Bringing Buber Into The Conversation
The exploration of the formation and maintenance of modern Jewish identity is an abiding passion of mine, and one of the key ideas informing the work of the New Vilna Review, the Boston-based Jewish journal which I founded in 2007. For me, the exploration of this subject is not only informed by intellectual curiosity, but touches on my own life in a variety of personal ways, informing decisions I make about the kind of Jewish communities I become involved with as well as how I engage in prayer and ritual observance. History also plays a significant role in my search for greater understanding of how Jewish identity functions in the modern world, both within my own life and within the larger Jewish community. By history, I do not mean, of course, to limit myself to major events in Jewish history (although such things do play an important role, I would suggest) but to include important ideas – be they theological, spiritual, intellectual, or cultural – and the men and women who have developed and championed such ideas.
One such figure was philosopher Martin Buber, who gave serious thought to the tensions that he perceived as existing between Jewish tradition and modern ideals. This is something he addressed in a series of lectures which he gave between 1908 and 1919, which are collected (along with another series of later lectures) in a book entitled “On Judaism,” which was published by Schocken Books and edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. In his introduction to the volume author Rodger Kamenetz notes that even though Buber inhabited a Jewish world quite different from our own when he gave these early lectures, that there is still something essentially vital upon which the philosopher bases these lectures which is still important today. Writing in 1995 Kamenetz observes that “Judaism has plenty of teachers and plenty of books – but how does it find motivated students, especially today when our pluralistic society offers a spiritual supermarket, from astrology and Buddhism, to Suffism, yoga and zen ?” (Buber,xvii). Kamenetz later adds in the same paragraph that “… today, as in Buber’s time, Jews need to hear an authoritative assertion of a unique spiritual power in Judaism.” (Buber, xvii).
Although Kamentz wrote these words fifteen years ago in reference to Buber’s words some seventy-odd years prior, I believe they are still very relevant today in a Jewish world which is becoming increasingly fragmented along denominational lines, and in tension with a variety of forces in the secular modern world. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring the text of these lectures and looking back, to this distant time and place in which Buber confronted many of the same problems, for clues and insights about how we can address these issues today. I look forward to sharing what I find.
-Daniel E. Levenson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
*Mentioned in this piece: "On Judaism" by Martin Buber, Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Shocken Books, 1995.