As a Christian student of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, I have for many years known Martin Buber only by the (often foot-noted) allusions to his work that frequent the pages of admiring biblical scholars. It has seemed an acquaintance that would almost inevitably but only at some future appointment become part of my life.
This summer I began what has become a long read through Asher D. Biemann’s excellent The Martin Buber Reader: essential writings (2002, Palgrave Macmillan). Biemann is a loving, capable, and not uncritical tour guide through the landscape of Buber’s writings.
I will eventually post my review of Biemann’s anthology. This morning, reading through an essay entitled ‘Biblical Humanism’ that was published by Buber in 1933, I am so struck by his words that I cannot resist deviating from my normal practice and posting some of them here, encased by my own comment.
In a 1933 address entitled ‘Biblical Humanism’ (pp. 46–50), Buber registers his assessment based upon three decades of work with the Jewish national movement that the activation of ‘the people as a people’ and ‘the language as a language’ has left unachieved the creation of a new Hebrew (as opposed to merely ‘Hebrew-speaking’) man. The latter will depend upon the ‘rebirth of its (apparently, the people’s and more particularly the new homeland’s) primal forces’.
Buber wants Judaism to turn back to its origins, however not in order to find there a ‘biblical man’:
The ‘return’ that is meant here cannot in the nature of things mean a striving for the recurrence or continuation of something long past, but only a striving for its renewal in a genuinely contemporary manifestation. Yet only a man worthy of the Bible may be called a Hebrew man.
Buber here envisages a human being—modern sensitivites might bristle at his use of the word man—who is willing to be addressed by that ‘Unconditioned’ whose presence haunts the biblical pages.
The recovery of Hebrew language is a servant of the more critical task of creating a Hebrew humanism. It is path towards an end rather than a destination per se. In his efforts to discern the place of Hebrew language in the quest for Hebrew humanism that occupies him, Buber draws a clear line between Greek word and thought, on the one hand, and its Hebrew analogue, on the other. The distinction would face greater resistance today than, perhaps, in 1933. Yet the conviction and eloquence with which Buber expresses himself on this point are compelling:
The biblical word is translatable, for it encloses a mystery of language with which it issues forth to Israel. At the center of biblical humanism stands the service due the untranslatable word …The word of Greek antiquity is detached and formally perfected. It is removed from the block of actual spokenness, sculpted with the artful chisel of thought, rhetoric, and poetry—removed to the realm of form … The purity of the Hebrew Bible’s word resides not in form but in originality … Untransfigured and unsubdued, the biblical word preserves the dialogical character of living reality … The Greeks teach the word; the Jews report it.
Buber finds a parallel distinction in the educational area:
Western humanism conceives language as a formation, and so it proceeds to a ‘liberation of the truly formative powers of Man’ (Konrad Burdach); the ‘spiritual empire’ that he wants to establish ‘might be called the Apollonian’. The power of giving shape is set above the world.
The law of biblical humanism must be different. It conceives language as an event—an event in mutuality … Its intent is not the person who is shut up within himself, but the open one; not the form, but the relation; not mastery of the secret, but immediacy in facing it; not the thinker and master of the word but its listener and executor, its worshipper and proclaimer … Biblical humanism cannot, as does its Western counterpart, raise the individual above the problems of the moment; it seeks instead to train the person to stand fast in them, to prove himself in them. This stormy night, these shafts of lightning flash down, this threat of destruction—Do not escape from them into a world of logos, of perfected form! Stand fast, hear the word in the thunder, obey, respond! This terrifying world is the world of God. It lays claim upon you. Prove yourself in it as a man of God!
The date these words were published sends a shiver down the spine.
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