It was a destabilizing experience reading about Martin Buber’s pessimistic predictions of the future of Jewish nationalism while Israel was bombing Gaza (yet again) in the spring of 2021. Mendes-Flohr’s Martin Buber, A Life of Faith and Dissent highlights Buber’s prophetic criticism of what has now become an intractable conflict and a violent domination of the lives of at least 3 million Palestinians. However, Mendes-Flohr’s much anticipated biography falls short of recognizing that Buber’s unique position in the history of Zionism can make him a beacon for contemporary Israelis or even Jews worldwide critical of Israel’s policies and desirous of a just solution in Israel-Palestine. There is something domesticated about his Buber, something almost naïve. I will go back to these points later in this review. For the moment, it is enough to state that Mendes-Flohr’s biography of Martin Buber, a synthetic work that sums up 40 years of research dedicated to Buber’s work, is impressive as it is enjoyable. In about 350 pages, Mendes-Flohr draws lines of continuity and change through the life and thought of one of the most emblematic Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. If it has any failings, these are centred around the disappointment of making of Buber nothing more than a historical figure. To use Buber’s terms, it is a biography of I-It, one of historical and scholarly acumen, yet one that does not lead to any possible encounter with what Buber was all about, the lived experience of dialogue.
Many of the details of Buber’s life are well known by now. He has left behind many letters exchanged with the leading luminaries of the 20th century, from Einstein to Gandhi, spanning the 60 years of his career. His work has been translated and read in many languages, cultures, and religious contexts. Maurice Friedman, his student and later collaborator, published during the eighties a three-volume biography that meticulously traced every event in Buber’s life. However, no full biography has been published since then. There was an unavoidable necessity to publish a new, more concise biography that deals with the main issues in Buber’s life. Mendes-Flohr has done that with bravado. His biography will become the entry point for every student and lay-reader interested in Buber’s life and work. It traces his contributions to Judaism, philosophy, inter-religious dialogue, politics, his changing relation with Zionism, his critique of nationalism in the aftermath of WWI, and his consistent work towards an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Indeed, between «faith» and «dissent», Mendes-Flohr shows how Buber was continuously understood as an outsider, as a truth-speaker in the public square (213), as a civil disobedient committed to a life of dialogue and meetings, an «anomalous Jew» (232). Read with the eye of a contemporary reader, Mendes-Flohr succeeds in making Buber attractive and (to some extent) relevant again. He constructs a narrative of an individual who always grasped himself as a representative of the Jewish people (all the while remaining on its margins) and who struggled to live up to the highest demands of that burden.
The book is divided into 11 chapters in addition to an introduction. There is no conclusion. The eleventh chapter ends with the passing of Buber on June 13, 1965, at 87. One can divide the book into three sections: the first four chapters detail Buber’s early life and career, his early interaction with Zionism and Jewish collective existence in Europe; chapters five to eight are structured around the dramatic events in Europe between the two world wars and Buber’s transformation following his friendships with Gustav Landauer and Franz Rosenzweig; chapters nine to eleven begin with the Bubers leaving Europe to Palestine in mid-1938, five years after the Nazis took control of Germany. The last three chapters focus mainly on Buber’s passage to writing and teaching in Hebrew and his interaction with the radical transformation in Jewish collective life that the double events of the destruction of European Jewry (1939-1945) and the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) brought about.
The biography is an intellectual biography; hence, specific life events are sometimes passed over rather quickly: Buber’s absent mother, tense relationship with his father and grandfather, and the fact that he and his wife raised his son’s two daughters. On the other hand, marginal intellectual meetings are somewhat overplayed and not always in a very satisfactory fashion. Two of these were addressed by Mendes-Flohr in independent contributions. However, the main thrust of the biography is not interrupted to allow for a long detour into these issues. I refer here to Buber’s engagement and contributions to early German sociology (44-51) and his ongoing critical reading of Heidegger, which led to a meeting after the war (278-286). It is often time forgotten that Buber was heavily influenced by Dilthey and had a long-standing friendship with Simmel (Mendes-Flohr’s doctoral dissertation focused on the way Buber’s dialogical philosophy was shaped by German sociology). Buber was even part of Simmel’s inner circle (47). However, not much more is given as details in this biography.
In fact, one cannot help but wonder whether the biography is more destined to the lay-reader or early student of Buber or Jewish and Continental Philosophy than to the academic philosopher. From the perspective of a philosopher, I would have liked to read more details concerning Buber’s philosophical thought, about his later formulations of philosophical anthropology, about his Nieztscheanism and critique of Heidegger. All these are present, yet always too quickly and too little, giving the biography an introductory character. To be sure, the biography may certainly contribute to renewing interest in Buber’s work and perhaps even research into his philosophical contributions beyond the disciplinary tag of Jewish Philosophy. However, the reader will not find these fully explored here.
Mendes-Flohr structures the biography around two elements in his subject’s life and thought: the tension between the «supernatural Jew» and the «natural Jew» (xiv). The supernatural Jew is in some respect the Weberian ideal-type Jew «beholden to the timeless religious vocation of the Jewish people as defined by the (divinely revealed) Torah and rabbinic tradition.» The natural Jew is the concrete, individual and collective existence of Jews in a specific historical moment. However, although Mendes-Flohr contends that Buber’s «overarching concern» was to reintegrate the natural and the supernatural Jew, this significant claim is not defended systematically. In fact, after getting mentioned in the introduction it is not brought up again until page 241. Moreover, there are some conceptual issues with this definition since it assumes, indeed as Buber did, that there is some essential core to Judaism that is constantly the same, i.e., the direct, unmediated relationship to God. One may argue that perhaps the structure of a relation to God is a-historical, while the content constantly changes throughout history. Nevertheless, this would be an un-Buberian position, and Mendes-Flohr does not adopt such a critical stance. It is only when treating Buber’s critique of Gandhi — who suggested to the Jews of Europe that it is better to suffer and die under Nazi rule than engage in a colonialist enterprise in the Middle East even if their lives depended on it — that Mendes-Flohr suddenly brings back the issue. According to Mendes-Flohr, Buber argues against Gandhi that doing what he suggests will amount to a preference for the supernatural Jew over the concrete lives and experiences of millions. Mendes-Flohr’s return to the issue at this moment in Buber’s life is crucial. With the rise of the threat of Nazi persecution from the mid-thirties, Jews found themselves torn between the immediate demands of their empirical existence and the «unremitting calling» of the supernatural Jew (243). Moreover, from this moment onward, Buber would be acutely aware of the tension between these two. In contradistinction to Gandhi, who preferred the supernatural Jew over the natural one, the Zionist movement according to Mendes-Flohr reading of Buber, prefers the natural Jew (259) thus neglecting the moral calling of God for Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world according to the social vision of the prophets (114). One can understand Buber’s critique of Gandhi and Zionism only when one replaces our commonplace definition of Zionism as a national movement with Buber’s claim that it is more about cultural renewal than national sovereignty, more about social justice than military prowess. For Buber, a bi-national state was completely coherent with his vision of Zionism, far removed from the nationalistic hegemony that many Zionists promulgate today.
Buber was understood by many of his critics and friends alike to be a utopian thinker, undisturbed by the concrete realities of the Jewish people. Indeed, a striking example of this is a series of conferences he gave in Poland on the eve of WWII. Jews had gathered by the thousands to listen to his every word. But instead of giving them hope or encouraging them to resist, Buber choose to talk about Jewish education. He regretted it later (218). It is clear that Buber was not a political realist, but nor was he detached from the political demands of his day. Mendes-Flohr partly recognizes the critical potential of Buber’s thought showing his ability to detect latent threats and problems years before they are actualized (e.g., concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Nevertheless, the narrative Mendes-Flohr constructs falls into the trapping of telling the story of a dreamer, endowed with a «prophetic realism» (227) exacerbated by WWII. This may have been true of the Buber of his own time, but it is very far from true concerning a Buber for our own.
It is in our own time that Buber’s critical positions concerning Judaism, Zionism, nationalism, and legalistic religion are most relevant. As stated earlier, Mendes-Flohr renders Buber to be some naïve prophet shouting inertly at the entrance of the city. This is a sad mistake. Focusing more on the contrasting views of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a crucial figure in the establishment of the Hebrew state, and Buber would have shown that it is not Ben Gurion’s political realism but rather Buber’s visionary warnings concerning the dangers of Jewish nationalism that seem to have been correct. As some Israeli Jews engaged in mob violence against Palestinians during May 2021, Buber’s warning that «there can be no peace between Jews and Arabs that is merely a cessation of war; there can only be a peace of genuine cooperation» (255) is timely. Indeed, Buber was among the only Hebrew intellectuals calling for a bi-national state—a vision that avoids what still plagues any effort for peace in the region, the nationalistic logic of majority-minority relations. As Mendes-Flohr writes, Buber found the idea of a binational state in Palestine to be «sounder» than any other solution. It was not an «infallible formula,» but it enabled «thinking beyond the conceptual boxes of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, political configurations that would inevitably lead to violent conflict between the Jews and the Arabs.» (246)
Two crucial, highly intellectual, and emotional friendships have shaped Buber’s life. The first, his friendship with Gustav Landauer, the Jewish anarchist who was murdered by German militias in the aftermath of the fall of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. While Buber brought Landauer closer to Judaism, Landauer convinced Buber that his early understanding of Jews as a community of blood is erroneous. To some extent, Landauer shaped Buber’s spiritual anarchism which will inform his thought throughout his life and that made him a prescient critic of nationalism and its dangers. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of this biography is that it highlights the relationship as a formative one for Buber. It attaches, correctly in my view, more importance to Landauer’s influence and the impact of his tragic death on the morrow of WWI in moving Buber definitively to the anarchist, socialist left than to the experience of the harrowing cost of lives due to the war. Mendes-Flohr thus goes against the somewhat simplistic explanation of Buber himself and supported by Friedman that it was a missed meeting with a young man on his way to the front that made Buber realize the dangers of his mystic understanding of the union between community and God (see the story «Conversion» in Buber’s Meetings and Friedman’s introduction to the text). The second relationship, with Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, ended just as tragically as the first. Rosenzweig died from muscular degeneration (ALS) on December 10, 1929, three days after Buber visited him to work on their translation of the Hebrew Bible to German. His last words were uttered as he was struggling to dictate a letter to Buber. This relation pushed Buber deeper into Jewish philosophy. Rosenzweig was one of the first readers of I and Thou, and their joint translation of the Bible is a landmark work of translation. Yet, each remained relatively firm in their respective beliefs. Buber emphasized Judaism as a lived faith, while for Rosenzweig, it was its legalistic aspects that made it a unique religion. For Rosenzweig, the Law (halakha) and the commandments (mitzvot) were at the basis of a spiritual renewal of Judaism (149). Buber stated in response that revelation is never a direct formulation of the Law, thus rejecting a basic tenet of Judaism. For Buber, it was the meeting between humans and God, i.e., revelation, that led to the formulation of the Law by humans themselves through their «self-contradiction» (153).
Reading Buber’s biography is more than reading about the life of a particular individual, or even a particular Jew (or Jewish individual). Indeed, as the editors of the series in which the book was published, «Jewish Lives,» state, the series aims «to explore the many facets of Jewish identity.» I think of no other Jewish thinker of the 20th century who can give such an englobing and engrossing image of the many facets of this identity. I see no other writer than Paul Mendes-Flohr, who could have done justice to such a complex subject in less than 350 pages of text. As stated, this is a synthetic work, concise as is expected from such a series of books. As such, none of my critical points could have been addressed in the space given to an intellectual life stretching for over 60 years during one of the more tumultuous times in Jewish history. Mendes-Flohr does a wonderful work of introducing Buber to the reader with love and respect, to the great benefit of the general interest in Buber’s life and works. The work may strike scholars who are familiar with Buber’s life and works or with 20th-century Jewish history and thought as somewhat too simple, too introductory. Notwithstanding, it is an enormously enjoyable read that addresses important aspects and raises central issues concerning Buber. I believe it will become the entry point for many future students of Buber and Judaism, and as such, Mendes-Flohr has done an excellent service to both.