LEV SHESTOV \ Speculation and Revelation

Martin Buber


Published in Put, no. 39 (June 1933)


     Martin Buber is one of the rare thinkers to whom that most intense seriousness of spiritual searching about which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have told us belongs. In Buber's case, his thinking is not an interesting pastime and not even a service of culture or society. The same may be said of his writings. He lives in his thoughts; in his writings, he actualizes his life. And if, in regard to Buber, we recall his "service," we realize that it is service of a unique kind. Not without reason has he assumed the colossal and, for modern man,virtually impossible task: a translation of the Bible into German. It required his unreserved passion ("unreservedness" is Dostoevsky's, "passion," Kierkegaard's favorite word; Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were, in Buber's opinion, the greatest men of the nineteenth century) to dare to reconstruct, in our contemporary language, the spiritual searchings and discoveries of those distant times when it was not men who brought forth the truth but the truth that revealed itself to men. An almost unrealizable task: for how can we, who are permeated to the very marrow of our bones with the conviction that truth can live only in clear and distinct judgments, express in our language, which has been formed in accordance with this conviction, what men who had still not forfeited the capacity to come into contact with the mysterious saw and heard?

     And yet, according to the nearly unanimous opinion of the most prominent experts, Buber's translation of the Bible has been a brilliant success. No doubt its success is to be explained simply by the fact that he, as Lermontov put it, knew only the power of that thought which is kindled by flaming passion. I think I am not mistaken in saying that all his works - even those that at first glance seem, by their title or theme, to have nothing in common with the Bible - are ultimately only commentaries on and interpretations of this enigmatic book. Not only his Die Chassidischen Bücher (The Hasidic Books) or his Königtum Gottes (The Kingdom of God), which, as the author himself relates in the preface, resulted from an attempt to write a commentary on Holy Scripture, but also the brief address delivered at the Third International Pedagogical Congress at Heidelberg on the subject "On the Development of the Child's Creative Powers," are nothing but reflections, expressed in different forms, on the mystery of the Eternal Book.

     This is what he writes in one of the introductions to his Chassidischen Bücher: "Sparks of the primordial being, the brilliant Adam Kadmon ("Primal Man"), who found himself directly in the presence of God, fell into the prison of things after the light plunged from the higher into the lower spheres and exploded. God's Shechinah ("Indwelling Presence") descended from one sphere to another, wandered from one world to another, banished itself into one shell after another, until it reached the extremity of its exile: ourselves. In our world the destiny of God is fulfilled." (p. 346, italics mine - L.S.)

     Here is another passage from Die Chassidischen Bücher in which the same thought is expressed with even greater energy and force: "In other doctrines the divine soul, sent or assigned from heaven to earth, can be called home again by heaven and released; creation as well as redemption may follow the same direction - from 'above' to 'below.' But this is not so for a teaching that, like the Jewish, was based entirely on the reciprocal relationship between the human 'I' and the divine 'Thou,' on the reality of this reciprocal relationship, on the encounter. In this doctrine, man - this pathetic creature - is, for all eternity, God's helper. It is for his sake - for the sake of 'him who chooses,' who is able to choose God - that the world was created. Its external shells exist so that he may penetrate through them to the kernel. The spheres are separated from each other in order that he may bring them together again. Creation waits for him. God Himself waits for him. From him, from 'below,' must come the impulse to redemption. Grace is God's answer." (p. 347)

     In his postscript to this work, entitled "My Way to Hasidism," Buber quotes the following words from the testament of the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem: "He (man) takes unto himself the quality of fervor. He rouses himself from his sleep with fervor, for holiness is imparted to him and he becomes a different man and is worthy to create and is become like the Holy One Blessed Be He, when He created His world" (p. 665). To this Buber adds his own words: "It was here that I, instantaneously overpowered, experienced the Hasidic soul. The primordially Jewish opened to me, having flowered in the darkness of exile to newly conscious expression: man's having been made in the image of God understood as deed, as becoming, as task. And this primordially Jewish was primordially human, the content of human religiousness" (p. 665).

     But while Die Chassidischen Bücher are directly connected with the teaching of Hasidism and the Bible, his other works - for example, Ich und Du (I and Thou) or Zwiesprache (Dialogue) - seem at first glance to have no connection either with the Bible or Hasidism. Here it appears as if a man wished to share with us only what he had himself lived through, as if he sought to set down in words only his personal, individual experience. In the epilogue to Zwiesprache Buber says that this book is only a supplement to Ich und Du published several years earlier and assures us that it will be comprehensible even to those who have not read Ich and Du. But in such cases the author's opinion cannot always be regarded as decisive. The opposite, rather: here the last word belongs not to the author but to the reader. And I believe that every reader will affirm the contrary: the meaning and significance of Zwiesprache can be grasped only by one who already knows Ich und Du. Even more: to understand the problem that Buber set for himself, it is essential to familiarize oneself with his other works - especially Die Chassidischen Bücher.

     This may be comprehensible from what I have said previously about Buber's relationship to Hasidism and the Bible. I repeat once more that both in Ich und Du and in Zwiesprache scarcely anything is said either about the Bible or Hasidism. And yet, though invisible, they are present in these books. The very title of the book Ich und Du, as we recall, was discovered by Buber in the Bible. The words meeting" and "relationship," so characteristic of these books, were suggested to Buber by his researches into the realms of Hasidism. The word "unreservedness" also derives from the depths of the Hasidic soul. Nevertheless, it may be assumed that it is not by chance that Buber avoids speaking of the Bible and Hasidism in these books. If all appearances do not deceive us, Buber set himself the task of purifying Jewish teaching of all the elements of the "fantastic" that cling to it, while at the same time preserving all the power and tension of Jewish searching, or speculative, thought. In the Bible, stories of miracles are constantly related and Hasidism is so intimately associated with the legendary that it is commonly believed that nothing would remain of either of them if they were purged of their "fantastic" element. Buber, it seems, deliberately desires to prove that this is not the case, that it is possible to be a believing, faithful Jew and a convinced Hasid without condemning oneself to the sacrificium intellectus that is necessarily presupposed in anyone who speaks seriously of miracles. It must be acknowledged that Buber has fulfilled this task brilliantly. In his books Ich und Du and Zwiesprache a tremendous tension of the spirit is felt, no less than in the meditations of the tzaddikim that he has collected in the section of his Die Chassidischen Bücher entitled "The Hidden Light." In them the major themes of Hasidism - although in a different and personal form - are preserved.

     The first chapter of Zwiesprache leads us immediately into that atmosphere of passionate struggle in which Buber's soul always dwells. He tells us of a certain call (Ruf) that he has heard in his dreams for many years. The account ends with these words: "I received it (the answer) as perfectly into my perception as ever I received the echo in one of the earlier dreams. If I were required to report wherewith I perceived it, I should have to say: with all the pores of my body. As ever the echo (came) in one of the earlier dreams, this one corresponded to and answered (my call). It exceeded the earlier echo in an unknown, difficult to characterize perfection, consisting just in the fact that it was already there. When I finished receiving it, I felt again - pealing out more than ever - that certainty: now it has happened" (Zwiesprache, p. 12). In this "now it has happened" lies the whole meaning of dialogue, and at the same time the whole meaning of Buber's life. As he himself explains further on, this "now it has happened," this so difficult to describe event in the inner life of man, is precisely the beginning and at the same time also the end of that path which leads us from the "I" to the "Thou." "He (the man) will be able to tell no one, not even himself, what he has experienced. What does he 'know' now of the other? No further knowing is required. For where unreservedness has ruled, even though wordlessly, between men, the dialogical word has happened sacramentally" (ibid., p. 15).

     Reading these lines, one might think that Buber intends to carry us off into those abstract spheres of sublimity that man is able to penetrate only in rare and extraordinary moments of his existence. But the very next pages show us that Buber has not been unfaithful to the fundamental thesis of Hasidism. In the chapter entitled "A Conversion" he tells with that simplicity which to many, perhaps, will appear not altogether appropriate to the importance and weight of the subject under discussion how he came to the conviction that the essence of religion does not consist in a mood of enthusiasm occurring in an isolated moment of our life, but rather in our readiness and capacity to seek, to find and to "free" the sparks of divinity in "the everyday" in that which occurs everywhere and at all times and with which people are always busy. I think this short chapter can serve as an explanation both of the path Buber has followed and the results he has attained. Already in his Ich und Du, which appeared almost ten years before Zwiesprache, an attentive reader could recognize the motifs by which all of Buber's work is inspired. Die Chassidischen Bücher also provides us with sufficient material in this respect.

     For Buber, as well as for the Hasidim and all those through whose mouth the mysterious Creator of the universe speaks in the Bible, nothing is more hateful and unacceptable than the impersonal Es (It) that rules in the so-called real world - no matter how dressed up and adorned with the flowers and colors of present-day culture it may be. "The meeting experiences of primitive man were certainly not tame or pleasant; but better violence against a being that is really lived than ghostly concern for faceless numbers! From the former a way leads to God, from the latter only one to nothingness" (Ich und Du, p. 32). For this reason the absorption into the One, of which the mystics speak, also does not satisfy him. I know well - he says - from personal, unforgettable experience, that there are spiritual states in which the chains of individual existence seem, as it were, to have fallen away from us, and we live and experience the indivisible Unity. But he does not believe - though the human soul (and his own soul has so done) gladly seeks to convince itself and must convince itself of it - that he has thereby attained unity with the Primordial Being or Godhead. Such an assumption would be an overstepping of authority which the consciousness that feels its responsibility does not regard as permissible.

     I consider that we are justified in seeing in these words, as well as in what Buber tells us of the everyday and commonplace, the driving idea of Buberian thought. He knows how great is the temptation lying in wait for every man who has approached the boundaries of existence: to find and proclaim "the last word" - even if this be obtained at the cost of a false and unfounded conclusion. And no matter how strange or paradoxical it may appear at first glance, he decides to oppose to the testimony of the renowned mystics the statement of an ordinary typesetter: "Make clear to yourself," he writes, "what it signifies when a worker can experience even his relation to the machine as a dialogical one, when, for example, a printer relates that he has at times understood his machine's humming as a 'jolly and thankful smile at me for helping it set aside the difficulties and obstructions that disturbed and bruised and pained it, so that now it could run freely"' (Zwiesprache, pp. 97-98). I have intentionally contrasted these words of Buber with what he says about the mystical experience. Only in this way can we grasp the sense and meaning of that "dialogue" which takes place between the I and the Thou and which was destined, in Buber's work, to triumph over the knowledge that is always inevitably rooted in, and inevitably leads to, the impersonal Es, or It. Perhaps now we may understand why Buber in all his works so tenaciously contrasts religion and religiousness. In religion there always remains, for him, something of the Es. That is why Luther could turn away from Zwingli and Calvin could burn Michael Servetus. Religion, says Buber, is only a theophany, a manifestation of God, and not God Himself. I believe that, remaining true to Buber's spirit, we are justified in repeating - with regard to the congealed dogmas of any given confession - what he has said about the teachings of the mystics: that they constitute, for a knowledge aware of its responsibilities, an impermissible overstepping of authority.


     Here, however, arises a question to which, perhaps because he considers it premature to raise and discuss it or perhaps for some other reasons, I have found no answer in Buber's works: the question regarding the role played by knowledge in general in those realms of the human spirit into which his thinking leads us. This question certainly exists for Buber; indeed, it even determines the direction of his searchings. When he says in one of his addresses that he is attempting to expound his doctrine in the spirit of modern man and using the language of modern man, he eo ipso raises this question - if not explicite, then implicite. It would be possible to express this in still another way: he tries to describe a theophany, not the theophany of those men in whose midst the Bible arose in remote times, but the theophany of contemporary men who have inherited the wealth of the millennial culture of Europe, or even of the world. But have we the right so categorically to separate the theophany from Him who reveals Himself in it? Have we the right to be so sure that the theophany of a man who participates in a high culture will tell us the same things as that of a man who is unlearned and far removed from our "education?" And is this not the case not only with respect to men who lived several thousands of years before us but also with respect to those who lived only a relatively short time before us?

     I would explain this by means of an example. Buber tells us about a compositor who heard an expression of gratitude from his typesetting machine. To our ears this sounds both understandable and acceptable. But now a Hasidic legend (of the eighteenth century) relates how the founder of Hasidism, the great and holy Baal Shem, rejoiced when he suddenly saw with his spiritual eyes that somewhere in a distant little town God performed a miracle only so that a poor bookbinder might celebrate the Sabbath in a proper way - that is, that he might obtain candles, bread, wine, etc. Such a tale, which is perfectly in place in a collection of Hasidic legends, cannot and must not under any circumstances be included either in Ich und Du or Zwiesprache. This means: the theophany that is presented in contemporary language must differ essentially not only from the biblical theophany but also from that of the Hasidim who lived not so very long before us. We ourselves, as well as the Hasidim and the people of biblical times, can all speak in the same way of the everyday and of the fact that God manifests Himself in the everyday. But it is most strictly forbidden us to think that God could so concern Himself with the everyday life of a poor man that He would send him the groschen necessary for the purchase of candles and wine. Who or what forbids it? There cannot be two answers: it is our "knowledge" that forbids us so to think. But is this not that "overstepping of authority impermissible for a knowledge aware of its responsibilities" of which Buber himself speaks? Or, to put it more strongly: is it, in general, admissible for "knowledge" to intervene in such matters?

     However, every attempt to "expound in contemporary language" the biblical or the much later Hasidic teaching inevitably presupposes the intervention of "knowledge," that knowledge which contemporary man considers the only true kind. And, indeed, can it really be asked of an educated man that he take seriously the biblical story of how Joshua the son of Nun stopped the sun or the Hasidic tale of God's concern for the bookbinder? But, in that case, would we still be justified in affirming that the God of the Bible or the God of the Hasidim is our God? The theophanies of earlier men have so little resemblance to our own that there is every reason to think that their God has not the slightest resemblance to ours. This is clearly the meaning of Pascal's words: "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob - but not the God of the philosophers."

     Buber writes that Hasidism was a response to Spinozism. "Spinoza," he says, "presumed to take away from God His capacity for being addressed. It is not to be believed that his "Deus sive natura" ("God or nature") was 'another God.' He himself intended no other God than Him whom he had addressed as a child, the God who is the source and goal of all being; he wished only to purify Him from the stain of having the capacity for being addressed. For him a God who may be addressed was not pure enough, not great enough, not divine enough" (ibid., p. 12).

     There is a large element of truth in these words of Buber's. But concern for God's sublimity and purity was in no way the point of departure of Spinozist thinking. All this came only later. The beginning was "knowledge, the "tertium genus cognitionis, cognitio intuitiva" ("third kind of knowledge, intuitive knowledge")," which brought him to the conviction that things could not have been created by God in any other way than they were in fact created. And if he later sought with all his powers to purify the idea of God from every "stain" that the prejudices of the crowd (vulgus) had attached to it, this was only because his "knowledge" showed him "clare et distincte" ("clearly and distinctly") that in all this there was no truth. God, he says, sets Himself no tasks or aims - but not because it would be unworthy of the Supreme Being to set Himself tasks or aims, but rather because He cannot by His nature do so. And not only his large Tractatus Theologico-Politicus but also his short, unfinished Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, in which we rightly see a confession of Spinoza's, testify sufficiently to this. In Spinoza the concept of sublimity and perfection is determined by his concept of the truth, and not vice versa. In this lies the meaning of his "sub specie aeternitatis vel necessitatis" ("under the aspect of eternity or necessity"). Had "everyday experience" not shown him that "success and failure fall indifferently to the lot of the good and the bad" and had his spiritual eyes (oculi mentis) not brought him the certainty that he could nowhere escape this experience, he would never have arrived at the conclusion that the reason and will of God differ toto coelo from the reason and will of man and have only the same name in common, as the heavenly constellation known as the Dog and the dog, the barking animal, are alike in name only. It may be that he would then have decided to pose the question in an entirely different way - as it is posed in the Book of Job and as it was formulated after him by Heinrich Heine:
Warum schleppt sich blutend, elend
Unter Kreuzlast der Gerechte
Während glücklich, als der Sieger
Trabt auf hohem Ross der Schlechte?

[Why does the righteous, bleeding and miserable,
drag along under a cross
while the wicked, happy like a victor,
rides on a high horse? - A.K.]
But for Spinoza knowledge was the final and definitive court of appeal. That is why he said of his philosophy that it was not the best (optima philosophia) but the true philosophy (philosophia vera). Thus, it may be said that Spinoza's ideas about the perfection and unstained purity of God were wholly determined by his conceptions of what actually exists. Since God by His nature is powerless to reward the godly and to punish the ungodly, man is obliged to think that this impotence is a perfection. For the same reason he who is led by reason alone (sola ratione ducitur) must see in God's indifference to men's fate His sublimity and unsullied purity. If it were actually otherwise, if God rewarded the righteous and punished the sinners, then we should be obliged to see in His justice the expression of perfection, sublimity and purity. However, wisdom's last word, as Spinoza formulated it in the final theorem of his Ethics, runs as follows: "Happiness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself" ("beatitude non est proemium virtutis, sed ipsa virtus"). Hegel's famous words "what is real is rational" ("was wirklich ist, ist vernünftig") are only a free interpretation of the fundamental Spinozist idea. From this, incidentally, it may be seen how far German idealism was from vanquishing Spinoza; even Hegel, who is properly considered the consummation of German idealism, was profoundly rooted in Spinoza.

     We all doubtless find ourselves more or less under Spinoza's power, or, more precisely, Spinoza's knowledge. If we are not deceived, it must be said, despite Buber, that Hasidism also was no response to Spinoza but that even the Hasidim - although, as Buber rightly supposes, they had hardly heard of Spinoza - were, nevertheless, in a certain sense themselves infected with his ideas. We read in Die Chassidischen Bücher that one of the tzaddikim said of the Baal Shem, the founder of the doctrine, that his soul "was one of those that, before the primal sin, escaped from Adam in whom all souls were contained, and that it did not taste of the tree of knowledge" (p. 371). But this is precisely the essence of Spinozism. The meaning of Spinoza's "qui sola ratione ducitur" is contained exactly in these words! Spinoza was in no way an intellectualist, as many are inclined to think. His was a deeply religious nature; he laid the foundations in the modern age of the philosophy of the spirit. But he was firmly convinced that his soul had escaped from Adam's bosom before the fall, before the crafty serpent had seduced Adam - so that his knowledge, his "tertium genus cognitionis," remained and is a "cognitio immaculata" ("unstained knowledge") and to his spiritual eyes it was given to behold the final truth. I think Spinoza would not have refused to repeat after a Hasidic tzaddik what the latter said about prayer: "People suppose that they pray before God. But it is not so. For prayer itself is the essence of divinity" (p. 362).

     It would appear that the idea of purifying our conceptions of God from the "stain" of concern for men was not always alien even to the Hasidim. And it must be said frankly that every attempt to speak of God in contemporary language leads ineluctably to the necessity of having recourse to Spinoza, of trying to "magnify" and "purify" God - which means, removing Him as far as possible from the everyday, i.e., from human needs, sorrows, joys, tasks, and goals. We are thus placed before a dilemma: either to retain the "language" that is habitual to us, remove from the earlier theophanies everything that does not fit in with our conceptions about the real, the possible and the true, and purify the idea of God of those fantastic or mythological elements without which, for our ancestors, God would not have been God - or...

     This is why I have said, despite Buber, that his Zwiesprache as well as his Ich und Du cannot be rightly understood without his Die Chassidischen Bücher, his addresses, and his splendid translation of the Bible. He is right when he says that the typesetting machine smiled gratefully at the printer. But we must not under any circumstances forget the Hasidic bookbinder. He is also right when he writes in Ich und Du: "I perceive something. I experience something. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think something. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone" (p. 10). But this can easily be turned into the Spinozist "non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere" (not to laugh, not to weep, not to curse, but to understand) if one forgets the Book of Job. In other words: if one keeps in sight everything that Buber has written, his attempt to express the truth of the Bible in the language of our time deserves the deepest sympathy. But only on the condition that one keeps in sight everything written by him and gives up the assumption that the present-day theophany has any Superiority whatever over the theophany of men of former times: the typesetter with whom Buber carried on a conversation is not a hairsbreadth closer to the truth than the Hasidic bookbinder. The opposite, rather: the man of our time must constantly remind himself that the bookbinder was closer to the truth than the typesetter. And precisely because he was further away from knowledge.

     This is in no way to be considered a sacrificium intellectus; it is, in general, no sacrifice at all. Can one really speak of a sacrifice when someone kills his jailer or executioner? Yet how often does "knowledge" become our executioner! It would be more appropriate in this case to speak of humility, concerning which so much is told in the Bible as well as in Die Chassidischen Bücher. However, to carry out such humility, to actualize it in life, is enormously difficult, virtually impossible. Kierkegaard, who spent his entire life in the atmosphere of Holy Scripture, had to admit that the biblical serpent seemed to him incomprehensible and in no way connected with the legend of the Fall. But it is not without reason that two men so dissimilar to each other as Luther and Spinoza both spoke of the enslaved will (de servo arbitrio). This precisely was the meaning and purpose of the serpent: to take away from man the freedom that God had bestowed upon him. Why and how this happened - this is not the place to speak thereof, and there is also not much that can be said. But the fact remains: knowledge had killed human freedom. To this Kierkegaard himself, after all, bears witness; one has only to read his Pfahl im Fleisch (Thorn in the Flesh) or a few pages of his Journals. Nietzsche's works also tell us of this sufficiently, as does Dostoevsky's "Dream of a Ridiculous Man."

     There was a moment in the history of the world when someone took freedom away from men and in its place foisted knowledge upon them. And this someone also succeeded in instilling in them the conviction that knowledge alone guarantees them freedom. Even Spinoza believed that through knowledge he would be able to restore to men their lost freedom; the fourth part of his Ethics is entitled "Of Human Bondage" ("De servitute humana") and the fifth part "Of Human Freedom" ("De libertate humana"). The Hasidim also affirmed that the souls of the great saints escaped from Adam's bosom before he had tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge and that their knowledge was not polluted by the original sin. But one must cling to Buber's principle: theophanies may change, but God does not change. And, following Buber, we must not only live through the theophany of contemporary man, as it is expressed in Ich und Du and Zwiesprache, but we must also live through the theophany of his Reden (Addresses), his Die Chassidischen Bücher, and finally - last, but not least - through his marvelous translation of the Bible. Only then will we be able to participate in that tremendous tension of his entire being which he has expressed in the words "in our world is the fate of God fulfilled." Only then will we feel and understand that profound seriousness with which everything he has said and written is permeated.

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