Martin Buber and the Holocaust: Some Reconsiderations
by Richard L. Rubenstein (November 2012)
Author’s note: An earlier version of this essay was presented in German at the Buber Centenary Conference in West Germany, 1978, chaired by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Walter Scheel. An earlier English version was published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1979
As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martin Buber here in Wiirzburg, it is impossible not to reflect on what those years have meant in the history of Judaism, of Germany and of the western world. In 1878 the vast majority of the world's Jews were domiciled in Eastern Europe. There was a minuscule Jewish community in what is now Israel. There were no more than 300,000 Jews in the United States, almost all of whom were of German origin. In the same year on January 3, 1878, Pastor Adolf Stöcker, the Kaiser's Court Chaplain, founded Germany's first overtly anti-Semitic political party, renamed shortly thereafter the Christian Social Party. One year later Wilhelm Marr founded his Anti-Semite League. Stöcker's program was relatively mild compared to that of his successors.
Nevertheless, the Pastor laid a more enduring foundation for the total annihilation of Germany's Jews than he knew. In 1881, three years after Buber's birth and the founding of Stöcker's party, the Jews of Czarist Russia were the object of government instigated pogroms of unprecedented violence. In retrospect, these pogroms must be seen as providential. Without the goad of overt violence, it is doubtful that the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the still-open United States would have assumed the large-scale proportions it did. We know what fate was in store for those who remained in Eastern Europe.
From the perspective of 1978, it is clear that Martin Buber was born into and eventually came to lead a hopelessly doomed community whose grim fate was inexorably to unfold during his lifetime. There is no other way to understand the history of European Judaism from 1878, when the clouds of doom were barely visible on the horizon, to 1945, when the full dimensions of the catastrophe were finally revealed. Martin Buber was undoubtedly the most important and influential religious thinker produced by his doomed community. This was an exemplary achievement given the period in which he flourished. In its closing hours, the European Jewish community produced an extraordinary number of world leaders in the fields of art, science, philosophy and literature, but in the field of religion, only one Jew was able fully to transcend the limits of his own tradition and achieve preeminent status as a world leader. That man was Martin Buber.
Nevertheless, Buber's preeminence as a unique leader in his bitterly tragic era makes it all but inevitable that his career be re-examined in the light of the history and fate of his community. In recent years, all contemporary Jewish theology has become Holocaust theology, at least on the North American continent.1
Although the debates between contemporary Jewish theologians have at times been embittered, there is absolutely no disagreement concerning the central issue confronting Jewish thought.2 Almost every contemporary reflection about God, man, revelation, election, tradition, redemption, Israel and Christianity starts with the Holocaust as the central event. After Auschwitz became the dominant issue for the reflective Jewish consciousness, it became exceedingly difficult to read Martin Buber save in the light of that event.
This does not mean that Buber can be faulted because he did not make the Holocaust his central theological concern. It was Buber's fate to help guide the spiritual destiny of the German Jewish community in its terminal agony. Like philosophic reflection, theological reflection tends to arise after the fact. It is a Nachdenken. Perhaps the words of Hegel in the preface to the Philosophy of Right were never more appropriate than as a description of the current state of Jewish theological reflection:
When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.3
Holocaust theology begins its task only after night has fallen. It was Buber's lot to have lived through and to have been a principal actor in many of the events concerning which contemporary theology must now reflect. His greatness is inextricably linked to his time. He cannot be expected to have been both a participant in the events of his time and to have reflected on the meaning of that which he was compelled to endure. His insight and his vision have enlivened our understanding of the biblical, New Testament and Hasidic periods in the history of Judaism and of western religion. It is inevitable that others would come after Buber whose task would be to reflect on the time and the teaching which were the substance of his life. This essay is hopefully a contribution to that labor.
Buber did, of course, survive the Holocaust by twenty years and his latter years, like those of Sigmund Freud and Paul Tillich, were among his most creative. Yet, when one turns to his writings from 1945 to 1965, there is little if any evidence of a confrontation with the Holocaust as a religious or theological issue. The Holocaust is mentioned in the address he gave at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main on the occasion of his controversial acceptance of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade September 27, 1953, but the grim subject is not raised as a religious problem. It is only mentioned because of its obvious relevance to the issue of Buber's attitude toward Germany and Germans. In that address Buber is principally concerned with what appears to be a more universal problem, the Cold War, which he saw as a result of the inability of men truly to speak to each other. Characteristically, Buber expresses the faith that the international crisis, though fraught with danger, can result in healing because "despite all, . . . the peoples in this hour can enter into genuine dialogue with each other."4
Thus, although the Holocaust was alluded to on the occasion of a highly significant post-war encounter between Buber and the German world of letters, Buber was fundamentally preoccupied with the absence of dialogue between nations as the source of international instability.
If Buber ever had any intention of dealing explicitly with the Holocaust as a religious or theological problem, one might have expected his reflections on the subject to have been included in the work that became known as Eclipse of God (1952) which dates from the same period as the Paulskirche speech.5 While that book expresses concern for the collapse of faith in a transcendent deity in modern philosophy, the Holocaust is nowhere seen as relevant to that issue. Buber is sensitive to the philosophical critique of faith in Sartre, Heidegger and Nietzsche.6
He also argues against Feuerbach and his intellectual heirs that those who maintain that "every alleged colloquy with the divine is only a soliloquy" must inevitably conclude that "God is dead," a position Buber emphatically rejects.7
For Buber, the fundamental reason for the absence of genuine meeting between man and the Eternal Thou in our time is that "the l-It relation, gigantically swollen, has usurped, practically uncontested, the mastery and the rule."8 In spite of this universal contemporary dominion of l-It and its consequence, the eclipse of God, Buber assures us that, a) the absence of God is a temporary phenomenon due in large measure to mankind's currently flawed capacity for dialogue, and b) we can expect that the encounters between men and the Eternal Thou will be resumed in the future in ways that cannot yet be foreseen. This is expressed as follows:
Something is taking place in the depths that as yet needs no name. Tomorrow it may happen that it will be beckoned to from the heights, across the heads of earthly archons. The eclipse of the light of God is no extinction ; even tomorrow that which has stepped in between [man and the Eternal Thou] may give way.9
Having offered his readers a series of wholly unsupported oracular pronouncements, Buber nowhere states his reasons for either his diagnosis or his prophecy.
Nevertheless, Buber's silence on the Holocaust as a theological issue is altogether consistent with his view of the divine-human encounter. For Buber, that encounter is utterly removed from all of the categories of normal human experience. It is atemporal, non-spatial, non-causal, and, in fact, devoid of the kind of any content that could be shared in normal discourse. As Buber informs us, in the divine-human encounter we receive "not a content but a presence, a presence of strength."10 Moreover, for those who enter into the absolute relationship with the Eternal Thou, "nothing retains any importance."11 It would thus appear that, because of its wholly ineffable character, Buber's version of the divine-human encounter must prove indifferent to the vicissitudes of human history.
Moreover, since, according to Buber, there is nothing cumulative or structured about the meetings of God and man, each encounter is without identifiable precedent or consequent. The spontaneous and utterly unpredictable character of such meetings are devoid of that indispensable note of confidence and trust that could only develop in a relationship between partners whose behavior toward each other possesses a measure of consistency and predictability. This is as true of the relationship between God and man as it is between man and man. That is why normative Judaism and Christianity, in contrast to Buber, have always insisted that there is both structure and continuity in the relationship between God and his people. This also is why Jesus is depicted as addressing God as Abba, thereby expressing his confidence in the trustworthiness of his continuing relationship with God.12 Such trustworthiness can never rest upon ineffable spontaneity. Indeed, it requires the assurance that only a sense of structure and continuity could make possible.
Buber, of course, recognized that men are as anxious to find elements of consistency in their relations with God as they are in their relations with earthly parents, but he regarded that quest as a fall from grace. It is, in fact, the closest analogue to the biblical doctrine of the fall we can discern in Buber's thought.
"This," he tells us, "is the sublime melancholy of our lot that every Thou must become an It in our world."13 Here, in the demise of spontaneity and ineffability, we find Buber's version of the "Fall." Man is alienated from God not only by some wilful act of disobedience or self-assertion - there is, in fact, no way man could realistically disobey Buber's God - but by the transformation of an utterly unpredictable divine-human relationship into a predictable one. For Buber, this is taken to mean that even the ineffable presence of the divine Thou is destined to be lost within the objectifying categories of the world of l-It.
Given such a perspective, there is no reason why the Holocaust should have been regarded by Buber as a significant religious or theological problem. For those who believe in the biblical God of covenant and election, the Holocaust raises the obvious question: How could an all-powerful and all-righteous God ... ? For Buber, the very spontaneity and utter unpredictability of the divine-human encounter precludes such a question. Within Buber's thought, one can interpret the Holocaust as the most radical extension of the domain of l-It. Nevertheless, even the Holocaust would not be incompatible with Buber's version of the Eternal Thou, that is, a divine Presence which cannot be contained within any humanly comprehensible meaning. Thus, there are important religious and theological reasons why Buber never raised the Holocaust as a central problem for contemporary Judaism.
Nevertheless, Buber's indifference to the Holocaust as a religious problem is indicative of the radical disjunction between his religious thought and that of the classical Judaeo-Christian mainstream. Although both Judaism and Christianity acknowledge that God as he is in Himself beyond the comprehension of finite human thought, neither tradition knows of an unmediated relationship between God and man, such as that set forth by Buber. In Judaism men are never enjoined to meet the Absolute; they are enjoined to keep his commandments. Buber's rejection of the system of religious law in Judaism is well known and, given the centrality of the ineffable divine-human encounter in his thought, it is entirely understandable.14 Were God present to us in the fashion described by Buber, no such system of law would be necessary or even possible. It is because normative Judaism knows nothing comparable to Buber's version of the divine-human encounter that it insists upon its system of religious law.
Similarly, Christianity knows no unmediated relationship with the Absolute. Jesus Christ is the Mediator par excellence between God and man. That is why Christian thinkers among Buber's contemporaries, such as Guardini, Gogarten and Barth insisted that only in and through Christ is God available to man as the Eternal Thou. This is in the strongest possible contrast to Buber for whom the relationship between man and the Eternal Thou is utterly without mediation.
In contrast to Buber, in Judaism and Christianity the divine human relationship requires mediation. Moreover, in both traditions sin consists in rejecting the divinely-bestowed mediations. Judaism and Christianity differ on the nature of the mediations but agree that the penalty for rejecting the divinely sanctioned mediations is dire. Indeed, the very fate of mankind is depicted as resting upon a proper response to the mediations.
It is at this point that contemporary Holocaust theology raises its fundamental issue: if God is more than Buber's ineffable Eternal Presence, but, as both traditions assert, the all-powerful Actor in the drama of human history who has elected Israel as his distinctive people, how shall we understand the divine role at Auschwitz? The response of classical Jewish and Christian tradition is identical: Auschwitz must be seen as God's chastisement against the Jews for having rejected the divinely-sanctioned mediations. This is not necessarily the response of most contemporary Holocaust theologians in either tradition.15 It certainly is not mine. Nevertheless, unlike Buber, contemporary Holocaust theology begins with a classical problem in Jewish and Christian religious thought, namely, the question of covenant, election and God's action in history.
Moreover, Holocaust theology rests upon a premise that Buber is not prepared to grant, namely that the encounter between God and man is never unmediated. As a Jew of Polish origin, Buber presumably felt deeply the monumental tragedy of Auschwitz but, given his distinctive religious system, he could not identify God as the Actor in any concrete set of historical events. To do so would be to comprehend the Eternal Thou in the domain of l-It. Furthermore, Buber saw evil fundamentally as absence of relationship. Hence, he was not prepared to see in the Holocaust the presence of God.
Yet, when one contrasts Buber's position with that of the traditional believer who asserts that somehow God was mysteriously present at Auschwitz, one wonders whether there may not be greater realism in the believer's harsh and uncompromising faith. We may reject as simplistic the believer's attempt to ascribe cosmic significance to such grim happenings, but we ought to recognize that radical evil, sin and suffering are issues of the greatest possible urgency to him.
By contrast, Buber's notion of evil as absence of relationship has the unintended consequence of radically underestimating evil's potency. As we shall see, Buber's tendency to underestimate the power of evil affected his politics as well as his theology. Given his view of evil as privation of dialogue, Buber was more concerned with attempting to restore the broken dialogue with the evil-doer than to face the tragic but compelling necessity of creating and sustaining political structures possessed of the power to contain evil. The human problems involved in the administration of a system of officially-sanctioned coercion are, of course, a principal concern of non-utopian politics. By contrast, Buber's ventures into the realm of politics were almost always utopian and messianic.
Buber's insistence on the unmediated character of the divine human encounter rendered him disinterested in the Holocaust as a religious problem. It also distorted his understanding of what was at stake in the two thousand year theological conflict between Judaism and Christianity. It is the consensus of a growing number of biblical scholars that the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 was an historical watershed of epoch-making proportions for both Judaism and Christianity.16 Those who were the dominant religious authorities in both the Christian movement and Judaism before 66 were no longer so in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem. Before the war, the dominant authorities within Judaism were the priestly Sadducean aristocrats who controlled the sacrificial worship of the Jerusalem sanctuary. In the period between the ministry of Jesus and the Judaeo-Roman War, the Christian community and the Pharisees were essentially rival movements within Judaism which attempted to challenge the priestly party's monopoly of the central religious institutions. Put differently, before the Judaeo-Roman War the priestly party possessed a monopoly of the officially sanctioned media of redemption, a monopoly that was challenged by both the young Christian church and the Pharisees.17
But note the language we employ: we speak of "media of redemption," that is, the religious means by which men pay their debts to God and to their fellow men. Contrast this with Buber's insistence on the immediate and ineffable character of the presence of the indescribable Absolute as the content of authentic religion. Since Buber's meeting with the Absolute is devoid of content, it can hardly involve a concrete sense of indebtedness or sin. Thus, while Buber is concerned with the presence or absence of a relationship with God, he never takes seriously, as do the classic traditions, the decisive problem of how men are to make good their primal indebtedness to the Absolute.
Unlike Buber, we hold with the classic traditions that a fundamental preoccupation of homo religiosus is his profound sense of indebtedness both to God and to his fellow man. We further hold that in his religious life, homo religiosus seeks above all to annul that indebtedness. This, we believe, was clearly understood by Paul of Tarsus who held that Christ's gift consisted precisely in the redemption of mankind from the indebtedness it had inherited from its original progenitor.18 By contrast, in his work Two Types of Faith, Buber saw Paul's pistis, his faith in Christ as Redeemer of mankind's primal indebtedness, as infinitely more Greek than Jewish.19 Buber ignores the fact that both Paul and his Jewish contemporaries shared a common belief that the human condition had been flawed at the outset by Adam's original offense against the Creator and that both Paul and his Jewish contemporaries yearned for an identical release from the indebtedness.20
When we turn to the ancient rivalry between the priests, the Pharisees and the Christians in the period immediately before the fall of Jerusalem, we again note the extent to which Buber's view of religion distorts the past, and, insofar as the present is heir to the past, the present as well. In the period between the birth of Christianity and the fall of Jerusalem, the rivalry between priests, Pharisees and Christians for control of the media of redemption within Judaism involved bitter economic, social and political competition over the related questions of (a) how the community would pay its debts and (b) who would control the procedure. Each group sought the monopoly for itself. Here again, we find the strongest possible contrast between the actualities of religion at the moment in history which witnessed the birth of both the Christian church and the rabbinic tradition on the one hand, and Buber's distinctive interpretation of the nature of authentic faith on the other. For example, the conflict between the largely Galilean Christian movement and the priestly aristocrats of Jerusalem can be seen as a center periphery conflict. It can also be seen as a conflict between the urban metropolis and the agrarian hinterland. The priestly monopoly of the nation's central religious institutions carried with it considerable financial, political and social advantage. By the same token, there were very serious disabilities, then as now, for those who were cut off from access to leadership of the metropolitan institutions, as were the Galileans. It is not at all surprising that more than one religious rebellion against the metropolis began in peripheral Galilee.21 Similarly, there was bound to be violent hostility between a scribal class such as the Pharisees, whose status was acquired through the diligent and arduous pursuit of religious learning, and a priestly aristocracy whose advantageous status was inherited through no distinctive personal merit.22
Nor was it surprising that the scribal class insisted that the ways in which it excelled, namely, learning and meticulous ritual discipline, were uniquely prized by God, or that the Galileans were hostile to both the inherited sacerdotal status of the priests and the scribal learning and ritual discipline of the Pharisees. Nor, in contrast to Buber's negative views on ritual and religious law, was there anything dead, ossified, or devoid of spirit in the bitter quarrels between the rival groups over such questions as tithing, taxing, ritual purity and impurity, sabbath observance, sacrifice, and sacerdotal authority. On the contrary, the questions at issue constituted the language in which was expressed the highly complicated social and economic relationships between the warring groups within the household of Israel.
As we have said, until the Judaeo-Roman War, these rivalries were intramural. When the parting of the ways between Church and Synagogue finally came, it was as much due to the way the two groups were compelled to deal with the political consequences of the fall of Jerusalem as to any strictly religious conflict. Regrettably, nowhere in Buber's analysis of Jesus and Paul in Two Types of Faith, which Gershom Scholem has called Buber's weakest book, do we find any consideration of these salient historical issues.23
Because of the limited scope of this essay, we cannot consider the response of the Christian Church to the fall of Jerusalem. Let us, however, consider briefly the way the Pharisees responded. Immediately before the Judaeo-Roman War, the Pharisees seem to have been a relatively small table fellowship group with little political power within the Jewish community.24 Afterwards, the Pharisees undertook the work of religious and communal reconstruction which permitted the stricken community to survive the loss of the Temple and to find in the synagogue and school adequate surrogates for the vanquished Temple cult. Nevertheless, without the active political backing of Roman Imperial authorities, it would have been impossible for the Pharisees and the rabbinic party to have assumed religious and political leadership of the Jewish community. Moreover, there was a heavy political and psychological price to be paid for Roman backing of the Pharisees.
In the aftermath of 70 the Romans sought loyal and dependable agents who could govern the volatile Jewish community on their behalf. Of the competing Jewish groups, only the pacifist wing of the Pharisees met the Roman political requirements. The Zealots had fought a war to the death against Rome and had been forced to leave the scene; the priestly aristocrats had lost their central institution and had been compromised as collaborationists. Only the Pharisees were prepared to take the lead and to train their community to live within the confines of Roman domination. In return for their submission the Pharisees sought and received imperial assurance of Jewish religious and cultural autonomy. Once this issue was settled, the Pharisees, together with some former scribes, shaped the distinctive institutions and literature that were to characterize the diaspora for the next two thousand years. The arrangement first made by the Pharisees under Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Romans under Vespasian endured until the time of the Nazis. 25
Every aspect of diaspora Judaism for the next two thousand years was decisively affected by the political bargain made by the Romans and the Pharisees in the aftermath of 70.26 Implicit in the rise of the Pharisees to dominance was the enforced renunciation of resort to force and power as an option available to Jews in achieving their ends. Without an independent political entity it is in any event impossible to wage war effectively. The Zealots at Masada preferred to die rather than live in a world where their dignity and their security were entirely dependent upon the power of strangers. By contrast, under Yohanan ben Zakkai, the Pharisees were not only prepared to accept the risks of total powerlessness; they were also prepared to create a religious culture predicated upon that powerlessness and to train two thousand years of Jews to eschew force and aggression in their relations with their neighbors and their hosts. This was a calculated risk. It entailed the very real possibility that at regular intervals Jews might become the impotent objects of violent aggression. In contemporary parlance, the Pharisees trained Jews to be dhimmis.
It is my conviction that no other realistic course was available to the Jews at the time or thereafter in the European diaspora. Hence, I find absolutely no fault in Yohanan and his peers for having accepted Roman domination. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that every single indignity visited upon the Jews of the diaspora during the next two thousand years, including the horrors of the Holocaust, was an absolutely predictable consequence of the conditions accepted by their classic religious leaders. The Pharisees consented to lead a community whose dignity and security rested upon the power, the interests, and the whim of strangers, who more often than not regarded the Jews as enemies. The Pharisees took the daring risk that Caesar would be a trustworthy master. Unfortunately, they could not guarantee that every heir to the power and authority of Caesar would also refrain from abusing his unlimited power over the Jews.
It must be remembered that Adolf Hitler was the legitimate head of the German Reich and, as such, an heir to the power and authority of the Caesars. It was he who finally utilized the power renounced by the Pharisees to bring about the degradation and annihilation of every single Jew within his grasp. The extermination of the Jews of Europe during World War II must be seen as part of the total price, albeit long delayed, which was exacted from the Jewish community for its defeat in 70 C.E.
When seen in this light, the Holocaust raises some exceedingly urgent questions about the relationship between power and dignity. The Holocaust reminds us that he who lacks the power to defend himself, yet is unprepared to choose death, must be prepared for the possibility that an adversary may inflict upon him and his family any obscenity whatsoever, as indeed was the lot of the Jews during World War II. This sad fact about the human condition was clearly understood by the Zealots at Masada. They chose death rather than to endure the predictable consequences of impotent servility.27
I regret to report that I find no discussion of the relationship between power and dignity in Buber's presentation of the dynamics of interpersonal encounter in I and Thou, in spite of the fact that no people was ever compelled to endure a more total assault on its very being than the community of which he was so important a figure. Instead, Buber presents us with descriptions of encounters between abstract personal pronouns, without taking cognizance of the inherent absence of individual specificity of all such forms of speech.28 Buber presents us with images of totally unspecified I's and Thou's relating to each other in openness and mutuality, as if mutual acceptance in the real world can ever ignore the claims of class, caste, status and power. Nor is it sufficient to dismiss the issue of the abuse of the powerless by the powerful as yet another instance of l-It.
The world is the arena in which men and women of unequal power confront each other. Openness, mutuality and acceptance are only possible between those who are more or less equal in station, actually only between those possessed of relatively equal power. When one thinks of those Jews who were compelled to strip naked and lie down sardine-fashion in mass graves to await their death at the hands of SS Einsatzkommandoes, those camp inmates who were compelled to submit to the mutilation of their sex organs in SS medical experiments, and those women who were compelled to serve as military Feldhiire, we have an image of the extent to which dignity is always dependent upon power. Yet, nowhere in Buber's description of the world of human mutuality or in his descriptions of the need to meet and redeem those committed to the path of evil do we find the issue of power seriously raised. Instead, we find such utopian admonitions as that which Buber offered in 1919 to his German fellow-citizens at the moment their country was being lacerated by the post-war problems of defeat, revolution and civic disorder:
You, imprisoned in shells in which society, state, church, school, economy, public opinion, and your own pride have stuck you, indirect ones among direct ones break through your shells, become direct; man have contact with man! ... You shall not withhold yourselves!29
Perhaps impressive as rhetoric, one wonders to what avail such counsel could be in solving the problems Germans had to contend with at the time.
Nor does the counsel he offered his own Jewish community at the time of the Nazi seizure of power ring less hollow despite its characteristically utopian rhetoric. In 1933 he admonished German Jewry:
If we would turn to Him, abandon the false freedom with all its deceptive assurances, turn to God's freedom which is binding to God, then this reeling through the dark mountain pass will reveal itself as a way, our way to the light.30
Again one wonders of what avail was Buber's counsel when his people were confronting their most dangerous hour.
Could it be that Buber was incapable of dealing responsibly with the problem of power, a problem which is never irrelevant to inter-personal encounter, because he came from a community whose political perspectives had been distorted by the fact that for two thousand years it had experienced power primarily as its objects? Could it have been that Buber was more the heir of the traditions of the Pharisees and their bargain with Caesar, with all of the Caesars, than his heterodoxy might initially indicate? Could it have been that nothing in his background, training or social milieu prepared him to face the issue of power realistically in his life, his thought or his career as a Jewish leader?
One also wonders to what extent this unfamiliarity with the inner workings of political power was operative in the intense distrust of the state and its institutions that characterized both Buber's Zionism and his socialism. Buber's inability to deal realistically with the world of politics was noted by his admirer Paul Tillich. Tillich observed that in his distrust of politics, Buber relegated the state "almost completely to the 'demons' and to the absolutized l-It relationship."31 lt was for that reason, according to Tillich, that Buber affirmed the Zionist movement as a messianic attempt to create a Gemeinschaft while negating it "as a political attempt to create a state."32 Tillich maintained that Buber was profoundly mistaken, for "history . . . seems to show that without the shell of a state, a community cannot exist .. "33 Unlike Buber, Tillich apparently understood why political Zionism had arisen.
Buber's unrealism in dealing with the world of actuality can be documented from many sources, but his position on the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann is particularly instructive.34
Let it be said at the outset that I agree with Buber that the State of Israel was in error in executing Eichmann and that it would have been a far more appropriate punishment for Eichmann to have lived out his natural life as a prisoner of the very people he did so much to destroy. What I find problematic are the reasons Buber offered for the stand he took.
In the first place, Buber questioned the legitimacy of a Jewish court sitting in judgment over Eichmann. Instead, he favored the convening of an international court in Jerusalem. Among his reasons were: a) he did not believe that the victims should be the judges; b) he maintained that Eichmann's crimes against humanity were no less monstrous than his crimes against the Jews; and c) he opposed the death sentence because he did not believe that the state has the right to take a man's life. But, if victims are to be excluded from executing judgment upon those that have assaulted them, who is to assume that responsibility? Where can we find a disinterested agency of justice belonging to no state yet possessing a state's power both to pass and to render justice? Does not the sad history of the United Nations indicate the impossibility of finding such a disinterested agency?
Moreover, Buber was profoundly mistaken in regarding the State of Israel as a victim of Eichmann or any other Nazi. The state was founded largely because of the terrible lessons to be drawn from the experience of Eichmann's victims, but it itself was no victim. On the contrary, the purpose of the state was to offer the hope that the successor Jewish community would no longer be the gathering place of future defenseless victims. This meant that the State of Israel not only had the right but was compelled to acquire and, at times, to employ instruments of coercion against both internal and external adversaries. Regrettably, human nature is such that this may at times involve war and capital punishment. To assert, as did Buber, that the state has no right to take human life is to betray a fundamental ignorance of the nature of political sovereignty as well as the imperatives confronting a sovereign state. A state founded on law has no right capriciously to take human life, but to ask that the state unconditionally forego that right is tantamount to asking for its ultimate dissolution.
Here again we see Buber's consistent failure to deal seriously and responsibly with the life and death problems which confronted his own people at a time in their history when their survival was called radically into question both in Europe and the Middle East. Buber's failure to take the Holocaust seriously as a theological problem was in fact a reflection of a larger inability to deal realistically with the world of concrete actuality.
As is well known, Buber used his enormous international prestige publicly to advocate the establishment of a bi-national Arab-Jewish state. Buber made his views known in 1946 before the ovens had cooled when Great Britain was attempting to resolve the question of the postwar future of Palestine.35 In any multi-national state composed of rival communities, the crucial question is often, which community shall possess a monopoly of the means of coercion? A bi-national state was impossible in Palestine because neither the Jews nor the Arabs could trust the other community with control over the state's instruments of coercion. In spite of the Holocaust's bitter lessons, this issue was characteristically ignored by Buber.
Finally, Buber's assertion that Eichmann's crimes were as much "crimes against humanity" as they were against the Jews reveals once again Buber's consistent evasion of the concrete and the specific, whether he was employing ambiguous personal pronouns totally devoid of identifiable content such as "I" and "Thou" to describe interpersonal encounter, whether he was holding forth on an ineffable divine-human encounter which eluded all of the verifications of ordinary discourse, or whether he was dealing with the historical agonies of his own people.
Let us remember who Eichmann was. He was a middle-level SS officer who was specifically charged with important responsibilities in the so-called "Final Solution" of the Jewish problem. He was at no time charged with responsibility in the annihilation of an abstraction, "humanity"; he did have a leading role in the physical destruction of Europe's Jews. Upon first hearing, Buber's phrase "crimes against humanity" does seem to be an appropriate description of the Holocaust. Upon reflection, it is apparent that humanity is a term of such broad generality as to be without meaningful content. In the Final Solution it was not humanity but a very specific community that suffered.
Regrettably, there is an overload of evidence that the Final Solution was in fact welcomed by a goodly portion of "humanity," as long as the Germans did the dirty work. In the summer of 1939, the Polish government informed the world that Poland's number one problem was to get rid of its Jewish population;36 nor was the Final Solution unwelcome to the wartime British government which was concerned lest hordes of Jews survive and seek to enter Palestine, thereby destabilizing England's "lifeline to India;"37 even highly influential members of the wartime Roosevelt administration regarded the Final Solution as a convenient means of eliminating an unwelcome population that might otherwise have sought to enter the United States.38
The more one studies the Holocaust, the more apparent it becomes that, far from being a crime against humanity, a very significant proportion of the political and the religious leaders of the Western world regarded it as a convenient operation so long as their police and armed forces were not directly involved.39 When Buber asserted that Eichmann's crimes against humanity were at least as great as his crimes against the Jewish people, he was in effect diminishing the significance of the real violence done to real people by likening it to an empty and misleading abstraction. Here again we find a strange inability on Buber's part to take seriously concrete instances of evil, suffering and tragedy.
It is sometimes said that Buber was a poet and that we must not expect his thought to have much relevance in the domain of practical affairs, but it was Buber himself who taught us that the fundamental reality of human existence is to be found not in conceptual abstractions, but in concrete human relationships. In examining his life and thought in the light of the agony of his time and community, we do no more than take his own teachings seriously. When measured by such a standard, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a man whose thought had so little relevance to the concrete experience of his own time and people is hardly likely to be of much relevance to ours. When we compare Buber's life and thought with that of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai in ancient times, or Karl Barth and Paul Tillich in modern times, we note that all these men lived through overwhelmingly important historical crises. However, unlike Buber, their teachings were directly relevant to their times and each contributed in his own way to the work of reconstruction which followed the misfortunes of their era. We look in vain for such relevance in Buber.
Perhaps the real question we must ask is why Buber achieved the world-wide eminence he did. Perhaps Buber's eminence reveals more about us than it does about him. There were other great Jewish teachers in our terrible century. Why did all of us bestow our laurels upon him? When Buber's life and thought is viewed in the light of the Holocaust, I must confess that I have no answer to that question. Of one thing, however, I am certain. We needed him. Why, I do not know.
1) Some of the representative writings in the field of contemporary Jewish Holocaust theology include: Emile Fackenheim, God's Presence in History (New York: New York University Press, 1970); Irving Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity After the Holocaust" in Eva Fleischner, ed., Auschwitz: Beginning of a Neiv Era? Reflections on the Holocaust (New York: Ktav,1977), pp. 26-55; Jacob Neusner, "The Implications of the Holocaust," in The Journal of Religion, 53, 3 (July 1973); Elie Wiesel, "Jewish Values in the Post-Holo caust Future: A Symposium," in Judaism, Vol. XVI, Summer 1967, pp. 298 ff. ; Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966); Richard L. Rubenstein, The Religious Imagination (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968).
2) See Michael Berenbaum, "Elie Wiesel and Contemporary Jewish Theology" in Conservative Judaism, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring 1976, pp. 19-39.
3) G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M . Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
4) Martin Buber, Pointing the Way, ed. and trans. Maurice S. Friedman (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), p. 238.
5) Martin Buber, Eclipse of God: Studies in the Relation Between Philosophy and Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1952).
6) Buber, Eclipse of God, pp. 65-92.
7) Buber, Eclipse of God , pp. 68 ff.
8) Buber, Eclipse of God , p. 129.
9) Buber, Eclipse of God , pp. 129-30.
10) Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970), p. 158. This edition hereafter referred to as I and Thou .
11) Buber, I and Thou, p. 127.
12) See Gunther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), pp. 124-129. Regrettably, Bornkamm's excellent description of Jesus' sense of trust and intimacy in his relationship with God as Father is marred by Bornkamm's insistence on dichotomizing Jesus' experience and that of his predecessors.
13) Buber. I and Thou. n. RR. I have however used "Thou" where Kaufmann uses "You."
14) for Buber's rejection of Jewish religious law, see Chaim Potok, "Martin Buber and the Jews" in Commentary, March 1965, pp. 43-49.
15) This is clearly seen in the explicit rejection of Auschwitz as divine punishment in the writings of the Orthodox Jewish scholar Irving Greenberg. See his article "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity" cited above in note l.
16) "The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Gentiles sent a shock wave through the Jewish-Christian world whose importance it is impossible to exaggerate. Indeed, much of the subsequent literature of both Judaism and Christian ity took the form it did precisely in an attempt to come to terms with the catastrophe of A.D. 70." Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1974), pp. 40-41; see S. G. F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (London: S.P.C.K., 1968), pp. 154-166 and 185-205; Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism
17) On the concept of redemptive media, see Kenelm Burridge, New Heaven New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 6-7. I am indebted to Sheldon Isenberg for its application to the interpretation of first-century Judaism and Christianity. See his "Power Through Temple and Torah in Greco-Roman Palestine" in Jacob Neusner, ed., Morton Smith Festschrift (Leiden: Brill, 1975), pp. 24-52.
18) See Richard L. Rubenstein, My Brother Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 144-173.
19) Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith, trans. Norman P. Goldhawk (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951}, pp. 43-50.
20) Both Paul and his Pharisaic contemporaries held that death came into the world as a result of Adam's sin. Both believed that a person wholly without sin could live forever. The rabbis believed that there was as yet no such person. The connection between sin and death is succinctly stated by Paul: "It was through one man that sin entered the world and through sin death. . . ." Romans 4:12. For a summary of comparable rabbinic views, see Richard L. Rubenstein, The Religious Imagination: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Jewish Theology (lndianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 1968).
21) See S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study in the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967), pp. 54 ff. Also Martin Hengel, Die Zeloten (Leiden: Brill, 1961), pp. 57 ff.
22) See Jacob Neusner, First Century Judaism in Crisis (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), pp. 34-37.
23) Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (New York: Schocken, 1976), p. 164.
24) Neusner, From Politics to Piety, p. 80.
25) Neusner, From Politics to Piety, p. 153 f .
26) Neusner, lac. cit .
27) This was clearly understood by Josephus in his version of Eleazar ben Yair's speech to the men and women defending Masada in which Eleazar counsels his followers to choose death rather than surrender to the Romans. Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. H. St. John Thackeray (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), Vol. VII, 320-388.
28) This point is made in an unpublished paper by Professor Steven Katz of Dartmouth, "A Critical Review of Martin Buber's Epistemology of 1-Thou." The abstract character of personal pronouns is a crucial issue in Hegel's philosophy. Regrettably, I know of no discussion of this issue by Buber although it is highly relevant to his fundamental categories of I-Thou and l-It. See G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M . Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press)!fo"'>
29) Buber , "What is to be Done" (1919) in Pointing the Way, ed. and trans. Maurice Friedman (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 109.!fo"'>
30) This statement is cited by Greta Schaeder , The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber, trans. Noah J. Jacobs (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973), p. 197.
31) Paul Tillich, "Martin Buber and Christian Thought" in Commentary, Volume 5, No. 6, June 1948, p. 521.
32) Tillich, loc. cit.
33) Tillich, loc. cit.
34) Buber's views on the Eichmann trial are sympathetically interpreted by Aubrey Hodes, Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait (New York: Viking, 1971), pp. lll-116.
35) Proceedings of the Anglo-American Commission on Palestine, 1946, cited in Hodes. For a svmpathetic view of Buber's political stand on Zionism. see Hodes.
36) See Celia S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland between Two World Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), pp. 138-139.
37) See Martin Gilbert, "Britain, Palestine and the Jews: The Evolution of the 1939 Palestine White Paper," (Oxford: Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, 1977). This is available in pamphlet form and was originally given at Oxford as a lecture.
38) For a full discussion of this bitter issue, see Henry Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938-1945 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970).
39) Full discussion of this issue would require an examination of the response of the western governments and the Christian Church to what they knew about the extermination process as well as an inquiry concerning whether they perceived the extermination process to be serving their interests. The recent release by the CIA of aerial photographs of Auschwitz taken by the United States Army Air Force in which lines of victims are clearly visible, waiting their turn for the gas chambers demonstrates that, in addition to verbal reports by survivors and others, the American government had photographic corroboration of the testimony. Although installations were bombed by the western powers five miles from Auschwitz, no attempt was made to disrupt the killing operation by the British or American air forces, in spite of the fact that they had complete control of the air in the region. On December 12, 1942 Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary, "At bottom, I believe that both the English and the Americans are happy that we are exterminating the Jewish riffraff . " Goebbels may not have been entirely wrong in his perception. See Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: Mass Death and the American Future (New York: Harper and Row, 1975) pp. 18 ff., for a discussion of this painful issue.
Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus of the University of Bridgeport. His latest book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield: 2011).
To comment on this essay, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish original and thought provoking essays like this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Richard L. Rubenstein, please click here.!fo"'>
Join leaders of the American Middle Eastern community to endorse
Donald J. Trump
for President of the United States
and spend an evening with his foreign policy advisors featuring
Dr. Walid Phares
and other surprise campaign guests.
Monday October 17th
Omni Shoreham Hotel
2500 Calvert Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20008
cocktails at 6pm - dinner at 7pm
Business casual attire
$150 per person / $1500 per table
Sponsored by the American Mideast Coalition for Trump