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The Social Agenda Buber Has Left Us
Arnold Jacob Wolf (Sh'ma 8/152, April 14, 1978)
The agenda of Martin Buber is our agenda. More than anyone else writing in the first half of our century, perhaps, he addresses our own situation. But he does not offer us a systematic program, not only because he cannot, but also because he would not if he could. The most central of his teachings denies that one can know in advance of living what one must do in one's life. Buber will do neither our thinking nor our living for us. And we can think only in the specific context of our own lives.
A prescription is contra-indicated. God himself does not prescribe. He only cares. He only expresses his will, but "his will is not a program." Mankind is always and again in flux, and God is responsive to the ebb and flow of human history. But he cannot extricate us and we must not expect to be extricated either from our freedom or our danger. "One must not rely on one's knowledge. One must go one's way and listen all over again." (Israel and the World, p. 114).
Buber is prophetic precisely in that "he receives only one message for one situation (which is) why after thousands of years, the prophets' words still address the changing situations in history." The Greeks may have believed they possessed "an abstract and general, a timeless concept of truth," but the disciple of the Hebrew prophets can only warn, like God. (The Prophetic Faith, p. 111). Warning is not moralizing. "A purely moral structure of authority will not lead us out of this situation into a different one" (Eclipse, p. 146). The moralist presumes to know what must be done, but he cannot show us how to become able to do what must be done. Buber tells us where we are and how to begin. Ripeness is nothing; beginning is all we ever have.
The demons are still with us, around us, within us. They have not been exorcised, they have only been domesticated. Our guilt does not consist only in what we do, but above all in our unwillingness to say where we are. We can measure consumption but not suffering, so we consume voraciously - and some of us suffer inconsolably. We are no longer in control of the world - and we know it now.
We Jews are not surprised to find evil, nor unwilling to concede its prevalence. ". . . God's redeeming power is at work everywhere and at all times, but a state of redemption exists nowhere and never." (Israel and the World, p.34).
We Have Surrendered our Ability to Dialogue
The naming of our evil is crucial to its reparation. Satan means the hinderer in Hebrew. It is that which is "anti-human in individuals and in the human race." It "profits from the divisions between peoples, the contra-human in man, the subhuman, it is the enemy of man's will to become a true humanity." (Pointing the Way, 238f). The principalities and powers of evil are reality enough, alright, but they are within us as well as around us. A good person is, if I may exaggerate a little, inevitably a traitor for God.
Another way to say what ails us is that we have been "devoured by the political principle," (Pointing the Way, p. 219). We have surrendered the duty of personal confrontation with political issues to the state and with personal issues to the meta-therapeutic professions. Our "existential responsibility" for the world we inhabit must precede and condition any possible solution to our problems. (Pointing the Way, p. 104). Guilt means nothing more or less than "the neglect of the task of the hour." (Israel and the World, p. 116).
Our modern form of evasion is to be absent to the presence which offers itself to us. It is to practice 'A monologue disguised as dialogue'. It is to "love without dialogue" (Between Man and Man, p.21). It is to mistrust radically. We mistrust not only the views of the other but his very self. We resist talk not only with our enemies but with anyone, even a friend, who may make some demand. Existential mistrust breeds dumbness and dumbness, paranoia. "Existential mistrust is indeed basically no longer, like the old kind, a mistrust of my fellow-man. It is rather the destruction of confidence in existence in general. That we can no longer carry on a genuine dialogue from one camp to the other is the severest symptom of the sickness of present-day man." (Pointing the Way, p. 224). Evil is not non-good. It is not the privation or the negation of good. It is not a metaphysical reality, nor yet a psychological. It is directionlessness. It is the falling away, the erosion of the between.
God walks along with us as we live our own history, revealing and concealing himself, demanding and loving, but "zealously he lets the resisting (person) experience his fate in history, the fate resulting from his own deeds." (The Prophetic Faith, p.94). Man's radical ability to choose is, accordingly, the deepest fact of man's life. We cannot plead that others, no matter their name, prevent us from turning. They may, they do hinder, but they do not over-power.
Human Experience Shows We Can Make Choices
There is no one but us. There is no place but here, no time but now. And man is sufficiently empowered. He is adequately competent. He can choose between alternatives. He is himself an alternative. God speaks, through the prophet, only and always in the language of choice. Of course, man's choices have consequences especially for the increasing or decreasing ability to make other choices. But there is no fixed human nature, no irrevocable point of no return. "Man as man can be redeemed." (Knowledge of Man, p. 78). We begin by recognizing ourselves, our roots. "How can we become what we are?" (On Judaism, p. 201).
Buber's existentialism is, far more than Sartre's, a humanism. It is rooted in Jewish experience which is for him utterly human experience. It has been somewhere. It was, therefore it is.
To recognize ourselves in the sources of our being is to realize that we can be reconciled with our fellow persons. This means not only the admission of all our failed relationships, but of the inter-connection between all relationships. "Starting with the fact of guilt ... life (must) be lived as a reconciling, a 'making good'." (Pointing the Way, p.96). Human mistrust is a reflection of our mistrust of eternity. Only by reconciling with the closest can we reconcile with the Utmost, but only in that final reconciliation are all the proximate movements, the hours' tasks, supportable. There is no self which is not in relationship, and the recovery of others is itself the only path to recovery of self-consciousness and integrity. There can be no person and, likewise, no nation unless it maintains a truthful, creative, peaceful relationship with its neighbors. "Against the overt and covert Marcionism of the nations ... the dualism of the redeemed soul in a physical world abandoned to a state of unredemption," Buber affirms "the life of responsible work in the service of unity." (On Judaism, p. 190) Buber denies that self and world are two separable realities. Only by working the world which God made for us are we reconciled to our co-workers. The name of this project is democratic socialism.
Socialism with a human face, then, can only be religious socialism, democratic in form, utopian, or messianic more accurately, in direction, meticulous in control of social process by society, a community of siblings under a father who teaches life.
Political Goals Must Be Pursued Within Community
Religious socialism is the antidote, the antithesis to heresy, the worst heresy, Marcionism. It refuses to abandon the world to invidiousness and class warfare while the individual proudly nurses his own spirituality, a moral man in an immoral world. It refuses to view any naked political process "realistically" (as, for instance, the best and brightest disciples of Christian realism did the American war in Southeast Asia). It refuses always to substitute programs for persons, but it is neither incoherent nor naive. Buber insists that political means must work in relation to moral goals. "We cannot prepare the messianic world, we can only prepare for it." (Pointing the Way, P. 137). But prepare for it we must, we must. Politics is not evil; it is only hubristic. It is ambivalent. It wants to engulf our bodies and our minds, but it also wants to be redeemed. Socialism is the best hope of humanizing of political life. "In naked responsibility" we go out to meet the world of political action.
Buber asserted decades before the view became popular (and, perhaps necessarily debased) that the only possible place where man could recover his equilibrium is in "community." Community is also the only possible setting for a future "theophany of which we know nothing but the place" (Between Man and Man, p.7). To recover the state for true community, to interpenetrate (not replace) the political infrastructure with humaneness is the major responsibility of our time. Politics is the art of the possible, but only the religious person who has intuited hope can know how much community is always possible.
Critics of the manque revolutionary sixties who insist that only real people could ever have made a real change are correct, but what they do not recognize is that real people are formed only in the revolutionary crucible of communitarianism. Marriage is, for Buber as for Judaism, a symbol of the indispensable political matrix of personal health. "Marriage, essentially understood, brings one into an essential relation to the "world," more precisely, to the body politic, to its malformation and its genuine form, to its sickness and its health. Marriage, as the decisive union of one with another, confronts one with the body politic and its destiny man can no longer shirk that confrontation in marriage, he can only prove himself in it, or fail." (Between Man and Man, p. 60).
Dialogue is Both the End and the Means to that End
Political freedom is nothing more or less than free giving between an I and a Thou writ large, and therefore the demand implicit in community is for directness. Subterfuge undermines the political task; indirection deflects it. We shall be only what we do to become what we shall be. Peace, dialogue are not only goals. They are the only way to the goals.
If we confirm each other by speaking out of our own authentic community, if we soften political contours with meeting and harden them by the resolution to share all mankind's goods and needs, if we stake our very lives on community, then there is still a way out of our present ills.
This hour is, like all the others which have preceded it, but also uniquely, a theo-political hour. It is a time when we must, and therefore we can, reverse the downward course of human history. The specifics are not hard to specify: treating each person with whom we must deal as much as we can in an I-Thou way; unmasking all inhumane bureaucracy as an evasion of, rather than a methodology for, technical competence; taking refuge in no slogans, whether of the left or right, including the rejection of puerile slogans against political ideas and norms; modeling the social process after inter-personal paradigms like marriage and faith and psychotherapy while insuring that these remain themselves modestly and authentically dialogical; rejecting all the aggressive-defensive postures of our own groups without becoming merely rootless, uselessly generalized human beings; loving God with all we are, and our neighbor "as one like ourselves," -- no mean feat but not yet impossible either; availing ourselves of the resources of our great tradition from the earliest Biblical literature to the writing of Mordecai Martin Buber and the best insights of us, his epigones, continuators - and disciples.
To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.
To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.