In celebration of Jewish Book Month, The Arty Semite is partnering with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and the Jewish Book Council to present “30 Days, 30 Texts,” a series of reflections by community leaders on the books that influenced their Jewish journeys. Today, Jonathan Woocher writes about “I and Thou” by Martin Buber.
Modern thinkers who are Jewish have tended to fall into two groups: those who have had a considerable influence on Jewish life and thought, but little resonance in the wider intellectual world, and those who have had broad impact on modern society and culture, but contributed little to Jewish life. Among the few who have transcended this dichotomy is Martin Buber, the great German-born religious philosopher, Zionist activist, Bible translator and interpreter, and popularizer of Hasidism, who spent the final three decades of his life in Palestine/Israel.
Although I had been aware of Buber from my teen years, it was not until graduate school that I encountered him and his writing in earnest, guided by Professor Maurice Friedman, one of America’s leading Buber scholars and author of a multi-volume biography (which I had the privilege of working on). Buber’s seminal work is, of course, “I and Thou,” the phrase for which he has become famous, first published in 1923. The total corpus of Buber’s work is, however, enormous and wide ranging, much of it scholarly, some of it polemical, nearly all of it devoted in one way or another to articulating a religious humanist philosophy centering around the concept of dialogue as the key to living a life of meaning and purpose.