A note on Martin Buber’s failure and our own

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A Life of Faith and Dissent
by Paul Mendes-Flohr.
440 pp. Yale University Press $26.00

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

With deep sadness, I take leave of Martin Buber. When I finished the last pages of Paul Mendes-Flohr’s new biography, Martin Buber: A life of Faith and Dissent, I realized that this is probably the last Buber biography I will read in my lifetime.

I found Mendes-Flohr’s biography moving. I also found it lacking. Others have and will continue to review the biography in more detail.  Here I limit my reflections to what I found and what I didn’t find in the biography. And the possible meaning thereof.

Paul Mendes-Flohr has studied, really lived with Buber, for much of his life. So have I. I first encountered Buber in an Introduction to Religion class in 1970. To say I was intrigued with the depth and beauty of Buber’s mystical I and Thou is an understatement. I further encountered Buber in my studies with the Holocaust theologian, Richard Rubenstein. Rubenstein was then and continues to be a critic of Buber’s “mystical” approach to politics. For Rubenstein, Buber missed the meaning of the Nazis. No spiritual foundation for Jews would counter the Holocaust. Soon after, in my foray into a Jewish theology of liberation, the binationalist Buber accompanied me. Or did I accompany him?

Cover of Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent

Mendes-Flohr’s biography reads well. The biography is certainly no hagiography and it highlights certain events and personal interactions in Buber’s life which I was either unaware of or, being aware of, gained new information and insight about. I am grateful for the scholarship involved. I loved the Buber-Franz Kafka encounters, especially its role in Kafka’s burgeoning interest in Jewish life. Mendes-Flohr’s discussion of Buber’s meetings with Martin Heidegger, the great philosopher and unrepentant Nazi, is fascinating. They talked about everything except the Nazi years.

I regret that I and Thou, which was one of the most important and influential books of the 20th century, is discussed in passing and areas of importance, Buber’s correspondence with Gandhi on Jewish resistance to the Nazis and Zionism, for example, so deep and still relevant, was covered but with less insight than I thought was needed. Mendes-Flohr explored Buber’s dissenting Zionism in detail and his continuing public admonishment of Zionist and, then, Israel’s flaws is emphasized, though some details of interest were either glossed over or omitted. A biographer has to choose.

In Mendes-Flohr’s biography, Buber emerges as a real person, a task which is difficult to accomplish and so essential to a biography. Buber had his strengths, with flaws. My biggest complaint, a serious one, is that Buber’s understanding of the prophetic is mentioned but is hardly given the due needed, especially for our present moment. Though he lived a prophetic life in many ways and this comes through in the biography, Buber’s analysis of the prophetic and its consistent failure, exemplified in his life both in Germany, Palestine and Israel, will, in my view, be, perhaps already is, Buber’s greatest contribution to the Jewish present and future.

The reason for this missed opportunity? I attribute this to the generation the author belongs to. Mendes-Flohr’s generation lived out Buber’s failure in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish world. In my view, Mendes-Flohr’s generation has yet to understand or account for the end of ethical Jewish history Buber foresaw and that the author’s generation, some of whom lived a large part of their life in Israel, has contributed to.

I predict that this fundamental flaw will go unmentioned in the reviews of this good and meaningful biography. The reason is obvious. Most of our contemporary Jewish scholars and scholarship are tainted with the ongoing occupation of Palestine and Palestinians, for which little or no accountability has been demanded. Instead, honors have been bestowed upon them and upon books like this.

What to with the prophets of the past, flawed as they were, when remembered by those who live within and benefit from the American and Israeli empires?

The issue of accountability for injustice in Israel, in America and around the world is admittedly a complex one. Though I raise this issue, I am far from certain of how to deal with it.

Perhaps I will ask this question to the students in Gaza I will visit, via Skype, tomorrow. My lecture last week was postponed – due to Israeli bombing.

Should generations of scholars and scholarship should be accountable, just as politicians and economists are? Where to draw the line is difficult to discern. Is Gaza a place to begin?

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“What to with the prophets of the past, flawed as they were”
What to do?