Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal ArtsNomina
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism
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This short man, who wore a thick beard from his youth to hide a cosmetic defect on his face, spoke 12 languages and learned a considerable part of them, just by actively communicating in the city, where he spent his childhood – they were in use there, and almost all people understood them.

At the upper education school, he studied in Polish; at his grandfather’s house they spoke German, and the same language was used to communicate with the officialdom; his relatives spoke Yiddish; Hebrew sounded at the synagogue and Jewish religious schools; and many people spoke Ukrainian – and all of them let others be.

In this city, his grandfather Solomon was a prominent figure: the head of a number of charity organizations and the city’s Jewish congregation, the vice-president of the soup kitchen for the poor, the inspector of the city’s national banks, et cetera, et cetera. 

World theology remembers his grandfather as a famous Jewish philosopher, exegete of the Talmud, and a major specialist in the textual studies of medieval rabbinical literature. And Solomon Buber called himself a “Pole of the Mosaic Law”, and not a Jew – this seemed more accurate to him.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism





This city was Lviv, and then it was called Lemberg – a notable center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where languages and cultures of this multilingual state interacted without conflict and freely, and the inhabitants belonged to a wide variety of peoples – including Jews.

Now people cannot even believe in it at once: the turbulent and cruel last century has changed a lot in the city, and not everything is for the better. Poles were exchanged, Jews were killed, Germans were hounded out – the current percentage of the Jewish population according to the last census is 0.3%, and 0.9% for the Poles. Almost next to nothing…

But then the venerable Talmudist got a problem: his son living in Vienna broke up with his wife (it is not clear what happened to her later – her track was lost). And the father brought his three-year-old grandson to his grandparents for upbringing. They called him Mordecai, and then they began to call him Martin…

Grandfather Solomon and grandmother Adele raised their grandson with due diligence, trying to give him the best education. Until the age of ten, Martin was taught at home – by his grandmother and private tutors. Then he entered the Franz Joseph upper secondary school in Lviv, one of the best schools of this level in the city.

They also gave him a religious education befitting a Jewish child at that time. Grandfather and grandmother read the Talmud and Kabbalah to him. At the age of thirteen, he underwent a bar mitzvah ceremony, which meant the onset of religious adulthood for a Jewish youth.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism
Lviv synagogue. Source: wikipedia.org

At the age of 14, Martin left his grandparents and returned to his father. Then he was sure that he would become a writer. At the age of 16, he already wrote his first work – the poetic drama Song and Life. In general, the list of his works includes 61 titles – and these are only large ones.



When his school years ended, he first entered the University of Vienna to study philosophy and art history and then continued his studies at the University of Berlin. He also studied at the universities of Zurich and Leipzig – so he knew all about it.

The topic that attracted many Jewish youth at that time was the newly emerging Zionism – a political movement whose goal was to unite and revive the Jewish people in their historical homeland. It became of interest for Martin Buber as well.

Already in 1899, he was elected a delegate to the 3rd Zionist Congress. In 1901, he became editor of the movement’s central body, the Die Welt weekly, in which he advocated the need to renew the Jewish culture. But he was not an ordinary Zionist.

His disagreements with the leader of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, were quite serious. At the 5th Zionist Congress, he joined a group being in opposition to Herzl, which attached more importance to cultural activities than the political struggle, and resigned from the editor’s post.

In general, for a national movement like Zionism, Buber was a non-standard participant. He condemned all nationalism and called for the creation of a Jewish state in which solidarity would be established between Arabs and Jews. It was considered difficult – and for good reason…

The views of the Jewish philosopher were also shared by his close friend – a famous chemist, the future first president of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. They gathered a small group of like-minded people who called on the German-speaking countries to revive the Jewish culture.




Meanwhile, Buber got married with a German from Tyrol, Paula Winkler, a lively and sociable girl who, having become his wife, converted to Judaism. This marriage turned out to be very successful and brought the spouses happiness, strong mutually supportive relationship, and two children – son Raphael and daughter Eva.

At the age of 26, Buber began a serious study of such a variety of Judaism as Hasidism – its mystical and even poetic branch, based not on book knowledge, but on personal feelings and experiences. He showed interest in Hasidism even back in Lviv, in his early youth years.

His retellings of Hasidic stories, such as The Legend Of The Baal-Shem or The Tales Of Rabbi Nachman, made him famous and provided an enthusiastic audience, primarily among Christians. In general, Buber’s contacts with the Jewish religion were rather complicated and not always peaceful.

During the First World War, he lived in Germany – first in Berlin, then in Munich. In 1916, he founded the monthly magazine Der Jude (The Jew), which, during its eight years of existence, became an important platform for Jewish spiritual revival in the Middle Empires.

However, the end of the war was not the end of the tragic events. Buber’s friend Gustav Landauer, who served as Minister of Education in the revolutionary government of Bavaria, was arrested after the suppression of the revolution and beaten to death. Buber grieved heavily at the death of his friend.




In the Zionist movement, he continues to position himself as a Zionist committed to utopian socialism. In 1921, Buber issued a call for “peace and brotherhood with the Arab people” and for the free development of the Jewish and Arab peoples “in a common homeland”.

His philosophical works continue to be published, and in 1923 there was a publication of his work, considered by many to be his main achievement – I and Thou. It was written with agitated, almost prophetic pathos – its style was clearly influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

In this work, Buber contrasts the “I – Thou” and “I – It” relationship, where the former is a love “dialogue”, a living interpersonal relationship, and the latter is an everyday utilitarian relationship that corresponds to Aristotelian logic, showing the difference between them.

These two types of relationship, according to Buber’s concept, give rise to two opposite images of the world; a person cannot constantly be in the state of “I – Thou relationship”, but “the one who lives only It is not a person”. His thoughts deserve a separate acquaintance, more detailed than is possible in a short essay.




After the war, he became a professor of Judaism philosophy and ethics at the University of Frankfurt, giving a lot of lectures on the Arab-Jewish binational state. His life has become more academic and orderly, and he has a house in the village of Heppenheim.

He developed a friendly relationship with Albert Einstein: they corresponded for decades and met quite often. Relations with Mahatma Gandhi were more complicated: they both sincerely honored each other, but argued very harshly in the press about the future of Palestine and India.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism
Albert Einstein. Source: es-us.glbnews.com

Another outstanding affair, which many consider his main achievement, was undertaken by him together with the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. They decided to re-translate the Bible into German, although the canonical translation at that time was made by Martin Luther himself.

Buber’s guiding idea was to show the oral nature of the Bible, which for a long time was meant not for the reader but for the listener. It is believed that he managed to convey the impression of the original Ancient Hebrew text through his choice of words, sentence structure, and rhythm.

The first volumes of the new translation appeared in 1925. Then the work became more difficult – Rosenzweig fell ill seriously. He lost the ability to speak, but dictated to Buber with the help of signs specially designed by them. When he was completely paralyzed, he dictated with the help of his eyes.

After the death of Rosenzweig, their work was interrupted for a long time, but later, in many years, Buber continued it and completed it in 1961. It is often argued that this is the best translation of the Bible into German. It’s not just a story, but a living speech.




Meanwhile, the color of time has changed – the Nazis came to power in Germany. Surprisingly, Buber tried to work in Nazi Germany for quite a long time without resorting to emigration. Obviously, he believed that in difficult times he was more needed by his homelanders.

Very quickly, a Nazi SA (Sturmabteilung – Stormtroopers) officer came to him and announced that now special plates would be placed on all Jewish houses for their boycott. He proposed Buber to choose what to write on the plate: those that were available – “Jewish doctor”, “Jewish lawyer”, and so on – were a bad match.

“What would you like to see on your window, Herr Professor?” the officer asked. Buber replied that he did not care. The officer looked around, saw a huge library, pulled out a completely clean tablet and wrote “The Jewish bookman” on it by himself. So they settled on it.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism
Martin Buber’s house in Heppenheim (Germany). Source: wikipedia.org

In 1933, he became director of the Center for Jewish Adult Education, which was established after Jews had been banned from studying at German universities. At first, the Nazis stood clear of him. But his house was placed under surveillance. However, it could have been much worse…

In 1934, Buber gave a lecture The Power of the Spirit at the Berlin Philharmonic, where he said that the religious spirit can compete with lower, primitive forces that seem invincible. The Nazis realized what he was talking about and forbade him to lecture.

In 1938, the Buber family traveled to Switzerland, intending to return home. But they were warned that the situation was about to become really dangerous. The Bubers out-migrated to Palestine, and did that at the very right time: on November 9, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) broke out, and pogroms began.


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They settled in Jerusalem, where Buber soon became a professor of philosophy at the newly-established Jewish University in Jerusalem. “The air of this country,” Buber said, “makes us wiser. For me it is an amazing gift; the power gives rise to new impressions”.

With the aim of solving the Arab-Jewish problem, Buber and his supporters created the Association for Arab-Jewish Rapprochement called Ichud (Covenant of Peace). The organization advocated friendship with Arabs and even put forward the idea of creating an Arab-Jewish binational state.

The honesty and goodwill of the Ichud participants did not raise doubts, but its activities did not have any significant impact on the political situation in the country. The main reason for this was the lack of a serious response from the Arab side.

After the war, Buber became a member of a special commission in which he advocated the free entry of Jews into Palestine and the possibility for them to get a territory where they could live and work. In 1948, the state of Israel was created – through the efforts of many, including his.




In 1953 Buber arrived in Germany to receive the German Peace Prize. His speech Sincere Dialogue and the Possibilities of Peace, in the presence of the President and Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, created a furor in Germany, which was being reborn from the post-war devastation – both physical and moral.

Buber said in it that he hears the voices of those who understood what was happening and condemned these atrocities or, unable to resist them, took their own lives. That he sees these people in front of him, and respect and love for them fill his heart. It was not easy to say that then and there…

Defending his views, he went into conflict with President Ben-Gurion when the Nazi criminal Eichmann was executed. He believed that the latter should be tried by an international court and sentenced to life imprisonment, because the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applies to countries as well.

He was engaged in a lot of works, being published frequently and giving lectures all over the world. He was recognized as the spiritual leader of the time, who through his works influenced the worldview of both the Jews and the Christian world. In 1960-62, he was the first President of the Israeli Academy of Sciences.




He did not receive a Nobel Prize, but he was nominated ten times for the Nobel Peace Prize and seven times for the Nobel Prize in Literature – and that is a record! It is believed that if it had not been for the death of the UN Secretary General Hammarskjöld, who greatly respected him, in a plane crash, he would have received the Peace Prize.

However, he was never short of other prizes. In addition to the above-mentioned German prize, in 1963 he got the prestigious Erasmus Prize – an award to people or institutions that have made a significant contribution to European culture, social life, and social sciences.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Martin Buber from a family of Galician Jews – one of the theorists of Zionism
From left to right: Princess Beatrix, Prince Bernard, Martin Buber, and Queen Juliana. Amsterdam, 1963. Source: wikipedia.org

His last lifetime award was the Order for the Freedom of Jerusalem, presented to him in 1965. Unfortunately, he got it while already being seriously ill – he broke his leg and lay in bed. Two weeks after receiving the Order, Martin Buber departed out of this world.




The significance of his works is emphasized by the fact that even today they are spoken about, discussed, and argued with. His numerous scientific papers, a brilliant translation of the Bible, and even a number of schools of psychoanalysis, which is now quite fashionable, are largely based on Buber’s concepts and are also of great relevance.

Not everyone admires his figure and his activities. For example, the Israeli scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz sharply criticized him, calling him “a Jewish theologian for non-Jews”, and even a “ladies’ philosopher”. But too many famous and talented people disagree with that.

For example, the Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse said about him: “In my opinion, this is not only one of the few wise people living on earth today, but also a writer of a very high level, and, moreover… he has enriched world literature with a brilliant contribution – Hasidic legends”.

Many Christian theologians, including the character in our column, Berdyaev, wrote about Buber’s significant contribution to their writings. Even Pope John Paul II had repeatedly said that his worldview was also formed, in particular, under the influence of the doctrines of Martin Buber.

In a recently published article about Buber, the author quotes The New York Times as saying what a loss it was, and asks: “What have we, Lviv residents, lost? Maybe nothing special. Unless, as always, memory”. It’s sad, but don’t be downhearted – it’s fixable.

There is no Buber’s street in the city of his childhood, but there is one in Jerusalem. And we will smile and wait: Buber was once asked how he relates to Freud’s words, that the meaning of life is work and love. Buber chuckled and said that the statement was good, but he would add: work, love, faith, and humor…

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