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Martin Buber's Spirituality: Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life

Martin Buber's Spirituality: Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life

by Kenneth Paul Kramer

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How do we find meaning in our life? This book explors how Martin Buber, one of the twentieth century's greatest religious thinkers, answers this timeless question. Buber developed this theme through six thought-provoking talks originally published as The Wax of Man. In Martin lather's Spirituality, author Kenneth Paul Kramer explores the accessible practices Buber


How do we find meaning in our life? This book explors how Martin Buber, one of the twentieth century's greatest religious thinkers, answers this timeless question. Buber developed this theme through six thought-provoking talks originally published as The Wax of Man. In Martin lather's Spirituality, author Kenneth Paul Kramer explores the accessible practices Buber outlined in these talks, shares the stories Buber used to illustrate each point, and explores how these teachings might apply in everyday life today. He explains Buber's Hasidic spirituality-a living connection between the human and the divine-and how it is relevant to all spiritual seekers.

The book features questions for personal or group reflection to help readers more fully explore Martin Buber's approach to spirituality, along with a glossary of key terms.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Martin Buber, who died in 1965, was a philosopher, Zionist, lover of Hasidism, scholar, professor, and prolific author, best known for introducing the idea of I-Thou (as contrasted with I-It) to characterize the desired relationship between individuals and between a person and God. In 1948, Buber gave six lectures in Holland, called "The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism."Author Kramer, who knew Buber and is professor emeritus of comparative religious studies at San Jose State University, asserts that these talks are Buber's "most profound presentation of spiritual life and faith." Kramer offers his summary of each lecture; his commentary on them; the Hasidic stories with which they began and ended; anecdotes from Buber's life, stressing the lesson being taught; and questions designed to help readers incorporate the teaching into their lives. The first three lectures aim to prepare people for spiritual change and the last three offer insights as to how individuals can fulfill their lives through meaningful connections to others and with events.Kramer has largely succeeded in making Buber's complex ideas accessible and understandable.(Jan.)
Harold Kasimow
Kenneth Paul Kramer's book is a beautiful, invaluable guide to Martin Buber's classic work The Way of Man. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to gain insight into the Hasidic view of how to fulfill the meaning of our personal existence on earth. Kramer's book will make fascinating reading for seekers of all paths.
Pat Boni
Kramer's dialogue with Martin Buber's spirituality is evident throughout this thoughtful, loving and intelligent understanding of Buber's The Way of Man. Ken has brought Buber's work into the 21st century.
Mishael M. Caspi
A true disciple of Martin Buber, Kenneth Paul Kramer has given us a very important book. Written in a simple language which any reader will understand this religious philosophy, this work is very rich and thoughtful. It is truly an endowment to the study of the human way; I view it as a profound interpretation of a great philosopher-teacher, Martin Buber.
Ephraim Meir
In his refined meditation on Buber's classic The Way of Man, Kenneth Kramer brings new light to this work, focusing on the formation of a spiritualism that makes others and God present in our lives. As such, it is itself a guide to spiritual life, inspired by Hasidism and open to everyone.

Kramer succeeds in making Hasidic spirituality relevant for all those who are interested in inter-human encounter and in a meeting with the Divine. In his interpretation of Hasidic spirituality as world-oriented and hallowing the everyday, he analyzes, exemplifies, actualizes and extends Buber's view on Hasidism. Like Buber, he opens up Hasidism to the broader world and universalizes it beyond any particular belief system; his beautiful book is about the secret of real meaning. It invites the reader to turn from self-centeredness toward dialogue, to perceive the divine spark in human beings, and to link living faith to everyday life.

Library Journal
Martin Buber (1878–1965) is perhaps more referenced than read; he was the originator of the I-Thou concept in religious philosophy, which opines, in part, that we must experience one another, and ultimately, God, as constituents in a dialog without limits. The inherent challenge in living out his ideas as well as his Hasidic background and use of Hasidic spirituality and tales to make his points contribute to preventing many readers from the very sort of engagement he would have championed. Kramer (comparative religious studies, emeritus, San Jose State Univ.; Martin Buber's I and Thou) goes a long way to bridge that gap through his accessible explication of six of Buber's crucial essays. VERDICT This brief, engaging analysis of an important Jewish writer's spirituality is recommended for Jewish and non-Jewish readers.

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Martin Buber's Spirituality

Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life
By Kenneth Paul Kramer


Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1367-8

Chapter One


"The decisive heart-searching is ... again and again, the beginning of a human way." (134–35)


Buber begins his first talk, "Heart-Searching," with a Hasidic anecdote, as he also will in the five that follow. Buber sets this talk in the context of the first dialogical encounter between God and Adam as related in the Book of Genesis. God's first words to Adam after he eats from the Tree of Knowledge are "Where are you?" Hasidic teaching personalizes this question: God asks it of everyone in every moment, and dialogue depends upon responding to this question in a way that brings you into a deeper relationship with the world. For Buber, the key to this story is the deep bond of relationship it implies between the divine and human, Adam and God. Buber says that, like Adam, each person hides from God, but that in hiding from God each person also hides from him- or herself. God's question asks us to reveal honestly where we are hiding from the divine voice, to search our hearts and respond honestly about where we stand. God does not ask us to pursue a sterile heart-searching of sin and self-condemnation, however. Instead of that, God asks for a decisive answer from the real ground of our being. Essentially, decisive heart-searching—the beginning of the human way—happens again and again when you wholeheartedly face the Voice and respond to God's question "Where are you?," which is designated to destroy your system of hideouts and to help you know whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you will have to render accounts.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the rav [rabbi] of Northern White Russia (died 1813), was put in jail in Petersburg, because the mitnagdim [adversaries of Hasidism] had denounced his principles and his way of living to the government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. The majestic and quiet face of the rav, who was so deep in meditation that he did not at first notice his visitor, suggested to the chief, a thoughtful person, what manner of man he had before him. He began to converse with his prisoner and brought up a number of questions which had occurred to him in reading the Scriptures. Finally he asked: 'How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam: "Where art thou?"'

'Do you believe,' answered the rav, 'that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation and every man is included in them?'

'I believe this,' said the other.

'Well then,' said the zaddik, 'in every era, God calls to every man: "Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?" God says something like this: "You have lived forty-six years. How far along are you?"'

When the chief of the gendarmes heard his age mentioned, he pulled himself together, laid his hand on the rav's shoulder, and cried: 'Bravo!' But his heart trembled. (130-1)


The first practice that can move us toward genuine dialogue with the world and with God is to find and offer a heart-searching response to God's question. Heart-searching does not mean, for Buber, just checking to see how you feel, though it includes that. It also means deeply pondering your whole self and trying to understand where you are in this moment. It is important, therefore, that God's question "Where are you?" reaches from your mind down into your heart. It is not enough for the question to remain an idea in your head. It is essential that God's question is transported to the heart of our body, mind, and spirit. You must hear the question with the ears of your heart, so to speak, and respond to it with your heart's voice.

This first spiritual practice, upon which the others depend for support and from which they take their direction, happens as the result of a co-creative partnership between us and God. It is for the sake of this divine-human relationship that God asks the question in the first place, and it is the dynamic interaction of this partnership itself that enables you to really hear, face, and respond to God's question. Indeed, the basic insight of Buber's life work—that the relationship between person and person and between person and God, when genuine, is deeply bonded—fuels this first practice and fuels the other five practices as well. It is for this reason that whatever else prayer may be, for Buber it is always God's presence becoming "dialogically perceivable."

In Buber's spiritual wisdom, relationship—when it is genuine, mutual, open, and present—is our birthright as human beings. "In the beginning is relationship," he wrote. The shift from the head to heart is a shift from knowing, thinking, describing, and objectifying to affirming, answering, and relating. Genuine heart-searching brings our initial responses into dialogue with those who are also interested in God's question. True understanding, true decision-making, for Buber, occurs in dialogical interactions in which our limited self-understanding is questioned, challenged, and either reshaped or affirmed. The ultimate goal, according to Buber, is not just to put the mind in the heart, but to bring your heart, mind, body, and spirit into relationship.


What happens, then, in this Hasidic tale, which opens the first of Buber's retreat talks? Rabbi Schneur Zalman, a Hasid who has been imprisoned because of his principles and his way of living, is in deep meditation when he is suddenly questioned by the jailer: Why did God, the all-knowing, say to Adam: "Where are you?"

In response, the rav said: "Do you believe that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation and every [person] is included in them?"

"I believe this," said the jailer.

"Well then" said the zaddik, "in every era, God calls to every person: 'where are you in your world?'"

When the jailer replies "Bravo," his heart trembles because the rabbi's reply spoke directly and profoundly to the jailer's existential situation. The ancient rabbis understood God's question "Where are you in your world" to mean a few different things: (1) "How far along are you in your life?" (2) "How far along are you in your readiness to acknowledge God?" (3) "How far along are you in making your life worthy?" With this tradition of interpretation in mind, in his first talk Buber asks the hearer/reader to consider what really happens in this tale. The rabbi tells his jailer, in effect, "You yourself are Adam, you are the one whom God asks: 'Where art thou?'" From the perspective of the philosophy of dialogue, the very meaning of our lives depends upon how we respond to this question. It is vital that you realize that God is calling for a personal response to a question addressed specifically to you alone, nothing else in Buber's talk matters.

Buber's initial interpretation of this story focuses on the rabbi's teaching style. Rather than using the text of Genesis as a chance to lecture the jailer, the rabbi uses it to directly challenge the chief for his irresponsible life. Pointing out that the rabbi's reply is given on a different plane from that on which the question is asked, Buber says:

Now, instead of explaining the passage and solving the seeming contradiction, the rabbi takes the text merely as a starting-point from where he proceeds to reproach the chief with his past life, his lack of seriousness, his thoughtlessness and irresponsibility. (130)

In this interpretation of the story, the rabbi's response to the apparent contradiction of the all-knowing God's question is given on a different plane from that on which the question is asked. If, as Buber suggests, "in the beginning is relationship," our relationship with God begins with God's question to the first human: "Where are you in relation to me?" In the beginning of our becoming human, God asks us to enter into relationship with the ultimate source.


Buber tells us that God's question is not asked to learn something that God doesn't already know but to produce an effect in the person that reaches his or her heart. One's answer to God's call cannot be restricted to any single interpretation or idea. Whatever answer one gives to the question is situation-determined and therefore ever new and ever unique. Like us, Adam hides to escape responsibility for his way of living. Adam, however, cannot hide from God and by attempting to do just that he is actually hiding from himself. God's question is designed to awaken you to your system of hideouts and to call you into relationship.

Follow Buber's reasoning as he examines the story more closely:

1. God's question is addressed to each person—to you yourself;

2. God's question is not designed to learn what God does not already know but to produce an effect in us, provided that the question reaches your heart;

3. To escape taking responsibility for his life, like Adam, we too construct a network of hideouts;

4. Although Adam (and the rest of us) cannot hide from the eye of God, in trying to do so Adam only manages to hide from himself;

5. God's question is designed to awaken Adam/us and to destroy our system of hideouts;

6. Everything depends on whether you face God's question, whether you take it to heart;

7. God's "still small voice" is easily drowned out and ignored;

8. As long as we ignore God's voice, no matter what success and power we achieve, our lives will not become a genuine path;

9. When Adam faces the Voice, and avows "I hid myself," this is the beginning of the human way;

10. There is a sterile kind of heart-searching that represents turning to God in hopelessness that leads only to despair.


Buber says:

Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every [person] hides for this purpose, for every [person] is Adam and finds [him or herself] in Adam's situation. To escape responsibility for his life [Adam] turns existence into a system of hideouts. And in thus hiding again and again 'from the face of God,' he enmeshes himself more and more deeply in perversity. (138)

If however you are attentive, a new situation arises, a new possibility—you recognize that you cannot escape the "voice" of God and at the same time there awakens in you a desire to come out of hiding.

What is the "still, small voice"? Is it the voice of God, our own voice, or the voice of a personal or communal conscience? The "still, small voice" that exists within and outside of each of us calls us to face our actions, our lives, and ourselves, all together. Buber says that every person, wishing to escape responsibility for his or her way of living, hides from this Voice. As long as this is continued, your life:

will not become a way. Whatever success and enjoyment [you] may achieve, whatever power [you] may attain and whatever deeds [you] may do, [your] life will remain way-less, so long as [you do] not face the Voice. (134)

When Adam acknowledges that he hid himself, what is he doing? Why does his confession have the power to turn him from debasement and towards God? It is his decisiveness, his honest self-exposure, that brings Adam out of hiding and that helps him to begin unifying himself. His turn in the direction of God puts him on the path towards himself, towards everyone, and towards God. This decisive turning with "holy intent" is what sets Adam, and all of us, on the way to genuine relationships.


For Buber, entering dialogue, whether with humans or with God, begins when we recognize that we, like Adam, are called to answer the question "Where are you?" whenever it is personally addressed to us. By answering it, we realize our uniquely human task of entering into genuine dialogue with the Eternal Thou. Like Adam, we hide from God to avoid rendering an account of our life and to escape responsibility for our way of living. Adam admits to the Voice that he was hiding because he was afraid. Yet God's question persists. Thus, Buber says:

When the rabbi of Ger [near Warsaw], in expounding the Scriptures, came to the words which Jacob addresses to his servant: "When Esau my brother meets thee, and asks thee, saying, Whose art thou? And wither goest thou? And whose are these before thee?," he would say to his disciples: "Mark well how similar Esau's questions are to the saying of our sages: 'Consider three things. Know whence you came, wither you are going, and to whom you will have to render accounts.' Be very careful, for great caution should be exercised by him who considers these three things: lest Esau ask in him. For Esau, too, may ask these questions and bring man into a state of gloom."(135–36)

Heart-searching is decisive only if it leads to the human way. It seeks to know (1) whence you came, (2) where you are going, and (3) to whom you will render accounts. In other words, heart-searching is neither only intellectual nor primarily emotional. It becomes decisive only when the whole person, in body, mind, and spirit is prompted to turn and listen attentively for directions along his or her path in life. Buber continually distinguishes this from a second type of heart-searching that is sterile and that only partially addresses the individual. This ineffective and even self-destructive kind of heart-searching is intellectual, introspective, and self-analytical. Heart-searching is sterile when it comes from a spirit of hopelessness, from the sense that there is no way out from where you are. By contrast, genuine "Heart-Searching" means listening to the address of the signs that speak to your life even to those repressed forces that may contain the residue of our inmost passion.


That God's first words to Adam/us ask a question is perfectly relational, not that God doesn't already know the answer, but that God wants to prompt us to make our most personal response. Discovering where we are begins when we respond honestly to this question. Paradoxically, God's question places us by temporarily displacing us from our comfort zones, the habitual, or conditional places that we occupy. God's question rubs up against us in ways that will not allow us to ignore it. It grips us; it stirs us up; it jostles us more than we can know on our own. Because it is a question that encourages, inspires, demands our most honest answer, our response both locates us and simultaneously hints at a direction of movement.

To realize how profound this question is, think for a minute from God's perspective. One may ask, "Can we really think from God's perspective?" It is, of course, impossible to know God's mind, yet it is worthwhile to try. That is, to fully respond to this question, it seems essential to imagine ourselves from God's point of view so as not to be trapped in private views and understandings. By imagining the impossible possibility of God's point of view, one may catch a glimpse of something that demands response with one's whole being. Such imagining is only possible with God's assistance, with much study, meditation, and direct prayer. Imagining God's perspective, although finally impossible, nevertheless draws us closer to God as the One who enters our domain intimately and immediately.

A blazingly clear exemplification of God's penetrating my autobiography occurred when, while still revising this manuscript, I had a conversation with Doug, a physicist and martial artist friend. He had just started reading Buber's The Way of Man. When I asked him "What has stood out for you so far in your reading?" he responded: "I'm fascinated with the fact that God began His-Her communication with Adam with this question. How profound," Doug said, his face lighting up. "It's perfect that God opens up a relationship with Adam precisely in the only way that God could." Doug's remark, given its timing, the high energy of its delivery, and the deep resonance that it struck in me brought me again to God's doorstep.

Think about it. How can God get into relationship with humans who know nothing of God in the first place? Remember, Adam/we are initially unknowing. Is there any better way for God to come into our lives other than by entering into our situation by asking a question? But why a question? Because thereby God shows immeasurable trust in Adam/us by being interested in his/our unique response. The entire dialogical relationship between God and Adam is only possible if it develops in mutual trust. Otherwise, it will pass away.

Even more important than the specifics of the question is that God asks it. This is how God establishes unconditional trust. What is the one thing necessary, after all, for a relationship to become genuine? Trust—trust that the other is making you present in this moment, that the other is really interested in what you say (even when disagreeing with it), and wants to continue being your dialogical partner. In this encounter, God, who is the "mysterium tremendom," the unimaginable Other, because of unconditional love becomes as "absolute Person" who is glimpsed in every genuine interaction. God's question comes to us in many forms through many different voices, expressed through people with whom we have genuine interaction. God's speech penetrates into and reveals itself in signs and insights, words and phrases and, like water, seeks the deepest level within our minds/hearts/souls. It is then our responsibility to be attentive (in reflection, in meditative thinking, in prayer) to these key moments in our lives.


Excerpted from Martin Buber's Spirituality by Kenneth Paul Kramer Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kenneth Paul Kramer is the author of several books, including Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue. He is professor emeritus of comparative religious studies at San Jose State University and lives in Santa Cruz, CA.

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