Encountering Martin Buber

This week I re-read my first book on Martin Buber. While still at school, my interest had been stimulated by a chapter in Anne Bancroft's book, 'Modern Mystics and Sages' and one morning in the Heythrop library, now a student, I found Aubrey Hodes' 'Encounter with Martin Buber'. I read it at one sitting fascinated by its blend of personal observation and illuminating discussion of the heart of Buber's thought and practice. These two being intimately related - though Buber, at times, reads abstractedly, nothing could be further from his intention. His words were always intended to be rooted in life and to give direction to life.

He undoubtedly gave Hodes direction. A young kibbutznik Hodes found himself visiting a mentally ill relative in Tel Aviv. He was distressed at each encounter and one day found himself sitting, after such an encounter, outside a house with a still, peaceful presence, with a nameplate that of Buber. A name he knew and some of whose works he had read. Discovering one day a copy of 'The Way of Man according to Hasidism' in a bookshop, and reading it there, and being encouraged by friends to visit Buber, eventually this twenty five year old telephoned the seventy five year old Buber and they met that very afternoon forging what emerged as a deeply satisfying, mutual friendship grounded first in Buber's compassionate listening and quiet advice on how to respond to the continuing person underlying his relative's distress. This helped Hodes forge a deeper bond with her and accompany her on her path to recovery.

The book captures the heart of Buber - a man who was utterly a Jew and yet a universalist. A man who recognised the virtue of belonging and yet denied it the closure of exclusivity. The courageous champion of a people (especially in Germany between 1933-1938) and a prophetic critic of the nation that became Israel. A man for whom life was a hallowing in the sacred rooted in the encounter with God and who was a non-observant Jew delighting in the fact that in the Hebrew tradition, and especially the Bible, there was no word for religion. He described his position as one of a 'believing humanism'.

Hodes is especially good on showing the way in which Buber deeply realised that 'all real living is meeting', that every moment is an opportunity to genuinely greet the world as having value because each and every thing is a subject in its own right, unique in its particularity, and that genuine life is this treating of everything as an end in in itself, even when for practical purposes it too maybe a means, utilitarian, but the end must always come first and last.

And that we are tasked with living this - both everyday and in special moments of test. Hodes tells a beautiful account of realising this when, as a medical orderly in the 1956 war, he defends the life of an elderly Arab, whom he has treated, from young Israeli soldiers on a quest for sport and blood, shaped, as they were, with the scent of victory. Endless, Hodes relates, are the ways he could have justified his handing the man over but each justification would have reduced him, making him smaller, more incomplete. His resistance to this moment of potential evil was a turning point in his own self-evaluation. He was tested and won through in his own particular way.

For me, Hodes book was a gateway into Buber that has always remained open, living with this remarkable man, whose quiet insistence is always probing you to discover yourself. As one of the Hasidic rebbes proclaimed you will not be saved by imitating another, however, exalted, in his case either Abraham or Moses, but by becoming ever more deeply your unique self. God wants a Nicholas, this particular Nicholas as a living, unique being, not simply a copied model.


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