Saturday, December 13, 2008

From Akhenaten to Buber

In my lectures on ancient Egyptian art (just concluded), I dealt at length with the astonishing religious innovations of pharaoh Akhenaten (reigned 1353-1337) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Ever since the recovery a century ago of art works and documents of this pharaoh, it has been recognized that Akhenaten introduced true monotheism--the worship of a single deity in the form of the Aten, visualized as a sun disk. The reforming pharaoh did not tolerate other deities, and required that their images be smashed. The similarities between Akhenaten’s ideas and those ascribed to Moses are so close that some--famously Sigmund Freud--have been tempted to posit a direct connection between the two phenomena. However, the chronological gap between the two forms of monotheism is too great. One must assume that the Israelite development was an independent invention, and not an instance of diffusion.

At all events, in discussing the bas reliefs of Akhenaten adoring the Aten I noticed that they exhibited a reciprocity that is rare in ancient Egyptian religious art, and indeed anywhere in ancient art. That is, the deity responds vigorously to the king’s adoration by emitting a virtual shower of rays, each terminating in a tiny hand.

In the course of my lectures it occurred to me that this phenomenon of reciprocity might be an example of the famous “I-thou” nexus advanced by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965). After all, I reasoned, Buber was working in the context of Jewish monotheism, which as we noted, shows striking affinities with the monotheism of Akhenaten, even though it was not derived from the ancient Egyptian prototype.

After the lecture I got out my old copy of “I and Thou,” and reread this wonderful text, which surely ranks as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. To my surprise, I found very little that is overtly Jewish. To be sure, scholars have detected two or three veiled allusions to the Hebrew text of Exodus. By contrast, there are several direct references to the Upanishads and to Buddhism. Jesus, the Gospels, and Christian mystics receive favorable, explicit attention. In short, if the text had been published anonymously, one would not detect that its author was a famous authority on the Hasidism. In fact, for much of its life--”I and Thou” was first published in German in 1923--the book was admired mainly by protestants.

Even more startling, however, is the fact that the book is not primarily about religion, but about deepening our human interaction with the world by observing the distinction between “I-thou” and “I-It.” The former manifests deep empathy; the latter instrumentalizes the world, reducing it to a mere convenience.

Buber’s book is laced with many references to Goethe. This was more or less obligatory in German scholarly writing of the time, but Buber seemed to have responded in a genuine way to the great writer’s humanism. Ultimately, however, “I and Thou” seems to be based on a cardinal principle of the ethics of Immanuel Kant, who requires that we treat others as ends not means. To take a familiar example, sexual objectification reduces the other person to a mere convenience--a means--for the satisfaction of the individual. By contrast, genuine love treats the beloved as an end, someone to be honored and treasured for his or her self. Indeed, Buber sometimes speaks of the man-and-wife relation as an example of “I-thou.”

In addition, Buber’s masterpiece was a child of its time, Weimar Germany. Its rhapsodic, sometimes obscure style shows notable similarities with the contemporary work of Martin Heidegger and Hermann Hesse. I also detect a more remote connection with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early masterpiece of concision, the “Tractatus.”

Examining the details of Martin Buber’s life, it is not difficult to discern the origins of his knowledge of Christian traditions. His dissertation dealt with the Christian mystics Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme [Zur Geschichte des Individuationsproblem (Nicolaus von Cusa und Jakob Boehme), University of Vienna, 1904]. For a long time the manuscript has remained unpublished in Buber‘s papers in Tel Aviv. I have not been able to examine the first installment of the new collected edition (planned for 21 volumes) of the writer’s German-language writings, but it seems that that this early formative text was not included therein. Perhaps it will appear in a later volume. Still, some periodical articles published by Buber at the time of his studies offer a glimpse of its contents. Guided in part by the nineteenth-century Christian theologian, Ludwig Feuerbach, Buber contextualized his subjects by also discussing Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Weigel.

Another interesting point--though it is a sidelight--is that after obtaining his Ph.D. Buber went for a time to Florence to study art history, with a view to teaching that subject. Had he persevered, he might have become one of my teachers in graduate school at New York University.

As far as I know, Buber never contemplated conversion to Christianity, but clearly his allegiance was to European and indeed to world culture. In this light, it is ironic that he is now known mainly to American Jews by his collections of the Hasidic tales associated with the eighteenth-century Ashkenazic sage Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. In the eyes of today’s enthusiasts, the Besht ranks as a kind of protohippy. Discarding conventions and doctrinal restraints, he freely roamed the fields, all the while singing away. Since this archetypal Hasid wrote almost nothing and was limned by followers only some fifty years after his death, it is hard to establish the truth of these claims. Skeptics have doubted whether the Baal Shen Tov ever existed, though surely this goes too far, as some contemporary documents have been found. At all events recent popular accounts are poorly sources and redolent of anachronism. For a demythologized view of this much-extolled figure, see the sober monograph of Moshe Rosman, “Founder of Hasidism,” 1996.

When he first engaged with this material, just over a hundred years ago, Buber seems to have viewed Hasidism as an exemplary source of Jewish cultural renewal, citing examples from the Hasidic tradition that emphasized community, interpersonal life, and the meaning that dwells in humble, everyday activities (for example, a worker's relation to his tools). According to Buber, the Hasidic ideal emphasized a life conducted in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no separation between daily life and religious experience.

Martin Buber has been criticized for presenting the tales in such a way as to illustrate his own philosophy of life, while omitting the overarching theology that was uncongenial to him. He has also, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to the cloying sentimentality that has come to envelop the vanished shtetl culture of Eastern Europe--what might be termed the “Fiddler on the Roof” syndrome.

In this vein, an element of wishful thinking has been noted in Buber's recasting of the Hasidic tradition. In the introduction to his edition of “Tales of the Hasidim,” Chaim Potok maintains that Buber overlooked Hasidism's "charlatanism, obscurantism, internecine quarrels, its heavy freight of folk superstition and pietistic excesses, its zaddik worship, its vulgarized and attenuated reading of Lurianic Kabbalah."

For their part, traditionalists have charged that Buber deemphasized the importance of Jewish Law in Hasidism. Yet Buber would have probably have replied that that was precisely his point. A commitment to a genuinely religious life is reflected in one’s daily conduct, not in adherence to a rigid set of beliefs.

A 2008 book by Martina Urban,”Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik,” links this interest on Buber’s part with his Zionism. Well, yes and no, for one of the key points of early Zionism was to begin a new life in Palestine, discarding the baggage of the old ways. Moreover, Buber’s freeform interpretation of Hasidism retains more than a few residues of his formative studies of the Christian antinomian mystics Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme.



Post a Comment

<< Home