I have never been enamored of Martin Buber’s work. The special tone of “existential Judaism,” the field he plowed, always had a nice ring, and suggested great potential: a Judaism which unfolded itself not in vast, overwhelming abstractions, but in encounter with the world.
This seems to be the core of religious Judaism anyway. The act, the deed, the mitzvoth is performed, and it is in that performance in this world that we find G-d.
But Buber’s opus I and Thou is an opaque work, largely devoid of Jewish content. He studied Christian mysticism closely, and the work appears largely inspired by it; it also hurts the Jewish tenor of the book that many of the paraphrases are from the gospels.
That is why his collection of essays On Judaism are as helpful as they are frustrating in understanding Buber's philosophy. The groundwork for Buber’s connection and disenchantment with his religion is here laid out far more clearly that in I and Thou.
Like many turn of the century, educated Jews, Buber was disenchanted with Jewish religious ritual. He says “Increasingly, the God-permeated, commanding, creative element was being replaced by the ridged, merely preserving, merely continuing, merely defensive element of Judaism.” Buber was enamored of early Hasidism, but thought that the contemporary forms of those sects were fossilized. He had an equal contempt of the “pale, feeble attempt at reform” of more liberal Judaism.
We live, he explains “in [a] uncertain state…. The last structure of the Oriental spirit within Judaism appears to be shaken, with no foundation laid for the new one.” However he believes the foundation does exist, in the soul of the individual Jew.
So what does Buber want beyond this vague formulation? It is hard to know with great certainty. He wants Jewish people to delve into themselves to find their Jewish spirit, but also turn to their community (not mutually exclusive, of course, but still confusing, given his main thrust). He says marvelous things like this: “…all genuine personal religion is merely the discovery and raising of an ancient treasure, the unveiling and freeing of folk-religion that had grown beneath the surface.” Which I agree with wholeheartedly, but again Buber does not produce a program beyond very vague outlines, like “[t]he spirit of Israel is the spirit of realization.” Yet for Buber, these times do not present any adequate way for people to reach this level of realization, whatever that might be. I would imagine that program is found in I and Thou, but that is a nearly impenetrable work. Rather than read, it must be explained.
So these essays are challenging, interesting, disagreeable, overly explicit in some places, and under explained in others. All I can say in a positive sense of Buber’s essays is that he is tackling big issues about modern Jewish identity. Although I disagree with most of his conclusions, and wish his Jewish existentialism took some other form, I admire him for the effort.