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To See Spirituality Every Day, Look to Martin Buber's Teachings

To See Spirituality Every Day, Look to Martin Buber's Teachings

Martin Buber

There’s spirituality thriving in our homes, offices, and synagogues. It hides in plain sight, in our small talk, in extended conversations, and in the back-and-forth between people. Jewish thinker Martin Buber called this spirituality “I-Thou.”

Buber’s landmark book, I and Thou, brought this interpersonal spirituality to light in 1923. He speaks of two kinds of human interactions in I and Thou – I-It and I-Thou. To illustrate I-It, envision yourself leaving work for Shabbat services one Friday afternoon. You’re racing from the office to the car and run into someone from another department who asks, “Plans for the weekend?” but you are in such a hurry that you respond, “Yes! Have a good one!” without even breaking stride. Buber would likely take this “brush off” as an example of I-It, because at least one partner is not engaged fully in the conversation.

You get to temple and the custodian greets you at the door with a heartfelt, “Shabbat shalom!” as always. You walk over, look him in eye, ask how his kids are doing – you really want to know – and he tells you. This brief exchange, marked by a genuine measure of caring, is an example of I-Thou. You’ll enter I-Thou again during the oneg Shabbat and later with friends, in more extended conversations filled with deep personal speech and careful listening.

Challenging as it is to describe what makes I-It into I-Thou, Buber uses the term, “inclusion.” As an example of inclusion, imagine placing your hand on my arm. Take a moment to feel my arm in your hand. Now take another moment to imagine how it feels for me to have your hand on my arm – try to experience both sides of the relationship simultaneously. In the same way, we practice inclusion when speaking with each other as I-Thou, as we mutually try to see, understand, and appreciate one another, all at the same time.  

Buber also uses the phrase “imagine the real” to help us understand inclusion. As real as your feelings are to you, I cannot know exactly how you feel at any given moment. I can try to imagine your experience but, not being you, I cannot have your precise experience. Instead, I can only “imagine the real” as I consider your joy, pain, or whatever emotion comprises your situation at any specific time.

Buber has much more to say about I-Thou, especially when he envisions a society based on genuine, trusting I-Thou relationships, as well as communities and nations built on I-Thou encounters among members.

It wasn’t easy for Buber to develop and try to live by these high ideals; he confronted heartache and challenge, time and again. His mother abandoned him at a very early age and he didn’t see her again until his teens; he lived with grandparents, Solomon and Adele Buber, who were instrumental in strengthening his spirit, as did his wife of nearly 60 years, Paula. Between the World Wars, Buber lived in Germany, where he taught and lectured openly in defiance of the Nazis. In 1938, he and his family moved to Israel, where he continued to study and write, and was a founder of Hebrew University, where he taught and raised disciples. While living in Israel, his many publications included trailblazing anthologies of Hasidic stories, as well as a German translation of the Hebrew Bible begun with Franz Rosenzweig many years earlier.

Buber’s deep Jewish roots are often overlooked. For instance, the Torah tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “You shall love the Eternal, your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5) to teach that we show our love for God when we love one another. Thus, I-Thou may seem to be little more than honest talking and listening between friends, yet Jewish ideals led Buber to propose that such conversations include a spiritual dimension: Eternal Thou. That is, when we speak with each other as I-Thou, we also speak with God as Eternal Thou at the same time.

What is more, Buber's social vision starts with the Torah's call for us to "imagine the real" and practice "inclusion." Consider the teaching to “Love the stranger as yourself, because you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The Torah has us recall our people’s heartache as slaves in Egypt and, at the same time, recognize our good fortune to live freely today. We then go on to work for the redemption of others who, in our time of freedom, unfortunately, remain oppressed.

The interpersonal spirituality of I-Thou is a Jewish spirituality, literally hiding in plain sight, in our daily routines, as well as in life’s special moments. Recognizing the everyday spiritual potential between people opens a door to grace and wonder.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross is author of God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber (Jewish Lights). His most recent book is When a Lie Is Not a Sin: The Hebrew Bible’s Framework for Deciding (Jewish Lights). He has also authored All Politics Is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community, and has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other publications. Learn more at his website.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross
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