Martin Buber and the Holocaust: Some Reconsiderations
November 2, 2012
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 Eclipseof 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…