Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College



An Introduction to Martin Buber

If you want to understand Martin Buber's philosophy, there are basically three routes you could take, three of his writings to which you could turn. Each of these three writings is, if all its elements and implications were understood thoroughly, a full, adequate, and rich description of virtually every one of the main themes in his thought.

The first of the three sources to which you could turn is his most famous and most influential book, I and Thou (Ich und Du- The "Du" in the title is the familiar form of "you" in German, the form of address you would use only with intimates and beloveds). The second source is his small The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism, and the third is his account of a recurring dream that frequently came to him.

A few words on each of these sources, and then a comment about how to read.

1. If you learn about Buber's life (born, raised, and lived in central Europe during the decades that saw the rise of the Nazi movement), you will see how much his life experience influenced and shaped his whole philosophy. He had been a professor of religion and philosophy and had both taught and written books about religious experience and mysticism. And then sometime in the middle decades of his life he had an experience that had an enormous impact on him. The experience was this:

He had been upstairs in his rooms meditating and praying one morning, fully engaged in deeply religious intensity, when there was a knock at his front door downstairs. He was taken out of his spiritual moment and went down to see who was at the door. It was a young man who had been a student and a friend, and who had come specifically to speak with Buber.

Buber was polite with the young man, even friendly, but was also hoping to soon get back to his meditations. The two spoke for a short time and then the young man left. Buber never saw him again because the young man was killed in battle (or perhaps committed suicide, the story is not entirely clear). Later, Buber learned from a mutual friend that the young man had come to him that day in need of basic affirmation, had come with a need to understand his life and what it was asking of him. Buber had not recognized the young man's need at the time because he had been concerned to get back upstairs to his prayers and meditation. He had been polite and friendly, he says, even cordial, but had not been fully present. He had not been present in the way that one person can be present with another, in such a way that you sense the questions and concerns of the other even before they themselves are aware of what their questions are. "Ever since then," says Buber "I have given up the sacred. Or rather it has given me up. I know now no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness" of presence and mystery. The Mystery, he says, was no longer "out there" for him, but was instead to be found in the present moment with the present person, in the present world. (Between Man and Man, p13 f. ‘It was in the late autumn of 1914, and he died in the war,’ wrote Buber to Maurice Friedman on August 8, 1954.)

He no longer sought The Mystery "out there," but instead found it disclosed in the sacrament of the present moment.

Another person might have seen in this experience only a reminder to listen to your friends more, or to wake up and smell the roses, but Buber saw in it much more. It led him to a major life change and to an ethic, a metaphysic, and a theology, that brought him to see the world completely differently than he had seen it before.

He articulated much of this worldview in I and Thou, a profoundly beautiful work that has had an enormous impact on the lives it has touched. It has become perhaps one of the most influential books of this entire century. Its influence has been felt in disciplines as diverse as poetry and physics, theology and biology, philosophy and psychology. It is not an easy book to understand, partly because it puts a demand on the reader to read it in a certain way (see below), but it richly rewards the reader's efforts. When colleagues and I have assigned this book in our courses, students often find it among the most powerful books they have ever read. (The only worthy English translation is the one by Walter Kauffmann.)

2. Years later Buber wrote The Way of Man, a 40 page re-telling of six short Hasidic tales, and an exegesis of the meanings and implications of those tales.

This book is always a favorite among those who spend time with it, but it might almost be called "deceptively simple." A person could read it through and think they have understood it fully, when in fact they have discovered only one or two dimensions of its message. Everything that is in I and Thou is also implicit in The Way of Man, but it is in there in a much more compressed form. I and Thou is compact too, but The Way of Man is much more compact, yet still rich and pregnant with meaning. It almost demands that you read it again and again, and I couldn't guess the number of students who have told me, years after having first read the book in a class, that they have gone back again and again to re-read the wisdom in that little book.

3. And if The Way of Man is short, deceptively simple and heavy with meaning, the recurring dream that frequently came to Buber is even more so. His description of this dream is only one page long, but for those who have a good understanding of how dreams sometimes speak the deeper language of the heart and spirit, this dream is a rich and powerful one indeed. And the fact that it recurred to Buber several times is itself significant. Recurrent dreams are often, according to Carl Jung, our soul's (or God's?) attempt to tell us something extremely important about our deepest well-being, and they have to recur because we are so resistant to hearing whatever the message is that they are trying to teach us. So Buber saw this dream as a particularly significant one. (It's short, so I've copied it for you. Click here to see his description of the dream.)

Another lesson a person might also learn from Martin Buber is what real reading is like. Here's how Walter Kauffmann says it in the introduction to his translation of I and Thou:

Among the most important things that one can learn from Buber is how to read....

Modern man is a voracious reader who has never learned to read well. Part of the trouble is that he is taught to read drivel that is hardly worth reading well....

One ends up by reading mainly newspapers and magazines - ephemeral, anonymous trash that one scans on its way to the garbage can. One has no wish to remember it for any length of time; it is written as if to make sure that one won't; and one reads it in a manner that makes doubly sure that one won't....

In adolescence students are suddenly turned loose on books worth reading, but generally don't know how to read them....

We must learn to feel addressed by a book, by the human being behind it, as if a person spoke directly to us. A good book or essay or poem is not primarily an object to be put to use, or an object of experience: it is the voice of You speaking to me, requiring a response.

How many people read Buber or Kierkegaard that way? Nietzsche or Hegel? Tolstoy or Euripides? Or the Bible? Rather, how few do? But Buber himself wants to be read that way."


I hope you find reading The Way of Man to be as valuable as others have found it. You may want to read it in solitude so that you can spend time with it, almost as if you were having a conversation with Buber himself. He is, after all, speaking to us through the medium of this book. Or you may at some point wish to read it aloud to another person or two so that they too can enjoy and appreciate it.

A few years ago I was invited to conduct a weekend retreat for the leaders of three combined Catholic parishes in northwest Washington. The focus of the entire three-day retreat was this little book. We read each chapter aloud, individually wrote out responses to some personal reflection questions, and then shared our insights in small reflection groups. The retreat was a valuable one for all of us, primarily because the teachings of Martin Buber were its soul and focal point.

A slow reading of this book may turn out to be a kind of retreat for you as well.