Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher and theologian who had a profound impact on both Jewish and Christian thinking. He embodied the ideal of dialogue and understanding between people of different faiths and even conflicting interests. He felt that faith could play a positive role in creating a more humane world.
He was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878. As a student, Buber strayed from his religious roots, but the anti-Semitism in Europe prompted him to join the early Zionist movement. As he went through a religious reawakening, he extensively studied Hasidism, the Jewish renewal movement. Though he never became Hasidic, he embraced their call to holiness in everyday life. He called for people to affirm the world for God’s sake so that we could transform it.
As professor of Jewish religious history at the University of Frankfurt, Buber published his classic book, I and Thou, about the relational nature of human existence. He held that the quality of our relationships should be the basic measure of the quality of our humanity.
When the Nazis came to power, Buber was promptly dismissed from his academic position and he began to campaign for Jewish rights against the rising tide of fascism. By 1938, he was so restricted by the Nazis that he decided to escape from Germany to Jerusalem where he became a professor at Hebrew University.
Buber retained his Zionism, but he felt that nationalist expressions were headed in the wrong direction. He called for a “Hebrew Humanism” in which Jews and Palestinian Arabs could find a just and cooperative arrangement to deal with issues of the land. The outbreak of war in 1948 left him deeply saddened, but still committed to building human relationships.
Buber had a major impact on Christian thinking through his popularization of Jewish spirituality and mysticism. He recognized the Jewishness of Jesus and saw him as an example of some of the highest ideals in Judaism. However, he saw that there were many irreconcilable differences between the two faiths, yet these differences should not stop dialogue.
He wrote, “Whenever we both, Christian and Jew, care more for God Himself than for our images of God, we are united in the feeling that our Father’s house is differently constructed than our human models take it to be.” Martin Buber died in Jerusalem in 1965.