Article abstract: One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, Buber postulated an interpersonal relationship between God and humans. This theoretical relationship, which he called “I-Thou,” profoundly affected diverse thinkers of all faiths.
Mordecai Martin Buber was born in Vienna on February 8, 1878, the son of Carl and Elise (née Wurgast) Buber. When Martin was only four years old, his mother mysteriously disappeared. (It was discovered later that she had eloped with another man.) The motherless boy was sent to Lemberg (now Lvov, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) to live with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather, Salomon Buber, was a landowner, grain merchant, mine operator, and philologist. He was also one of the last great scholars of the Jewish Enlightenment, responsible for authoritative critical editions of the Midrash, a special class of Talmudic literature comprising interpretations of the Bible, wise sayings, and stories.
Buber’s grandmother, Adele, was also a lover of words. A rebel who taught herself to read and write in an era when such things were proscribed for the women of her class, she arranged for young Martin to be tutored at home until he was ten years old. Because the household of Salomon and Adele Buber was one in which many languages were spoken, Martin learned the integrity of the “authentic word,” the word that cannot be paraphrased. The boy, not having many playmates, made a game of creating conversations between people of different languages, imagining what a German would think when talking with a Frenchman, or a Hebrew with an ancient Roman.
When Buber was nine, his father remarried, and the boy began spending summers on his father’s estate. There he developed a love of horses. More important however, he learned to relate to the world in a way that became the basis for his most famous work, I and Thou. He later credited his father, a farmer who knew how to relate directly, one-on-one, both to animals and to his fellows, with teaching him to practice “immediacy.”
At the age of ten, Buber was enrolled in the local Gymnasium, where he studied until he was eighteen. The school was primarily Polish; Jews were the minority. At the school, Christians and Jews alike were obliged to participate in daily devotional exercises. Buber would later recall that he and the other Jewish children would stand through these prayers, head bent, feeling only that the services meant nothing to them. The experience left the man with a lifelong antipathy toward missionary work.
Buber moved from his grandparents’ home into his father’s townhouse at the age of fourteen. At eighteen he finished his studies at the Gymnasium and entered the university.
Buber spent his first year of university study in Vienna, a city of mixed German, Jewish, and Slavic influences. In Vienna, Buber discovered the living theater and became acquainted with many contemporary writers. At the University of Vienna, he studied literature, art history, and philosophy and wanted to become a poet.
In the winter of 1897-1898, the young man studied at the University of Leipzig and in the summer of 1899 at the University of Zurich. His subjects included philosophy, history of art, literary history, psychiatry, Germanics, classical philosophy, and national economy. Buber soon discovered a preference for seminars over lectures. He worked in a psychological seminar and was the only nonmedical student in the physiological institute. He belonged to a number of intellectual and social clubs, including the literary society.
Buber met two people in 1899 who would change his life forever. One of these was Gustav Landauer, a socialist who led and taught a group known as the Neue Gemeinschaft, or New Community. Founded by Heinrich and Julius Hart, the New Community believed in divine, boundless moving upward, as opposed to comfortably settling down. It saw in the ideal future a communal settlement in a new age of beauty, art, and religious dedication. Buber’s relationship with Landauer prompted him to change his major course of study from literature and the history of art to German mysticism.
Even more important than his friendship with Landauer, though, was Buber’s marriage to Paula Winkler, a fellow student in Zurich. One year his senior, Paula was probably his superior intellectually when the two met. That meeting was to have inestimable meaning for Buber, compensating as it did for the “mismeeting,” a word coined by Buber, between his unforgotten mother and himself. Reared as a Roman Catholic, Paula converted to Buber’s faith before the two were wed, giving up her earlier life and family for him. It has been said that the existential trust that underlies I and Thou would not have been possible...
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