Living God stands before me and it is to that God with whom I stand in relationship to whom I must respond. No past event, not my encounter with God yesterday or the Jewish people's Covenant with God at Sinai three thousand plus years ago, can be more commanding to me.
Buber did not deny the importance of history. He believed in nations and his adherence to Zionism stemmed from his student days. All peoples, he argued, were created by their early experiences and the special social vision they engendered. Against the Jewish assimilationists he insisted that modern Jews could not now deny their historic national identity without losing much of themselves in the process. That Buber nonetheless gave revelation primacy over history, must be seen as an assertion of his humanism. Even a proper emphasis on nationalism must not be allowed to subvert our individuality as persons, which means our right to be self-determinative, in terms of an I-thou encounter, to be sure.
Not even Law may Come Between God and Man
The same problem is raised with regard to the secondary status Buber gives religious law and institutions. Jewish piety has traditionally been channeled into disciplined action, not into dogma or creed, speculation or meditation. Buber respects the I-it world enough to value rule and organization. For example, in his discussion of Korach's rebellion against Moses, Buber speaks out forthrightly against simple anarchy but defends our responding to our theo-political situation with a formal structure which reflects the reality of our I-thou relationship. But with the passage of time the once authoritative law can become only another I-it artifact. Such a law can no longer command. It has no power to supercede the imperative of an I-thou encounter with God which now sends me on a needed mission. This too is Buber's humanism. No code, no matter how sacred it once was, may usurp our autonomy as fulfilled in authentic relationship. It is the genius of Buber's theory of revelation that it keeps us self-determining while making our relationship with God the transcendent basis of our duty.
This concept of revelation defines Buber's differences with Jewish Orthodoxy which argues that our autonomy is fulfilled in theonomy, in God's gift of the Torah, more specifically in traditional Jewish law interpreted by the sages of our day. Buber took a polemical attitude toward Orthodox Judaism for most of his life. As a youth Buber picked up the common Zionist theme that in the present historical situation, traditional religious law prevented the development of a modern Jewish life style and thus was an impediment to self-realization as a Jew. Buber's later formulation of the I-thou relationship as the basis of all value only reinforced this stance. As he saw it, in our time, history and tradition, law and institution, have become barriers to establishing and strengthening the intimate, personal relationship with God on which alone our lives should build. He preferred facing the dangers of religious anarchy, which he knew and deplored, to calling for a detailed, encompassing structure of religious practice which nowadays mainly creates religion rather than relationship with God.
Revelation as Part Autonomy, Part Shared Encounter
This tactical choice by Buber also made him the target of much criticism from the non-Orthodox right, particularly of Conservative Jews. They granted the charge that Orthodoxy has been insufficiently responsive to our radically changed human situation. They then sought a way to validate greater change but wanted to avoid elaborating a new theory of revelation for that would make plain their break with rabbinic Judaism. Since Jews changed in the past by utilizing the structure of Jewish law, we should do likewise today. Anyone with serious Jewish loyalties, they felt, would be happy to accept the discipline of such a flexible, adaptive Jewish law.
I fear that we have moved too far into modernity for such an approach. It is no accident that the classic publication of the minority of Jews who are turning to our tradition seriously but in a non-Orthodox way, is entitled The Jewish Catalog. Its several volumes turn what was once law into a set of options which the authors then seek to make as appealing as possible. It shows that even in our return to Judaism, we mostly do not mean to sacrifice our autonomy to history or to law.
I recognize that the widespread, contemporary Jewish insistence on self-determination is in many cases a rationalization for discarding Jewish obligation. With most of our community Jewishly illiterate and ambivalent about developing its Jewish identity, to preach autonomy and thus encourage anarchy is a risky tactic, al least for a group eager to survive. For me that has meant that the Buberian understanding of revelation needs revision. For Buber, one comes to each I-thou encounter in relatively pure individuality. That rigid sense of our essential human isolation contrasts oddly with Buber's equally strong assertion that we are Jews, part of a historic people which has been addressed as a collectivity. Buber reconciled these positions by insisting that God only addressed individuals who, in sharing their encounter with one another, became a nation. My experience, and that of other modern Jews, I believe, is somewhat different. Against the vulgar individualism which pervades our culture we know that we are who we are because we are Jews. Our individuality cannot easily be extracted from our being a child of this people.
Fear of Anarchy Binds many to Traditional Law
That makes Jewish community, its history and its tradition, a major ingredient of our selves. We do not meet God as personalist monads but as individuals who know themselves in their singleness to be simultaneously sharers in a people's history and its destiny. Our "I" comes to the Eternal Thou as an inseparable part of the Covenant made with the people of Israel. Receiving the commandment which comes from relationship with God we are called upon to act not merely for ourselves alone but for ourselves as part of the People of Israel. This does not yield a modern public, objective set of laws. But if even a sizable minority of American Jews could come to confront God personally as part of the people of Israel we would not need to fear that anarchy might destroy our community.
Though I share the fears of Buber's non-Orthodox antagonists, I find their rejection of his fundamental stance religiously unconvincing. The appeal to traditional law and its processes is unpersuasive. If we are not Orthodox precisely because we must change the law as it has come down to us in unbroken rabbinic succession, then how can the law itself be the standard of our change? Moreover, we approach the act of decision with great self-consciousness about why we propose to move in one rather than another direction. By comparison, pre-modern Jews were unconcerned about the criteria of authentic Jewish change. They knew God gave the oral Torah and guaranteed that what a recognized sage taught in later ages was already part of what God had given Moses at Mt. Sinai. We modern Jews who do not believe that have given up the authority which made the old legal process work. As a result using the form of law without belief in its lawgiver, cannot result in a command for us.
To Talk of Duty is to Talk of God above All Else
What divides Buber and his critics, then, is only superficially the value they assign to law and history. Far more critical to their dispute is the question of the level on which they are willing to face the issue of the criterion of continuity and change in Jewish duty. For all the complaints that Buber's thinking is too mystical and his language is impenetrably dense, on this matter he is clear, definite and systematic. Where his critics want to shift the problem of authority to the level of social dynamics, Buber insists that only a theological response, that is, a commitment to some form of revelation, can properly command us.
What this dispute finally comes down to is Buber's belief that we cannot talk about duty without talking about God. More disturbingly, he denounces any discussion of religious duty which does not make God its chief focus. Buber's primary attention to God is uncompromising. God is the ground of his existence the relationship with God is the only true source of value he knows. In our age of radical self-doubt, neither mind, nor conscience, nor human nature, nor ethnic heritage, nor history, nor tradition, nor legal process, can any longer give us a reasonably categorical imperative. God alone still commands and, Buber, does so through a relationship which enhances and enriches our autonomy.
God-centered Thought Offends Closet Agnostics
Buber's bluntness, that we must talk about God if we are to speak honestly about Jewish duty, is highly Jewish threatening to much of the non-Orthodox community. Many of us liberal Jews will be happy to speak of anything but our belief in God. Modernization brought us to break with Orthodoxy. Ostensibly we could no longer believe in the traditional doctrine of revelation, that God gave the Torah, written and oral. In reality our doubts went even deeper. We had secularized so much that we no longer had any significant belief in God. Some Jews then put their Jewishness aside, often in the service of humanitarian ends. Most of us preferred to stay Jews but we wanted a Judaism in which the God in whom we largely disbelieved played little or no active role. For much of recent decades, I am persuaded, most non-Orthodox Jews have quietly thought of themselves as agnostics. At the most, they could tolerate talking about ideas of God. Having distanced themselves from God by turning God into an intellectual construct they then got on with the serious business of being a Jew, social ethical action or rebuilding the Jewish people. For those whose ethnic commitment was strong, history and law were splendid sticks with which to beat Buber for bringing up uncomfortable topics. These issues were valuable for affirming Jewish continuity while ignoring the questions of revelation and the ultimate source of Jewish obligation. As long as one stressed tradition one could avoid facing the question of God's reality. Buber not only challenged all such intellectual subterfuges, he was true enough to his belief to disrupt the community consensus that nothing transcended the practical needs of our people. Against common Jewish ethnic passion he asserted that Eichmann should not be executed and that it was time for Jews to begin to try to have dialogue with Germans. Against unreflective Jewish nationalism he criticized Zionists and the State of Israel, most notably for their attitudes to the rights of Palestinian Arabs. Buber did so because he lived by a standard which transcended though it included, simple folk loyalty. He was trying, as a Jew, to be true to what God was commanding him now.
True Believers can be Critics from Without
There is then something particularly poignant in hearing Buber charged with Jewish inauthenticity. It reminds me somewhat of Karl Rahner's description of where heresy is most likely to be found in the church. Rahner rejects the common view, that one should be most suspicious of those who are contesting the church's teachings or practices. Such people, he suggests, are hiding so little and yet affirming so much in their struggle, that in the depths of their being they may well be directed to what God has done in Christ for us. The more likely place to took for heretics, Rahner contends, is among those who stress conformity to the church's doctrine and observances and perhaps consider themselves models in this regard. Being so righteous in what all may see, they are far more likely to have succumbed to all sorts of heresy in the hidden places of the soul. For Rahner, the hierarch, not the protester, is more prone to genuine heresy.
I agree that Buber's theory of revelation requires reworking if it is to speak to the Jewish needs of this hour. Yet two of Buber's fundamental questions seem to me to demand Buber's answers: can there be an authentic Jewishness in our time which does not give clear and unequivocal primacy to a living, personal relationship with God? And can we believe in such a relationship with God which does not ground and enrich and empower our personal autonomy?
Against every orthodoxy Buber insisted that genuine personhood means autonomy fulfilled in inter-personal dialogue. Against the humanists and liberal religionists he affirmed that our dignity does not derive from ourselves alone but from our personal relationship with God. And against the split of modern culture into secular and religious spheres, he proclaimed that there is only one genuine level of existence, being open to the trace of the Eternal Thou, if not to God's full presence, and responding to it so covenanted that we are sent into the world to redeem it. Since Buber had the courage to stand against the common affirmations of our time, he will continue to have his critics. But, particularly on this occasion, it is also important to note that he will likewise have his disciples.
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