MARTIN BUBER, 87, DIES IN ISRAEL; RENOWNED JEWISH PHILOSOPHER
Special to The New York Times
JERUSALEM (Israeli Sector) June 13--Prof. Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish philosopher and educator, died here today. He was 87 years old.
Professor Buber's health had been failing since he underwent surgery for a broken leg last April. Since his release from the hospital last month he had been confined to bed at his home in the residential quarter of Talbeih.
One of the great thinkers of this century, Dr. Buber had served as a professor at the Hebrew University since his arrival in Palestine in 1938 from his native Austria.
His translation of the Old Testament into German, begun with the late Franz Rosenzweig, is considered by many the best in existence.
Since 1951, when he retired from teaching, he had held the title of professor emeritus of social philosophy at the university. A few weeks ago he received the Freedom of Jerusalem Award, the last of many honors accorded him. Several years ago he was nominated for the Nobel Prize by the late Dag Hammarskjold who rarely failed to visit Dr. Buber when his duties as Secretary General of the United Nations brought him to Jerusalem.
When Dr. Buber died this morning, President Zalman Shazar immediately went to the philosopher's home to present his condolences. Press tributes will not come until tomorrow but the lead item on all the Government-controlled radio and news programs was the death of Professor Buber.
His leading disciple and closest friend and associate, Prof. Shemuel Hugo Bergman, said that with Dr. Buber's death, "humanity has lost one of its greatest sons, Jewry has lost its greatest son and Israel has lost her living conscience."
Professor Buber is survived by two children and several grandchildren.
Views Affected Christianity
Martin Buber was a religious philosopher whose views on human and divine relationships had a fertilizing effect on the Christian world.
His philosophy of personalism was an amalgam of religious mysticism, Old Testament inspiration, modern psychology and earthy common sense. It contended that man could achieve an intimate relationship with God through an intimate interrelationship with his fellow man, and that each man's relationship with God and a fellow man was distinct.
He strove for a "a dialogue," between man and God with man as "I" and God as "Thou." This concept was developed in his major philosophical work, "I and Thou."
Professor Buber's views influenced Protestant theologians. He impressed Reinhold Niebuhr as "the greatest living Jewish philosopher," and he was an inspiration in Dr. Niebuhr's thinking as well as in that of Paul Tillich, another leading Protestant theologian.
By his emphasis on dialogue, Professor Buber was regarded as a pioneer bridge builder between Judaism and Christianity. His views accented the non-formal aspects of religion as opposed to theological systems.
Saw Religion as Experience
Religion for Professor Buber was experience, not dogma. He doubted that man was made to conform with canon law, or with elaborately worked out plans for existence. On the contrary, Professor Buber's credo stressed individual responsibility.
A story that was told to illustrate this point concerned an aged pious man, Rabbi Susya, who became fearful as death drew near. His friends chided him, "What! Are you afraid that you'll be reproached that you weren't Moses?" "No," the rabbi replied, "that I was not Susya."
The responsibility to be oneself means, in Professor Buber's view, that there is no rigid fate; that man can improve his chances for happiness.
In fact, according to Professor Buber, man has an obligation to achieve an identity by refusing to abdicate his will before the monolithic power of party, corporation or state.
Professor Buber pointed to the duality of things--love and justice, freedom and order, good and evil: but he did not suggest a happy middle way between them.
Contraries Held Inseparable
"According to the logical conception of truth," he once explained, "only one of two contraries can be true, but in the reality of life as one lives it they are inseparable.
"I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the 'narrow ridge.' I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow, rocky ridge between the gulfs, where there is only the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed."
Professor Buber suggested two forms of relationships for man--an I-It relationship and an I- Thou. The first is impersonal and imperfect.
An example of the I-It relationship would be where one person treats another as a machine, or when lovers find only a projection of themselves in each other.
In religious matters, the I-It is expressed when man abstracts God, or regards Him as out of reach, or builds theological systems in which God is remote, or considers God too vast. Professor Buber, however, did not deny that God was the great mystery of the Old Testament, but he insisted that He was also personal.
Paradox of God Noted
"Of course," Professor Buber wrote, "He [God] is the Mysterium Tremendum that appears and overthrows, but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I."
The I-Thou of Professor Buber's thinking stands for the kind of dialogue--love or even hate--in which two persons face and accept each other as truly human. There is in such a dialogue, he argued, a fusion of choosing and being chosen, of action and reaction, that engages man's highest qualities.
I-Thou meetings, he explained, are "strange, lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes. . .shattering security."
The I-Thou relationship, because it does away with pretension, permits man to meet with himself, Professor Buber said. And, ultimately, it brings man into contact with God, whom Professor Buber called the "Eternal Thou."
This supreme confrontation has been described by Prof. Maurice S. Friedman of Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y., one of the leading interpreters of Buberism. It is "perhaps best understood," Dr. Freidman wrote in his "Martin Buber, the Life of Dialogue," "from the nature of the demand which one person makes on another if the two of them really meet. If you are to meet me, you must become as much of a person as I am. In order to remain open to God [man] must change his whole being."
Ideal Social Unit Like Kibbutz
Believing that man's earthly chore is to realize his distinctiveness through the dialogue process, Professor Buber opposed both rigid individualism and collectivism. His social ideal was a small community unit somewhat like the kibbutzim of rural Israel.
Professor Buber also looked at Scripture in a special way. The Bible, in his view, was neither an infallible guide to conduct nor a mere collection of legends, but a dialogue between Israel as Thou and God as I.
Because of this interpretation and because Professor Buber was casual in his observance of Talmudic law, many Orthodox rabbis looked upon him as a heretic. As for Reform Jews, some of them also criticized Professor Buber because they thought he had made too much of the metaphysical Hasidic sect, from which he drew many of his ideas.
Many Jews also were dismayed by the application that Professor Buber made of his beliefs in calling for an improvement of Arab-Israeli relations. This attitude rested on Professor Buber's assertion that "the love of God is unreal unless it is crowned with love for one's fellow men."
He Was Small and Bearded
Professor Buber was a short plump man with a large paunch. He was bald with a fringe of hair that hung down to meet the luxurious growth of mustache and beard that concealed the lower part of his face.
He lived in an old Arab stone house with red tile roof and garden in the section of Jerusalem that before Israel's independence was the quarter of the wealthy Arab merchants.
Dr. Buber's house had belonged to an Arab Christian family who left Jerusalem shortly before the war broke out in 1948.
He lived simply in the house. His study and bedroom were on the ground floor. The furniture was old and dark and heavy and looked as if it had been brought from Vienna. The house was filled with books.
He lived with his granddaughter, Barbara Goldschmitt, who served as his housekeeper. His secretary was often there but did not live in the house.
For several years Dr. Buber had not been active outside his home because of periodic spells of illness and advancing age. But he loved to have visitors and to talk endlessly. When a caller phoned he would hear a click and then a quick sharp one word response: "Buber."
Received in Shirt Sleeves
When receiving visitors in his study, Dr. Buber would be without tie, in shirt sleeves and slippers behind his desk. He did not like general questions and frequently prompted his questioner with "be specific."
He got angry with anyone who tried to ask him personal anecdotal questions, insisting that his personal life was just that.
In conversation he would rest his interlocked fingers on his paunch and then move them to his forehead as he considered his response. He weighted every word and when he finally answered it would be in a very slow low voice that seemed tinged with melancholy.
Professor Buber gave up lecturing at the Hebrew University in 1951, when he ended his active life as an educator. However it is recalled that some of his lectures on philosophy were reminiscent of the atmosphere that might have distinguished the Socratic dialogues. On other occasions, while lecturing, he showed the zeal and earnestness, even veneration, with which Hasidic students are said to follow the words and teachings of their rabbi.
On his 85th birthday in 1963, about 300 students of the university staged a torchlight parade to the philosopher's house to pay homage to him. They swarmed into his garden and in the darkness illuminated by the flames he walked out onto his veranda, his face wreathed in smiles, deeply appreciative of the gesture.
The students sang to him and he talked briefly to them as they listened in silence, and then they all went into his house for cookies and soft drinks.
Six months later, Professor Buber flew to Amsterdam to accept one of Europe's highest prizes, the $28,000 Erasmus Award, presented to persons who have contributed to the spiritual unity of Europe.
Previous winners included Karl Jaspers, the philosopher, and Marc Chagall, the painter.
Born in Vienna in 1878
Martin Buber was born in Vienna Feb. 8, 1878, of middle-class parents who were divorced when he was 3 years old. He spent much of his childhood in Lemberg, Galicia, [now Lvov, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic] with his grandfather Salomon Buber, a well-known Hebrew scholar.
While studying the Talmud with his grandfather, he also read poetry and novels and occasionally visited neighboring towns where he met Hasidic rabbis--holy men who could lead a community united by its love of God and its veneration for a wise man.
When he was 13 he began a drift away from formal Judaism. This was symbolized by his offering a bar mitzvah synagogue talk on Schiller, the dramatist, rather than on a scriptural subject. Later he gave up the daily prayer ritual, but not without misgivings that almost led him to suicide because of what he said later was "a mysterious and overwhelming compulsion" to visualize the "limiting brink of time--or its limitlessness."
He was rescued, he said, by reading Immanuel Kant and perceiving, as a result, "an eternal far removed from the finite and the infinite."
He entered the University of Vienna at 17 and studied philosophy and the history of art there and at the Universities of Berlin, Zurich and Leipzig. He received a Ph. D. from Vienna in 1904, but he did not use the title.
It was at the University of Leipzig, in 1900, that the scholar was caught up by Theodor Herzl's Zionism, in which he found not only a political movement that suited him but also a religious idea that helped to resolve his spiritual confusion.
Edited Zionist Journal
In 1901 he came editor of Die Welt, the Zionist journal, and the following year he helped to found Judischer Verlag, a Jewish publishing house.
One of the writers for Die Welt was Paula Winkler, a brilliant, aristocratic Roman Catholic. She subsequently was married to Professor Buber, converting to Judaism, and remained at his side until her death in 1958. In her own right, Mrs. Buber was a novelist under the name Georg Munk.
Meanwhile, there was a split in Zionism. Professor Buber was one of those who believed that a spiritual revival was more urgent than political nationhood. Mr. Herzl favored a political solution. In the course of the division, Professor Buber dropped out of active Zionism and retired into solitude for five years.
He passed that time in remote Jewish villages in what was then Galicia (now Poland) living among the Hasidim and studying their literature and their zaddickim, or holy men.
Joy Impressed Him
At the time, this grass-roots Judaism was considered as bordering on the occult, but Professor Buber found in Hasidism an experience of direct communion with the Divine. He was also impressed by the joy--the ecstatic dance and the wordless song--with which they worshipped.
The Hasidic folklore, in its simplicity, was profound, he believed.
Returning from his retreat among the Hasidim, Professor Buber was active in Jewish journalism, editing from 1916 to 1924 Der Jude, a periodical of the German Jews. From 1926 to 1930, in concert with a Catholic and a Protestant, he edited the journal, Die Kreatur.
At the same time he was professor of comparative religion at the University of Frankfurt, from 1923 to 1933. When the Nazis excluded Jewish students from institutions of higher learning in 1933, Professor Buber helped to set up adult education classes for them.
Dr. Buber was dismissed from his professorship. He spoke out, however, once lecturing on "The Power of the Spirit" in Berlin, although he knew that 200 SS (elite guard) men were in the audience. Utterly silenced in 1938, he went to Palestine, where he was professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University until his retirement in 1951.
Professor Buber was a prodigious writer. More than 700 books and papers by him are listed in one "selected" bibliography. Many of them deal with aspects of the I-Thou philosophy. He was also a translator of renown.
In Israel, Professor Buber was not a conformist. For example, he opposed the execution of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi put to death by Israel for crimes against the Jews.
"For such crimes," he said at the time, "there is no penalty." He took the position that where the imagination cannot envision a suitable penalty for such horrendous crimes as Eichmann's, a death penalty was meaningless.
Professor Buber visited the United States in 1951. The lectures he delivered here were later published as "Eclipse of God" and "At the Turning." He received the Universal Brotherhood award from the Union Theological Seminary and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.