(March 6, 2023 / JNS) German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s references to personal “I-Thou” and detached “I-It” relations ring a bell even for those who never read his 1923 book I and Thou, or read it long ago. But on the short philosophy volume’s 100th birthday, experts say it remains timely and predict that it will be read and discussed for another 100 years.
“To be sure, many who read I and Thou probably don’t remember it well. Yet they may recall and even speak about I-Thou and I-It relations, if but superficially,” Paul Mendes-Flohr, University of Chicago professor emeritus of modern Jewish history and thought, told JNS.
Buber penned the book in German as Ich und Du, which was translated into English in 1937. It has had a widespread effect like that of the inferiority complex coined by Alfred Adler or Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, according to Mendes-Flohr, author of the 2019 book Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent.
“Buber’s concept of I-Thou relations has gained a place in the popular discourse,” he told JNS. It has also “informed the thought of some of the most distinguished theologians, ethicists, psychologists and philosophers.”
In issuing a centennial edition of I and Thou, Simon & Schuster called the book “a landmark of 20th-century intellectual history and one of the most important books of Western theology and philosophy.” It added that Buber—“one of the greatest Jewish minds of the 20th century”—united “the proto-existentialist currents of modern German thought with the Judeo-Christian tradition, powerfully updating faith for modern times.”
But not every reader has thought of Buber as a “thou,” rather than an “it.” The writer, who was born in Vienna in 1878 and died in Jerusalem in 1965, was frustrated that Christians appreciated his writings more than Jews did, as Chaim Potok wrote in Commentary in March 1966.
“Though he addressed himself to the world, Buber regarded his thought as firmly rooted in Judaism, and he persistently refused to sever his writings from their Jewish moorings,” Potok wrote. “Jews, however, have generally continued to look upon his efforts with suspicion and to regard them as outside the mainstream of Jewish thought.”
To Buber, there was a fundamental difference between relationships, in which there was an encounter on equal footing—I-Thou, or where one addresses the other person as “you”—and those in which one party is a subject and the other is an object, or I-It.
“An overarching theme of I and Thou is how to establish and sustain relations of mutual trust,” noted Mendes-Flohr.
The German du (“you”) is reserved for intimate, trusting relations, such as between parents and children or the closest of friends. “And, as Buber underscores, for our relation to God,” said Mendes-Flohr.
Buber envisions God “as the Eternal Thou,” so “an I-Thou dialogue is not to be considered a synonym for negotiations of a convivial conversation,” he added.
Feminist readings of a thinker who had a conservative view of women
In July, the University of Haifa will host a major conference titled “Women Write Buber.” The lead organizer, Yemima Hadad, a Jewish-studies professor at Leipzig University in Germany, told JNS that the conference aims to “be attentive to female voices reading Buber and continuing his legacy in their writings.”
The conference will convene female scholars from institutions around the world to reflect upon how Buber’s writings have shaped contemporary feminism.
“Martin Buber was not a feminist thinker or an active promoter of the feminist cause. To the contrary, his writings suggest a rather conservative view on the woman’s ‘place,’ ” said Hadad. “But the conference will highlight the fact that Buber was in intellectual conversation with many leading female thinkers at his time and that his philosophy was shaped through this exchange.”
To Hadad, Buber’s I-Thou refers to a partner in a living event, while I-It always involves power, command and possession.
“Buber argues that my own self is constituted by the way I address the other. This means that all ethics must begin with the other,” she said. “I-Thou does not just mean dialogue, it is a way of life and a way of relating to the world.”
Hadad thinks that Buber’s “I and Thou” remains very relevant today when it comes to caring for strangers and understanding one’s partnership with the world.
“We must remember that Buber wrote I and Thou after World War I, and the world and humanity were shattered,” she said. “He wrote the book as a Jew in a context of antisemitism and nationalism. Buber writes I and Thou from a minority standpoint and raises the voice of the other. I think this is still inspiring today for grassroots movements and human-rights activism.”
From biblical injunctions to rabbinic interpretation to Buber’s philosophical work, much has changed over thousands of years, including who are today’s “strangers” that require protection and what “neighbors” are one charged to love.
“These are questions Buber asked at his time, which also guided him in his lifelong vision to create a peaceful existence between Jews and Arabs,” Hadad said. “In my opinion, Buber’s legacy is especially important at this very moment of Jewish politics.”
Buber’s connection to Israel is complicated. He moved at age 60 to Jerusalem in 1938 after the Nazis silenced his university teaching, and he had accepted Theodor Herzl’s invitation to edit a Zionist weekly in 1901. But Buber gave up the editorship that year. He remained a Zionist but advocated a binational state prior to 1948. Buber was also a founder of Hebrew University.
In I and Thou, Hadad sees a simple truth “about the recognition of the other without imposing one’s power.”
“The book has become a classic, and I predict that it will endure as a classic for the next 100 years,” she said.
Asked what Buber’s works she would recommend for someone who wants to read the philosopher’s writings for the first time, Hadad recommended The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidism as “a good text to get to know Buber’s religious and philosophical universe.” She also suggested A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited by Mendes-Flohr.
Mendes-Flohr recommended that Buber rookies begin with Between Man and Man.
So will Buber still be relevant in 2123?
“Most definitely,” replied Mendes-Flohr. “The challenge to establish relations of genuine trust between individuals, as well as between peoples, will surely remain salient, indeed, ever pressing.”
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