Saturday, October 4, 2008

I-Thou: The Missing Ingredient

I-Thou: The Missing Ingredient
By Sheldon Stoff

Martin Buber saw Israel as a homeland, wherein there could be a flowering of true brotherhood of man, a true relationship with life, with the natural world, and with spiritual beings.

"When Dag Hammarskjold’s plane crashed in Northern Rhodesia, the Secretary General of the United Nations had with him the manuscript of a translation that he was making of Martin Buber’s classic work I and Thou. It is because of this book and the philosophy of dialogue that it presents that Dag Hammarskjold repeatedly nominated Martin Buber for a Nobel Prize in Literature. I and Thou is recognized today as among the handful of writings that the twentieth century will bequeath to the centuries to come…"

The foregoing is the opening statement in Maurice Friedman’s introduction to Professor Buber’s Between Man and Man. One of Secretary General Hammarskjold’s last acts was the writing of a letter to Dr. Georg Svensson to recommend that Dr. Buber, Jewish philosopher and theologian, receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1938, when Professor Buber spoke in Germany about the menace of Hitlerism two hundred Nazi Storm Troopers stood surrounding the audience in an attempt to intimidate him. His friends knew that he was to be arrested the next morning, so they flew him out of Germany that night. They brought him to Palestine, and there he established himself in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. He believed in brotherhood, and he practiced brotherhood. In 1967, when the Egyptian troops briefly took over that section of Jerusalem during “The Six Day War” they ordered a special guard to surround and protect his house. He was a “holy man” and they honored him.

During my university years, I carried on a long correspondence with Dr. Buber. He became one of my mentors. His seminal work, I and Thou, had been a best seller on college campuses in the United States for fifty years. In this book, Dr. Buber describes two kinds of relationships. The relationship of "I-Thou" is a relationship of caring, empathy, respect, cohesion, and even love. The other kind--"I-It"--is a relationship characterized by distance, coldness, analysis, manipulation, and even hatred.

How can it be in a world with three mighty religions—all preaching the “word of God”—that we have continuous wars and terrorism? In proliferating distortions, religious leaders all too often stress differences rather than the central message which is held in common. That message in common, that common denominator, is love and compassion for all.

It is incumbent upon the United Nations organization to mediate the current urgencies of political and economic agendas in order to actualize that common denominator, that “I-Thou” principle which must define humankind. Martin Buber put this very clearly and simply. We need to listen to him:

"And in all the seriousness of truth, hear this: without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man." (Martin Buber)

In a war between such divergent ideals, only the finest ideals will have a possibility of long-term success.

Editor’s Note: Now Professor Emeritus at Adelphi University, Dr. Stoff taught a course on the philosophy of Martin Buber while he was studying for his doctorate at Cornell University. He is author of The Two Way Street, The Human Encounter, The Pumpkin Quest, and Universal Kabbalah: Dawn of a New Consciousness.