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God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber

God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber

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by Dennis S. Ross

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Deepen connections with the people you love. Build relationships with the people you meet.

We can go through each day—or a lifetime—as sleepwalkers while awake, tossing and turning on pillows that are as hard as appointment books, wandering a paved spiritual wilderness from bank


Deepen connections with the people you love. Build relationships with the people you meet.

We can go through each day—or a lifetime—as sleepwalkers while awake, tossing and turning on pillows that are as hard as appointment books, wandering a paved spiritual wilderness from bank window to house of worship to hospital bedside. But if we are fortunate enough to happen upon a vision of the Divine—in a chance chat with a semi-stranger or a lingering conversation with a good friend—we can awaken to the spirituality between people that Martin Buber called I-Thou.
—from God in Our Relationships

It is possible to infuse every moment of life with meaning—from the routine act to the once-in-a-lifetime situation—and this first-of-its-kind introduction to Martin Buber’s I-Thou shows you how.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, the science of human behavior, Buber’s ideas and the Hasidic stories that he loved, Rabbi Dennis Ross illuminates a theology of relationships in easy-to-understand, accessible language. You will clearly see how to use the principles of I-Thou to create new answers to critical issues in life, such as:

  • How do I react to others in times of stress?
  • How do I relate to strangers?
  • How can I take full advantage of the time I have to spend with my loved ones?

By unlocking the depths in Buber’s concepts for spiritual growth, Ross supplies you with the tools you need to communicate better, love more completely, and find the sacred in everyday life.

Editorial Reviews

Frost Illustrated - Gerald W. Deas
A few years ago, I took care of a beautiful, elderly, blind, African American woman who was cared for by a gentle, sweet, elderly, white lady. No one could deny that this relationship was truly a spiritual one. In fact, I was so moved by their love and concern toward each other that I wrote a poem entitled "Two Gentle Ladies," which reads as follows:

Two Gentle Ladies

I knew two gentle ladies for years

One white, the other black

No fears

They sat and talked about their dreams

Without tears

Oh Lord! How they loved one another

I was always impressed with the "up" feeling that these women had. I often looked forward to going on a house call to see them. The actually made me feel spiritually better. Both of these lovely ladies have gone up yonder to be with their Lord. It seems that during the season between Thanksgiving and New Years, many folks experience a stage of depression. This usually is manifested by a person's withdrawing from friends and relatives. Occasionally, they also might feel suicidal. During this holiday season, some folks manifest an "up" feeling and begin to show great respect for one another in the streets, stores, public transportation and at work. There seems to be a real sense of cosmic, good energy that defies disrespect and unconcern.

The Christ-Mass reminds us of the love that we must share with each other and with those throughout the world. This belief is expressed beautifully in a book entitled "God In Our Relationships." This book is about the spirituality between people and is from the teachings of Martin Buber as written about by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross. The book is published by Jewish Lights Publishing. In this book, the philosophy of the I-IT relationship to the I-Thou relationship is explored and demonstrates how one should relate to others in a positive manner

For those who might feel depression during this season, I propose that you heed the following suggestions:

• Take time for quiet reflection and meditate on the importance of all life on this planet.

• Be a carrier of good news and not the blues.

• See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Leave that to the monkeys.

• Make sure that when someone leaves your presence, they feel better.

• During a conversation with friends or enemies, just touch their arm or hand. A touch goes a long way.

• Give a donation to that person on the street whom you have passed so often. The Salvation Army needs all they can get to help others.

• Volunteer some of your time to a church or other institution such as hospital or nursing homes.

• Make amends with those persons in your family with whom you have disagreed.

• Call someone on the phone whom you haven't spoken to in a long time and tell him or her how much you miss his or her presence.

• Give a lot, but save some for yourself.

• Remember, love cannot be bought or stolen. I can only be given away.

• Have a Blessed Season, because there is a Reason that you have been give space on this planet.

The Huffington Post
Recently, blogger Andrew Sullivan put up a post called "The Scientific View of Man." He ended it with an aside, saying, "If I could disbelieve in God, I would," and two days later, one of his readers wrote back: "Funny, I'm the exact opposite; if I could believe in God, I would."

But what does that phrase mean, "believe in God"? I've most often heard it framed in terms of existence: People will often say to me, "I don't believe God exists," or "I have seen no evidence for God," or "I often question whether there is a God."

But here's the thing: Either God exists, or God doesn't. And we have absolutely no control over that fact. And so because there's nothing we can do about whether there is a God, I've never found that question to be a particularly interesting one to ask. After all, when the question is framed in that way, there are really only three answers people can give: "Yes, I do," "No, I don't" or "I'm not sure."

But there's an even deeper reason why that question is the wrong one to ask. In my experience working in the religious world, the people who tend to ask the question, "Do you believe in God?" are the ones who hope the answer is "yes," while the people who tend to be asked are the ones who are more inclined to say "no" or "I'm not sure." When you're asking a question with an expected answer — and that answer is the opposite of what you hope it will be — there's no constructive dialogue. Instead, when someone asks "Do you believe in God?" it simply comes off as a judgmental attack.

In fact, Rabbi David Wolpe recently wrote a piece here asking "Why Are Atheists So Angry?" and while he made some accurate statements, I think he missed the main reason why atheists have problems with religion — they feel like they are being viewed as "less than" and are being judged in a harsh and negative light.

So because asking "Do you believe in God?" prompts primarily close-ended questions, and is often experienced as a condemnation, I instead prefer to ask two other questions that I have found to be more valuable to explore:

1. How can we bring more justice and kindness into this world?

Regardless of whatever particular worldview we hold, we have a responsibility to find ways to improve ourselves, our society and our world. Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about the specifics of how we do that, and our personal outlook will obviously affect our ultimate decisions, but most people I have met are striving to create a more just and more kind world.

So by focusing the discussion around how people act more than on what they believe, we can now have a more productive dialogue. Yes, we may all be coming at this question from different ways, but now the arguments stop being attacks and counter-attacks about who is right, and instead, become an exploration about the ways we need to work together to create the kind of world we hope for.

In many ways, author (and atheist) Sam Harris got it right in his book, The Moral Landscape, when he argued that human and societal well-being are directly related to the state of the world and our own mental state, and that "morality" is about how we improve those two states. And so by emphasizing the myriad ways we can explore how to bring more justice and more kindness into this world, we can also recognize and accept the different belief systems that can all ultimately lead to the same end.

2. When have we felt moments of deep connection?

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were two of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, and both of them pushed us to recognize that our greatest source of joy and wonder are our relationships — Buber focusing on our interpersonal relationships and Heschel emphasizing our relationship with all of creation.

Buber taught that the most spiritual moments occur when we are truly in relationship with others. His great book describing his theology is usually translated as I and Thou, but a better description would be "you and me." As he claims, our most powerful and most memorable moments occur when we truly feel "there" with and for another person. As Rabbi Dennis Ross explains in God in Our Relationships, "I-Thou is doing, speaking, listening and touching. Not in the I or the Thou, I-Thou is essentially the '-,' the dash that connects two people" (Ross, 53).

Heschel's theology is often called "radical amazement" — a deep sense of incomprehensibility at the wonder of sheer existence. As he argues, "We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe ... Standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight" (Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 25).

What both Buber and Heschel have in common is that we cannot put into words our most important and most life-changing encounters. Indeed, the more we try to analyze and explain them, the less power they have. Not only that, we cannot ever expect or plan to experience these moments that elevate our soul — we can only be open to them and hope we are aware enough to feel them and appreciate them when they arise.

These two questions, I have found, resonate with people much more deeply and create much more interesting, much more respectful and much more valuable conversations than asking "Do you believe in God?" These questions prompt people to ask together, "How should I be treating myself and those around me?" "How can we be more open to the varied experiences of life?" Rather than thinking that those who believe in God are "better" than those who don't, each of us can examine how we can be more just and kind, and how we can create a deeper connection with ourselves, with others and with our world.

And what do I believe? For me, I find God when I am grappling with those questions — and especially when I am learning new ways to try to answer them. And while I certainly can't prove this, I believe that when we are seeking to bring more justice, kindness and connection into this world, we are also bringing just a little more of God into this world, as well.

National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter newsletter
I work as a rabbi, yet social work touches everything I do. One highlight of my work week occurs 3:00 P.M each Friday at the Jewish Health Care Center in Worcester, where I lead a weekly Sabbath service for residents, with the help of some of very devoted teens from the congregation.

I haven't led a weekly "nursing home" since I was in seminary thirty years ago. I was younger then and I simply couldn’t appreciate the nuance and importance of singing and reading those few Hebrew prayers, or the significance of a few words of greeting from a rabbi. And I couldn’t have been as touched by the way the presence and participation of my teen helpers brings a sparkle to the eyes and words of many of our residents. I didn’t have enough life experience back then; I wasn’t well attuned to the people around me, so the impact just didn’t register. But now I see exactly what I was missing.

I reach the third floor of the Heath Care Center, the East wing, a few minutes before 3:00 p.m. Sometimes, I arrive as the BINGO game is ending, as cards, pennies and chips are gathered and put away. It’s at least a year now since one of the Healthcare Center staff threw a $10 bill into the pot and walked off, leaving it for the residents to enjoy the excitement of a real prize. I joke with the residents and staff, “The next time that happens, give me a call and I’ll be sure to get here early.”

Once the BINGO play is over and people are reseated for the service, my teen assistants help me pass out the prayer booklets, each of us making sure to extend a personal Sabbath greeting to each of the dozen or so participants and staff.

We open the service with song and suddenly, a transformation takes place. People, who sat mutely and stiffly, staring silently into the distance, suddenly start to sing. It is remarkable that those who do not have the capacity to recall the simple details of their morning, recollect the melody and Hebrew of an Oseh shalom or a Bayom hahu, a tune or words learned decades ago. Thinking back to last December, the holiday of Hanukah and the legend of the oil that lasted eight days, I wonder about another miracle of the light lasting longer than the time expected, of the prayers that can endure for eight decades or longer in the heart of a human being.

The thirty-minute service includes some English readings, a prayer for healing, a reflection on the weekly Scripture reading, a memorial prayer, a few closing songs, and a blessing over the Sabbath wine and challah bread. When I started doing the service, I recited the brief version of the wine blessing – just the blessing over the wine – until one of the residents complained that her husband did the whole prayer over their Sabbath dinner all those years and that she expected me to do the same! So now I do it all, whether she is there or not. One time, I forgot to recite the prayer for healing – people were very, very upset with me!

As the service comes to a close, the staff distributes wine and challah, and my helpers and I extend a personal greeting to each resident as we prepare to take leave. Again, it is the personal touch that speaks volumes. On occasion, when I need to travel and cannot attend the service, my teen helpers have risen to the occasion; the two of them have become quite comfortable leading the service on their own.

After the service, I might chat with worshippers and then call upon a few people privately in their rooms. Then I am off to make my own Sabbath preparations. And as the evening approaches and progresses the, sweetness of the moment with teens and elders in conversation, song and prayer abides with me as a calming oasis of time.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, LCSW, serves at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, MA and as director of Concerned Clergy for Choice for Family Planning Advocates of New York State in Albany, NY.. His most recent book, God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber, is released by Jewish Lights Publishing.

From the Publisher

"By interweaving his own life experience with quotations and insights derived from Martin Buber's I and Thou and his Tales of the Hasidim, Rabbi Ross has accomplished the remarkable feat of making Buber’s wisdom accessible in the everyday to men and women in every walk of life."
Maurice Friedman, author, Encounter on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber

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Turner Publishing Company
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Meet the Author

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross serves as a reproductive rights advocate and director of Concerned Clergy for Choice at the Education Fund of Family Planning Advocates of New York State. Concerned Clergy for Choice, a multifaith network of religious leaders—ministers from Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ denominations as well as spiritual leaders representing Judaism, Buddhism and Islam—is at the forefront of faith-based advocacy in the national legislative and media confrontations over reproductive rights. The project also played a major role in the legalization of same-gender civil marriage in New York State.

Rabbi Ross consults to Planned Parenthood on clergy organizing, religion in the media and religious lobbying. He is a frequent speaker on the topic of religion and the media at professional conferences, college campuses, houses of worship, health centers and other venues. He is the author of All Politics Is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community (SkyLight Paths) and God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber (Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Dennis Ross is available to speak on the following topics:

  • Spirituality and Social Justice
  • God in Our Relationships
  • Sex, Religion and Politics
  • Stem Cell Research: A Faith Perspective

Click here to contact the author.

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God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author offers specific daily encounters we all have and demonstrates how to conveniently transform such from Rush to Relating. Trying his suggestions have proven to me that this process aids individual persons to become who we are meant to be as caring individuals. Improved my doctor appointment that amazed me and my blood pressure reading! Inspiring!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The I-Thou relationship comes easily and often, over breakfast or at work, in the classroom or at the gym as well as in turning points of life. In the eighty years since Jewish thinker Martin Buber proposed the idea of I-Thou, no one has taken ordinary language to describe this simple spirituality in words, gestures and glances. God in Our Relationships: The Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber makes clear the ephemeral and often overlooked encounter of I and Thou. Many people turn into the soul for insights of belief and for faith. God in Our Relationships looks outward, to holy possibilities between people, to the spiritual opportunities in words, gestures and glances. Drawing from the writings and biography of Martin Buber, from his loving edition of Hasidic tales as well as from the Bible and events in my typical day, God in Our Relationships speaks to all faiths about an interpersonal spirituality, that special feeling ¿in the air¿ in simple exchanges of words and in heart-to-heart conversation. As a rabbi, I talk about God. As a social worker, I focus on interpersonal communication. In God in Our Relationships, I weave together two decades of religious and social life to describe the holiness of the I-Thou relationship -- what it is, when it arrives, why it must end, what of it endures and why it is so important. Writing this book deepened my spiritual awareness and strengthened my devotion to human relation. It is my hope that God in Our Relationships brings you the same insight, energy and fulfillment.