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Although Martin Buber (1878-1965) is chiefly known as a philosopher/theologian and the author of I and Thou, Buber as poet and as hermeneut are of particular interest today.

Educated in turn-of-the-century Germany, Buber is a Romantic disenchanted with Enlightment thinking. His best poetry is found in his reconstructed Hasidic tales. However, we must begin with his philosophy of dialogue and relational mysticism as the ground for his poetry.

Buber's Philosophy of Dialogue and Relational Mysticism

"The situation demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you."1
Within every philosophy there is a view of time. Martin Buber saw time as present. To be responsible to the present situation, he drew from the past only that which connected him to his divinely created uniqueness in response to the world. Buber's direction came with the affirmation of his uniqueness.
"In decision, taking the direction thus means: Taking the direction toward the point of being at which, executing for my part the design which I am, I encounter the divine mystery of my created uniqueness, the mystery waiting for me."2
Self-affirmation neccessitates confirmation by an other for responsiveness to go in the direction of good deeds in the world. Therefore the decision for relation with another is essential. Buber understood relation as one of the two attitudes built into the nature of human beings. The other attitude was experience.
"The man who experiences has no part in the experience. For it is in him', and not between him and the world, that the experience arises. The world has no part in the experience. It permits itself to be experienced, but has no concern in the matter. For it does nothing to the experience, and the experience does nothing to it. As experience, the world belongs to the primary word I-It. The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation."3
Buber gives us a full understanding that it is the presentness and the decision for uniqueness that characterizes the true I-Thou relation. The presentness of the meeting enables a non-human being to become a Thou for us even though, by their very forms, they cannot reciprocate. With human beings, it is a fully reciprocal meeting. The I-Thou meeting is not intended to last. It confirms one's uniqueness, enables wholeness, direction and responsiveness to the world.
"But this is the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It. It does not matter how exclusively present the Thou was in the direct relation. As soon as the relation has been worked out, or has been permeated with a means, the Thou becomes an object among objects - perhaps the chief, but still one of them, fixed in its size and its limits. Every Thou in the world is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually to re-enter into the condition of things. The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly - except that situations do not always follow one another in clear successions, but often there is a happening profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled."4
Like neural synapses, the occurrence of I-Thou meetings are dependent on sensitivity to the other and whatever conditions are found at the site of the encounter. This is to say that the decision for relation is made within a particular situation at a particular time rather than being a decision for all times and all places. Continuing with the synapse metaphor, some synaptic transmissions are more dependent on chemistry than others. And the synaptic firing in one part of the nervous system requires different chemicals than another part. In both the I-Thou encounter and the human nervous system, connection is dependent on the decision to be responsive. Therefore synaptic transmission doesn't always occur. In synapses as in Buberian encounters there is a dependency on sensitivity to an "other." In an I-Thou encounter this sensitivity to the other is called "inclusion." Buber saw it as "experiencing the other side." It was not about fantasizing what the other's possibilities might be but rather about including the imagination to "image the other as they actually are." Buber's turning of imagination from fantasizing possibilities to "presentness" is a very important part of his philosophy of dialogue. Because it was only in the present that the I-Thou encounter could occur, being fully present and inclusive was crucial. The immediacy and intensity needed for confirming the other required sacrificing appearances.
"Many are the ways in which the self tries to evade its responsibility in the existential dialogue of life, but they all add up in the end to the erection of some protective structure of fixed and final general rules (ideas, programs, values, standards, etc.) to stand between the individual person and the concrete here-and-now which makes its demand upon him, so that it is not he who is deciding, but the general rule that decides for him."5
The kind of thought process associated with the I-Thou relation is "mythical" and comes out of a state of "wholeness." Professor and Mrs. Henri Frankfort describe the Thou as a presence known only in so far as it reveals itself.
"Thou is not contemplated with intellectual detachment; it is experienced as life confronting life . . . The whole man confronts a living Thou' in nature; and the whole man - emotional and imaginative as well as intellectual - gives expression to the experience."6
In addition to choosing relation over experience, individuals need to remember the I-Thou relation that occurred. Myth was the only form of language capable of giving full expression to the I-Thou encounter. It was therefore necessary for Buber.
" Real myth', he wrote in 1950, is the expression, not of an imaginative state of mind or of mere feeling, but of a real meeting of two Realities.'"7
In saying this, Buber expresses his dialogical understanding of myth. His stance is somewhere between the traditionalist's literal truth and modern critics' merely symbolic truth. Buber is always in the synaptic cleft. Reality is never with either the axon or the dendrite of the synapse but at the site of their meeting.

Perhaps it is the decision to turn imagination into "presentness" that makes I-Thou meetings as powerful as synaptic connections. Imagination in the present moment is power and as such can make connections where there are seemingly no connections. Therefore presentness is the chemistry of the "I-Thou" meeting.

"The present of the I-Thou relation is not the abstract point between past and future that indicates something that has just happened, but the real, filled present.' Like the eternal now' of the mystic, it is the present of intensity and wholeness, but it is not found within the soul. It exists only in so far as meeting and relation exist."8
Buber's Poetry and Hermenuetics

In Buber's "meeting" with the Hasidic tales, his presentness with the tales made them more than a mere tale of the past. He reconstructed them by involving his wholeness and presence to imagine the reality of the tale thereby making it a present event. In his book, The Text as Thou, Steven Kepnes sees Buber as a mythmaking poet. He quotes him and explains the romantic influences that affect Buber's hermeneutics.

"I have received it and told it anew. I have not transcribed it like some piece of literature; I have not elaborated like some fabulous material. I have told it anew as one who was born later. I bear in me the blood and spirit of those who created it, and out of my blood and spirit it has become new. I stand in the chain of narrators, a link between links; I tell once again the old stories, and if they sound new, it is because the new already lay dormant in them when they were told for the first time."8

Buber believed the "moribund myth", the hidden life of the Jewish people, was waiting to be released from the Hasidic tales. They were the solution to the cultural malaise of the Jews and in reconstructing them in the manner described above, Buber was bringing his people forward into the present.

"If Buber was not very successful as a poet, Buber as a Hasidic storyteller was quite successful. Indeed, it was as a storyteller that Buber won his place among the New Romantic poets. Presenting Hasidic legends as the Jewish mystical representation of Jewish mysticism, Buber was able to educate Jews and non-Jews alike to the 'oriental', mystical element in the Jewish past." 9

In writing about the Hasidic tales, Maurice Friedman describes the tale as being:

"...never the mere reflection of the past, but a fully present, multidimensional lived event in itself. That this is so is shown by numerous of the Hasidic tales themselves."10
The following two tales demonstrate the turn from imagining future possibilities to imaging options in the present situation.
Once Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev met a man hurrying along the street, looking neither to the left nor to the right. When he asked the man why he was rushing so, the man replied: "I am after my livelihood." "And how do you know," continued the rabbi, "that your livelihood is running on before you, so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it is behind you and all you need to do to encounter it is to stand still - but you are running away from it."12

"You have passed through the fifty gates of reason. You begin with a question and think and think up and answer - and the first gate opens, and to a new question! And again you plumb it, find the solution, fling open the second gate - and look into a new question. On and on like this, deeper and deeper, until you have forced open the fiftieth gate. There you stare at a question whose answer no man has ever found, for if there were one who knew it, there would no longer be freedom of choice. But if you dare to probe still further, you plunge into the abyss. "So I should go back all the way, to the very beginning?" cried the disciple. "If you turn, you will not be going back," said Rabbi Barukh. You will be standing beyond the last gate: you will stand in faith."13

With the tales, Buber reconstructed what he thought to be the Jewish myth in hopes of reconnecting the European Jews to their Jewish roots. Gilya Schmidt explains the outcome of Buber's reconstructed myth.
"With his reconstruction of the Jewish myth via the examples of Hasidic legends, Buber turned the current order of things upside down, hoping once more to bring Jewish religiosity to the surface as the guiding principle for Jewish life. At the end of 1908, Buber had truly succeeded in appropriating material that was intrinsically Jewish but exotic for the cultural expectations of the German and central European Jews."14

Although Buber's reconstructed Hasidic tales did not speak to the German and Central European Jews of the early 20th century, Maurice Friedman points out how they are used today. Both Kepnes and Friedman applaud Buber as hermeneut and Friedman describes the application of Buberian hermeneutics to everyday living.

"In my book, The Human Way: A Dialogical Approach to Religion and Human Experience" , I speak of 'theology as event'-the way that we walk in the concrete situations of our existence. To speak thus means an inversion of traditional theology, which rests upon a set of traditional beliefs or a traditional interpretation of 'sacred history' and biblical events. Rather it is the event itself that again and again gives rise to religious meaning, and only out of that meaning, apprehended in our own history and the history of past generations that we have made present to ourselves, do religious symbols and theological interpretations arise. Such theology as event makes the staggering claim it is in our lives that we apprehend the divine-not through sacred time and places and rituals alone but in the everyday happening, 'the days of our years'." 15

Buber's "Between"

Buber's mysticism began as an alternative to the determinism so prevalent in his day. Unlike most mystics, he related to the world without ever forgetting that the world was made up of unique and concrete particulars that might reveal themselves to him in an encounter. He was a different kind of mystic in that he sought relation rather than union with God. The God he believed in was both transcendent and immanent, absolute and particular, revealing himself in history. To relate to his paradoxical God, Buber placed himself in between the seeming opposites. This "between," like the synaptic cleft, was a place where connections were revealed.

It was from this place of "between" that Buber's syntheses occurred. He had originally seen Rabbinic Judaism to be the opposite of Hasidism. However, he grew in his ability to let them be unique and mutual, and by acknowledging their uniqueness, their relatedness was revealed. Buber's way of finding connections between Rabbinic Judaism and Hasidism and later Zionism and Hasidism was done through recognition of uniqueness. With his poetry of the synapse, hidden connections were revealed.

Perhaps Buber's uniqueness is revealed to the greatest extent in his hermeneutical abilities. His view expresses the uniqueness of each event as an entity in itself which can relate to other events without need of chronological or categorical linkage. As such, it invites one to be fully present to the particularity of a thing, be it a person, nature, art or an event. An example of this fragmentary method is his autobiography.

Buber told his life story by presenting a collection of separate meetings. Stephen Kepnes observes that Buber's relational self was drastically unlike Western notions of a singular self.

"Buber's self is the mirror image of Gusdorf's singular self. It is not opposed to others,' nor does it exist outside of others.' Indeed it defines itself with others."16
By communicating his life in fragments, he could tell each separate one in a way that allowed his readers to encounter him as a Thou and to relate to him dialogically rather than to know him objectively. Kepnes describes Buber and his "Autobiographical Fragments."
Buber's autobiography is one of the few that takes seriously the relational and process qualities of the self and tries to develop an autobiographical form that reflects these qualities."17
Will Herberg says of Buber:
"Buber's whole outlook is existential and situational. The dialogic man is the man who thinks existentially,' that is, the man who stakes his life on his thinking,' for him, faith is . . . the venture pure and simple."18
Buber saw education as a restoration to wholeness. Knowledge was not for the sake of knowledge itself, but for ethical response to concrete situations. Education was to train the whole person to respond to the world of their time with their unique contribution. In all cases, education required dialogue of the kind described in this paper. The following Hasidic tale provokes thought how we communicate with our academic colleagues and with students.
"Men can meet, but mountains never." "When one man considers himself just a human being, pure and simple, and the other does so too, they can meet. But if the one considers himself a lofty mountain, and other thinks the same, then they cannot meet." 19

End Notes

1 Will Herberg: The Writings of Martin Buber, Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York, 1956, p. 20.

2 Martin Buber: Good and Evil, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1953, p. 142.

3 Will Herberg: The Writings of Martin Buber, Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York, 1956, p. 44.

4 Will Herberg: The Writings of Martin Buber, Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York, 1956, pp. 49 and 50.

5 Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber: Life Dialogue, Harper and Row (New York, 1960), p. 20.

6 Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber: Life Dialogue, Harper and Row (New York, 1960), pp. 232-233.

7 Ibid, p. 231.

8 Steven Kepnes, The Text as Thou, Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1992), p. 10.

9 Ibid, p. 11.

10 Maurice Friedman:A Dialogue with Hasidic Tales, Human Science Press, N. Y., 1988, p. 26.

11 Ibid, p. 26.

12 Ibid, pp. 49-50.

13 Maurice Friedman:A Dialogue with Hasidic Tales, Human Science Press, N. Y., 1988, pp. 80-81.

14 Gilya Gerda Schmidt: Martin Buber's Formative Years, The University of Albama Press, Tuscaloosa and London, 1995, p. 102.

15 Maurice Friedman:A Dialogue with Hasidic Tales, Human Science Press, N. Y., 1988, p. 29.

16 Stephen D. Kepnes, "Buber's 'Autobiographical Fragments'", Soundings: Vol LXXII, No. 2-3, (Summer/Fall 1990), p. 413.


18 Will Herberg: The Writings of Martin Buber, Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York, 1956, p. 19.

19 Maurice Friedman: A Dialogue with Hasidic Tales, Human Science Press, N. Y., 1988, p. 89.


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