Buber, Martin (1878–1965)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

1. Life

Martin Mordechai Buber was born in Vienna. Following the divorce of his parents when he was three years old, he spent most of his childhood in Lemberg, Galicia, with his grandparents Solomon and Adele Buber. This separation from his parents, particularly his mother, had a profound effect on the subsequent development of Buber’s philosophy of relation. His abiding childhood memory was not of his mother leaving him – he expected her to come for him any day – but of being told at the age of four by a baby-sitter that his mother would never return. ‘I suspect,’ he later wrote, ‘that everything I experienced of genuine encounter during the course of my life had its origin in that moment on the balcony’ ([1960b] 1972: 18–19).

At the age of fourteen, Buber returned to his father’s house, where he lived with his father and step-mother. He rejected the traditional Judaism of his father and grandparents, and became increasingly interested in philosophy, particularly the works of Kant and Nietzsche. In 1896 Buber enrolled as a student of philosophy at the University of Vienna. Two years later he moved to the University of Leipzig and joined the Zionist movement (see Zionism). Buber was still not interested in the religious tradition he had rejected as an adolescent, but he devoted his energies to the renewal of Jewish culture.

As a delegate to the Third Zionist Congress in 1899, Buber spoke on behalf of the Propaganda Committee, but he used the platform to emphasize the importance of education rather than propaganda. In 1901 he was appointed editor of the weekly Zionist publication Die Welt, in which he again stressed the need for a Jewish cultural renaissance. Later in the same year he became a member of the Zionist Democratic Fraction which was opposed to the programme of Theodor Herzl and, at the Fifth Zionist Congress, he resigned as editor of Die Welt. Shortly after the Congress, Buber withdrew from political affairs. From about 1903 onwards, he immersed himself in the study of Hasidism. Although initially attracted to the literary qualities of the Hasidic tales, he gradually developed an appreciation of their spiritual content and took it upon himself to communicate the message of Hasidism to the assimilated Jews of western Europe, and to humanity at large.

During the years 1906 to 1911, Buber attended lectures at the University of Berlin, especially those given by Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey’s hermeneutic theory was an important influence on Buber’s approach to interpretation, as manifested both in his Hasidic writings and in his later work of biblical translation and commentary (see Hermeneutics). Buber resumed public life in 1909. He exerted a profound influence on Jewish youth in central Europe through his lectures and publications. In 1916 he founded Der Jude, a monthly publication which promoted the Jewish cultural renaissance. Buber’s Zionism continued to diverge from the mainstream. He sought complete equality and cooperation between Jews and Arabs and believed that Palestine could become the shared homeland of two autonomous peoples. His political philosophy also diverged from the dominant conception of socialism. He believed that a socialist society could never come about through the mechanism of the state; rather, it depended on a renewal of relationships among individuals.

Buber’s reflections on the relations between people developed into his most famous work, Ich und Du, which was published in 1923. Although he continued to write for over forty years, Ich und Du is unquestionably his masterpiece. ‘It is the vessel into which he pours the learning and wisdom acquired over the years’ and ‘everything that he wrote afterwards can be traced back to it’ (Vermes 1994: 27). In 1925, Buber took on a project that would occupy him for decades: a new German translation of the Hebrew Bible. Begun in collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig, the work was continued by Buber on his own after Rosenzweig’s premature death in 1929. The final volume of Die Schrift was published in 1961. Buber did not actively work on the translation between 1932 and 1949, but he continued to reflect on the Hebrew Bible, publishing works of biblical criticism and theology, including Königtum Gottes (Kingship of God) (1932), ‘Die Frage an den Einzelnen’ (’Question to the Single One’) (1936), Torat ha-Neviim (The Prophetic Faith) (1940), and Moshe (Moses) (1946).

In 1930, Buber was appointed professor of religion at the University of Frankfurt. He retained this position until 1933, when, following the Nazi rise to power, he was forced to leave the university. In the same year he became director of the Central Office for Jewish Education and head of the Jüdisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt. He travelled throughout Germany, lecturing and teaching, until 1935, when he was prohibited from speaking at Jewish gatherings. Buber moved to Jerusalem in 1938, when he was appointed to the newly created chair of social philosophy at the Hebrew University. He taught there until his retirement in 1951. After retiring Buber continued to write, and he lectured extensively abroad. In his later works he wrestled with the themes of good and evil and the suffering of the innocent, publishing Bilder von Gut und Böse (Good and Evil) (1952) and Gottsfinsternis (Eclipse of God) (1953).

Citing this article:
Wright, Tamra. Life. Buber, Martin (1878–1965), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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