Buber, the Bible, and Hebrew Humanism: Finding a Usable Past

Buber, the Bible, and Hebrew Humanism: Finding a Usable Past In his recent book on American Judaism, Shaul Magid touches briefly on the phenomenon of ba’alei teshuva in the 1960s and 1970s as an example of the appeal of Hasidic teachings as a counter-cultural force. Baal teshuva, literally someone who returns or repents, is a term used to describe non-observant Jews who choose to take on a more traditional lifestyle. Central to the appeal of Hasidism in this era were not ultra-Orthodox Hasidim themselves but rather the worldview of Hasidism as it appeared in the writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. As Magid comments, Buber and Heschel “served as bridge figures between…. young, Jewishly illiterate but highly intelligent men and women and the ‘spirituality’ of ‘authentic’ Judaism.”1 The Judaism offered to Western Jews by Buber and Heschel was both foreign and familiar: in their most popular works, they combined the Hasidic texts and teachings of Eastern European Jewry with attention to the spiritual problems of the modern world. Buber, in particular, claimed that Hasidism represented one expression of an eternal essence of Judaism that was all too often absent from mainstream expressions of Jewish religion. In the Hasidic tales he published in German in the early twentieth century, and in his presentations of Hasidism in various essays and books over the rest of his life, he sought to distill that essence and then to re-present it in terms that would engage his modern audience. In 1957, he described the spiritual insights he found in Hasidism: “the kernel of this life is capable of working on men even today, when most of the powers of the Hasidic community itself have been given over to decay or destruction, and it is just on the present-day West that it is capable of working in an especial manner.… From here comes an answer to the crisis of Western man that has become fully manifest in our age.”2 Underlying Buber’s presentations of Hasidic tales is a dual claim: first, that especially in its early moments Hasidism was a way of living truly before God with all of the virtues such a life entails, such as unity of purpose and decision; and second, that this way of life was captured in the teachings that survive it, namely, in the stories told about and in the name of the Baal Shem Tov and others.3 For Buber, the idea that living truly before God demands this unity is the central truth of Judaism, and Hasidism is but one expression of it. Certain parts of the Bible are another expression of this essence, and it is actually in the context of his biblical writings that we see Buber reflecting most precisely on how it is that modern readers can access the timeless teachings embedded in texts that emerged from contexts that are now distant and foreign. In three books of biblical commentary, Buber articulates a hermeneutic method that relies on a certain understanding of the sense in which the Bible is a historical document, and using this methodology he pursues elements of the text that might record historical facts, i.e., something that actually happened. But at certain points in his commentaries he is after something historical in a different sense, which I will argue deserves the name of a usable past. In this essay, after reviewing Buber’s approach to the past in his biblical commentaries, I will reflect briefly on the idea of a usable past and then consider how Buber’s description of the Bible fits into this rubric, focusing on his Zionism, particularly the references to the Hebrew Bible that he makes in his Zionist writings before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. Buber wrote three biblical commentaries in the 1930s and 1940s: Kingship of God; Prophetic Faith; and Moses.4 In these books, he develops a hermeneutic methodology that depends on the interplay of two types of writing within the biblical text: history and saga.5 The first sort of biblical writing, “history,” tends to focus on human beings doing ordinary things or expressing concrete ideas about God, the Israelites, or the world. It demands an analysis similar to historical–philological criticism with a method that uses linguistic clues to locate and understand elements of the biblical narrative in an ancient Near Eastern context. The second sort of biblical writing is saga, which includes the more wondrous elements of the biblical narrative. Saga also presents historical realities but these realities are refracted through the lens of a biblical person’s worldview in a way that threatens to make them inaccessible to the modern reader. The historical kernel of saga is an encounter with God; the outer form is a narrative of divine speech and action. This is not to say, however, that the tellers of saga consciously chose to embellish or alter their experiences as they transformed them into stories. Rather, their worldview was to them an invisible filter; as a lens, their belief systems were as transparent to them as our belief systems are to us. Their encounters with God took the form of thunder and lightening and commandment because that was within the framework of their worldview. Buber’s assumption is that modern readers of the Bible largely believe that the physical world is governed by laws that cannot be broken, and biblical claims of miracles often stand in the way of their appreciation of the text. By claiming that these miracles are not literally true but represent instead a particular way of understanding the natural world, Buber seeks to remove some of the distance between the reader and the text and to renew the authority of the text for readers who are reluctant to trust its depiction of the world. In a talk that predates his commentaries, Buber calls for a new way of reading the Bible: I do not mean that the Bible depicts men and women and events as they were in actual history; rather do I mean that its descriptions and narratives are the organic, legitimate ways of giving an account of what existed and what happened. I have nothing against calling these narratives myths and sagas, so long as we remember that myths and sagas are actually memories.6In this earlier piece, saga defines the Bible’s historicity or the sense in which it is a work of history. This idea will evolve into the distinction between history and saga in Buber’s commentaries, where he highlights the text’s historicity as a document containing both history and saga. What remains constant is his view that the biblical representation of reality is real even in the moment when it appears to exceed the limits of the natural world as we know it. How is the modern person to read biblical saga? What is certain, according to Buber, is that the Israelites had a relationship with God shaped by encounters with God. The details are not to be evaluated as a matter of fact or fiction. They are a way of telling a story about what happened; the biblical reader can appreciate that story as a story and feel moved by it emotionally or spiritually. Did God ever speak directly to human beings, as the biblical text claims? In I and Thou, Buber suggests such a claim is impossible when he states that he does “not believe in God’s naming himself or in God’s defining himself before man.”7 Instead of divine speech, revelation is divine presence or, more specifically, the moment in which a person becomes deeply aware of the presence of God. Whatever words a person hears in that moment are but his or her own attempt to articulate that presence and its meaning. In other words, while the meaning of the words is divine, the words themselves are not. This idea too remains constant through Buber’s many analyses of revelation in the biblical text. We might say that history and saga offer two sorts of truth about the past of the Jewish people. In his commentaries, Buber identifies many portions of the biblical text as history. Most of the commentaries, in fact, are devoted to the Bible’s historical material as Buber engages with the work of biblical critics and ancient historians to develop his argument that biblical theology is defined by the idea of God as king. Buber’s analysis of the Bible’s historical narrative is punctuated by his brief retellings of biblical saga, which he often presents with a few words of appreciation for the beauty of these episodes as reflections of the relationship between the ancient Israelites and God. His account of the revelation at Mount Sinai in Moses offers a particularly powerful illustration of the distinction between history and saga as two types of writing. In this account, Buber affirms that whatever actually happened at Sinai was a natural or even ordinary event understood by an awe-struck Israel as wondrous. This is in line with what he wrote two decades earlier in his essay, “People Today and the Jewish Bible,” namely, that the record of Sinai is, “the verbal trace of a natural event, i.e., an event having occurred in the common sensory world of humankind and having fitted into its patterns, which the assemblage that experienced it experienced as God’s revelation to it and so preserved it in the inspired and in no way arbitrary formative memory of generations.”8 In Moses, Buber pushes this point further by using the distinction between saga and history to separate the prophet of the saga-teller from the prophet of the historian: Yonder Moses who ascends the smoking mountain before the eyes of the assembled people, who speaks to the Height and receives from the thunder and trumpet-blasts a response which he brings to his people in the form of commandments and laws,–yonder Moses is not merely a stranger to us, which the real Moses also threatens to become at times when we sense him most; he is unreal.9More specifically, modern people, “the late-born” who are “oppressed…. by the merciless problem of Truth,” cannot believe that Moses received the Ten Commandments at the top of a mountain while the Israelites experienced some sort of encounter with God at the mountain’s base during an awe-inspiring thunderstorm. They cannot verify this sort of marvelous or miraculous event. It is even “unreal.” But we can still find something of a more historical Moses if we look elsewhere in the text, away from the thunder and lightning. The historical material Buber identifies includes the steps Moses takes to bring the Israelites into a covenant with God and the content of the Ten Commandments and the stone tablets upon which they were written.10 That is, for Buber, who believes that human beings are capable of knowing God in relationship, Moses’ greatest achievement is found in the steps he takes to solidify that relationship in the symbols and words of a formal covenant. This praise for Moses seems almost to echo Spinoza’s description of his political genius in his Theological-Political Treatise: in both places, Moses is a great legislator who turns a motley group of tribes into a nation, with laws and customs that bind them together.11 Indeed, Buber devotes many pages to a detailed explication of the efficacy of Moses’ decisions and ritual acts. (This presentation contrasts with his comment in the earlier essay, “Biblical Leadership,” that Moses was largely a failure as a leader.12) The history of the tablets is followed by a piece of saga. Shortly after the initial Sinaitic theophany, and right after the people agree to the covenant, Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of Israel climb the mountain to see God: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11).13 These verses present at least three problems. First, in the immediate biblical context, this visit with God violates God’s instruction to Moses that “man may not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20); thus the verses make particular note of God’s lack of retribution. Second, from a theological perspective, these verses assume that God can be seen, i.e., that God has a physical form or image that may be comprehended with sight, posing an additional theological challenge for later Jewish exegetes. Third is a challenge particular to Buber. Within the context of his saga-history distinction and in line with his account of revelation in I and Thou, he must account for what the elders saw and for why they thought they saw God with their eyes. Buber’s analysis begins with a retelling of the event that emphasizes the dawn setting of the encounter: The representatives of Israel come to see [God] on the heights of Sinai. They have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder…. and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned Melek [king]. And in seeing that which radiates from Him, they see Him.… now that they have reached unto Him, He allows them to see Him in the glory of His light, becoming manifest yet remaining invisible.14Buber’s retelling retains essential elements of the biblical verses: the time of day, the climbing of the mountain, and the sapphire blue color that they see. But Buber naturalizes these details, so that in his retelling the elders are overwhelmed not by the sight of God’s physical form but by the astounding beauty of the early morning light. As they stand before this beauty, they sense the presence of God. This is the historical kernel; as possible then as it is now. The biblical storyteller understands it and retells it in supernatural language but the truth of the account remains and is recounted for us by Buber in language that accords better with a modern perspective. In Buber’s retelling, the event now fits the descriptions of revelation that appear in I and Thou: a deep sense of God’s presence and a renewed commitment. The meal that the elders share is an expression of the community built from or through this shared experience of encounter with God. Buber’s presentation of the moment that these men see God is in itself a piece of saga. Especially in contrast to his often quite dry philological analysis of the historical narrative, it is a beautiful piece of writing that paints the scene of a special, spiritual moment. His poetic style serves an important function in his presentation of saga in the commentaries, namely, to retain a sense of saga even while denying the literal meaning of the biblical version. As he comments, “great is the work of the Saga, and as ever it still thrills our heart.”15 This comment calls to mind a plea that appears in his essay, “People Today and the Jewish Bible”: people should return to the Bible with openness; they “do not know what speech, what image in the book will take hold of them and recast them, from what place the spirit will surge up and pass into them, so as to embody itself anew in their lives; but they are open.”16 What are we to do with the thrill of the saga? In “People Today,” Buber describes a reader who is “recast” by the biblical text. I would like to suggest that we might find an answer if we consider saga to be a sort of Jewish “usable history.” This term is drawn from Friedrich Nietzche’s The Use and Abuse of History (1874), a work in which Nietzsche excoriates historicist approaches to the past.17 These approaches include what he terms an “antiquarian approach,” which treats the past as a source of meaning and identity in the present. Using such an approach, a person is “careful to preserve what survives from ancient days, and will produce the conditions of his own upbringing for those who come after him.”18 In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, part of any individual’s identity or any nation’s sense of itself emerges from its past: where it came from, how it arrived where it is now, and so forth. But an antiquarian approach can go awry to become a sort of a hoarding disorder in which one becomes consumed by remembering and collecting facts with no consideration of whether or not they are actually important in the present. The misguided antiquarian gathers documents and objects but is unable to arrange them into any meaningful order; without such order the items remain utterly disconnected from the present and serve no purpose. In Nietzsche’s words, “antiquarian history degenerates from the moment that it no longer gives a soul and inspiration to the fresh life of the present.” He compares the degenerate antiquarian’s traditionalism to the “mad collector raking over all the dust heaps of the past.… He often sinks so low as to be satisfied with any food, and greedily devours all the scraps that fall from the bibliographical table.”19 This approach to the past is stultifying and suffocating. It holds a civilization back from collective innovation and creativity. In other words: a civilization consumed with its past will be consumed by its past. At the same time, one cannot ignore the past completely. Neither individual human beings nor civilizations can live without any knowledge of the past. The trick lies in how one remembers and in choosing sometimes to forget. History can and should serve life, or what we might also term creativity or progress. Nietzsche claims that good history: has always a reference to the end of life, and is under its absolute rule and direction. This is the natural relation of an age, a culture, and a people to history; hunger is its source, necessity its norm, the inner plastic power assigns its limits. The knowledge of the past is desired only for the service of the future and the present, not to weaken the present or undermine a living future.20The goal is a sense of the past that serves the present or, more specifically, a narrative of the past that keeps the needs of the present always in mind, that recognizes that only some facts are necessary for a coherent and inspiring narrative, and that largely disregards whatever remains. Nietzsche’s account makes clear that history is historiography: the past itself is defined by how we remember and remained connected to it. What is at stake in writing a usable history is the way a nation remembers its past and uses that remembrance to define its culture and values in the present. This is where I see the connection to Buber’s retellings of biblical saga as well as his retelling of Hasidic tales. The history sections of Buber’s commentaries tend toward the sort of antiquarian history writing that Nietzsche demeans: a listing of facts and claims without coherent narrative to hold them together. The reader unaccustomed to philological analysis will get lost in the many dry details Buber provides to support his arguments and the many footnotes that point toward the larger scholarly conversations in which he hopes to participate. Such a reader is unlikely to read any of Buber’s commentaries cover to cover. But if this lay reader takes the time to page through the texts, scanning them for the glimmers of something meaningful, he will be rewarded by the gems of saga that are buried within them. These gems are exactly the kind of history that Nietzsche applauds and that I suggest we call “usable.” Buber’s retellings of the saga have narrative arcs and move the reader’s spirit. They demand a response. It is no wonder that some of the most moving pieces of saga from Buber’s commentaries have been separated from his dry presentations of biblical history and collected in separate volumes such as On the Bible.21 For Nietzsche, history should serve culture in a much broader sense: the arts, yes, but Geist, the world of spirit more broadly, benefits from good history. Buber shares this sense of Geist as the force that inspires cultural production and otherwise expresses a culture’s values. If we turn back to “People Today,” we see that Buber addresses himself there to “people to whom it seems important that there be intellectual goods and values; people who admit, or even themselves declare, that the reality of these goods and values is bound up with their realization through us.”22 He laments that his audience recognizes that Geist makes demands upon them but does not know how to respond, and he offers the Bible as a guide, or, in the language I am suggesting, a usable history. In his 1934 lecture “Teaching and Deed,” Buber describes how, “the life of a spirit is renewed whenever a teaching generation transmits it to a learning generation which, in turn, growing into teachers, transmits the spirit through the lips of new teachers to the ears of new pupils.”23 This passing on both preserves and produces the culture, as “the values live on in the host who receives them by becoming part of his very flesh, for they choose and assume his body as the new form which suits the function of the new generation.”24 His calls for a renewal of Jewish culture in earlier essays protest against those who fail to realize that culture does not remain static but must evolve to remain meaningful in changing circumstances.25 In many of his calls for a renewed Jewish culture, Buber turns to the Bible as the Jewish past that will feed the Jewish present and future. In his inaugural lecture at the Hebrew University in 1938, Buber describes the “man of spirit” as “one whom the spirit invades and seizes, whom the spirit uses as its garment, not one who houses the spirit. Spirit is an event, it is something that happens to man. The storm of the spirit sweeps man where it will, and then storms on into the world.”26 The lives of the biblical prophets—in this case, Isaiah—model what Buber holds to be the central experience of Judaism, one that leaves the individual spiritually charged to go out into the world and act with unity of purpose. Reading biblical saga opens the door to these sorts of encounters. In his 1941 essay “Hebrew Humanism,” Buber claims that: what [the Bible has] to tell us, and what no other voice in the world can teach us with such simple power, is that there is truth and there are lies and that human life cannot persist or have meaning save in the decision [on] behalf of truth and against lies; that there is right and wrong, and that the salvation of man depends on choosing what is right and rejecting what is wrong.27The distinction between truth and lies, right and wrong, that Buber refers to in “Hebrew Humanism,” is a command and corresponding promise from the Israelites to live with ethical consistency or, as Buber would say, to live a life of unity. That is: one must act before God at home and in the public sphere. This is what Buber means when he writes that Hebrew humanism means “reception of the Bible, not because of its literary, historical, and national values, important though these may be, but because of the normative value of the human patterns demonstrated in the Bible.”28 Returning for a moment to the Sinaitic covenant, we must recognize that for Buber, the enactment of a covenant at Sinai between God and the Israelites is an eternal promise to live before God with all that that entails; it is not the many biblical commandments that later evolve into rabbinic halakhah. As he writes in Moses, these laws cannot claim any priority over those which may be proclaimed later on, and when the people declare after the reading that they wish ‘to do and to hear,’ they clearly signify that they bind themselves not in respect of specific ordinances as such, but in respect of the will of their Lord, who issues His commands in the present and will issue them in the future; in the respect of the life-relationship of service to Him.29The covenant is an eternal promise to serve God. The shape of that service will always be specific to particular times and places; it is the underlying promise that will be consistent. The sense of service of God that is implied here is the unity of purpose that Buber also identifies as the core value in Hasidic teachings. Especially after he moved to Jerusalem in 1938, Palestine becomes for Buber the most important contemporary space in which Jews might act on their eternal commitment to God. This sense of commitment runs through his Zionist writings, where the Bible appears here as a proof text for his claims that the movement faces a moral imperative. Buber was a committed Zionist, particularly after the death of Theodor Herzl, with whom he had quarreled. Buber’s Zionism, deeply influenced by Ahad Ha’am, was closely tied to his call for a renewal of Jewish culture. Though not averse to Jewish statehood, in his Zionist writings from before 1948 Buber presented the return of Jews to the land of Israel as an opportunity to build a new kind of community as an expression of Jewish values. This community would not necessarily be a sovereign state. In 1939 he asks: “Is there true devotion to God in our midst, or is there not?” and then he responds: True devotion to God in turn means: our will to fulfil his truth. That again means: to aid in accomplishing his purpose in creating man, in the establishment of a human people whose king he is. And how is it given us to fulfill this truth if not by building the social pattern of our own people in Palestine all the way, from the pattern of family, neighborhood and settlement to that of the whole community?30Buber was a founding member of Brit Shalom, and with this organization he advocated for a bi-national state, one whose political infrastructure would reflect the two largest national identities among its citizens and a commitment to dialogue between them as a foundation. After the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, Buber’s focus shifts toward a consideration of Jewish sovereignty as an opportunity for the realization of Jewish truths and values. He insists that a Jewish state was not automatically an expression of Jewish values. In his 1949 “Children of Amos,” Buber admonishes those who believe that the establishment of the modern state of Israel is equivalent to a revival of the spirit of Judaism or Jewishness. His reference point is again the Bible, with a focus on the prophets specifically: “We should devote ourselves to understanding the real message of prophecy and place it, the true light in the world of man, over against the deceiving brilliance of what are called interests. The message of the prophets is Truth: only through justice can man exist as man, can the human nations remain human.”31 The prophets are here the heroes of a great humanistic tradition, one that should drive Jews not to the synagogue but to the streets, demanding justice.32 The message Buber wants his audience to learn from the prophets is that Jews must live and act before God. While very similar to the message that appears in his writings about Hasidism, in his description of a Hebrew humanism, and elsewhere, here the state provides a new urgency, and he names God’s particular demand (and the Jews’ eternal promise) as justice. The sheer humanism of Buber’s understanding of the Bible is evident in his discussion of a message brought by the prophet Samuel to King Saul, in a passage that appears in his biographical reflections. Saul has spared the life of the defeated King Agag, violating God’s command that he kill him; Samuel arrives to report that for this, Saul will lose his dynastic kingship. Buber writes that he cannot believe that this is a message of God; the only explanation is that Samuel has misunderstood. Reflecting further, Buber writes: Man is so created that he can understand, but does not have to understand, what God says to him. God does not abandon the created man to his needs and anxieties; He provides him with the assistance of His word; He speaks to him, He comforts him with His word. But man does not listen with faithful ears to what is spoken to him. Already in hearing he blends together command of heaven and statute of earth, revelation to the existing being and the orientations that he arranges himself. Even the holy scriptures of man are not excluded, not even the Bible. What is involved here is not ultimately the fact that this or that form of biblical historical narrative has misunderstood God; what is involved is the fact that in the work of throats and pens out of which the text of the Old Testament has arisen, misunderstanding has again and again attached itself to understanding, the manufactured has been mixed with the received. We have no objective criterion for the distinction; we have only faith.33This comment moves beyond the distinction of saga and history in Buber’s commentaries to emphasize the imperfection of the text, as Buber argues that Samuel’s choice to kill Agog was a mistake that resulted from his misunderstanding God’s demand for justice. More broadly we can say that any prophet—even as he models life before God—might misunderstand God. And so we are left with a scripture that does not—cannot—dictate standards of behavior insofar as it claims that there must be communal standards that are continually scrutinized and evaluated. The idea of a usable history allows us to draw together these many strands of Buber’s thinking about the Bible as a Jewish past that demands action in the present. What he writes about the prophet (nabi) in The Prophetic Faith thus applies to all biblical saga: “To be a nabi means to set the audience, to whom the words are addressed, before the choice and decision, directly or indirectly. The future is not something already fixed in the present hour, it is dependent upon the real decision, that is to say the decision in which man takes part in this hour.”34 Biblical saga, with its power to inspire and move the reader, preserves the experience of the prophet. William J. Bouwsma, an American historian of Renaissance humanism, who also uses the term “usable history,” notes that “the continuities between past and present can only be demonstrated by narrative. Narrative is also implied by the idea of history as a public utility: the need for it can only be satisfied by stories about the past.”35 Buber’s readings of saga transform the Bible into just such a usable history, one that inspires the present generation to take action in the present toward a future that will embody the values of justice and righteousness demanded in a life lived before God. Notes 1. Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Post-Ethnic Society (Bloomington, 2013), p. 9 (emphasis added). 2. Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man (Princeton, 2016), p. 5. Despite Buber’s success at engaging an audience of spiritual seekers, he came under strong attack from Gershom Scholem, who accused him of scholarly infidelity, claiming that he was misrepresenting relatively marginal Hasidic texts as central. Buber responded by affirming that he was not trying to produce historicist scholarship. For my take on this debate and a full list of the secondary literature addressing it, see Claire Sufrin, “On Myth, History, and the Study of Hasidism: Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem,” in Encountering the Medieval in Modern Jewish Thought, edited by James A. Diamond and Aaron W. Hughes (Boston, 2012), pp. 129–51. 3. For more on the hermeneutic assumptions of Buber’s retellings of Hasidic tales, see Steven Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington, 1992). 4. Martin Buber, Kingship of God (English translation, New York, 1967); idem, The Prophetic Faith (English translation, New York, 1949; reprint with new Introduction by Jon D. Levenson [Princeton, 2016]); idem, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (English translation, New York, 1957). The original German titles are as follows: Königtum Gottes (2nd ed.; Berlin, 1936); Torat ha-nevi’im (Tel Aviv, 1950); Moshe (Jerusalem, 1999). 5. In using these terms he is likely borrowing from the biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), though he does not cite Gunkel in any of the passages in which he describes his method. For Gunkel, the distinction between saga and history differentiates between oral legends and literary records. In developing his own hermeneutic method, Buber redefines these concepts. Saga and history are now distinguishable types of narrative records within the written Hebrew Bible. That said, in line with Gunkel’s approach, Buber does at various points acknowledge the likely oral origins of particular portions of the text. Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History, trans. William Herbert Carruth (New York, 1964). 6. Martin Buber, “Biblical Leadership,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 119; idem, “Biblisches Führertum,” in Werke (München and Heidelberg, 1964), p. 903. In his Legends of the Baal-Shem (1906), Buber argues that the rise of rabbinic Judaism in the wake of the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel led to the rise of law as the dominant form of Jewish teaching. Some of the earlier myths evolved into Kabbalah while others became folk-saga or what we might call folktales. As Buber describes saga here, it “lived in fact among the people and filled its existence with waves of light and melody. But it considered itself a paltry thing that barely had the right to exist; it kept itself hidden in the furthest corner and did not dare to look the law in the eye, much less desire to be a power alongside it. It was proud and glad when here and there it was called to illustrate the law.” Hasidism, according to Buber, brought saga into a central role: idem, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, trans. Maurice Friedman (New York, 1969), p. 12; idem, Die Legende Des Baal-Schem (Frankfurt am Main, 1922), p. x. See as well, idem, “Myth in Judaism,” in On Judaism (New York, 1996), pp. 95–107; idem, “Der Mythos Der Juden,” in Der Jude und Sein Judentum: Gesammelte Aufsätze und Reden (Gerlingen, 1993), pp. 76–86. 7. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1970), p. 160; idem “Ich Und Du,” in Werke, vol. 1 (München and Heidelberg, 1962), p. 154. See Benyamin Uffenheimer, “Buber and Modern Biblical Scholarship,” in Martin Buber: A Centenary Volume, edited by Haim Gordon and Jochanan Bloch (New York, 1984), pp. 163–211. 8. Martin Buber, “People Today and the Jewish Bible,” in Scripture and Translation (Bloomington, 1994), p. 10; idem, “Der Mensch von Heute und Die Jüdische Bibel,” in Die Schrift Und Ihre Verdeutschung (Berlin, 1936), p. 25. I am following Everett Fox and Lawrence Rosenwald in using the more gender neutral translation “People” for “Der Mensch” in the original title, “Der Mensch von Heute.” 9. M. Buber, Moses (New York, 1957), p. 110; idem, Mosheh (Jerusalem, 1999), p. 140. 10. Buber argues that the historical heart of the covenant is the utterance of the phrase “YHVH God of Israel” that turns the Israelite tribes into the nation of Israel, together with the acts of ritual bloodshed and feasting that Moses performs at the base of Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. “We may rest reasonably well assured that he, and none other than he, to whom we may well attribute a knowledge of the inner organization of the peoples, educed the tribal system of Israel from out of the natural structure of the natural material; and that by completing the appropriate parts he made it possible to weld them together.” M. Buber, Moses, p. 113; idem, Mosheh, p. 143. 11. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, 2001), pp. 64–65. 12. M. Buber, “Biblical Leadership,” p. 125; idem, “Biblisches Führertum,” pp. 908–09. 13. All biblical citations use the JPS translation. 14. M. Buber, Moses, pp. 117–18; idem, Mosheh, pp. 147–48. 15. Idem, Moses, p. 124; idem, Mosheh, p. 154. 16. M. Buber, “People Today,” p. 7; idem, “Der Mensch von Heute,” p. 19. 17. In English, the term “usable history” is first found in a 1918 essay by Van Wyck Brooks, an American literary critic. In his piece, Brooks argues that the arts thrive only when they are connected to a vibrant national past. Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial, April 11, 1918, p. 337. In the context of Jewish Studies, examples of intellectuals and others creating usable pasts are explored by David Roskies in his book The Jewish Search for a Usable Past, though he never really defines what he means by a usable past. In a brief discussion of Roskies’ work, Abigail Gillman distills his argument into a helpful formulation: a usable past is “a past through which one might refract the challenges of modernity.” That is, Roskies’ study emphasizes moments in which the past was retold such that the challenges in the storyteller’s own moment could be addressed as though they had already happened and been resolved long ago. His study emphasizes novelists and storytellers—Sholem Aleichem is likely the most familiar example and the plight of Tevye as he raises his daughters offers a quick illustration of this sense of a usable past. Also of note, Paula Hyman uses the term in the 1980s as she calls for studies of Jewish women’s history to serve the needs of the Jewish feminist movement. David G. Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Bloomington, 1999); Abigail Gillman, Viennese Jewish Modernism: Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler (University Park, 2009), p. 15; Paula Hyman, “The Jewish Family: Looking for a Usable Past,” in On Being a Jewish Feminist, edited by Susannah Heschel (New York, 1983), pp. 19–26. 18. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins, 2nd ed. (Revised) (New York, 1957), p. 18. 19. Ibid., p. 20. 20. Ibid., p. 22. 21. Martin Buber, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies (New York, 2000). In this context, consider William J. Bouwsma’s comment, “it seems to me that some areas of culture are more instructive for self-understanding than others. The most informative for me has been religion, including theology, but also, and even more profoundly, spirituality, because it transcends intellectuality. Religious symbolism and practice seem to me to concentrate and integrate singularly well what a society is finally ‘about.’” William J. Bouwsma, A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History (Berkeley, 1990), p. 2. Regarding Kingship of God and Buber’s other commentaries, cf. Samuel Brody’s and Paul Mendes-Flohr’s readings of these works as an expression of political theory. Brody argues that Buber’s category of history is equivalent to Realpolitik, similar to what Carl Schmitt called political theology and the opposite of Buber’s vision of theo-politics, which Brody identifies as an “anarcho-theocracy.” Samuel Hayim Brody, “Is Theopolitics an Antipolitics? Martin Buber, Anarchism, and the Idea of the Political,” in Dialogue as a Trans-Disciplinary Concept, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr (Berlin, 2015); Paul Mendes-Flohr, “The Kingdom of God: Martin Buber’s Critique of Messianic Politics,” Behemoth: A Journal on Civilization Vol. 1, No. 2 (2008), pp. 32–35. 22. M. Buber, “People Today,” p. 5; idem, “Der Mensch von Heute,” p. 14. 23. Martin Buber, “Teaching and Deed,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 137; idem, “Die Lehre Und Die Tat,” in Der Jude Und Sein Judentum (Gerlingen, 1993), p. 649. 24. “Teaching and Deed,” ibid., p. 139; “Die Lehre,” ibid., p. 650. 25. For more on Buber’s calls for Jewish renewal, see Asher D. Biemann, Inventing New Beginnings: On the Idea of Renaissance in Modern Judaism (Stanford, 2009). 26. Martin Buber, “Plato and Isaiah,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 108; idem, “Teviat Ha-Ruah Vehametsiut Ha-Historit,” in Ha-Ruah Veha-Metsiut (Tel Aviv, 1942), p. 15. 27. Martin Buber, “Hebrew Humanism,” in The Martin Buber Reader, edited by Asher Biemann (New York, 2002), p. 161; idem, “Humaniut Ivrit,” in Ha-ruah ve-hametsiut (Tel Aviv, 1942), p. 57. Cf. Grete Schaeder, The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber, trans. Noah J. Jacobs (Detroit, 1973); Paul Mendes-Flohr, “Nationalism as a Spiritual Sensibility: The Philosophical Suppositions of Buber’s Hebrew Humanism,” Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 2 (1989), pp. 155–68. 28. M. Buber, “Hebrew Humanism,” p. 160; idem, “Humaniut Ivrit,” p. 55. 29. M. Buber, Moses, p. 104; idem, Mosheh, p. 134. 30. Martin Buber, “The Spirit of Israel and the World of Today,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 193; idem, “Ruah Yisrael Bepnei Ha-Metsiut Ha-Nokhahit,” in Ha-Ruah Veha-Metsiut (Tel Aviv, 1942), p. 32. 31. Martin Buber, “The Children of Amos,” in A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr (Chicago, 2005), p. 256. Idem, “Benei Amos,” Ner, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February, 1950), p. 4. 32. “Every person who knows the truth of prophecy is obligated today to raise his voice… We Jews, as in the past and forever, are merely the living archetype by which is explained what there is to explain—and the archetype is both sufficient for judgment and accustomed to such a role, for it is an archetype of salvation or disaster.” Ibid., pp. 256–57; idem, “Benei Amos,” p. 4. 33. Martin Buber, Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments (New York, 2002), p. 64. 34. Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (Princeton, 2016), p. 3; idem, Torat Ha-Nevi’im (Tel Aviv, 1950), p. 2. 35. W. J. Bouwsma, Usable Past, p. 6. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience Oxford University Press

Buber, the Bible, and Hebrew Humanism: Finding a Usable Past

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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
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Abstract

In his recent book on American Judaism, Shaul Magid touches briefly on the phenomenon of ba’alei teshuva in the 1960s and 1970s as an example of the appeal of Hasidic teachings as a counter-cultural force. Baal teshuva, literally someone who returns or repents, is a term used to describe non-observant Jews who choose to take on a more traditional lifestyle. Central to the appeal of Hasidism in this era were not ultra-Orthodox Hasidim themselves but rather the worldview of Hasidism as it appeared in the writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. As Magid comments, Buber and Heschel “served as bridge figures between…. young, Jewishly illiterate but highly intelligent men and women and the ‘spirituality’ of ‘authentic’ Judaism.”1 The Judaism offered to Western Jews by Buber and Heschel was both foreign and familiar: in their most popular works, they combined the Hasidic texts and teachings of Eastern European Jewry with attention to the spiritual problems of the modern world. Buber, in particular, claimed that Hasidism represented one expression of an eternal essence of Judaism that was all too often absent from mainstream expressions of Jewish religion. In the Hasidic tales he published in German in the early twentieth century, and in his presentations of Hasidism in various essays and books over the rest of his life, he sought to distill that essence and then to re-present it in terms that would engage his modern audience. In 1957, he described the spiritual insights he found in Hasidism: “the kernel of this life is capable of working on men even today, when most of the powers of the Hasidic community itself have been given over to decay or destruction, and it is just on the present-day West that it is capable of working in an especial manner.… From here comes an answer to the crisis of Western man that has become fully manifest in our age.”2 Underlying Buber’s presentations of Hasidic tales is a dual claim: first, that especially in its early moments Hasidism was a way of living truly before God with all of the virtues such a life entails, such as unity of purpose and decision; and second, that this way of life was captured in the teachings that survive it, namely, in the stories told about and in the name of the Baal Shem Tov and others.3 For Buber, the idea that living truly before God demands this unity is the central truth of Judaism, and Hasidism is but one expression of it. Certain parts of the Bible are another expression of this essence, and it is actually in the context of his biblical writings that we see Buber reflecting most precisely on how it is that modern readers can access the timeless teachings embedded in texts that emerged from contexts that are now distant and foreign. In three books of biblical commentary, Buber articulates a hermeneutic method that relies on a certain understanding of the sense in which the Bible is a historical document, and using this methodology he pursues elements of the text that might record historical facts, i.e., something that actually happened. But at certain points in his commentaries he is after something historical in a different sense, which I will argue deserves the name of a usable past. In this essay, after reviewing Buber’s approach to the past in his biblical commentaries, I will reflect briefly on the idea of a usable past and then consider how Buber’s description of the Bible fits into this rubric, focusing on his Zionism, particularly the references to the Hebrew Bible that he makes in his Zionist writings before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. Buber wrote three biblical commentaries in the 1930s and 1940s: Kingship of God; Prophetic Faith; and Moses.4 In these books, he develops a hermeneutic methodology that depends on the interplay of two types of writing within the biblical text: history and saga.5 The first sort of biblical writing, “history,” tends to focus on human beings doing ordinary things or expressing concrete ideas about God, the Israelites, or the world. It demands an analysis similar to historical–philological criticism with a method that uses linguistic clues to locate and understand elements of the biblical narrative in an ancient Near Eastern context. The second sort of biblical writing is saga, which includes the more wondrous elements of the biblical narrative. Saga also presents historical realities but these realities are refracted through the lens of a biblical person’s worldview in a way that threatens to make them inaccessible to the modern reader. The historical kernel of saga is an encounter with God; the outer form is a narrative of divine speech and action. This is not to say, however, that the tellers of saga consciously chose to embellish or alter their experiences as they transformed them into stories. Rather, their worldview was to them an invisible filter; as a lens, their belief systems were as transparent to them as our belief systems are to us. Their encounters with God took the form of thunder and lightening and commandment because that was within the framework of their worldview. Buber’s assumption is that modern readers of the Bible largely believe that the physical world is governed by laws that cannot be broken, and biblical claims of miracles often stand in the way of their appreciation of the text. By claiming that these miracles are not literally true but represent instead a particular way of understanding the natural world, Buber seeks to remove some of the distance between the reader and the text and to renew the authority of the text for readers who are reluctant to trust its depiction of the world. In a talk that predates his commentaries, Buber calls for a new way of reading the Bible: I do not mean that the Bible depicts men and women and events as they were in actual history; rather do I mean that its descriptions and narratives are the organic, legitimate ways of giving an account of what existed and what happened. I have nothing against calling these narratives myths and sagas, so long as we remember that myths and sagas are actually memories.6In this earlier piece, saga defines the Bible’s historicity or the sense in which it is a work of history. This idea will evolve into the distinction between history and saga in Buber’s commentaries, where he highlights the text’s historicity as a document containing both history and saga. What remains constant is his view that the biblical representation of reality is real even in the moment when it appears to exceed the limits of the natural world as we know it. How is the modern person to read biblical saga? What is certain, according to Buber, is that the Israelites had a relationship with God shaped by encounters with God. The details are not to be evaluated as a matter of fact or fiction. They are a way of telling a story about what happened; the biblical reader can appreciate that story as a story and feel moved by it emotionally or spiritually. Did God ever speak directly to human beings, as the biblical text claims? In I and Thou, Buber suggests such a claim is impossible when he states that he does “not believe in God’s naming himself or in God’s defining himself before man.”7 Instead of divine speech, revelation is divine presence or, more specifically, the moment in which a person becomes deeply aware of the presence of God. Whatever words a person hears in that moment are but his or her own attempt to articulate that presence and its meaning. In other words, while the meaning of the words is divine, the words themselves are not. This idea too remains constant through Buber’s many analyses of revelation in the biblical text. We might say that history and saga offer two sorts of truth about the past of the Jewish people. In his commentaries, Buber identifies many portions of the biblical text as history. Most of the commentaries, in fact, are devoted to the Bible’s historical material as Buber engages with the work of biblical critics and ancient historians to develop his argument that biblical theology is defined by the idea of God as king. Buber’s analysis of the Bible’s historical narrative is punctuated by his brief retellings of biblical saga, which he often presents with a few words of appreciation for the beauty of these episodes as reflections of the relationship between the ancient Israelites and God. His account of the revelation at Mount Sinai in Moses offers a particularly powerful illustration of the distinction between history and saga as two types of writing. In this account, Buber affirms that whatever actually happened at Sinai was a natural or even ordinary event understood by an awe-struck Israel as wondrous. This is in line with what he wrote two decades earlier in his essay, “People Today and the Jewish Bible,” namely, that the record of Sinai is, “the verbal trace of a natural event, i.e., an event having occurred in the common sensory world of humankind and having fitted into its patterns, which the assemblage that experienced it experienced as God’s revelation to it and so preserved it in the inspired and in no way arbitrary formative memory of generations.”8 In Moses, Buber pushes this point further by using the distinction between saga and history to separate the prophet of the saga-teller from the prophet of the historian: Yonder Moses who ascends the smoking mountain before the eyes of the assembled people, who speaks to the Height and receives from the thunder and trumpet-blasts a response which he brings to his people in the form of commandments and laws,–yonder Moses is not merely a stranger to us, which the real Moses also threatens to become at times when we sense him most; he is unreal.9More specifically, modern people, “the late-born” who are “oppressed…. by the merciless problem of Truth,” cannot believe that Moses received the Ten Commandments at the top of a mountain while the Israelites experienced some sort of encounter with God at the mountain’s base during an awe-inspiring thunderstorm. They cannot verify this sort of marvelous or miraculous event. It is even “unreal.” But we can still find something of a more historical Moses if we look elsewhere in the text, away from the thunder and lightning. The historical material Buber identifies includes the steps Moses takes to bring the Israelites into a covenant with God and the content of the Ten Commandments and the stone tablets upon which they were written.10 That is, for Buber, who believes that human beings are capable of knowing God in relationship, Moses’ greatest achievement is found in the steps he takes to solidify that relationship in the symbols and words of a formal covenant. This praise for Moses seems almost to echo Spinoza’s description of his political genius in his Theological-Political Treatise: in both places, Moses is a great legislator who turns a motley group of tribes into a nation, with laws and customs that bind them together.11 Indeed, Buber devotes many pages to a detailed explication of the efficacy of Moses’ decisions and ritual acts. (This presentation contrasts with his comment in the earlier essay, “Biblical Leadership,” that Moses was largely a failure as a leader.12) The history of the tablets is followed by a piece of saga. Shortly after the initial Sinaitic theophany, and right after the people agree to the covenant, Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of Israel climb the mountain to see God: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24:9-11).13 These verses present at least three problems. First, in the immediate biblical context, this visit with God violates God’s instruction to Moses that “man may not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20); thus the verses make particular note of God’s lack of retribution. Second, from a theological perspective, these verses assume that God can be seen, i.e., that God has a physical form or image that may be comprehended with sight, posing an additional theological challenge for later Jewish exegetes. Third is a challenge particular to Buber. Within the context of his saga-history distinction and in line with his account of revelation in I and Thou, he must account for what the elders saw and for why they thought they saw God with their eyes. Buber’s analysis begins with a retelling of the event that emphasizes the dawn setting of the encounter: The representatives of Israel come to see [God] on the heights of Sinai. They have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder…. and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned Melek [king]. And in seeing that which radiates from Him, they see Him.… now that they have reached unto Him, He allows them to see Him in the glory of His light, becoming manifest yet remaining invisible.14Buber’s retelling retains essential elements of the biblical verses: the time of day, the climbing of the mountain, and the sapphire blue color that they see. But Buber naturalizes these details, so that in his retelling the elders are overwhelmed not by the sight of God’s physical form but by the astounding beauty of the early morning light. As they stand before this beauty, they sense the presence of God. This is the historical kernel; as possible then as it is now. The biblical storyteller understands it and retells it in supernatural language but the truth of the account remains and is recounted for us by Buber in language that accords better with a modern perspective. In Buber’s retelling, the event now fits the descriptions of revelation that appear in I and Thou: a deep sense of God’s presence and a renewed commitment. The meal that the elders share is an expression of the community built from or through this shared experience of encounter with God. Buber’s presentation of the moment that these men see God is in itself a piece of saga. Especially in contrast to his often quite dry philological analysis of the historical narrative, it is a beautiful piece of writing that paints the scene of a special, spiritual moment. His poetic style serves an important function in his presentation of saga in the commentaries, namely, to retain a sense of saga even while denying the literal meaning of the biblical version. As he comments, “great is the work of the Saga, and as ever it still thrills our heart.”15 This comment calls to mind a plea that appears in his essay, “People Today and the Jewish Bible”: people should return to the Bible with openness; they “do not know what speech, what image in the book will take hold of them and recast them, from what place the spirit will surge up and pass into them, so as to embody itself anew in their lives; but they are open.”16 What are we to do with the thrill of the saga? In “People Today,” Buber describes a reader who is “recast” by the biblical text. I would like to suggest that we might find an answer if we consider saga to be a sort of Jewish “usable history.” This term is drawn from Friedrich Nietzche’s The Use and Abuse of History (1874), a work in which Nietzsche excoriates historicist approaches to the past.17 These approaches include what he terms an “antiquarian approach,” which treats the past as a source of meaning and identity in the present. Using such an approach, a person is “careful to preserve what survives from ancient days, and will produce the conditions of his own upbringing for those who come after him.”18 In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, part of any individual’s identity or any nation’s sense of itself emerges from its past: where it came from, how it arrived where it is now, and so forth. But an antiquarian approach can go awry to become a sort of a hoarding disorder in which one becomes consumed by remembering and collecting facts with no consideration of whether or not they are actually important in the present. The misguided antiquarian gathers documents and objects but is unable to arrange them into any meaningful order; without such order the items remain utterly disconnected from the present and serve no purpose. In Nietzsche’s words, “antiquarian history degenerates from the moment that it no longer gives a soul and inspiration to the fresh life of the present.” He compares the degenerate antiquarian’s traditionalism to the “mad collector raking over all the dust heaps of the past.… He often sinks so low as to be satisfied with any food, and greedily devours all the scraps that fall from the bibliographical table.”19 This approach to the past is stultifying and suffocating. It holds a civilization back from collective innovation and creativity. In other words: a civilization consumed with its past will be consumed by its past. At the same time, one cannot ignore the past completely. Neither individual human beings nor civilizations can live without any knowledge of the past. The trick lies in how one remembers and in choosing sometimes to forget. History can and should serve life, or what we might also term creativity or progress. Nietzsche claims that good history: has always a reference to the end of life, and is under its absolute rule and direction. This is the natural relation of an age, a culture, and a people to history; hunger is its source, necessity its norm, the inner plastic power assigns its limits. The knowledge of the past is desired only for the service of the future and the present, not to weaken the present or undermine a living future.20The goal is a sense of the past that serves the present or, more specifically, a narrative of the past that keeps the needs of the present always in mind, that recognizes that only some facts are necessary for a coherent and inspiring narrative, and that largely disregards whatever remains. Nietzsche’s account makes clear that history is historiography: the past itself is defined by how we remember and remained connected to it. What is at stake in writing a usable history is the way a nation remembers its past and uses that remembrance to define its culture and values in the present. This is where I see the connection to Buber’s retellings of biblical saga as well as his retelling of Hasidic tales. The history sections of Buber’s commentaries tend toward the sort of antiquarian history writing that Nietzsche demeans: a listing of facts and claims without coherent narrative to hold them together. The reader unaccustomed to philological analysis will get lost in the many dry details Buber provides to support his arguments and the many footnotes that point toward the larger scholarly conversations in which he hopes to participate. Such a reader is unlikely to read any of Buber’s commentaries cover to cover. But if this lay reader takes the time to page through the texts, scanning them for the glimmers of something meaningful, he will be rewarded by the gems of saga that are buried within them. These gems are exactly the kind of history that Nietzsche applauds and that I suggest we call “usable.” Buber’s retellings of the saga have narrative arcs and move the reader’s spirit. They demand a response. It is no wonder that some of the most moving pieces of saga from Buber’s commentaries have been separated from his dry presentations of biblical history and collected in separate volumes such as On the Bible.21 For Nietzsche, history should serve culture in a much broader sense: the arts, yes, but Geist, the world of spirit more broadly, benefits from good history. Buber shares this sense of Geist as the force that inspires cultural production and otherwise expresses a culture’s values. If we turn back to “People Today,” we see that Buber addresses himself there to “people to whom it seems important that there be intellectual goods and values; people who admit, or even themselves declare, that the reality of these goods and values is bound up with their realization through us.”22 He laments that his audience recognizes that Geist makes demands upon them but does not know how to respond, and he offers the Bible as a guide, or, in the language I am suggesting, a usable history. In his 1934 lecture “Teaching and Deed,” Buber describes how, “the life of a spirit is renewed whenever a teaching generation transmits it to a learning generation which, in turn, growing into teachers, transmits the spirit through the lips of new teachers to the ears of new pupils.”23 This passing on both preserves and produces the culture, as “the values live on in the host who receives them by becoming part of his very flesh, for they choose and assume his body as the new form which suits the function of the new generation.”24 His calls for a renewal of Jewish culture in earlier essays protest against those who fail to realize that culture does not remain static but must evolve to remain meaningful in changing circumstances.25 In many of his calls for a renewed Jewish culture, Buber turns to the Bible as the Jewish past that will feed the Jewish present and future. In his inaugural lecture at the Hebrew University in 1938, Buber describes the “man of spirit” as “one whom the spirit invades and seizes, whom the spirit uses as its garment, not one who houses the spirit. Spirit is an event, it is something that happens to man. The storm of the spirit sweeps man where it will, and then storms on into the world.”26 The lives of the biblical prophets—in this case, Isaiah—model what Buber holds to be the central experience of Judaism, one that leaves the individual spiritually charged to go out into the world and act with unity of purpose. Reading biblical saga opens the door to these sorts of encounters. In his 1941 essay “Hebrew Humanism,” Buber claims that: what [the Bible has] to tell us, and what no other voice in the world can teach us with such simple power, is that there is truth and there are lies and that human life cannot persist or have meaning save in the decision [on] behalf of truth and against lies; that there is right and wrong, and that the salvation of man depends on choosing what is right and rejecting what is wrong.27The distinction between truth and lies, right and wrong, that Buber refers to in “Hebrew Humanism,” is a command and corresponding promise from the Israelites to live with ethical consistency or, as Buber would say, to live a life of unity. That is: one must act before God at home and in the public sphere. This is what Buber means when he writes that Hebrew humanism means “reception of the Bible, not because of its literary, historical, and national values, important though these may be, but because of the normative value of the human patterns demonstrated in the Bible.”28 Returning for a moment to the Sinaitic covenant, we must recognize that for Buber, the enactment of a covenant at Sinai between God and the Israelites is an eternal promise to live before God with all that that entails; it is not the many biblical commandments that later evolve into rabbinic halakhah. As he writes in Moses, these laws cannot claim any priority over those which may be proclaimed later on, and when the people declare after the reading that they wish ‘to do and to hear,’ they clearly signify that they bind themselves not in respect of specific ordinances as such, but in respect of the will of their Lord, who issues His commands in the present and will issue them in the future; in the respect of the life-relationship of service to Him.29The covenant is an eternal promise to serve God. The shape of that service will always be specific to particular times and places; it is the underlying promise that will be consistent. The sense of service of God that is implied here is the unity of purpose that Buber also identifies as the core value in Hasidic teachings. Especially after he moved to Jerusalem in 1938, Palestine becomes for Buber the most important contemporary space in which Jews might act on their eternal commitment to God. This sense of commitment runs through his Zionist writings, where the Bible appears here as a proof text for his claims that the movement faces a moral imperative. Buber was a committed Zionist, particularly after the death of Theodor Herzl, with whom he had quarreled. Buber’s Zionism, deeply influenced by Ahad Ha’am, was closely tied to his call for a renewal of Jewish culture. Though not averse to Jewish statehood, in his Zionist writings from before 1948 Buber presented the return of Jews to the land of Israel as an opportunity to build a new kind of community as an expression of Jewish values. This community would not necessarily be a sovereign state. In 1939 he asks: “Is there true devotion to God in our midst, or is there not?” and then he responds: True devotion to God in turn means: our will to fulfil his truth. That again means: to aid in accomplishing his purpose in creating man, in the establishment of a human people whose king he is. And how is it given us to fulfill this truth if not by building the social pattern of our own people in Palestine all the way, from the pattern of family, neighborhood and settlement to that of the whole community?30Buber was a founding member of Brit Shalom, and with this organization he advocated for a bi-national state, one whose political infrastructure would reflect the two largest national identities among its citizens and a commitment to dialogue between them as a foundation. After the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, Buber’s focus shifts toward a consideration of Jewish sovereignty as an opportunity for the realization of Jewish truths and values. He insists that a Jewish state was not automatically an expression of Jewish values. In his 1949 “Children of Amos,” Buber admonishes those who believe that the establishment of the modern state of Israel is equivalent to a revival of the spirit of Judaism or Jewishness. His reference point is again the Bible, with a focus on the prophets specifically: “We should devote ourselves to understanding the real message of prophecy and place it, the true light in the world of man, over against the deceiving brilliance of what are called interests. The message of the prophets is Truth: only through justice can man exist as man, can the human nations remain human.”31 The prophets are here the heroes of a great humanistic tradition, one that should drive Jews not to the synagogue but to the streets, demanding justice.32 The message Buber wants his audience to learn from the prophets is that Jews must live and act before God. While very similar to the message that appears in his writings about Hasidism, in his description of a Hebrew humanism, and elsewhere, here the state provides a new urgency, and he names God’s particular demand (and the Jews’ eternal promise) as justice. The sheer humanism of Buber’s understanding of the Bible is evident in his discussion of a message brought by the prophet Samuel to King Saul, in a passage that appears in his biographical reflections. Saul has spared the life of the defeated King Agag, violating God’s command that he kill him; Samuel arrives to report that for this, Saul will lose his dynastic kingship. Buber writes that he cannot believe that this is a message of God; the only explanation is that Samuel has misunderstood. Reflecting further, Buber writes: Man is so created that he can understand, but does not have to understand, what God says to him. God does not abandon the created man to his needs and anxieties; He provides him with the assistance of His word; He speaks to him, He comforts him with His word. But man does not listen with faithful ears to what is spoken to him. Already in hearing he blends together command of heaven and statute of earth, revelation to the existing being and the orientations that he arranges himself. Even the holy scriptures of man are not excluded, not even the Bible. What is involved here is not ultimately the fact that this or that form of biblical historical narrative has misunderstood God; what is involved is the fact that in the work of throats and pens out of which the text of the Old Testament has arisen, misunderstanding has again and again attached itself to understanding, the manufactured has been mixed with the received. We have no objective criterion for the distinction; we have only faith.33This comment moves beyond the distinction of saga and history in Buber’s commentaries to emphasize the imperfection of the text, as Buber argues that Samuel’s choice to kill Agog was a mistake that resulted from his misunderstanding God’s demand for justice. More broadly we can say that any prophet—even as he models life before God—might misunderstand God. And so we are left with a scripture that does not—cannot—dictate standards of behavior insofar as it claims that there must be communal standards that are continually scrutinized and evaluated. The idea of a usable history allows us to draw together these many strands of Buber’s thinking about the Bible as a Jewish past that demands action in the present. What he writes about the prophet (nabi) in The Prophetic Faith thus applies to all biblical saga: “To be a nabi means to set the audience, to whom the words are addressed, before the choice and decision, directly or indirectly. The future is not something already fixed in the present hour, it is dependent upon the real decision, that is to say the decision in which man takes part in this hour.”34 Biblical saga, with its power to inspire and move the reader, preserves the experience of the prophet. William J. Bouwsma, an American historian of Renaissance humanism, who also uses the term “usable history,” notes that “the continuities between past and present can only be demonstrated by narrative. Narrative is also implied by the idea of history as a public utility: the need for it can only be satisfied by stories about the past.”35 Buber’s readings of saga transform the Bible into just such a usable history, one that inspires the present generation to take action in the present toward a future that will embody the values of justice and righteousness demanded in a life lived before God. Notes 1. Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Post-Ethnic Society (Bloomington, 2013), p. 9 (emphasis added). 2. Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man (Princeton, 2016), p. 5. Despite Buber’s success at engaging an audience of spiritual seekers, he came under strong attack from Gershom Scholem, who accused him of scholarly infidelity, claiming that he was misrepresenting relatively marginal Hasidic texts as central. Buber responded by affirming that he was not trying to produce historicist scholarship. For my take on this debate and a full list of the secondary literature addressing it, see Claire Sufrin, “On Myth, History, and the Study of Hasidism: Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem,” in Encountering the Medieval in Modern Jewish Thought, edited by James A. Diamond and Aaron W. Hughes (Boston, 2012), pp. 129–51. 3. For more on the hermeneutic assumptions of Buber’s retellings of Hasidic tales, see Steven Kepnes, The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology (Bloomington, 1992). 4. Martin Buber, Kingship of God (English translation, New York, 1967); idem, The Prophetic Faith (English translation, New York, 1949; reprint with new Introduction by Jon D. Levenson [Princeton, 2016]); idem, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (English translation, New York, 1957). The original German titles are as follows: Königtum Gottes (2nd ed.; Berlin, 1936); Torat ha-nevi’im (Tel Aviv, 1950); Moshe (Jerusalem, 1999). 5. In using these terms he is likely borrowing from the biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), though he does not cite Gunkel in any of the passages in which he describes his method. For Gunkel, the distinction between saga and history differentiates between oral legends and literary records. In developing his own hermeneutic method, Buber redefines these concepts. Saga and history are now distinguishable types of narrative records within the written Hebrew Bible. That said, in line with Gunkel’s approach, Buber does at various points acknowledge the likely oral origins of particular portions of the text. Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History, trans. William Herbert Carruth (New York, 1964). 6. Martin Buber, “Biblical Leadership,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 119; idem, “Biblisches Führertum,” in Werke (München and Heidelberg, 1964), p. 903. In his Legends of the Baal-Shem (1906), Buber argues that the rise of rabbinic Judaism in the wake of the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel led to the rise of law as the dominant form of Jewish teaching. Some of the earlier myths evolved into Kabbalah while others became folk-saga or what we might call folktales. As Buber describes saga here, it “lived in fact among the people and filled its existence with waves of light and melody. But it considered itself a paltry thing that barely had the right to exist; it kept itself hidden in the furthest corner and did not dare to look the law in the eye, much less desire to be a power alongside it. It was proud and glad when here and there it was called to illustrate the law.” Hasidism, according to Buber, brought saga into a central role: idem, The Legend of the Baal-Shem, trans. Maurice Friedman (New York, 1969), p. 12; idem, Die Legende Des Baal-Schem (Frankfurt am Main, 1922), p. x. See as well, idem, “Myth in Judaism,” in On Judaism (New York, 1996), pp. 95–107; idem, “Der Mythos Der Juden,” in Der Jude und Sein Judentum: Gesammelte Aufsätze und Reden (Gerlingen, 1993), pp. 76–86. 7. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1970), p. 160; idem “Ich Und Du,” in Werke, vol. 1 (München and Heidelberg, 1962), p. 154. See Benyamin Uffenheimer, “Buber and Modern Biblical Scholarship,” in Martin Buber: A Centenary Volume, edited by Haim Gordon and Jochanan Bloch (New York, 1984), pp. 163–211. 8. Martin Buber, “People Today and the Jewish Bible,” in Scripture and Translation (Bloomington, 1994), p. 10; idem, “Der Mensch von Heute und Die Jüdische Bibel,” in Die Schrift Und Ihre Verdeutschung (Berlin, 1936), p. 25. I am following Everett Fox and Lawrence Rosenwald in using the more gender neutral translation “People” for “Der Mensch” in the original title, “Der Mensch von Heute.” 9. M. Buber, Moses (New York, 1957), p. 110; idem, Mosheh (Jerusalem, 1999), p. 140. 10. Buber argues that the historical heart of the covenant is the utterance of the phrase “YHVH God of Israel” that turns the Israelite tribes into the nation of Israel, together with the acts of ritual bloodshed and feasting that Moses performs at the base of Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. “We may rest reasonably well assured that he, and none other than he, to whom we may well attribute a knowledge of the inner organization of the peoples, educed the tribal system of Israel from out of the natural structure of the natural material; and that by completing the appropriate parts he made it possible to weld them together.” M. Buber, Moses, p. 113; idem, Mosheh, p. 143. 11. Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, 2001), pp. 64–65. 12. M. Buber, “Biblical Leadership,” p. 125; idem, “Biblisches Führertum,” pp. 908–09. 13. All biblical citations use the JPS translation. 14. M. Buber, Moses, pp. 117–18; idem, Mosheh, pp. 147–48. 15. Idem, Moses, p. 124; idem, Mosheh, p. 154. 16. M. Buber, “People Today,” p. 7; idem, “Der Mensch von Heute,” p. 19. 17. In English, the term “usable history” is first found in a 1918 essay by Van Wyck Brooks, an American literary critic. In his piece, Brooks argues that the arts thrive only when they are connected to a vibrant national past. Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial, April 11, 1918, p. 337. In the context of Jewish Studies, examples of intellectuals and others creating usable pasts are explored by David Roskies in his book The Jewish Search for a Usable Past, though he never really defines what he means by a usable past. In a brief discussion of Roskies’ work, Abigail Gillman distills his argument into a helpful formulation: a usable past is “a past through which one might refract the challenges of modernity.” That is, Roskies’ study emphasizes moments in which the past was retold such that the challenges in the storyteller’s own moment could be addressed as though they had already happened and been resolved long ago. His study emphasizes novelists and storytellers—Sholem Aleichem is likely the most familiar example and the plight of Tevye as he raises his daughters offers a quick illustration of this sense of a usable past. Also of note, Paula Hyman uses the term in the 1980s as she calls for studies of Jewish women’s history to serve the needs of the Jewish feminist movement. David G. Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Bloomington, 1999); Abigail Gillman, Viennese Jewish Modernism: Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler (University Park, 2009), p. 15; Paula Hyman, “The Jewish Family: Looking for a Usable Past,” in On Being a Jewish Feminist, edited by Susannah Heschel (New York, 1983), pp. 19–26. 18. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins, 2nd ed. (Revised) (New York, 1957), p. 18. 19. Ibid., p. 20. 20. Ibid., p. 22. 21. Martin Buber, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies (New York, 2000). In this context, consider William J. Bouwsma’s comment, “it seems to me that some areas of culture are more instructive for self-understanding than others. The most informative for me has been religion, including theology, but also, and even more profoundly, spirituality, because it transcends intellectuality. Religious symbolism and practice seem to me to concentrate and integrate singularly well what a society is finally ‘about.’” William J. Bouwsma, A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History (Berkeley, 1990), p. 2. Regarding Kingship of God and Buber’s other commentaries, cf. Samuel Brody’s and Paul Mendes-Flohr’s readings of these works as an expression of political theory. Brody argues that Buber’s category of history is equivalent to Realpolitik, similar to what Carl Schmitt called political theology and the opposite of Buber’s vision of theo-politics, which Brody identifies as an “anarcho-theocracy.” Samuel Hayim Brody, “Is Theopolitics an Antipolitics? Martin Buber, Anarchism, and the Idea of the Political,” in Dialogue as a Trans-Disciplinary Concept, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr (Berlin, 2015); Paul Mendes-Flohr, “The Kingdom of God: Martin Buber’s Critique of Messianic Politics,” Behemoth: A Journal on Civilization Vol. 1, No. 2 (2008), pp. 32–35. 22. M. Buber, “People Today,” p. 5; idem, “Der Mensch von Heute,” p. 14. 23. Martin Buber, “Teaching and Deed,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 137; idem, “Die Lehre Und Die Tat,” in Der Jude Und Sein Judentum (Gerlingen, 1993), p. 649. 24. “Teaching and Deed,” ibid., p. 139; “Die Lehre,” ibid., p. 650. 25. For more on Buber’s calls for Jewish renewal, see Asher D. Biemann, Inventing New Beginnings: On the Idea of Renaissance in Modern Judaism (Stanford, 2009). 26. Martin Buber, “Plato and Isaiah,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 108; idem, “Teviat Ha-Ruah Vehametsiut Ha-Historit,” in Ha-Ruah Veha-Metsiut (Tel Aviv, 1942), p. 15. 27. Martin Buber, “Hebrew Humanism,” in The Martin Buber Reader, edited by Asher Biemann (New York, 2002), p. 161; idem, “Humaniut Ivrit,” in Ha-ruah ve-hametsiut (Tel Aviv, 1942), p. 57. Cf. Grete Schaeder, The Hebrew Humanism of Martin Buber, trans. Noah J. Jacobs (Detroit, 1973); Paul Mendes-Flohr, “Nationalism as a Spiritual Sensibility: The Philosophical Suppositions of Buber’s Hebrew Humanism,” Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 2 (1989), pp. 155–68. 28. M. Buber, “Hebrew Humanism,” p. 160; idem, “Humaniut Ivrit,” p. 55. 29. M. Buber, Moses, p. 104; idem, Mosheh, p. 134. 30. Martin Buber, “The Spirit of Israel and the World of Today,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (Syracuse, 1997), p. 193; idem, “Ruah Yisrael Bepnei Ha-Metsiut Ha-Nokhahit,” in Ha-Ruah Veha-Metsiut (Tel Aviv, 1942), p. 32. 31. Martin Buber, “The Children of Amos,” in A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr (Chicago, 2005), p. 256. Idem, “Benei Amos,” Ner, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February, 1950), p. 4. 32. “Every person who knows the truth of prophecy is obligated today to raise his voice… We Jews, as in the past and forever, are merely the living archetype by which is explained what there is to explain—and the archetype is both sufficient for judgment and accustomed to such a role, for it is an archetype of salvation or disaster.” Ibid., pp. 256–57; idem, “Benei Amos,” p. 4. 33. Martin Buber, Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments (New York, 2002), p. 64. 34. Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (Princeton, 2016), p. 3; idem, Torat Ha-Nevi’im (Tel Aviv, 1950), p. 2. 35. W. J. Bouwsma, Usable Past, p. 6. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

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Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and ExperienceOxford University Press

Published: Feb 1, 2018

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