Book review: Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent

Buber biography follows facts but avoids analysis


Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent by Paul Mendes-Flohr (Yale University Press, £16.99)

Mendes-Flohr’s biography of that most extraordinary of men, the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, describes the main themes of his thought, as it clocks the changes in approach over his long career, beginning in Germany and ending in Israel, where he became a professor at the Hebrew University. The list of his interlocutors, collaborators, disciples, teachers and friends reads like a cultural and intellectual Who’s Who of Central European Jewry from the turn of the century to the end of the Weimar Republic.

Buber was born in Vienna in 1878. Abandoned at the age of three by his mother, he was raised by his grandparents in an observant Jewish household. At an early age, he eschewed formal Jewish ritual, yet for the rest of his life he retained a deep if sometimes fraught relationship with his people, as a Zionist, teacher, and moral gadfly, speaking truth to power when necessary.

Buber was a critic of the sort of nationalistic Zionism that developed in Israel — where he lived after leaving Germany in 1938 and where he died in 1965 — Zionism being a phenomenon that is best understood in the context of the rise of European nationalism at the end of the 19th century.

At first, Buber was drawn to this version of Zionism. However, the horrors of the First World War disabused him of any sympathy for such exclusivist nationalism after he’d seen the havoc and chaos it brought to European society.

He always believed in Zionism in some form, and never abandoned his deep commitment to his people’s desire for a homeland. He tried to find a form of national identity that could conform to the highest standards of morality, as described for example in his seminal work, I and Thou. He spoke of “Hebrew humanism” and was attracted to the idea of a single, bi-national state, in which the rights of both Jews and Arabs could be respected and in which both groups could live compatibly.

Buber was an outspoken opponent of the death sentence pronounced on Eichmann. When asked what would be a fitting punishment for such a man, he suggested, perhaps tongue-in-check, of putting him to work on a kibbutz, “seeing young people around him… realising every day that we have survived his plans for us.”

Mendes-Flohr’s book (part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series) is certainly comprehensive. In some places, it reads like a diary, giving us details of his trips — where he went, whom he saw, and where he stayed. It is, I suppose, good to have all of this recorded in one volume but those passages do not make for gripping reading and don’t add much to Buber’s intellectual story.

Mendes-Flohr is faithful to the text of Buber; there are extensive and justified quotes from his work and that of others who write about him. But, in the end, I felt a certain lack of clarity both about Buber’s moral message contained in the I-Thou dialectic, and also about the precise nature of the political recommendations Buber would wish to draw from his moral stance.

The book is long on description of Buber’s thought in Buber’s own words, but short on any analytic or organisational structure that would help readers who are far distant from the intellectual milieu and cultural context to which Buber was responding.

Of course, any interpretation of ideas faces the possibility of misrepresenting them, but there is always a trade-off between, on the one hand, restrictively introducing an author only in his own words, and, on the other hand, seeking to explicate and explain the author’s work in one’s own way, with the attendant risk of falsifying the material.

Mendes-Flohr has come down squarely on the first horn of that particular dilemma.

David Ruben is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London

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