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,  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)

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.

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 FeingoldThe 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).

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