Martin Buber: Toward a Greater Humaneness

By Ida Postma

When he met the philosopher Martin Buber for the first time in 1953, Aubrey Hodes was a desperate young man. A South African by birth, he was then living in a kibbutz in the Galilee, where he herded sheep. Every week he made the wearisome journey from the hills of Nazareth to Jerusalem to visit a relative in the schizophrenic ward of a mental hospital there. In spiritual turmoil himself, the anguish of watching her become progressively worse was so keen that at times it made him physically shake. Friends advised him to discuss his difficulties with Professor Buber, who was always accessible to those in distress. One day a bookseller, who knew Hodes, handed him Buber's latest work, The Way of Man, which he read right through, standing in a corner of the shop. At that moment he knew he had to talk to the author in person. For a while a feeling of awe held him back, but finally he mustered his courage and called Buber by telephone. Minutes later he found himself in the booklined study he came to know so well; for although separated by two generations, a friendship sprang up that lasted until Buber's death in 1965. In a biography (Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait.) published in 1969 Hodes shares the fruit of this relationship which was "total and cataclysmic," changing the course of his entire life.

One of the things that impressed him most was Buber's ability to reach below the surface of his mind. He seemed to know what questions Hodes would ask even before they had been formulated. This penetrating insight, Buber told him, he had acquired only after an experience he had had in his late thirties:

What happened was no more than that one forenoon, after a morning of "religious" enthusiasm, I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him any more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason. I conversed attentively and openly with him -- only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends -- he himself was no longer alive -- the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.
He had come to me, he had come in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning. -- p. 242

The young man had taken his life, something which might not have happened, Buber felt, had he himself not been so engrossed in his mystic pursuits. He never again sought religious exaltation, which tends to focus on the abstract while perhaps the duty at hand is overlooked. Henceforth he tried to respond to the call of life as and when it came to him. The incident also taught him that to exchange words and ideas was not enough, but that genuine dialogue involved listening to the unspoken question; for what was felt, though unuttered, might be infinitely more important than what was actually expressed.

Dialogue, in fact, became the core of his philosophy, and in 1923 found its expression in I and Thou, a treatise that reads like an ode to human understanding. As the author sees it, we may seem to communicate with the other person, yet he remains a factor outside of ourselves -- It (Buber's term). Only when we lay aside our habitual self-preoccupation which, like a miniature Van Allen belt, filters out most of the radiation from those around us, does the other become a "Thou," with whom we are directly confronted and who has something to say to us.

Practically all of us have had the experience (if only once) whereby, out of the countless impingements of our surroundings that go largely ignored, one instance suddenly strikes us. In itself it may not be anything earthshaking: a chance look from a stranger, or a talk with someone we meet on the bus -- yet we are deeply affected. Temporarily the veil of our ego lifts: there is nothing with which to impress the other; none of the thousand and one prejudices, fears, jealousies, feelings of inferiority, superiority, or just indifference, stand between the I and the Thou. Then soul speaks to soul, straight and without barrier; and later we are surprised at the ease and openness of such communion. Whether anything is actually said matters little, for it is the quality of what flows back and forth that makes the impact on us.

Martin Buber sees it as our duty to try to grasp the hidden meaning of such exchanges -- for beyond a doubt they have a meaning. As the founder of 18th-century Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov, whose life and words were of great inspiration to Buber, phrased it:

No encounter with a being or a thing in the course of our life lacks a hidden significance . . . The highest culture of soul remains basically and barren unless, day by day, waters of life pour forth into the soul from those little encounters to which we give our due (Quoted in The Way of Men, by Martin Buber, pp. 38-9)

Teachers and sages of all spiritual directions have recognized that events in our life are not haphazard, but form an organic whole with our state of consciousness. This interaction of cause and effect the Orientals call karma. Life unrolls its day-by-day scroll from which we have to distill our lessons, but at the same time we write by our actions and attitudes those new chapters from which we will have to draw our conclusions at some point in the future. All during the learning process, however, we meet with tests whereby we may prove to ourselves whether the experience gained has remained merely intellectual knowledge or has been converted into part of our character structure.

Aware of this, Buber shared with Hodes his belief in an "existential test." By this he meant an experience that would challenge someone's entire system of values and beliefs. He might pass or fail, but in either case he would never be the same, for it would reveal his true self in all its hitherto unknown strength and courage or weakness and defects.

Hodes' test did come -- not through a manufactured set of circumstances, but during the grim reality of the Sinai Campaign in 1956, in which he served as a medical orderly. In the relative quiet following the fierce battle for Gaza, most soldiers had sought shelter from the scorching midday sun, trying to catch up on sleep. Hodes was checking his supplies when suddenly out of the shrubbery appeared a terrified Arab civilian with a badly broken arm. He did not hesitate for a second: here was someone in need and help him he must, friend or foe.

Just as he had finished setting and bandaging the arm, two young soldiers approached and at gunpoint commanded him to turn his patient over to them. Guessing their evil intentions, with lightning quickness he pushed the old man into a nearby ambulance, and stood squarely in front of the door. At his stubborn refusal they withdrew, only to return shortly after with their sergeant, who tried to 'reason' with him that the men, after all, had fought hard and "wanted to let off steam." Though told they would put a bullet through his head, Aubrey Hodes did not budge. . . . and the three, realizing they had lost, moved on, still shouting angry threats. In the silence Hodes recognized in the wounded Arab the bringer of his test. He knew, then, that had he not protected that life as if it were his own, "something would have shriveled within me, something which was present and stronger now, would have died . . . for the rest of my life."

All through Hodes' narrative runs that undercurrent of tension ever perceptible in modern Israel, and but thinly camouflaged by a slight over-insistence that everything is normal, with which people go about their business. Buber's intellectual activities might seclude him physically, but he was intensely concerned about national and world affairs. In fact, much of his life was inextricably linked with the political upheavals and wars of his time. A pillar of moral strength in Nazi Germany, he fled to what in 1938 was still Palestine, and became deeply involved in the struggles of that country. During the decades when the tragic Middle East crisis was in the making, and also after it broke out, the efforts of those who did try to mediate usually came too late. What little goodwill they had built up, was soon overtaken and crushed by the onrushing avalanche of events. Contrary to the more pragmatic approach of most of the leading thinkers, Buber always wanted to keep open the door to dialogue and moderation, even if this appeared unwise or futile in the cool light of reason.

On several occasions Buber's idealistic approach provoked bitter criticism; but to him his philosophy was no empty theory. It is essential to stand up for one's principles, he believed, because even a "handful of just and honest men can prevent a society from becoming corrupt, if they speak out and say No!" Only thus, being fully himself and living his convictions, can man realize his potential as a human being. Often controversial, his actions were motivated by his striving toward humanism which, in his view, the Jewish people in particular should try to manifest. And if such an ideal was capable of affecting their inner life for the better, it had also to be translated into a change of behavior, individually and as a community.

Though repudiated or ignored in his own country, Buber's following in Europe and America increased -- an anomaly that can be explained only by the fact that his whole outlook was universal, and Judaism as such was too small a vessel to contain him. Yet he remained faithful to the traditions that were his by birth and were the wellspring of his spiritual inspiration. For it is undeniable that much of his philosophy is derived from 18th-century Hasidism. And even though it is sometimes said that he has given a very personal version in his works, his is the merit of rescuing it in its original form from the dark closet of oblivion. He brought its luminous thought to the West at a time when the worthiness and fitness of life to be lived is being questioned -- that same daily life which in poverty and persecution the Hasidim hallowed with every breath.

However much his writings and personal philosophy may have constituted an influence for good, perhaps Martin Buber's greatest value lies in the way he tried to live that humaneness he believed in with all his heart. Buddhists distinguish between the "eye-doctrine," the intellectual knowledge of any given faith, and the "heart-doctrine," whereby a man is so united in his inner being with the essence of truth that he practices its precepts as a matter of course, the intellectual insight then becoming his as a natural byproduct. Every now and then one who thus embodies the heart-doctrine will make his voice heard outside of his immediate circle in an endeavor to promote compassion, unselfishness and dialogue in a world where the needle of the scales is still wavering fitfully between two extremes: the animal and the god in man. The spirit of many of Buber's works is on the same wavelength as that of individuals belonging to different eras or religions, but who likewise carried their devotion and conviction into the uncomprehending market place or political arena, that they might testify with their very life to the principle of human brotherhood.

Hodes' biography is valuable because it is written from personal experience with understanding, respect, often with marked affection, for his friend and mentor. In a way his own writings never could, it shows us the man Buber in his wisdom, warmth and integrity, and in his intense concern in an uncaring world.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, December 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)

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