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What Does Martin Buber Have to Do With “Will & Grace"?

What Does Martin Buber Have to Do With “Will & Grace"?

Will & Grace logo from television show

The original TV comedy “Will & Grace” brought eight seasons of wide acclaim for scripting, acting, and groundbreaking portrayal of gay characters to television audiences from 1998 to 2006. The series is now returning to prime-time television and to lots of buzz, including talk of how “Will & Grace” got its name.

According to David Kohan, the show’s executive producer, the title “is very Jewish. There's a theologian named Martin Buber who talked about the will to go after and the grace to receive something. It always seemed like two complementary ideas. They happened to be good names, as well.”

But there is more to the back story of “will,” “grace,” and Buber’s ideas about Judaism and, quite possibly, sexuality. In fact, another Jewish spiritual theme runs through the title even more deeply than the show’s creators seemed to have in mind.

Martin Buber (1878-1965), German-born Jewish scholar, teacher, writer, activist and more, is best known for his classic 1923 work, I and Thou, which outlines three fundamentals: I-Thou, I-It, and Eternal Thou.

To illustrate I-Thou, imagine you’re the last passenger to board a crowded plane, grateful to take that only remaining – though middle row – seat. You stow your bags and nestle in, to find each armrest already claimed. “This is going to be a rough flight,” you tell yourself, until one of your seatmates pulls two apples from a bag, offers you one, and you get to talking. You become so caught up in conversation, you lose track of where you are, where you are going, even whether those sharp elbows bother you.

If Martin Buber were watching, he would likely say that the openness and listening in this conversation makes for the relationship he calls I-Thou. As for the person sitting on your other side, staring out the window without a word or glance your way, here you’re in Buber’s second relationship, a relationship he calls, I-It; it feels impersonal, indifferent, and uncaring.

Very briefly, to expand on this example, Buber goes on to put forward a vision of a perfect society built one I-Thou relationship at a time, a world community that supports each human being treating each other as I-Thou.

What’s more, Buber’s reality-based ideal is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible. When we follow the Bible’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) as I-Thou, we simultaneously honor the Bible’s teachings, to “Love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) We love God when we love each other, all at the same time, which brings us into Buber’s third fundamental, Eternal Thou.

Let’s return to your flight to see “will” and “grace” in Buber’s approach. You entered I-Thou with one fellow traveler, but you and the other were I-It, no matter how many times you looked over. I-Thou happens all by itself; we can’t force I-Thou to occur.

According to Buber, “The Thou meets me through grace – it is not found by seeking.” In other words, I-Thou comes by “grace,” not by “will.” All you can do is be open to entering. Buber adds, I-Thou is a “grace, for which one must always be ready and one never gains as assured possession.”

The difference between having I-Thou and having I-It in any moment is beyond your control; you can only be curious, flexible, willing to care, and showing the desire to carry forward with the next person.  And once I-Thou ends, as it inevitably must, it is over.

As for “Will & Grace,” the show, I-Thou rests, in Kohan’s words, on “the will to go after and the grace to receive” the kind of strong friendships that the show portrays. Yet I see Buber’s “will” and “grace” also speaking about our sexual orientation, which comes by grace, not will. That is, you can’t will yourself straight, gay, transgender, or the like.

Who we are is a gift from God; it arrives thanks to God’s grace. We are not to judge, we cannot change. We are to accept and love one another, just as God loves each of us.

I imagine Buber didn’t have sexual orientation in mind when he came to the ideas and words in I and Thou. And no one knows what he would make of the biting humor of a prime-time sit-com, how it took a name from his book, or whether he would speculate if this revival would add to the 16 Emmys the original show earned.

To be sure, the very act of naming a show is an act of I-It, rather than I-Thou, for the detached analysis that goes in to choosing and labeling. Yet, as we turn to the reboot of “Will & Grace,” I’ll keep Buber and his teachings in mind, with the hope that we all live with one another as I and Thou.

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

Published: 9/26/2017

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Literature, Learning
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