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The Between In Between: Martin Buber’s Triadic Structure

Mon, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Federal 2 Complex


This paper explores the triadic structure that Martin Buber uses in both his writing on Judaism and his writings on philosophical anthropology. In many of his writings on Judaism from 1918 onward, Buber contrasts Judaism to two other types of religious thought, the pagan and the Gnostic. In his 1938 lectures on philosophical anthropology, The Problem of the Human Being, Buber uses a similar triadic structure in contrasting his concept of the “between,” his dialogical conception of sociality, to two alternatives, individualism and collectivism. This paper offers a précis of my broader analysis of the significance of this triadic structure for interpreting Buber’s social thought, his interpretation of Judaism and the relationship between the two.
While Buber varies his terminology when contrasting Judaism to other ancient religious ideas, these contrasts follow a consistent pattern of ideas. Thus, Buber always presents Judaism as teaching the realization of holiness, or human perfection, within the material world of creation and human community. In contrast, pagan religion involves a deification of material reality that, Buber contends, demands capitulation to “reality” as it exists, which can include prevailing power structures. Gnostic religion, in his view, with its myth of a true God beyond the demiurge who create the material world, involves a denigration of material existence in favor of realizing holiness outside the realm of creation. In this scheme, Christianity incorporates elements of pagan, Gnostic and Jewish influence and exhibits the characteristics of each in different moments of his history. In my analysis, I connect the significance of these often polemical arguments about Judaism to his analysis of modern individualism and collectivism. I conclude that Buber’s interpretation of ancient religious traditions parallels his claim that modern society vacillates from individualistic and collectivist thinking because the former creates an unsatisfactory sense of social alienation and the latter is oppressive and often totalitarian. Likewise, Buber argues that because of its emphasis on realizing holiness within the world, only Judaism provides sufficient spiritual resources for resisting totalitarian social and political structures that represent modern forms of pagan religious thinking. By illuminating the rhetorical parallels in his philosophical writings and his Jewish writings, I offer a richer understanding of the intersecting political concerns in Buber’s social philosophy, Zionism and his scholarly writings on Judaism. In particular, my reading of Buber places greater emphasis on the importance of resistance to collectivism and totalitarianism than previously discussed in the literature on Buber’s philosophy of dialogue.


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