By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director
We cannot avoid
Cannot escape the compulsion
To afflict the world,
So let us, cautious in diction
And mighty in contradiction,
― Martin Buber, “Power and Love” (1926 poem excerpt)
Martin Buber was born on February 8, 1878, in Vienna—which means that today we celebrate the 140th anniversary of his birth. When he died at the age of eighty-seven in June 1965, the New York Times said of him, “Because Martin Buber lived, there is more love in the world than there would have been without him.” Who of us would not want to leave behind such a legacy? Pastor and teacher Haddon Robinson once advised his ministry students, “Decide now what you want people to carve on your tombstone, and then live your life backwards from there.”
Although there is much we can say here about Buber—his life and his volume of influential and important writings, especially I and Thou (first published in 1937)—I will recommend a book in Hendrickson’s Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, Martin Buber by Stephen M. Panko. In the chapter on Buber’s life, Panko describes Buber’s time in Nazi Germany and the struggles he endured, especially within his Jewish community.
After the Nazis stopped his work in 1938 (basically silencing him), they allowed him to leave Germany for Jerusalem, where he accepted the position of professor of social philosophy at Hebrew University, living in Jerusalem until his death in 1965. Reflecting on the Holocaust, he wrote the following in At the Turning: Three Addresses on Judaism (1952):
How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Oswiecim [Auschwitz]? The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep. One can still “believe” in the God who allowed those things to happen, but can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His words? Can one still . . . enter at all into a dialogic relationship with him? . . . Dare we recommend to . . . the Job of the gas chambers: “Call to Him, for He is kind, for His mercy endureth forever?”
Stephen Panko writes in Martin Buber:
And he answered his own question. . . . The experiences of this life make “the doubter, doubt, the man of belief, believe. . . . During the day, one does not see any stars.” But the stars exist. And so does God.
Saving Sunken Souls
As this is only a brief tribute to Martin Buber on the anniversary of his birth, I will leave you with a sample story he recorded in his Tales of the Hasidim. Of all the many tales, this one seems appropriate to the writer himself:
The Two Caps Rabbi David Moshe, the son of the rabbi of Rizhyn, once said to a hasid: “You knew my father when he lived in Sadagora and was already wearing the black cap and going his way in dejection; but you did not see him when he lived in Rizhyn and was still wearing his golden cap.”
The hasid was astonished. “How is it possible that the holy man from Rizhyn ever went his way in dejection! Did not I myself hear him say that dejection is the lowest condition!”
“And after he had reached the summit,” Rabbi David replied, “he had to descend to that condition time and again in order to redeem the souls which had sunk down to it.”
As Buber said in the excerpt of his poem above, “Love powerfully.” Let us strive forward in this, with the hope that we too may leave behind us more love in the world than there would have been without us.
Patricia Anders is editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers.
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