Since its publication in 1923, I and Thou has become an epoch-making work. This slender volume, perhaps more than any other single work, has helped to mold contemporary theology. For example, the Neoorthodox tradition in recent Protestantism has appropriated in a rather wholesale manner Martin Buber’s “I-Thou encounter,” the “Eternal Subject,” and other features. Although Neoorthodox Protestants reinterpret these concepts from a radical Protestant context, other Christians, such as philosopher Paul Tillich, have developed systems that are in fundamental agreement with Buber’s fuller understanding of these ideas. Perhaps at no other point do liberal and orthodox Christian thinkers find so rich a place of meeting.
For Judaism, on the other hand, Buber’s writings have been a new leaven. It is not true, as some have maintained, that Buber was a rebel from basic Judaism, that he was simply a Jew by birth and an existentialist by conviction. Rather, Buber combined the rich heritage of Judaism, some of it long neglected, with certain insights of contemporary thinking. No other writer has so shaken Judaism from its parochialism and applied it so relevantly to the problems and concerns of contemporary people.
Buber’s writing is often rhapsodic in quality, frustrating the searcher for clear and distinct ideas; his key work has been aptly called a “philosophical-religious poem.” Yet this is as it should be, for Buber is no system builder, but the imparter of a way of life. At its center is a unique type of relation, one universally available and yet almost universally neglected. His task is not so much one of detailed and logical exposition, but one of evoking, eliciting, educing this relation, which is its own proof.