In 1923, the Austrian-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote an essay on the condition of the Jewish youth in his day. The situation, he explained, was not a good one. Large numbers of the young people had drifted away from their religion. The question, as he saw it, was how to encourage the young to ‘return’ to Judaism.
“Yet”, he asked, “is it fair to ask this of young people”? After all, the younger years of a person’s life are a time of ‘Alloffenheit'”(all-openness).
Young and wild and free
This is something many of us will recognize: when we’re young, we encounter all kinds of ideas and world views. While our parents grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, in an age of Flower Power, new views on birth control for women and greater economic equality, we are growing up in a time of demonstrations against climate change and against 5G: a time of job burn-out, widespread plastic surgery and of course the glory and downsides of social media.
As we shape our identities in these early years, we come across many different ideas and people. “So what we go out? That’s how it’s supposed to be. Living young and wild and free”, Wiz Khalifa sang in his hip-hop song ‘Young, Wild and Free’ (the millennials among us will know this). This is not only in a materialistic sense, but surely also intellectually.
In that case, Buber continued, why interfere in this process of self-development by pointing Jewish youth in a precise direction (i.e. Judaism)? He answered his own question in a positive sense: it wouldn’t be fair if Judaism were about a set of Glaubenssätze (dogmas) or a set of Vorschrifte (laws). Judaism, he said, is about neither of these things. Judaism is about serving G-d. And for Buber, G-d is what he called das Unbedingte, which can be translated as ‘the unconditional’. Although I agree with Buber that G-d is ‘the unconditional’, I have a more positive attitude towards the Vorschrifte, but this will come to the surface later in this post.
For Buber, G-d (or: das Unbedingte) can be encountered everywhere in this world and in an individual’s personal life. It has no bounds. When singing Yedid Nefesh together on friday night in synagogue (the Jewish song that personally touches me the most), but also in the more ordinary things, when meeting another person or when going on a hiking vacation.
Buber’s idea of G-d as ‘the unconditional’ which can be found everywhere in this world was inspired by Hassidism. Also in Hassidism, everything can be elevated: everything contains a divine spark waiting to be released. In words highly reminiscent of Hassidic language, Buber writes that “we shouldn’t teach the young that this and no other is the way in which G-d reveals Himself, but that everything is a Gefäβ der Offenbarung -a vessel of revelation”.
According to Buber, both Glaubenssätze and Vorschrifte are ways to lock down ‘das Unbedingte’: to emcompass that which has no bounds. This is why Buber didn’t see halakha (Jewish law) as the main point of Judaism. However, it is important to note that he didn’t completely reject it. He meant primarily that halacha should not be a substitute for meeting G-d in our everyday life, in everything, however big or small.
Chofesh and Cherut: two types of freedom
It is interesting that the title which Buber’s gave to his essay is ‘Cherut’, which means freedom. But there is also another word for freedom in Hebrew: chofesh. However, while chofesh means ‘freedom from something’, cherut means ‘freedom to do something’. It is possible that Buber chose this title because he wanted the Jewish youth to be free in the sense of ‘doing something’. In the sense of having a purpose.
Pesach is called zman cherutenu: the time of our freedom. When G-d took us out of Egypt, it was not only to be free from the shackles of the Egyptians, but it was also to be free to serve G-d, since it was after we were liberated that we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai (which we celebrate on Shavuot). We were given commandments that we should follow: it was freedom with a purpose.
The relationship that Jews have with G-d, varies from one Jew to the other. Some Jews relate to G-d by living (strictly) according to the halakha. Others have a more intellectual or emotional relationship with Him. And yet others have a mix of all these things. I myself try to live according to the halakha to the best of my ability. But I’m definitely also a Buberian/hippy-dippy/liberal in the sense that I think that Jews can relate to G-d in different ways.
In his famous book I and Thou, Buber writes: “But when he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be g-dless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses G-d”. In other words: even a person who claims to be an atheist, yet lives a life with direction and purpose, relates to G-d. And I think Buber was right in this. As long as we see our freedom as a ‘freedom with a purpose’, as cherut, we can meet G-d. And this transcends Jewish-religious differences.
Buber M. (1963). Der Jude und sein Judentum. Köln: Joseph Melzer Verlag
Buber M. (1921). I and Thou. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke.