On this day: Martin Buber is born

February 8 1878: The author of I and Thou

By Jennifer Lipman, February 8, 2011

The Austrian-born thinker began his spiritual journey as an observant Jew under the tutelage of his Talmudic scholar grandfather. He became a philosopher as a young man, but continued to write about and address Hassidic values throughout his life.

While studying in Vienna he became involved in the fledgling Zionist movement, acting as a leading cultural Zionist and taking on the role of editor of the Zionist journal Die Welt in 1902. However his Zionist views were at odds with other leading figures in the movement, pushing for the creation of a “common homeland” for Jews and Arabs “in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development”.

His most famous work, I and Thou, an existentialist musing on belief and how man interacts with the world, was published in 1923. He later translated the bible into German with fellow academic Franz Rosenzweig.

By 1930 he was a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, but when Adolf Hitler’s came to power he resigned and emigrated to British Mandate Palestine.

He spent years as a professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, becoming known for his work to improve dialogue between Israelis and Arabs and also between Jews and Germans in the postwar era.

What the JC said: Orthodox rejected him because of his opposition to halacha and he never became part of Reform. The world of scholarship scorned him because he was said to mould Chasidism to suit his religious views and literary style, and his interpretation of biblical texts was regarded as selective and arbitrary. The politicians fought him because of his pro-Arab views. Buber’s fame, therefore, rests primarily on the influence his thought has had on Christianity in general, and Protestant theology in particular.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 10:05am, February 8 2011