What Is The Human Way? A Report From Martin Buber

Martin_Buber_portrait

The following is a lecture I wrote and gave at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Vancouver last Shabbat (Sabbath). In it I attempt to hit some of the main points of Buber’s classic work “The Human Way (Der Weg Des Meschen)”. This work was based on six lectures Buber gave where he attempted to present Hasidic insights on the human way to an audience of Dutch Quakers.

At a time when Hasidic life is dominated by legalism, insularity, outward religious observances, and a thick layer of customs it is increasingly difficult to recover what it has to contribute to humanity. Buber’s lectures, which were given in the late 40’s, are a window into the rich inward life and deep insights of this tradition at it’s best.

Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his works in existentialism and his popularisation of the inward aspects of Hasidic spiritual practice. He was also an important figure in the early Zionist movement; translated the Bible into German, and played an important role in the transmission and development of Jewish culture both in Europe and in modern Israel.

Buber came from a family of observant, if liberal, Jews. Buber joined many Jews from Observant families in pursuing secular studies- in his case philosophy In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into German.

In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt Am Main, but resigned from his professorship in protest after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became important after the Nazis forbade Jews access to public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University. Buber died at his home in Jerusalem in 1965, where there is now a street named after him. 

Perhaps the most condensed and potent of Buber’s spiritual writings is the small book “The Human Way According to the Teaching of Hasidism”. This book originally consisted of six lectures given to a group of Dutch religious socialists in Holland in 1947. The Woodbrookers were a Christian group who has been persecuted by the Nazis during WW2 and had ties to English Quakers. Their leader had known Buber for some time and had been influenced by Buber’s philosophy. Buber delivered the popular lectures as requested, and a German edition called Der Weg Des Menschen was published in 1950.

Each of the six lectures is based on a Hasidic story, though Buber in fact touches on many Hasidic sayings and tales in each lecture. Time constraints will not allow us to ponder insights from all six lectures here. What I will do is share the essential lesson of each lecture, giving particular attention to the first two.

Heart Searching

The first talk opens with the following tale: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, was jailed in Petersburg because the mitnagdim had denounced him to the Russian government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. Impressed by the Rav’s demeanour, the man entered into conversation with him and brought up a number of questions he had about the Bible. Finally he asked him, “how are we to understand that the omniscient God asked Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”

“Do you believe”, answered the Rav, “that the scriptures are eternal and address us all?”

“ I do”, the man said.

“Well then”, said the zaddik, “in every generation God calls to every man, ‘where are you?’ God says something like this, ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you on your way?’’

When the man heard his age mentioned he pulled himself together and said to the Rav, “Bravo!” but his heart trembled.

What happens in this story? asks Buber. He points out that it is similar to some Talmudic tales where a Roman challenges Jewish doctrine by pointing out a seeming contradiction and has his point refuted or resolved by a Rabbi. The difference here, points out Buber, is that true to Hasidic discourse in general the answer is given on a different plane than the question is asked on.

 Buber says, “‘Where are you?’, whether the question be addressed to Adam or some other man- in so asking God does not learn something he does not know; what he wants is to produce an effect in man which can only be produced by just such a question, provided that it reaches man’s heart- that man allows it to reach his heart.”

 Why does every person run from this question?

 “Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam…..To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a series of hideouts.’”

 There is always a Voice seeking us, asking us, “Where are you?” But we spend much of our days in hiding, whether we are outwardly religious or not.

As Buber points out, however, “Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from Him, he is hiding from himself. ’” We cannot, of course, hide from God. Who are we hiding from them? We hide from ourselves. Yet in hiding from ourselves, we do not face where we are, and so we are lost.

Buber writes, “….the Voice…is a ‘still small voice’, and easy to drown. So long as this is done, man’s life will not become a way. Whatever success and enjoyment he may achieve, whatever power he may attain and whatever deeds he may do, his life will remain way-less, so long as he does not face the Voice.”

Buber points out, however, that the Gerrer Rebbe teaches that Esau also asks questions. Esau asks Jacob, “Where are you going?” Buber writes, “There is a demonic question…which apes God’s question, the question of truth….it does not stop at ‘Where are you?’ but continues, ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ There is a Voice that offers a liberating confrontation, and there is a voice that accuses and interrogates so as to kill. In Jewish tradition that voice is, of course, the voice of Hasatan, Satan, whose name literally means “the accuser”. Our problem is that we are confused about what voices are from God and which from Satan. To quote another Hasidic teaching: the devil clothes his demands as mitzvot. Some of God’s commands to us we mistake as satanic. How ironic that sometimes, in trying to escape the accusing voice of Hasatan we unwittingly run from the liberating voice of God. That must be one of the Devil’s most diabolical tricks. How then are we to find our way?

The Particular Way

Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin: ‘Show me one general way to the service of God.’ The Zaddik told him that it was impossible to tell men what way they should take…Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose that way with all his strength.” The way to find our way is to know what we love. We should do that, yet pursue it not as an end in itself, but as a way to God.

We are to revere the sages of the past, but not to imitate them. “God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one man. When some disciples of a zaddik visited the Seer of Lublin and expressed surprise that his customs differed from those of his teacher, the Seer replied, “What sort of a God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served!” God says, whatever you do may be a way to me, provided you do it in a manner that leads you to me.”

A zaddik once said, at the end of Ecclesiastes we read: “At the end of the matter, the whole is heard: “Fear God.” Whatever matter you follow to its end , there, at the end, you will hear one thing: “Fear God”. The point, says Buber, is that “Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God, and nature needs man for what no angel can perform on it, namely, its hallowing.”  The word “hallowing” here, refers to sanctification. Any way if taken in order to reach God, is a way that reaches Him. In following that desire, that natural inclination of the heart, but seeking to do so in a way which leads to God and answers God’s call, that desire and the heart which desires are both sanctified.

Resolution

In the third talk Buber clarifies that in all of this heart searching and seeking one should not become a creature blown around by internal winds, irresolute and conflicted, obsessed with introspection. Rabbi Nahum, the son of the Rabbi of Rishyn, entered the house of study at the wrong time and found his disciples playing checkers. “Do you know the rules of checkers?”, the Rabbi asked his embarassed disciples. “ The first is that one must not make two moves at once. The second is that one must go forward and never back. The third is that when one gets to the other side one may make any move one likes.”

As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “We learn the way by walking.” In seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow our own particular way we must not be paralyzed by introspection but must act resolutely and keep moving forward.

Begin With Oneself

The primary answer to the conflicts of our lives is found in knowing ourselves and bringing our own selves into harmony. Buber here quotes a Hasidic saying that “if a man makes peace in himself he can make peace in the world.” Satirizing the way that we get lost in externals, trying fruitlessly to put other people in order,  to control our lives, and to amass cherished things while losing the one thing most essential, Buber tells a fable of Rabbi Hanokh: “There was once a foolish man. When he went to bed at night he was afraid that he would not remember where he had put his clothing. So making a great effort he took a paper and pencil and noted down where he put everything as he undressed. When awoke in the morning he took the slip of paper in hand and read “cap”- there it was; “shirt”- there it was; and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well”, he exclaimed, “but now where am I myself?” He looked and looked but it was in vain, he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us”, concluded the Rabbi.

 Not To Be Pre-occupied With Oneself

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans married his son to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer. The day after the wedding he visited the father of the bride and said to him, “Now that we are relatives I feel that I can confide in you.” My hair and beard have grown white, and I have not yet atoned!”

“O my friend”, replied Rabbi Eliezer, “you are thinking only of yourself. How about forgetting yourself and thinking of the world?”

At first glance, points out Buber, this seems to contradict everything he has just said. He has just said that everyone should search his own heart, find his particular way, unite his being in action, and begin with himself, and now we are told a man should forget himself. This is not a contradiction, however. Buber says, “One must simply ask, what for? Why am I to search my heart? What is my particular way for?”.  Not for my own sake. You begin with yourself, yes, but you do not end with yourself. We put ourselves in order so that we can turn outwards toward the world.

That is not yet the final point though. Why do we search our hearts, find our way, unite our beings, put ourselves in order and turn toward the world?

Here Where One Stands

For this final lecture I won’t offer any commentary, but let Buber’s lyrical voice speak for itself.

“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realization of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, fulfilled existence, that, as it were, it passess true existence by….in some measure we strive to find-somewhere- what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set- but it is there and nowehere else that the treasure can be found…..It is said of a certain Talmudic master that the paths of heaven were as bright to him as his hometown. Hasidism inverts the order: It is a greater thing if the streets of a man’s hometown are as bright to him as the paths of heaven. For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of hidden divine life.”

 “Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raise his head. ‘Let us draw God into the world,’ he cried, ‘and all need will be extinguished.’

Buber tells a final story:

 “Where is the dwelling of God?” This is the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world filled with his glory?”

Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

“This is the ultimate purpose”, says Buber, “to let God in. But we can let him in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy intercourse with this little world entrusted to us, if we help the holy spiritual substance to accomplish itself in that section in which we are living, then we are establishing, in this place, a dwelling for the divine presence.”