13 August 2020

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
15, Martin Buber and the idea
of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my recent visit to Vienna to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

The major Jewish intellectuals who helped make Vienna one of Europe’s most modern capitals at the turn of the 20th century include Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schönberg, Joseph Roth and Martin Buber.

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was an eminent philosopher, translator, and educator. He was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Vienna on 8 February 1878, and spent part of his childhood there. Through his descent from the 16th-century rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam (מהר"מ), he was also related – albeit distantly in some cases – to Karl Marx, Felix MendeIssohn and Helena Rubinstein.

Reading Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, he was inspired to study philosophy, and his doctoral work was on Jakob Böhme, the German Lutheran pietist who influenced the Anglican mystic William Law and John Wesley.

He became the editor of Die Welt, the Vienna-based weekly newspaper of the Zionist movement, in 1902, although he later withdrew from organizational work in Zionism.

Buber’s evocative, sometimes poetic, writing style has marked the major themes in his work: the re-telling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

He thought the Zionist movement had the potential for social and spiritual enrichment. But he also admired how Hasidic communities brought their religious beliefs into their daily life and culture, and published collected stories of two Hasidic founding figures, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (1772-1810), and the Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760), the founder of Hasidism.

Buber valued the emphasis in the Hasidic tradition on community, inter-personal life, and meaning in common activities. George Robinson points out that before Buber, the Hasidim were dismissed as superstitious peasants, who believed in ‘miracle-working rabbis’ – the ‘sort of simple men who were the butt of jokes in Yiddish short stories.’ After Buber, ‘the Hasidim were taken seriously as the pietistic movement they were.’

For Buber, the Hasidic ideal was a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no distinct separation between daily habits and religious experience. This was a major influence on Buber’s philosophy of anthropology, which considered the basis of human existence as dialogical.

In 1923, he wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later published in English as I and Thou). In I and Thou, he introduced his thesis on human existence. He argues there that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of two modes of being: one of dialogue (Ich-Du) or one of monologue (Ich-Es). Ich-Du (‘I-Thou’) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is an encounter in which infinity and universality are made actual, rather than being merely concepts.

Buber describes God as the eternal ‘Du,’ and so one key Ich-Du relationship Buber identifies is that between a human being and God. He argues that this is the only way it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich-Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.

On the other hand, in an Ich-Es relationship there is no actual meeting. Instead, the ‘I’ confronts and treats the being in its presence as an object. The Ich-Es relationship, therefore, is a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue, but a monologue. In the Ich-Es relationship, an individual treats other things, including people, as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how an object can serve the individual’s interest.

Buber argues that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich-Du and Ich-Es, and that Ich-Du experiences are few and far between. Buber argues that Ich-Es relations – even between human beings – devalue not only those who exist, but the meaning of all existence.

Buber began translating the Hebrew Bible into German with Franz Rosenzweig in 1925, and became a professor of Jewish Religious Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in 1930. But he resigned from the university after Hitler came to power in 1933. When he was banned from lecturing, he moved to Jerusalem in 1938 and became professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University.

He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature ten times, and for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times. He died in Jerusalem on 13 June 1965.

According to George Robinson, Buber is quoted regularly today by rabbis, who invoke ‘his dialogical principle, the idea of the I-Thou relationship, even his progressive positions on Jewish-Christian and Palestinian-Israeli relations.’ However, his stature is greater among Christian theologians.

Martin Luther King, for example, cited Buber as an influence, stating in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that ‘segregation substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.’

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

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