One must add that Buber was a powerfully charismatic presence early and late. He was already electrifying audiences as a 20-year-old at Zionist congresses. I heard him speak in Hebrew in Jerusalem to a student group in 1960, in the last decade of his life, and can attest that with his quietly reflective delivery, enhanced by a snowy-white “prophetic” beard, he projected an aura of spiritual authority.
There was something both noble and quixotic about Buber as a spiritual guide and political critic. He constantly argued that political life had to be informed by spiritual purpose. There is surely an aspect of nobility in his repeated contention that all human interaction must register a full recognition of the authenticity and legitimacy of the other whom we address, the burden of his most famous book, “I and Thou.” After coming to Palestine, this view led him quite naturally to co-found Ichud, the group of mostly German academics advocating the creation of a binational state. The idea, which would have averted violent conflict, was admirable, but unfortunately it had scant supporters in the Zionist community and even fewer among the Arabs of Palestine.
Buber’s commitment to the spiritual aim of political life brought him to espouse even odder political positions. When the Nazis rapidly deprived Jews of civil rights after 1933, Buber viewed “this initial assault on the dignity of German Jewry,” in Mendes-Flohr’s words, “as a trial testing the spiritual and moral resilience of both Jew and (non-Jewish) German.” He thought that the most appropriate response to Nazi persecution was adult Jewish education, a lifelong cause for him, which would enable Jews, as Mendes-Flohr summarizes, to nurture “their inner, spiritual resources in order to brave the collapse of the world.” Not urgent emigration or an underground movement but the nurturing of spiritual resources.
A peculiar manifestation of Buber’s adherence to dialogue in the face of murderous ideologies was his meeting at a German castle in 1957 with Martin Heidegger, the rector of the University of Freiburg who joined the Nazi Party, celebrated Hitler and rooted out all Jews from his faculty. The two elderly figures spent several hours together, Buber evidently seeking dialogue; Heidegger, some sort of public absolution from a distinguished Jewish thinker. Afterward, Heidegger, probably because he did not get what he had sought, claimed he knew Buber by name only.
Surely the most embarrassing expression of Buber’s insistence on spirituality in the realm of history was his promotion of the German war effort from 1914 to 1916. He imagined that the war offered Jews a grand opportunity, as he said in a Hanukkah address in 1914, to “feel responsible for the destiny of their own community.” On the battlefields, “a new Jewry has taken shape.” It took him two years to realize that what was really going on in the trenches was not spiritual renewal but senseless mayhem, at which point he retracted his earlier view.