“I am unfortunately a complicated and difficult subject.” With these words of Martin Buber, Paul Mendes-Flohr lays down the challenge for his meticulous biography of the distinguished Jewish scholar, humanist, and author of I and Thou. “Complicated,” to be sure, and “difficult,” certainly; that goes with the territory of Buber’s at times maze-like philosophical explorations and heavily Germanic articulation. And one may add to these challenges the fact that—to quote this biographer—Buber was a “contested figure who evoked passionate, conflicting opinions about his person and his thought.” Yet these obstacles are by no means insurmountable, thanks to Mendes-Flohr’s philosophical acumen and gift for succinct expression. Indeed, in his capable hands Buber’s life makes for an engrossing, instructive tale, and an exemplary contribution to Yale’s “Jewish Lives Series.”
Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has long been a scholar of German Jewry and of Martin Buber, serving as editor-in-chief of the twenty-two-volume German critical edition of Buber’s collected works. His previous publications include the English translations of Buber’s 1909 treatise on mysticism, Ecstatic Confessions (Harper & Row, 1985), and collected writings on Jews and Arabs, A Land of Two Peoples (Oxford University Press, 1983). While Mendes-Flohr never met Buber (as did such previous biographers as Grete Schaeder and Maurice Friedman), he was a longtime confidant of Buber’s late son, Rafael, and the beneficiary of significant manuscripts and correspondence not previously available to biographers. These allow him to present Buber’s serious thought in depth as he builds a textured, comprehensive portrait of the man and his life.
Buber was born in 1878 to a wealthy Polish Jewish family in Vienna. His father, Carl, was an agronomist and entrepreneur; while not particularly religious, he was, in Buber’s words, “an elemental storyteller.” Buber’s mother, Elise, was an actress with “astoundingly beautiful eyes,” as Buber himself later attested; she abandoned the family for a Russian officer when Buber was three, and the separation had a seismic effect on Buber’s life, including his subsequent philosophy, religious sense, and social understanding. The boy was sent for ten years to live with his paternal grandparents in Lemberg, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). His grandfather, Solomon Buber, was a legendary midrash scholar and philanthropist; his grandmother, Adele, was steeped in a love for German literature, a love she passed on to her precocious grandson.
Buber’s early education took place largely at home, in a household where Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, and English were all understood and encouraged. At ten he was sent to gymnasium, where he devised dialogues between a German and a Frenchman, a Hebrew and an ancient Roman, foundational exercises for his later philosophy of dialogue. When questioned about one of Sophocles’s choruses during a final exam, he recited the entire chorus by heart—in Greek. It was at the age of thirteen that he coined the German word Vergegnung, or “mismeeting,” a word that would spring spontaneously to mind when he was reintroduced decades later to his mother. The term would come to play a key role in his description and analysis of “the life of dialogue.”
Carl Buber eventually remarried, and at fourteen Martin Buber went to live with his reconfigured family. His father would occasionally take him to an outlying village of Hasidim, where Buber was introduced to Hasidism’s vibrant mystical worship, lore, and community. The experience would echo in his subsequent understanding of Judaism and his written works on Hasidism. Yet soon after his bar mitzvah, Buber put away the tefillin of an observant Jew. Having already started reading Nietzsche, he was embarking on a new course, exploring what it meant to be a free, self-actualizing human being.
At eighteen, Buber entered the University of Vienna. He was interested in art, literature, music, and drama, and his reading of Nietzsche reinforced his quest for greater experience. He became a proponent of the fledgling Zionist movement, and caught the attention of Theodor Herzl, the movement’s founder, who appointed him editor of its journal, Die Welt. Buber’s studies took him onward to Leipzig, Zurich, and finally Berlin. Along the way, he met Paula Winkler, a Catholic from Munich and a budding novelist who had briefly been a member of a syncretistic ashram in Tyrol. The two fell passionately in love, and within two years, though unmarried, had two children. (They would only marry—and inform Buber’s family of the children—in 1907, following the death of Solomon Buber.) Paula became Martin Buber’s lifelong “Thou.” According to Mendes-Flohr, her “unbending integrity and insight…made her Buber’s most trusted critic and intellectual collaborator.”
In Berlin, Buber studied under Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel; through the latter, he met Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edmund Husserl. During this period, underwritten by his family’s largesse, he traveled to Florence to study medieval art and spirituality. Back in Germany, he turned his focus to Judaism and Hasidism. By 1903, he had broken with Herzl over the direction and purpose of the Zionist movement. Would it be largely a political, statist enterprise, as Herzl envisioned; or would it seek to renew Judaism and the Jewish people—as Buber desired—through a rediscovery of Judaism’s historic communal and spiritual core? Buber’s first book on the Hasidim was published in 1906 (and dedicated to his ailing grandfather). In evoking the folklore of the early Hasidic masters, Buber experienced a calling and a lifelong work. In Mendes-Flohr’s words, Buber’s early work on Hasidism furnished him “with a spiritual home” that grounded all his later thinking. Though his take on the Hasidim was subsequently criticized by Jewish scholars and others, his friend and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that “if you want to know Hasidism as it was, begin with Buber.”