On Buber

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Raef Zreik
On Buber

Martin Buber’s The Kingship of God was meant as the initial endeavor of a three-part journey into Jewish messianic thought. In the book, Buber sets out his interpretation of an ancient Jewish leadership model in political and historical terms. Specifically, he provides an interpretation of the Book of Judges as an intermediate stage between the divinely decreed leaderships of Moses and Joshua, and the dynastic tradition explored and realized in the Samuel and Kings. Buber suggests that Judges represents the epitome of Jewish theocracy; the direct rule of God as ultimate king/sovereign. This rule is effectively administered by persons given limited power by God.  

Buber’s interpretation is not merely an exercise in political history. In fact, he says, such acknowledgement of God’s direct rule constitutes a full realization of Jewish faith. Such faith is not an intellectual pursuit or mere emotion, but a complex, dynamic whole manifested in a Jewish theocracy. Buber points out the difficulties facing those carriers of limited executive power within such a theocracy. Their authority would be paradoxical as a mere expression of human sovereignty or social neutrality. The truth value of their authority must be constantly demonstrated and contested, incessantly judged within the context of their social reality and communal history. The power of the early prophets, such as Deborah, comes not from their ability to see things hidden from the laity, but from their capability to see and speak things as they are, to create a dynamic world of context and content inhabitable by human beings. Such mediated power brings forth a community characterized by radical social justice, a social enterprise enacted multifocally and multivocally, with very few inhibitions instilled from the top down.

Buber’s conceptualization of faith highlights its relationship to belonging. One of the faithful belongs not merely to a communal group, but to a broader, more diverse and versatile system of mutually engaged vectors. While Buber’s analysis is specifically focused on ancient Judaism, his language and conclusions seem pertinent to current phenomena such as the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Evangelical tide so apparent in the US and growing stronger in Africa and Latin America. It remains pertinent, of course, to the ongoing debate in Israel between Jewish and Israeli identities. Additionally, Buber’s conjunction of faith and social justice allows us to consider anew the waves of social protest sweeping the globe over the past five years. What sort of belonging is sought by protesters? Can it be supplied by liberal, capitalist democracies? What role does faith, in its historical and social realization, stand to play in the upcoming upheavals?

Christoph S
On Buber

Using the example of Gideon Buber constructs within the biblical history an absolutely original, primal stratum of theopolitics, which is situated even before the emergence of the Israelite kingship. It is an epoch of the absolute unity of the theological-political commission, which alone comprises the charisma, the divine Charis, the gift, and derives from this no permanent, hereditary title. This pure theocracy is the direct kingship of God, whose significance exists precisely in this, that no man shall rule over other men, inasmuch as any man, without supervision of another, can develop his individual freedom in the framework of the community. “There is,” Buber writes, “in pre-monarchic Israel no in-itself of sovereignty, since there is no political sphere outside the theopolitical.”[1]



Buber elucidates what one may tentatively call the “theopolitical difference,” with reference to the sociological concept of charisma, which he explains in connection with the theological concept of the self-revelation of God as EHYEH ASHER EHYEH (I will be what I will be):

Charisma adheres here to charis and to nothing else; there is here no resting charisma, only a floating one; no possession of spirit, only a wandering, a coming and going of ruach (of spirit); no power-certainty, only the currents of its authority, which presents itself and detracts. Charisma adheres here to the charis of a God that reveals himself to Moses as EHYEH ASHER EHYEH.[2]


Thus charis stands, as Buber explains, “over all law,” but not in the sense of Weber’s pure irrationality or Carl Schmitt’s Nothing of sovereign decision; rather, in the sense of a conceptually and legally indefinable absolute demand for justice. The charis over the law is in a way the pure law above all law, the pure calling to responsibility.

In this sense Buber interprets the answer of God to the question of Moses, as to who he really is, that EHYEH ASHER EHYEH, primarily, as conjugation of the first person of that which is predicated in the third person in the Name of God YHWH. That HAWA, HAYA, which is rendered as “Being” in the philosophical tradition and which urges here the concept of God as one of essence, unity, and identity—Hegel’s phenomenology of Spirit is the consummation of this Being-and-identity thinking—means ultimately much more a “Happening and Event” God, who is thoroughly inaccessibly omnipresent. At the same time, the self-sacrifice of God in charis is understood only in connection with the previously descending word of God EHYEH IMCHA (I am with you).[3]

[1] Ibid, 140.

[2] Ibid, 146.

[3] Ibid, 84.


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