A Legacy Greater Than “I-Thou”: A Usable Bible and a Usable Martin Buber

What can German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber still offer us fifty years after his death?

By Claire E. Sufrin|November 12, 2015

What can German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber still offer us fifty years after his death?

Best known for his landmark book, I and Thou, which describes the possibility of encountering God when fully present to another person, Buber (1878-1965) was also a close reader of the Hebrew Bible. He translated the Bible into German with Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig; wrote books of thought-provoking biblical commentary; and reflected on its content in numerous essays that continue to be studied and discussed. 

Especially in his commentaries, Buber developed a novel way of reading biblical texts. His approach unlocked the Bible in ways that made it fresh for his contemporaries and that might make it fresh for us.

Buber distinguishes between two types of narrative: history and saga.

According to Buber, the Bible’s historical narrative tends to focus on human beings doing ordinary things or expressing concrete theological concepts. It demands evaluation against the ancient Near Eastern context in which the biblical text was produced.

In contrast, the rest of the biblical narrative is saga. This includes everything that seems factually questionable. It is, for Buber, the product of human-divine encounters filtered through the belief system of ancient Israelite society. What the reader should glean from saga, Buber writes, is that the Israelites encountered God; the exact details are not a matter of fact or fiction but the biblical way of telling a story that relates what happened.

Consider Buber’s account of Moses and the elders of Israel climbing Mount Sinai to see God, which is a piece of saga. According to the Bible, “they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (Exodus 24:10).

In his commentary, Buber expands the Bible’s account as he writes that they “have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder… and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun.… And in seeing that which radiates from Him, they see Him.… now that they have reached unto Him, He allows them to see Him in the glory of His light, becoming manifest yet remaining invisible.”

Buber gently suggests a way of understanding what happened within the terms of the natural world while still emphasizing the power of the encounter. His poetic re-presentation of the event is itself a piece of modern saga.

As he observes about the Bible: “great is the work of the Saga, and as ever it still thrills our heart.”

What are we to do with this thrill?

I suggest that we think of biblical saga as a “usable history.” Literary critic Van Wyck Brooks coined the term in 1918 to describe knowledge of the past that is oriented toward the needs of the present.

This approach to history is close to what Buber intends in his 1941 essay “Hebrew Humanism:” “what [the Bible has] to tell us, and what no other voice in the world can teach us with such simple power, is that there is truth and there are lies and that human life cannot persist or have meaning save in the decision [on] behalf of truth and against lies.”

That is, the characters of the Bible live before God by striving to choose good and reject evil rather than wallow in indecision. They do not always succeed, but their attempts become a demand that readers do the same in their own lives.

Thus, the truth of the Hebrew Bible to which Buber refers is a command to act before God with purpose and intention at all times, whether at home or in the public sphere. This is for him the everlasting message of the Hebrew Bible. One should read it “not because of its literary, historical, and national values, important though these may be, but because of the… human patterns demonstrated” therein.

I would argue that this moral demand is delivered best in saga, both biblical and contemporary.

It is expressed in the account of the Israelite elders who sat before God and shared a meal together in the book of Exodus. It is re-expressed in Buber’s 1949 essay “Children of Amos”: “The message of the prophets is Truth: only through justice can man exist as man, can the human remain human…. Every person who knows the truth of prophecy is obligated… to raise his voice.” The biblical prophets are bearers of a great Jewish tradition that should drive Jews not to the synagogue but to the streets, demanding justice, however they understand it in their own circumstances.

Buber’s understanding of biblical narrative as saga as well as his success in writing saga for his own time are his legacy. They represent the very best of a “usable Buber.”

Brooks, Van Wyck. “On Creating a Usable Past.” The Dial, April 11, 1918.

Buber, Martin. “Hebrew Humanism.” In The Martin Buber Reader, edited by Asher Biemann, 158–65. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

———. Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957.

———. “The Children of Amos.” In A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr, 253–58. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Author, Claire E. Sufrin, (Ph.D. Religious Studies, Stanford University) is a Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University. She has published widely in the field of modern Jewish thought, Jewish feminism, and religion and literature. For more information about Prof. Sufrin, visit www.clairesufrin.com. @cesufrin

Managing Editor: Myriam Renaud