Charles Lesch is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt. He has his PhD from Harvard. He recently published: Theopolitics Contra Political Theology: Martin Buber’s Biblical Critique of Carl Schmitt. He’s also published, Democratic Solidarity in a Secular Age? Habermas and the “Linguistification of the Sacred” and What Undermines Solidarity? Four Approaches and their Implications for Contemporary Political Theory and Against Politics: Walter Benjamin on Justice, Judaism, and the Possibility of Ethics.
Solidarity in a Secular Age: From Political Theology to Jewish Philosophy
Solidarity in a Secular Age joins two core areas of political theory, social solidarity and political theology, to tackle a fundamental problem of our time: What should unite us? In an age in which religious norms no longer predominate, how should we envision our social bond? Can we secure solidarity while upholding liberal values and avoiding racism, demagoguery, hyper-nationalism, and violence? Solidarity in a Secular Age responds by narrating an untold history of European political theology and spotlighting a neglected strand of modern Jewish philosophy to propose a new foundation for liberal-democratic solidarity.
In part one I describe the connection between liberal solidarity and political theology, uncovering religion’s underlying role in the evolution of European ideas since the Enlightenment. Whereas most historians stress the secular nature of modern political thought, I argue that some of political theory’s most central figures sought to theorize solidarity by appropriating concepts they inherited from religion: I show how Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned a democratic solidarity by transposing the theological concept of the “general will” to politics; how Immanuel Kant theorized an ethical solidarity by reimagining the core of our moral freedom in terms drawn from discussions of divine freedom; and how Jürgen Habermas proposed a discursive solidarity by secularizing our experience of the sacred into language.
In the second part of Solidarity in a Secular Age, I reimagine our social bond by looking to a different philosophical approach to political theology: the modern Jewish philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. While neither Levinas nor Buber advocate for religion, they do learn from religion’s insights into social solidarity. They provide resources for how we might restore our fractured unity while staying true to core liberal values: critical reason, plural attachments, individual dignity, and ethical responsibility. From Levinas I develop solidarity as sacrifice, an original account of liberalism’s moral psychology and concept of the self. From Buber I develop solidarity as fate and destiny, a revised vision of liberalism’s theory of the “we” and collective obligation. In an uncanny way, the novelist George Eliot anticipated Levinas’ and Buber’s ideas in Daniel Deronda, and I conclude by using her novel as a case study for how individuals can practice solidarity in their own lives.
Solidarity in a Secular Age tackles complex philosophical systems, but its purpose is to rethink how we, as actually-existing members of liberal societies, should approach our relationships and responsibilities. It provides us with a new language for navigating the challenges of contemporary moral and political life.
Martin Buber did everything he could to sabotage an actual Jewish state that would save the lives of millions of actual Jews, but to intellectuals, his writing remains fascinating. Buber was the epitome of the clever silly. Married to a Christian woman who wore a cross around Jerusalem, he lived in an abstract world. He regarded Bible stories as immoral.
Martin Buber was anti-halakhic and hence he is never taken seriously by serious Jews unless they’re playing intellectual games.
Buber’s ideas (as with those of Socrates and Plato) belong in books and should never be practiced.
Buber was all about the feelz. If you have a girly mind, you might dig it. If you are into unicorns, you might love Buber. If you don’t kvell to visions of dancing unicorns, you’ll likely be disgusted with Buber for his work exists in opposition to reality (much like that of Karl Marx and other useless philosophers).
* Few today remember that when the idea of establishing a sovereign state for the Jewish people was made the goal of the Zionist Organization, it was greeted by many leading Jewish intellectuals as an abomination. Thinkers such as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig-and later on Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and Hans Kohn-all opposed the idea of a Jewish state.9 And for much the same reason. All of them argued that the Jewish people was in its essence an achievement of the “spirit,” which would be degraded and corrupted (“like all other nations”) the moment it was harnessed to tanks and explosives, politics and intrigue, bureaucracy and capital-in short, to the massive worldly power of the state. This did not, of course, mean that no Jew should be involved in politics, but rather that no state should be a Jewish one, so that the Jewish people as a whole (or Judaism as a faith) could itself be retained in its perfect purity as an ideal. In practice, this point of view engendered a politics that held that the Jews should not strive to become a majority in Palestine and that that country should be established constitutionally on a “binational” basis-meaning that it would become a “non-Jewish” state in which the Jews as a people would have no special status and in which the mechanisms of state power could not be used to advance Jewish interests or ideals that were not acceptable to the country’s Arab population.
This binationalist view was almost completely discredited among Jews after World War II because of its association with the catastrophe of the Holocaust.
* And today there exists the possibility that Buber’s ideological children are on the verge of transforming Israel into precisely that which the early dreamers of Zionism had fought to escape: A state devoid of any Jewish purpose and meaning, one that can neither inspire the Jews nor save them in distress.
* Academia For well over a century, Jewish intellectuals-and especially those German-Jewish Jewish academics who constituted the mainstream of Jewish philosophy in the last century-have had serious doubts concerning the legitimacy and desirability of harnessing the interests of the Jewish people to the worldly power of a political state. Only the Holocaust, the most extreme demonstration of the evil of Jewish powerlessness imaginable, succeeded in turning the objections of the intellectuals to the Jewish state into an embarrassment, for the most part driving their opposition underground.3 Yet Jewish intellectuals, even in Israel, never became fully reconciled to the empowerment of the Jewish people entailed in the creation of a Jewish state. For example, Martin Buber, then living in Jerusalem, argued in 1958 that the belief in the efficacy of power embraced by so many Jews in his generation had been learned from Hitler. And with time, this manner of discussing the Jewish national power-which had been a staple of Jewish anti-Zionist rhetoric prior to the Holocaust-began to regain its previous legitimacy. Thus, Israel’s most influential philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the Hebrew University, had no difficulty calling the Israeli armed forces “Judeo-Nazis,” and declared that Israel would soon be engaging in the “mass expulsion and slaughter of the Arab population” and “setting up concentration camps.”5 Similarly, Jacob Talmon of the Hebrew University, Israel’s most respected historian, asserted that “there is no longer any aim or achievement that can justify … twentieth-century battle,” arguing that Israeli leaders who justified warfare on the grounds of national interest or historical rights were a throwback to the “Devil’s accomplices in the last two generations … [who] warped the soul of millions and all but exterminated the Jewish people.”
* But the main difficulty in Buber’s relationship with the Zionist Organization was not that it was a low priority for him, competing ineffectively with his interests in Christianity, socialism, mysticism, poetry, drama, and art. Rather, it was ideological. By 1901, the year of his failed involvement with Herzl at Die Welt, Buber was deeply immersed in the thought of Christian mystics such as Nicholas of Cusa and Jakob Boehme and was spending his time teaching toward the overhaul of social and spiritual reality at a utopian society in Berlin called “the New Community,” of which he had become a member. (“It is not enough that the `I’ unites itself with the world,” he wrote in an article on Boehme’s teachings. “The `I’ is the world. … When I bring a piece of fruit to my mouth, I feel: This is my body. And when I set wine to my lips, I feel: This is my blood.”) 15 These interests naturally began to refocus his attention away from the mundane Zion of concern to Jewish nationalists such as Herzl and Ahad Ha’am and toward an amorphous Jewish ideal that Buber began referring to as “the Zion of the soul”-which had to be reborn before “the other, the Palestinian Zion” could come into existence.16
It was the search for this “Zion of the soul” that moved his various Jewish cultural projects. And though he insisted that his various publishing efforts seek to inculcate “a radical social and modern cultural standpoint,” he did not similarly insist that the writers and artists working with him espouse any particular viewpoint on Zionism. Thus, for example, when Buber decided in early 1903 to convene “a conference for Jewish cultural work,” neither Zionism nor Jewish nationalism were mentioned in his letter of announcement. 17
Within the context of Germany’s antinationalist Jewry, the prospects for Buber’s “socially radical and culturally modern” movement of Jewish artists to contribute to the eventual establishment of a Jewish state were of course nil, and it was this that led Herzl to the conclusion that Buber would sooner or later be lost to the movement. Buber, for his part, responded by fulfilling Herzl’s prediction to the letter. When Herzl died the following year, the animus Buber had stored up against him came spilling forth in all its ugliness: “For him it was the finest time to die,” Buber observed; “Herzl laid his hand on it [i.e., Zionism], with a firm, shaping pressure…. How many noble possibilities were killed!” And, similarly: “It is fundamentally false to celebrate him as a Jewish personality, as one could celebrate Spinoza, Israel Ba’al-Shem, Heinrich Heine, or Ferdinand Lassalle. In Herzl there lived nothing of an elemental Jewish nature.”18 Even greater was his contempt for David Wolffsohn-who, with Herzl’s encouragement, had provided funding for Buber’s publications-and the others who now struggled in desperation to keep the movement alive. “With Herzl, the grand seigneur, it was possible to come to an understanding,” he wrote. “It is impossible to deal with these pompous nonentities.”‘9
At this worst of possible moments, Buber withdrew from Zionism, declaring that he would invest no more in “the organism which is condemned to die.” It sufficed that the Zionist Organization had fulfilled its purpose in Buber’s personal life. As he told Weizmann, “I needed all that to come to my own real work.”20
* …when Buber broke off his activities in the Zionist movement, he was thus able to relocate to Florence and immerse himself in the stories of the Hasidim. There Buber quickly came to regard his earlier nationalist enthusiasms with ambivalence, and after a wave of pogroms swept Bialystok in 1906, he wrote to a friend that his work on Hasidism was now his answer to such questions. “I have a new answer to give to everything,” he wrote. “I have grown inward into my heaven-my life begins.”22
* What was in those speeches? Buber’s Bar-Kochba addresses dealt almost exclusively with what Buber called “the personal Jewish question, the root of all Jewish questions, the question we must discover within ourselves.”28 That is, they were concerned with the subjective feelings of German-Jewish youth, bewildered by their estrangement both from a German environment too hostile to absorb them and from a Jewish heritage that, in the forms they had encountered, had nothing to offer them. (Kafka, for example, wrote of Rosh Hashanah services, “I yawned and dozed through the many hours … I don’t think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons.”)29 As Buber explained, the trouble is that the world of the German Jew was divided between his German “environment” and his Jewish “substance.” Normally, the national environment corresponds to the individual’s inner substance, but for the Jew in Germany, “all the elements that might … make this nation a reality for him, are missing; all of them: Land, language, way of life…. The world of constant elements [i.e., the environment] and the world of substance are, for him, rent apart. He does not see his substance unfold before him in his environment; it has been banished into deep loneliness.”30
Buber’s answer to this “deep schism” is not, however, for the Jew to exchange change the objective German environment for a Jewish land, language, or way of life.31 Instead, Buber aims for a subjective transformation: Amid the pressures of daily life one is aware only of the outer environment; what must be done is to reach in to one’s inner substance, to penetrate, to break through into one’s own self.
* Since Jewish “substance” is what is in the deepest recesses of every Jew’s heart, the individual penetrating deep into his own heart achieves a subjective feeling of unity, of becoming one with the entire Jewish people. The same knack for subjectively experiencing himself as becoming one with other things, which had permitted Buber a few years earlier to explain, “When I set wine to my lips, I feel: This is my blood,” now allowed him to promise that “Every one of us will feel: These people are part of myself.” But was this not a setback for Buber? Was he not giving up the sublime sensation of oneness with the universe and with God himself envisioned by Jakob Boehme, in favor of a parochial identification with a particular people, the Jews? Buber leaps past this difficulty by explaining that the identification of the individual Jew with the “substance” of Judaism is no particularism, because the true Judaism-as achieved by the Essenes, Jesus, the early Christians, and the Hasidim-is a Judaism whose essence is nothing other than “unity” itself. Thus, the Jew who affirms his link with the substance of his people does not, in doing so, actually arrive at Jewish particularism but, on the contrary, identifies himself with a people that itself embodies the desire for an interpenetration and unity with all mankind…
* This obsession with the penetration of all barriers and the unity with all things at all times, proclaimed in his Bar-Kochba speeches as the essence of Judaism, was the alpha and the omega of Buber’s “new answer to everything,” thing,” and the point of all his subsequent philosophy. Thus, for example, in a speech a few years later, he asked his audience to imagine that a man is kicking another man: “Let us assume the striker receives in his soul the blow which he strikes: The same blow; that he receives it as the other remains still. For the space of a moment he experiences the situation from the other side. Reality imposes itself on him. What will he do? Either he will overwhelm whelm the voice of the soul [and keep kicking], or his impulse will be reversed.”
* Now one might agree with Buber that the key to redemption is for each individual to achieve, within himself, a unity with everyone and everything. Or one might, like the Prague novelist and composer Max Brod, find such narcissism to be indigestible…
* One thing, however, is absolutely clear about the new message that Buber was pushing among the German Zionist student groups: It was not Zionism. It was not the Zionism of Herzl, who quested after the Jewish state; nor was it that of Ahad Ha’am, who demanded the upbuilding of Jewish civilization. For while these men may have wrestled bitterly over priorities and means, they had, in the final analysis, shared one common goal: the restoration of a strong and successful Jewish nation. In Buber’s Bar-Kochba speeches, this final aim simply disappears, pears, and it is the soul of the individual Jew that becomes the only arena of consequence. As Buber himself stressed, “Every man whose soul attains unity … participates in the great process of Judaism.” All else-even the fateful battle between Zionists and anti-Zionists over the question of a Jewish state-is relegated to irrelevance.
* There can be no appreciating Buber’s impact on the subsequent struggle for a Jewish state without recognizing that the revival he was orchestrating among the young Jews of Berlin and Prague during the early 1910s was not a nationalist movement. It was a Jewish outreach organization, whose goal was to achieve an effusive emotional affirmation of one’s being a Jew. And in pursuit of this end, he consciously sidestepped religious questions of tradition, truth, and the law, as well as national questions of state, land, and language. Buber casually cut away every troublesome particularism known to Judaism and gave the German-Jewish youth what they wanted. He told them that these concerns are superficial, nonessential. If only one could truly attain a feeling of “unity” with the other, then one’s substance was that of a Jew.
* In 1904, Martin Buber had dismissed the Zionist Organization as an “organism which is condemned to die,” and ten years later, he was still staunchly indifferent toward the movement he had abandoned for dead. Buber’s Bar-Kochba speeches do not even contain the word “Zionism.” And his other activities evidenced such disinterest that Weizmann in 1913 wrote to Buber that he had not included him in renewed discussions about a university in Jerusalem since Buber had “withdrawn from Zionist affairs.”38 The first volume of Buber’s collected essays, published in 1916, was entitled The Jewish Movement, without any Zionist connotations, and the essays written in the preceding twelve years likewise do not contain the word “Zionism.”
* “We do not mean to add one more nationality to the other nationalities that are fighting one another right now,” he now wrote. “The cause of Jewry is not to contribute to the separation of peoples, but to serve the alliance of peoples.” Moreover, the idea of a Jewish state was, as far as he was concerned, “no longer applicable” when speaking of Palestine. “I know nothing about a Jewish state with `cannon, flags, medals,’ not even in the form of a dream,” he wrote.
* The massacres of Jews in Palestine in 1920 and 1921 led Jabotinsky and others to organize a Jewish self-defense organization known as the Hagana (“Defense”), which would become the forerunner of the Israeli armed forces. But for Buber, the violence of the Arab mob only served to reconfirm his view that the Zionists, allied with British force, were creating in Palestine a morally corrupt regime that invited Arab hatred.
* [In September 1921] Buber proposed putting an end to Zionist diplomatic efforts in the direction of Britain, calling instead for Zionists to attempt tempt to merge Jewish and Arab political aspirations “in a just union with the Arab people.”51 Three days later, in a caucus of delegates loyal to him, Buber sharpened his attack, excoriating all contemporary nationalism, including that of the Zionist movement since Herzl, deploring it as “power hysteria” and diagnosing it as a “grave and complicated disease.” Instead, he announced the arrival of his own “true nationalism”-in which each people would strive to become an “element” in “a more homogenous mankind.”52 At the Karlsbad congress, Buber advanced what was to become-for anti-Zionists and “true Zionists” alike-the alternative to a Jewish state: a binational Palestinian state or a broader Arab-Jewish federation, into which the Jews living in Palestine would be absorbed as a minority.
* Buber, who, in a speech before the Berlin chapter of the Peace Association in October 1929, placed blame for the massacres in Palestine with the Jews themselves. After all, it was the Jews in Palestine who had been “excluding” the Arabs from their communal life. “Had we been prepared to live in genuine togetherness with the Arabs,” he said, “the latest events would not have been possible.” The only recourse was to rebuild life in Palestine on a model of “togetherness”-culturally, by “acquainting ourselves with Islam” and reaching “a cultural accommodation with Arabism,” and politically, by establishing “what is called a binational state” in place of the proposed Jewish one. As a first step toward such binationalism, Buber demanded that the Jewish leadership propose amnesty for Arabs who had been convicted of murdering Jews. “We must tell the world,” he said, “that we demand that the death sentences pronounced for our sake, for the crimes committed against us, must not be carried out.”6
Buber’s students in Palestine took his words to heart, accepting at least part of the blame for the massacres on themselves. Similar sentiments were expressed pressed by Gershom Scholem, who wrote that a life building Jewish Palestine was proving to be “a dubious undertaking.” For him and others in his circle, he said, the face of Zionism was proving to be “that of a Medusa,” and the torment of associating with it was “reaching the limits of endurability.” 7 The conclusion that the Jews had been in part to blame for the fact that they had been massacred drove Buber’s disciples in Palestine in various directions.
* Buber finally arrived in Palestine in March 1938, where he became the head of the Hebrew University’s fledgling program in sociology.
* Buber quickly adapted himself to his new role as Jewish Palestine’s arbiter of moral truth. In one of his earliest public statements after arriving in the country, he excoriated unnamed Zionists who were working “to establish our own national egoism,” declaring that even in a time of crisis, those who did so “are performing the acts of Hitler in the land of Israel, for they want us to serve Hitler’s god after he has been given a Hebrew name.”42 The League’s first pamphlet, carrying articles by Buber and a number of his followers, argued against the Jewish state and called for the limitation of Jewish immigration to 45 percent of the population of Palestine. A second pamphlet, appearing in August 1939, again attacked tacked the ZO for trying to settle Jews in Palestine without the consent of the Arabs, asserting that “it will not be the theory of Hitler and the worshippers of force which will win, but the teachings of the prophets of Israel.” In October, weeks after the German invasion of Poland, Buber headed a delegation of members from the league in a meeting with Ben-Gurion aimed at persuading him that only the adoption of a binational Arab-Jewish state as the ZO’s ultimate aim stood a chance of inducing Britain to reopen the question of Jewish immigration. Ben-Gurion, at this moment devoting every fiber in his mind to steering the Jews toward a confrontation with the British over the white paper, must have cut a grim figure as he listened to Buber, almost fresh off the boat, preaching to him the benefits of seeking immigration on the Arabs’ terms.
* Thus [in 1949], while Buber did say he had “accepted” the existence of the new Jewish state (according to his disciple Ernst Simon, “he accepted it with a heavy heart”),40 this “acceptance” was deprived of much of its meaning ing by Buber’s relentless efforts to promote the idea that the arrival of Jews in Palestine in large numbers had amounted to a “sin.” As Buber explained time and again, the Jewish settlement in Palestine had retained its moral quality only during the period when Jewish immigration consisted mostly of radical socialist youths. These Jewish radicals, he believed, had been well on their way to achieving a “true humanity,” while at the same time generating very little “sin” against the Arabs because there were too few of them to pose a tangible threat. Only in the mid-1920s, when Palestine began to flood with refugees from Poland and Germany, were the Arabs driven to violence, and only then was there “an enormous increase in our objective guilt.”41 It was this revision of the history of Zionism, in which the absorption of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler was not a virtue but rather the subject of “enormous” and “objective” Jewish guilt, that became the prism through which Buber interpreted all subsequent policies of the Jewish state. Thus, even after the establishment of the state, he and his associates continued to argue for the curtailment of further Jewish immigration into Israel (in the name of maintaining what was sometimes referred to as the “quality” level of the immigrants).42 And they did this even as they agitated in favor of the absorption of large numbers of Arabs into Israel-since the Arab refugees, unlike the Jewish refugees, were to be considered an essential part of the land. As Buber said, “There is nothing sillier than to be overjoyed because the Arab population has left. One day we will realize that the fellah [i.e., Arab farmer] is the column that holds up the edifice of the land of Israel.”44 By advocating that the state of Israel accept fewer Jewish immigrants while seeking to increase the size of its Arab population, Buber in effect continued his earlier advocacy of a binational state. The word “binational” was retired from use, but its substance remained. And this was in evidence not only on the question of immigration policy but also in other areas. Buber continued to insist, for instance, that peace would never be possible unless Israel agreed to be absorbed into a political federation with the Arab states, effectively bringing Jewish sovereignty to an end.45 He likewise continued to call for the Jewish state to hand Jerusalem over to an international regime (“I have always wanted the internationalization of Jerusalem”).46
* Buber: “Behind everything that Ben-Gurion has said … there lies … the will to make the political factor [i.e., worldly power] supreme. He is one of the proponents of that kind of secularization which cultivates its “thoughts” and “visions” so diligently that it keeps men from hearing the voice of the living God…. This “politicization” of life here strikes at the very spirit itself.”
* Buber: “But the majority of the Jewish people preferred to learn from Hitler rather than from us. Hitler showed them that history does not go the way of the spirit but the way of power, and if a people is powerful enough, it can kill with impunity as many millions of another people as it wants to kill.”
* The Eichmann trial encapsulated capsulated everything that he had devoted his life to trying to prevent. And this was true not only with regard to the Jewish state. On the subject of the Holocaust, too, Buber had invested a decade in attempting to achieve a feeling of mutual disempowerment with the “pro-human” circles in Germany, traveling there to accept various prizes and to call out to the Germans, “Let us not let the Satanic element in men hinder us from realizing man! … Let us dare, despite all, to trust!”62 For Buber, the Eichmann trial, a kind of retroactive pitting of the power of the Jewish state against that of Nazi Germany, was the apotheosis of all that Judaism must not be. “I am disgusted,” he wrote at the time. And he could not stop finding reasons sons why: He was disgusted because it was a Jewish court rather than an “impartial” international tribunal that was to conduct the trial; disgusted because the state has no right to take the life of any man; disgusted because “for such crimes there is no penalty”; disgusted because “killing him was too facile and commonplace a way out of this unique dilemma.” And when, after eight months of reliving hell’s scenes of annihilation, incineration, and extermination, the court in Jerusalem finally handed down a sentence of death, Buber was disconsolate, running from meeting to meeting with other professors from the university-including Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon, Natan Rotenstreich, and Leah Goldberg-writing writing letters and hoping against hope that Adolf Eichmann might be granted clemency and given a life sentence of agricultural work on a kibbutz instead…63
It seems that for Buber, no horror was greater than the reality of Jewish power.
* Martin Buber’s “true Zionism”-a Jewish-flavored reconstitution of Kant inimical to the very notion of a Jewish state…
Charles Lesch writes: “Political theology—the study of how theological ideas intersect with politics, law, ethics, and economics—has taken on new urgency. For centuries, it was expected that the Enlightenment’s secularizing processes would disenchant nature, rationalize society, and privatize the “sacred.” Yet “public religions” (Casanova 1994) continue to sway world affairs. The Western model of pluralism, toleration, and human rights faces growing pressure from movements with mythological and religious undercurrents (Galston 2018; Muller ¨ 2016). States and extremist groups justify heinous acts of violence by recourse to theological doctrines and apocalyptic expectations…”
Secular states, groups and individuals are just as ready to justify heinous acts of violence. As a rule, nobody cares about out-groups and nobody ever will.
“Buber does not merely impress his own agenda onto Biblical texts; he draws from them what he believes to be Judaism’s earliest and most authentic political theory…”
Buber had the magic decoder ring to understand what the true Torah (the one that existed only in his mind) is really saying. “Buber’s approach, therefore, is to peel back the layers of the text, to find, concealed beneath strata of redaction, editorializing, and ideological sediment, the “spontaneous forms, not dependent upon instructions, of a popular preservation by word of mouth of ‘historical’ events”. Just as Buber was not a fan of an actual Jewish state that would save actual Jewish lives, so too the Biblical text as we have it is not what Buber reveres, rather he loves what he imagines a mythical Biblical text says, the one that accords perfectly with his own sensibility. In the final analysis, what Buber worshiped was not God, Torah and Israel, but Buber. Hence Jews who take Judaism seriously ignore Buber.
“By revealing the politics implicit in Buber’s scriptural hermeneutics, this article adds a new perspective to debates on political theology.”
We then learn to our shock that Buber’s scriptural hermeneutics reveal Buber’s point of view independent of the Bible. In other words, Buber shares with us his outlook on life and ascribes that to God. Just what we need in these confused times. To Buber, Biblical stories are generally immoral.
“Buber offers insights into a number of pressing issues at the intersection of religion and politics, including the use of theological ideas to justify political violence, dilemmas of territorial sovereignty, the invocation of political theology to criticize liberalism, and the possibility of reconciling individual non-domination and collective solidarity without an enemy “other.””
Count me skeptical. A man who does not seek to dominate is not a man. Life is war and we’ll all turn to whatever explanations are the most useful. There is no collective solidarity without an enemy. There is no politics without an enemy.
“Buber believes that theopolitics should speak to all people, at all times—and perhaps to liberal-democratic citizens most of all.” Many girls believe that unicorns should speak to all people at all times. And yet the world shuts its ears. Sad!
“Against all attempts to prioritize the “political,” he asserts the ethical-religious unity of all spheres of human action.” Wonderful. Very inspiring. Can’t wait to see how this works out against an enemy bent on genocide. How many concrete communities have been formed on this thinking? Oh, none? Sad.
“Buber holds that we should transform our existing societies by incorporating the spirit of theopolitics, as embodied by ancient Israel’s prophets, into modern ethics, politics, and society.” Empty words if they are not backed up by a concrete commitment to law.
“Buber was not a systematic thinker.” Yes, but he had such exquisite feelings.
“Yet as Dan Avnon has observed, Biblical exegesis is the “heart of Buber’s philosophy”.” And yet this exegesis only reveals the loftiness of Buber’s own thought and yields us no insight into Biblical text.
“And as an aspiring Jewish academic in Weimar Germany, he witnessed firsthand the ascent of a Nazi movement that Schmitt enthusiastically endorsed.”
Schmitt endorsed it so enthusiastically that during the 1920s he repeatedly advocated for the banning of the Nazi party. Can’t get more enthusiastic than that.
“Theopolitics, Buber argues, arose as a way to transplant pre-state Israel’s “nomadic ethos”—its total rejection of human power—into settled life: When all people are mutually dependent on divine rule, none are dependent on merely human rule.” This world is as real as Star Wars. There has never been a society where people rejected human power and were instead totally dependent on divine rule. There is not even an intimation of this in the Torah. There is not one single Torah chapter wherein its protagonists exhibit total dependence on God and zero dependence on man. The Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never showed zero dependence on man and neither did the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. A man who feels no dependence on his fellow man is a nut case. More important than getting him Torah from Mount Sinai is his acquisition of thorazine from Cedars-Sinai.
“By draining our social relations of domination, we come to act as if we live under divine rule in practice.” How does one make love, work out and build a business with this philosophy? I’ve never known a church, synagogue or yoga studio completely drained of social relations of domination. It’s not even possible. But I guess it would be cool, like unicorns.
Martin Buber suffered from maladaptive daydreaming.
“Schmitt’s (1922) Political Theology centers around an analogy between God and the human sovereign: Just as a voluntarist deity sustains the universe’s natural laws through miracles, so too a human sovereign sustains the state’s juridical laws through inscrutable acts of will.10 Thus against liberal theorists like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and his German contemporary Hans Kelsen, Schmitt insists that liberal jurisprudence cannot be a closed system whose edicts have intrinsic normativity and correspond to a timeless reason ( 2005, 14).11 Moreover, as Schmitt would argue ten years later in The Concept of the Political, once any rational and normative grounds for legal order have been eliminated, a people’s unifying bond can be neither rational nor normative. It must be willed. Schmitt refers to this way of constructing in-group solidarity as “the political,” a way of relating to others that divides the world into “friends” and “enemies” ( 2007, 26). Thus in contrast to liberalism’s “art of separation” (Walzer 1984), in which different spheres of society—the religious, aesthetic, economic, legal, cultural, and scientific—retain a degree of autonomy, Schmitt’s “total state” subordinates all realms of human existence to politics ( 2007, 24–5, 38, 72). And in this way, “the political” provides him with what the sociologist David Martin has called a “secular metaphysic”: It reproduces for political solidarity the moral absolutism of religious faith.”
Where is Schmitt wrong? Asking for a friend.
“Buber neither rejects nor quarantines politics. Instead, he seeks out a new, morally defensible concept of the political, one bound upin an orientation toward the world that he calls “religious”.”
When your enemy is trying to rape your wife and enslave your children, it is very useful to have a morally defensible concept of the political. Nothing defeats rockets like a morally defensible concept of the political. Nothing will stop drag queen story hours like a morally defensible concept of the political. I wonder what Buber would have said about drag queen story hours. I’m sure it would have been exquisite.
“Buber takes Schmitt seriously not only as a philosophical but theological opponent, arguing that Schmitt’s “political” can only be understood in light of a religious institution: the “trial by combat” or “duel” ( 1957, 73).12 In a duel, the outcome—who lives or dies—is understood to reflect divine will; in effect, the disputants make God into their judge. It is precisely this logic, Buber argues, that is at work in Schmitt. Though Schmitt uses the language of secular political theory, his secret intent is to scale up the “trial by combat” from interpersonal struggles to those of states. “Every classic duel is a masked ‘judgment of God,’” Buber writes. “That is what Schmitt, carrying it over to the relation of peoples to one another, calls the specifically political” (ibid., 74). Thus the political is not merely a vitalist celebration of violence. It is a whole theology of bloodshed. It lends war a divine sanction.”
Hmm. That’s an interesting interpretation, but is it useful? Does it apply to real life?
“Schmitt failed to recognize, Buber argues, is that each of these pairings actually implies yet another pair of concepts. Behind the beautiful–ugly distinction, for example, is a contrast between “form” and “formlessness.” So too with the political. Enemies and friends do not fight over nothing; their hostility takes place against a more fundamental juxtaposition between “order” and “absence of order.” 13 Thus it is only when a challenge arises to what political life should look like that an “enemy” emerges. And it is this“dynamic of order” that is the “real principle of the political” (Buber  1957, 75)”.”
There is no order in international relations. There is no higher authority in international relations. There’s nobody you can call on if your country is attacked. You are on your own. States are like drug dealers — operating outside the law (international law has no meaning). And we’re all locked together in an iron cage. (John J. Mearsheimer) Deadly conflict is inevitable as different groups have different interests, human desires are infinite and resources are limited.
“Gogarten, Buber argues, was correct to reject the religious individualism of thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard. Where he erred was by adopting the opposite, collectivist extreme: that “the ethical is valid as the ethical only by its connection to man’s political being” (ibid., 76). For Buber, such a perspective abdicates individual moral responsibility. If our decisions receive their meaning solely from political interests, we cannot distinguish between the state’s good and the moral good in a broader sense. Thus although “Gogarten may speak in theological terms,”Buber contends, he gives free reign to a Machiavellian mentality (76). He lends religious imprimatur to Schmitt’s celebration of violence.”
All binding ethical systems that reference a transcendent authority are based upon a subjective leap of faith. It is silly to argue about subjective leaps of faith. Regarding Schmitt’s awful celebration of violence, how is it any worse than the Hebrew Bible’s celebration of violence? God repeatedly commands genocide. How does Schmitt celebrate violence more than Deuteronomy 7?
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.[a] Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles[b] and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
“Buber’s alternative to Schmitt’s political is a new but equally all-encompassing ethos: the “religious.” To begin with, the religious is not merely one Weberian sphere of value among many; it potentially interpenetrates all of them.”
Every theorist sees a sphere, which always just so happens to be their specialty, that interpenetrates all other spheres. My father the theologian, for example, thought of theology as the king of all studies. Economists believe that there is only social science and that economists are its practicioners.
Religion can no more replace the political than poetics can replace economics. They are different spheres. The religious sphere can only be arrived at by a subjective leap of faith. The political refers to an enemy who’s bent on destroying you.
“If communal life were parceled out into independent realms, one of which is ‘the spiritual life,’” Buber had written in I and Thou, this would “rob the spirit completely of reality”.”
You can claim any particular sphere lords it over other spheres when you rely upon a subjective leap of faith to create such a sphere. You could replace “the spiritual life” with “the unicorn life” and Buber’s arguments would work as well in making the case for faith in unicorns.
“A genuinely “religious” person, therefore, cannot live a double (or triple) life. She cannot be a caring mother in the evening, a back-stabbing politician in the morning, and an apathetic consumer in the afternoon.”
Well, is there any evidence for this? Are religious politicians any less likely to back-stab and to be apathetic consumers? Buber’s theories sound exquisite, it’s a shame there’s not much evidence for them corresponding to reality. For example, are religious Jews less likely to cheat in business or academia? Dennis Prager said that his fellow teachers at Brooklyn College believed that yeshiva students were more likely to cheat than the average student. When I ask rabbis if Orthodox Jews are more likely than the average person to be honest in business, their reactions range from ambivalent to sheepish to uncomfortable. From my experiences, Jews who become Orthodox do not become more ethical on average. Some do and some don’t. In my experience, Jews who keep strict kosher and daven three times a day are no more likely to be honest than other Jews and other Americans.
“While she can perform many roles, all of them must be informed by the same wellspring of value.”
Where does the “must” come from? You and whose army? Religion develops an in-group identity that simultaneously develops negative attitudes toward out-groups. The more religious the Jew, the more likely he has negative attitudes about out-groups. The more religious the Christian, the more likely he has negative attitudes about out-groups. The more religious the Muslim, the more likely he has negative attitudes about out-groups.
“Politics, Buber insists, should neither be rejected nor sequestered from other parts of human life; it should be morally transformed and redeemed.”
Should not every part of human life be transformed and redeemed? Lots of things should happen. Children should not get cancer. People should not starve to death. There should be no drag queen story hours in public libraries. Martin Buber has a dream. Big deal.
“Thus in a sense, what Buber articulates is a kind of inverted rendering of political theology: While Schmitt’s “total state” is one that “no longer knows anything absolutely nonpolitical,” Buber’s ideal polity is one that no longer knows anything absolutely non-“religious.””
Buber’s “ideal polity” has as much relevance to reality as unicorns. Unless I’m wrong. Perhaps you know some real life examples of Buber’s “ideal polity”?
“If ethical problems receive their relevance from the political realm,” Buber writes, “they cannot also receive them from the religious, not even [as in the case of Gogarten] if the political has a religious basis”
All questions about universal morality depend upon a subjective leap of faith to a transcendent source.
“Yet by what means can political life be neither sequestered nor abandoned but still infused with a moral ethos? What does this “religious” orientation look like? In places, Buber seems to answer in a sociological key. “To the political sphere,” he writes in a later essay on community, “there was always opposed the organic, functionally organized society as such, a great society built of various societies” ( 1958, 131).16 But at other times, he hints at a different and deeper strain: “There is no separate sphere of ethics in Judaism” (1946, 9). Or as he puts it in his book Moses: “The tradition of the pyramid faces that of the campfire””
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
That there is no separate sphere of ethics in Judaism must be a great comfort to those who are harmed by Jews. I don’t blame Jews for being human. I am not castigating them. I recognize that different groups have different norms and different interests. Buber propounds beautiful sounding theories, but what is their value? Do they correspond to reality?
“In Moses, first published in 1946, Buber develops his “religious” politics by contrasting Israel’s nomadic ethos—an ardent hostility to dependence on the will of others—with the despotism of the Egyptian state.”
In a blog post first published December 10, 2019, Ford develops his “unicorn” politics by contrasting unicorn ethos with the despotism of [insert any real society].
We have zero evidence that Israel or any other society ever exhibited an ardent hostility to dependence on the will of others. We have zero evidence that such a society is possible. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.
“The Book of Exodus teaches that “The Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel”.”
Great, because without that, we would not have known. Without divine proclamations, people won’t notice group differences.
“For Buber, this is not merely a difference in culture but a deep contrast in values and orientation. Egypt represents the summit of centralized and coercive civilization. Having subdued the Nile and its populace, the Egyptian state exhibited its total domination through monumental architecture: “As the pyramid culminates in its apex, so the Egyptian state culminates of almost mathematical necessity in the Crown, the ‘red flame’, which is addressed in the pyramid texts as living Godhead” The pyramid for Buber thus symbolizes a perfectly realized political theology, a Schmittian “total state.” All parts of the society are subordinated to its interest, embodied in the person of the pharaoh; and it is from this interest alone that they derive their value and meaning: “In the last resort everybody received from the King the function which made him a man” (21).
“Against Egypt’s domineering concept of the political, nomadic Israel offered an emancipated alternative. Historically, nomads represented a physical hazard to the state, persisting in the hinterlands beyond the reach of its laws. Yet as the political scientist James Scott (2009) has shown, their more profound threat was to its governing ideology. By refusing to accept any kind of structured hierarchy, and flourishing nonetheless, nomads were living refutations of the state’s Hobbesian insistence that freedom from violence requires total
domination. Thus for Egypt and other ancient civilizations, the nomad was a figure of both fear and desire. Buber quotes with fondness a Sumerian hymn that speaks of the one “who knows no submission…who has no house in his lifetime,” as well as an Egyptian source that refers to “the miserable stranger…He does not dwell in the same spot, his feet are always wandering. From the days of Horus [that is, from the most ancient past] he battles, he does not conquer, and is not conquered”.”
Different political structures suit different nations in different times and places. Context is king. If your state is fighting for its survival, you’ll want a total state. If your state is an island composed of Anglo-Saxons, you can afford more individual liberty. Egypt’s structure worked. At the time, it was the most powerful nation in the world. A nomadic structure that works for a tiny group of nomads is not going to work for a different nation in a different circumstance.
So what was the threat that Israel posed to Egypt circa 3200 years ago? Exodus 1:8: “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
Was the new Egyptian king wrong? How so? What nation welcomes another nation booming inside of it? Would the modern state of Israel welcome a booming non-Jewish nation growing within it? The previous pharoah had given Joseph’s family the prime property of Goshen. Might ordinary Egyptians have grounds for resentment?
Israel’s threat to Egypt was not primarily ideological. It was a matter of demographics. If there were 1/100th as many Israelites in Egypt, they would have been seen as less of a threat. There has never been a modern state with a Jewish population of 5% or higher that was not racked by enormous anti-semitism. Percentages matter. There are no modern states with a Muslim population that is 5% or higher that does not pose enormous challenges to the stability of that state.
Contrary to what Buber argued, Israel offered no alternative to “Egypt’s domineering concept of the political.” Israel had a system that worked for them. It would not have worked for Egypt. China’s system will not work for Australia. Canada’s system will not work for Nigeria. Different peoples have different gifts and develop different norms. A legal system suited for one people won’t necessarily work for a different people.
“Historically, nomads represented a physical hazard to the state, persisting in the hinterlands beyond the reach of its laws.” It depends. Nomads in China did not represent a physical hazard to states way outside of China.
Out-groups have always represented a real or potential hazard to in-groups, being nomadic has nothing to do with it.
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is a book-length anthropological and historical study of the Zomia highlands of Southeast Asia written by James C. Scott and published in 2009. For two thousand years the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects of the nation state societies that surround them—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée, epidemics, and warfare. This book, essentially an “anarchist history,” is the first-ever examination of the huge literature on nation-building whose author evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless.
Scott’s main argument is that these people are “barbaric by design”: their social organization, geographical location, subsistence practices and culture have been carved to discourage states to annex them to their territories. Likewise, states want to integrate Zomia to increase the amount of land, resources and people subject to taxation – in other words, to raise their revenue.
Zomia’s ethnic groups were formed mostly by people running away from states, seeking for refuge, each of them with their own ethnicity. Adding the isolation of the terrain, these characteristics encouraged a specialization of languages, dialects and cultural practices. Moreover, to remain stateless they have used this specialization along with agricultural practices that enhance mobility; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture to reinvent their histories and genealogies as they move between and around states.
“By refusing to accept any kind of structured hierarchy, and flourishing nonetheless, nomads were living refutations of the state’s Hobbesian insistence that freedom from violence requires total domination.”
Yeah, I am sure the Pharoah was upset about the nomads’ ideological challenges. Word got back to him that the nomads in Egypt used to say each other, “Why do they hate us? Because we value freedom.” That was such a profound insight for America’s war against terror. It worked really well.
Why did Osama Bin Laden attacked the USA on 9/11? He stated his reasons and none of them had anything to do with freedom.
“Thus for Egypt and other ancient civilizations, the nomad was a figure of both fear and desire.” Mark Twain said it better: “By his make and ways he is substantially a foreigner wherever he may be, and even the angels dislike a foreigner.”
“It is this intense nomadic antipathy to dependence on human will, Buber argues, that Abraham and his descendants inherited, linking life under arbitrary authority to the most profound unhappiness.”
On what basis does Buber claim that nomads hate dependence on human will? I suspect nomads like their own will as much as the next bloke. Buber provides no evidence for his assertions.
Abraham’s descendants may not have loved arbitrary authority, but they were willing to put up with it if the only alternative was starvation. Most people are like that. Who likes arbitrary authority? No one, unless such authority comes with things they value such as a pay check.
“Israel has acquired a visceral aversion to any political system rooted in domination.”
There is no way of organizing people that does not include domination. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had slaves who did not seem to speak back. Twelve-step groups probably come the closest to the non-domination ideal. What rules in the 12-step is the group conscience.
“How can the nomadic ethos be reproduced in civilization? By what means can its skepticism about human authority and its insistence on freedom from domination find a place in settled human societies, suffused as they are with economic exploitation, social hierarchy, and vast disparities of power? Buber offers his answer—“theopolitics”—in Kingship of God.”
Skepticism about human authority is just one value among many. It certain circumstances for certain peoples, it is more useful than in other circumstances and peoples. The only way you can eliminate “economic exploitation, social hierarchy, and vast disparities of power” is by eliminating excellence and when you do that, your group won’t be long for this earth.
“By subjecting themselves to God’s exclusive kingship, Buber argues, the nascent Jewish people uncovered a novel means of realizing non-domination: When all human beings are fully dependent on God’s will, no human being is dependent on merely human will.”
Do we have any reason to believe that this ever occurred? No. Buber’s thinking contradicts everything we know about how flesh and blood people work.
“This theopolitics, I will now show, is Buber’s “religious” alternative to Schmitt’s political. By inverting political theology, it extends the nomadic ethos into settled civilization.”
Just like belief in unicorns inverts physics. You can’t extend nomadic ethos into settled civilization any more than you can extend an urban ethos into nomadic life. Try exporting Japanese mores into West African life and see how that works.
“The “historical facts” behind Biblical happenings, he writes, are less important than the experience of participants—their “inner truth”.”
And how do we know their inner truth? We make it up and then we implement it! What could go wrong? We go Khmer Rouge and full Cultural Revolution and make the Great Leap Forward. Who cares if Mao’s absurd thinking led to the deaths of 80 million Chinese. What counts is that we feel righteous in our visions. Who cares how these things work out in reality.
“For only if ancient Israelites experienced themselves as actually living under divine rule—not as a metaphor or ideal, but in concrete cognitive and emotional fact—could something of this experience be conceptualized, recovered, and repurposed. Buber’s approach, therefore, is to peel back the layers of the text,to find, concealed beneath strata of redaction, editorializing, and ideological sediment, the “spontaneous forms, not dependent upon instructions, of a popular preservation by word of mouth of ‘historical’ events”.”
We make it up.
If X happened and we can discern X, then Y. If my grandma had wheels, she’d be a trolley cart. Brilliant! Here’s a whole new politics. What a rejoinder to Schmitt!
“His core finding is this: For a substantial period during their early history, the Israelites experienced God as their king.”
There’s no finding here. There’s only imagination. The written Torah contradicts this vision.
“Buber argues that divine rule in ancient Israel was understood to be exclusive and direct.”
That’s why the Tanach wastes no time attacking idolatry because it was not something relevant to the Israelites. That’s why the Israelites showed no desire for an intermediary between them and God. Exodus 20:18: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
“No one was permitted to serve as God’s intermediary; none could share in God’s sovereignty.”
Was Buber able to read the Bible with the comprehension of an 8 year old girl? Evidently not.
“God’s kingship was not understood at all in a metaphorical sense.”
Right, because the Israelites were able to relate to an invisible God just as they could to an earthly king. In what universe? Was God coming down and having comfy chats with the Israelites over cucumber sandwiches every afternoon? From Exodus 20:18-19, it appears the children of Israel weren’t too keen on getting close to God. But the text that Buber bases his thought on is not the tawdry Torah that exists in reality, it is an imaginary Torah that exists only in Buber’s imagination. Scintillating! What a profound basis for theopolitics.
Buber: “[By] ‘king’ I mean precisely the ‘primitive’ melekh [king] which the elders of Israel mean when they (I Samuel 8:19ff) demand a king….For thus had they experienced it: God had dispensed justice for them, He had gone on before them and had fought their battle, the melekh of an original early period.”
I guess that’s why the Israelites never complained.
“God’s rule, he stresses, was experienced as a palpable part of Israelite psychology. But—and critically—this did not precipitate a quietist turn away from political life. On the contrary, precisely because God’s sovereignty was thought to extend into every human domain, politics, too was understood to be a legitimate form of “religious” expression.”
Unicorn rule was experienced as a palpable part of Israelite psychology. But—and critically—this did not precipitate a quietist turn away from political life. On the contrary, precisely because unicorn sovereignty was thought to extend into every human domain, politics, too was understood to be a legitimate form of “unicorn” expression.
“There is in…[premonarchic] Israel no externality of ruler-ship,” Buber writes, adding “for there is no political sphere except the theo-political.”
Says who? On what basis?
“Buber is careful to preempt the tendency of Michael Walzer (2012) and others to read an anti-political message into Hebrew scripture. Ethics and politics are best understood not as opposing value spheres but as different manifestations of a unified effort to work through the implications of divine rule…”
Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?
Buber: “We may characterize the domain, in which the individual as such seeks to deal seriously in vital fashion with the exclusiveness [of God’s sovereignty], as the ethical…. The same is valid for the people with respect to politics. The striving to have the entirety of its life constructed out of its relation to the divine can be actualized by a people.”
No community can grant God exclusive sovereignty. Even the people of God have bosses and spouses and other sources of authority.
“If politics refers to the collective affairs of a people, the premonarchial Israelites practiced politics. They conquered territory and built cities; they lived under laws and redistributed wealth. They embodied “a tendency toward actualization which can be no other than a political one” (ibid., 118). That they did so under divine sovereignty in no way detracts from their political character. In this sense, Buber’s target is simultaneously Pauline Christianity and Weber’s division of value spheres. The God of Israel, he writes, “is not content to be ‘God’ in the religious sense. He does not want to surrender to a man that which is not ‘God’s’….He makes known His will first of all as constitution—not constitution of cult and custom only, also of economy and society.” Having made this veiled reference to Economy and Society, Weber’s magnum opus, Buber concludes his analysis with a final shot at his predecessor: “The separation of religion and politics which stretches through history is here overcome…””
In Buber’s mind, the separation is overcome. To those who live in fantasy, Buber may seem appealing. To the reality-based community, however, Buber has no place.
“Here we arrive at theopolitics’foremost contribution: transposing the nomadic ethos into settled life. For the nomad, there is no greater slavery than dependence on another’s arbitrary will.Andit is precisely freedom from dependence that theopolitics achieves. Human beings, by making themselves mutually and fully dependent on God, become mutually and fully independent of one another.”
Doesn’t work. Cannot work. Has never worked. Pure fantasy. But very profound and moving. Exquisite!
“Thus counterintuitively, it was precisely the Israelites’ extreme allergy to domination that led them to embrace absolute divine rule…”
And yet what we know about the Israelites reveals them to be human beings made of flesh and blood who bear no relation to Buber’s fantasies about them. The thought of Martin Buber is as realistic as that of a 16-year old stroking it to a lesbian gang bang. The only women who ever told me, “I love your cock” were porn stars. With the passing of time, I have concluded that they were only pretending to adore my appendage. As you can imagine, it’s been shattering for me to conclude that neither porn nor Buber have any connection to reality and that the imbibing of either type of fantasy distorts my ability to navigate through life and history. But wouldn’t it be pretty if this were not true?
“Under such an arrangement, power, reserved to the deity, cannot be exploited by men for their own aims.”
Right, because that never happens with the people of God. Whoever heard of priests or rabbis molesting boys? When was the last time a clergyman was caught with his hand in the till?
“For a people that has jointly and equally accepted the “yoke” of God’s kingship, divine law’s coercive force is not recognized as coercion.”
In fantasyland, sure. For flesh and blood Orthodox Jews, halacah (Jewish law) is regarded as a joy and a burden and a million things in between. But Buber was not halachic, so it was easier for him to live in fantasy. Nobody can build a Buberian community.
“Buber offers two examples of how theopolitics shaped Israel’s institutions: the Sabbatical year [Shmita] and the Jubilee [Yovel]. The Sabbatical extends the logic of the Sabbath [Shabbat] from communal to territorial life. Just as human beings rest one day out of seven, the land of Israel itself is made to “rest” one year out of seven. Proactive cultivation of the soil is prohibited, and a special holiness—that is, kedushah, or the status of being “separated” or “reserved” for God—attaches to any produce that does grow. The Jubilee, in turn, broadens the logic of the Sabbatical from years to decades: At the conclusion of seven Sabbaticals, the land not only rests but also is restored to its original holders.”
Secular scholars tell us there’s no historical evidence for Jews keeping shmita or Yovel.
“What both the Sabbatical and the Jubilee offer, therefore, is not only a token reminder of God’s kingship but a concrete expression of its power: A return to a condition of non-domination between man and man. People, these practices insist, “ought not to thrust one another aside, they ought not to impoverish one another permanently or enslave one another.” They should be made “free and equal again and again, as they were at the beginning” (181).
And so the Sabbatical cycles effectively furnish a “renewal of the Covenant” both in symbol and sociopolitical substance (179). Not only the agricultural produce but also the national community as a whole becomes “reserved” for God—a “Holy People”.”
Lovely words. Take two Torah laws and voila, you have a holy people consecrated to God, in theory.
“As the fiftieth year begins, all slaves are freed. Slavery, of course, is the nomad’s nightmare, a total dependence on the arbitrary will of another.”
I don’t see evidence that the ancient Israelites were troubled about holding slaves. The institution was about as widespread among them as you would expect from other peoples in their position.
“People, these practices insist, “ought not to thrust one another aside, they ought not to impoverish one another permanently or enslave one another.” They should be made “free and equal again and again, as they were at the beginning”.”
Lovely sentiments. People should be sweet to one another. What a powerful political critique? Take that, Carl Schmitt!
“What [the Greek polis] is presented as a model of equality and democracy was actually a deeply unequal society, one whose way of life depended on a vast slavery.”
How is that any different from Israel?
“Total dependence on God guarantees total non-dependence on human beings…”
These are lovely sentiments that have never worked for any group of people and can never work. All husbands and wives depend up on each other. Bosses and workers depend on each other. Rulers and ruled depend on each other.
“So long as every person acts as if God is sovereign, God effectively is sovereign; so long as divine rule sustains itself in thought, it sustains itself in fact. But once the theopolitical spirit fades, so too does the
reluctance to dominate.”
There have never been a group of people who had no desire to dominate. That is contrary to human nature.
“…theopolitics’ prohibition on human power.” There is no religious prohibition on human power. Everything Godly you want implemented in this world will have to flow through the exercise of human power. The Torah was transmitted by human power. The Torah was implemented by human power. If you believe God gave every word of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, you still accept that it was human beings who carried the burden of Torah in history and there is no human effort without human power.
“Buber thus concludes that direct divine kingship, for all of its promise, ultimately fails as a viable political
Why would anyone think that Buber has wisdom about the viability of political systems?
“His source is the Book of Judgesitself. Switching from an historical to a sociological key, he argues that
although divine rule “envisions a community as voluntariness,” in fact it “degenerate[s] into a moderately
How would man know what divine rule envisions? You can make a leap of faith, but how is that a basis for real world political analysis?
“As the unbelieving egoists grow in number, conflicts arise.”
Because among believers, conflicts diminish? The funniest line in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) is that Torah scholars increase peace in the world.
“They take what for Buber is the most pivotal step in the history of political theory: Requesting—and receiving—a human king.”
All human organizations that have existed in reality — as opposed to the fantasy worlds that Buber’s thought dwells in — have required leaders, whether they are as kings or not. The sovereign is he who decides the state of exception.
Buber is to Schmitt what Kevin Trudeau is to Jonas Salk. He’s nothing but a menace to clarity, decency and truth.
“Buber explicitly distinguishes theopolitics from anarchism in describing the conclusion of Judges, arguing that rulership of God entails an “order” which anarchism explicitly rejects.”
Contrary to Buber and Esch, there’s never been a rulership of God on this earth that has not been implemented by human beings exercising power and domination.
“…it was precisely defining the “political” in terms of “order” that grounded Buber’s attacks on Schmitt in “The
Question to the Single One” ( 1957, 74–5). Likewise, in discussing the Jotham story in Judges, Buber argues that the narrative “could be understood anarchistically [anarchistisch]” only if it were read “independently of the Gideon passage.”Thus while its message is indeed that it is “seditious that men rule over men,” its alternative is not that “no one needs to rule,” but that “God alone” should rule; not a “commonwealth without government,” but a “commonwealth for which an invisible government is sufficient”…
In Buber’s imagination, the Five Books of Moses teach us that it is seditious for men to rule over men.
“Like many scholars, Buber understands the Book of Judges to be a redaction of two books: An older anti-monarchical work and a more recent pro-monarchial work, with the final product reflecting an attempt at reconciliation. Based on Buber’s stated methodology—of unearthing the text’s “popular” voice—he could have dismissed the redaction as unreflective of the “true” Israelite standpoint. Yet he declines to take this step, arguing instead that the redactor’s effort was an authentically religious one: Deeply sympathetic to the spirit of
direct divine kingship while acknowledging its practical failure.”
For Buber, the Bible says whatever he wants it to say. We are so lucky to have someone who understands the true Bible. When Buber sorts through the Bible’s various stages of composition, he finds the teachings that just so happen to echo his own.
“Theopolitics proved impossible to sustain. Weary of incessant war, the Israelites again ask for a human king.
And God, recognizing a change in the people’s spirit, grants it. As Buber argues in his 1944 book The Prophetic Faith, this moment marked a world-historical shift not only for the Jewish people but for politics in general. When a human being ascended the throne in Israel, it instantly secularized politics, granting it a Weberian disconnect from other human domains. Moreover, it set into motion a process whereby those domains—religion, aesthetics, morality, economics, and society—each acquired autonomy.”
Different domains of life were often disconnected before Max Weber came along. Nobody but a tiny few have ever led a totally religious life, ergo for almost all of people, including the Israelites, there have been large swathes of life untouched by religion.
Different people in different contexts develop different political and legal systems to deal with the challenges that confront them. In some contexts for some people, monarchy works better than the alternatives. When you are fighting a war for your survival, a hierarchical unitary system such as an absolutist monarchy usually works best.
“As they flee Egypt, traverse the Sinai, and conquer Canaan, the Israelites, in Buber’s view, conceive of themselves as living under direct divine rule.”
As the Jews put it so beautifully in Numbers 11:5, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.”
Buber’s understanding of the Israelites leaving Egypt and setting up in Canaan bears no relationship to anything we know about human nature and anything we know about history. It’s pure fantasy. It’s Buber porn. Some guys like to watch gangbangs. Other guys like to read Buber. Both pursuits are wank-fests that drain and dispirit.
“God’s kingship permeates every aspect of their lives.”
Wouldn’t it be lovely to think so?
“War, politics, economics, morality, and cultic sacrifice: All are woven together through a religious orientation.”
That’s why the people Israel fantasized about how good they had it as slaves in Egypt. Because they were so religious and saw themselves as living under direct divine rule. How many people who see themselves as living under direct divine rule keep complaining that God is wrong and that they had it better in the old country where they were slaves?
“As they transition into settled life, however, this feeling begins to fade. Without the divine presence continually in their midst—God’s palace-tent and ark-throne—the Israelites gradually forget their deity. Their loyalties fracture. For agricultural fertility, they sacrifice to the gods of the soil [baalim]. For festive celebration, they consort with their neighbor’s idols (Buber  1967, 95–8). To be sure, the God who delivered them from Egyptian bondage retains their loyalty in moments of crisis—in repelling foreign incursions and punishing tribal misdeeds. And He keeps an altar at Shiloh overseen by a cult of loyal priests. Yet Israel’s religious orientation undergoes an invisible but profound transformation. Previously, God was understood as the subject of binding obedience and a wellspring of indeclinable obligation. Divine word was law—at every moment,
and in every human sphere. Now, God is regarded like any other pagan deity: A source not of responsibility but
of power, an object which, through a properly worded incantation or an unblemished offering, can be pressed
into service. God, in short, is redefined as useful and useable. He is recognized for “his power of victory, not
I too have enjoyed fantasies. I’ve dreamed about being prime minister of Australia, the Editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and the head of a major movie studio. In my various fantasies, there were progressions as real and profound as Buber’s thoughts above. What’s awesome about the fantasy life is that it has no limits and need bear no relationship to reality. You can just make things up.
“With the divine reduced to its utility…” For most people most of the time, most everything, including faith in the divine, is reduced to its utility. That is human nature. The “I-Thou” relationship is exhausting and only available to the normal person for a small part of his day. In general, the plumber and the cashier don’t want to have an I-Thou relationship with you. They want to get paid and they then want you out of their hair as soon as possible.
“Israel’s kings will be radically different from those the world has known. They will be kings not
in place of, but under God…”
Not that the Bible gives us much reason to believe that this happened.
Since 1954, Americans have recited: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
So using Buberian logic, I could argue for the past 66 years, Americans have been living out theopolitics with no desire to dominate anyone.
“In the ancient Near East, the king was a semi-divine figure. Regarded as either the deity’s viceroy or a kind of god himself, he held absolute sway over the human realm. Heaven was God’s domain; the earth was his ( 1967, 86). What this meant practically was that human kings were thought to legitimately exercise coercive power. Even
without divine sanction, they could fight battles, force labor, and punish criminals. No check existed on their
Unlike Buber, all kings in all of history have had to exist in reality and that reality puts constant checks on their authority. One aspect of reality is that people, including kings, control far less than they imagine. Most people, including most kings, have difficulty controlling themselves let alone other people and the weather.
Reality is a cruel mistress.
“Its uniqueness notwithstanding, this novel approach to kingship collapsed almost as soon as it began. And
what it bequeathed to history was not a new model of human rule, but a world-historical rupture: the secularization of politics. In principle, the monarchy was meant to strengthen Israel’s theopolitical spirit. In
practice, it rent a fissure in its lifeworld, dividing the political sphere from the religious.”
There have always been different spheres of life. Religious ideals and political realities have long been in conflict.
“The prophet’s fundamental teaching is the “undivided human life.” To bar the deity from any sphere of human
activity, he proclaims, is wicked and idolatrous—a rebellion against God’s kingship ( 1965, 199). And
so his charge is to reverse this trend, to realize “the unity of religious and social life in the community of Israel,” and substantiate “a ruling by God that shall not be culturally restricted but shall comprehend the entire
existence of the nation” (186).He attempts to reintegrate awareness of the Torah’s basic charge—to seek kindness,
righteousness, and justice—into “the whole life, the whole civilization of people, economy, society, and state,” as well as the “whole individual, his emotions, and his will…his life at home and in the marketplace, in the
temple and in the popular assembly” (1967, 195–6). What he asks for, in short, is not only wholeness of the heart but of the entire human being. “The prophets,”Buber writes, “never differentiate between the spiritual and the temporal, between the realm of God and the realm of man. For them, the realm of God is nothing more than the
realm of man as it is to be”…”
These are beautiful words that mean nothing if they are not accompanied by a concrete commitment to Jewish law. While the Hebrew prophets, according to all indications, observed Jewish law, Martin Buber mocked Jewish law. I find it obnoxious that this non-observant Jew married to a Christian and opposed to Jews developing their own modern state of Israel is lecturing us on the Torah’s perspective on theopolitics.
… the prophet also epitomizes what Buber, in his writings on existentialism and ethical phenomenology, holds to be an inescapable truth of the human condition: A person chooses neither his hour, nor his
society, nor his polity. He finds himself enmeshed in norms, economic structures, social dynamics, and
political institutions that he did not create and cannot fully escape. Confronted with this reality, people often
react in one of two ways. A first group embraces it. They celebrate the world as it is, exult in its facticity, and reconcile themselves to its ways and values. To paraphrase Hegel, they rejoice in the present, attuning their
rationality to accommodate its governing rationality. A second group revolts against it. Finding their world a
site of unpunished injustice and unchecked immorality, they turn their backs. To preserve the beauty of their
souls, they retreatinto anti-political quietism or thought’s internal exile.
Buber’s prophet takes a third path. “The prophets,” he writes “do not fight the state as state,” but the “state
that lacks a divine, a spiritual element.” Because they are “faithful to the Jewish concept, they cannot deny the
world as it exists, cannot turn away from it; they must endeavor to permeate it with spirit, the spirit of true
community” (1967, 118–9). Recognizing the ineluctability of his hour, the prophet neither refuses nor embraces it. He takes stock of the world, scrutinizes its flaws, and measures its needs. Rejecting the inevitability
of domination, he seeks to diminish it—on a real, objective, and structural level—in all his social roles.
And he accepts it as a test and challenge—indeed a “higher form of challenge” than any possible under
immediate divine rule (1964b, 735). He embodies the theopolitical spirit in a post-theopolitical age.
The pop group Tears for Fears had a more profound understanding of reality than Martin Buber when they sang, “Everybody wants to change the world.”
Charles Esch writes: “This article has offered a new reading of Martin Buber’s political thought. Though Buber is not often read for his insights about politics, running through his oeuvre is an overlooked, original, and important critique of political theology. And though Buber was an unsystematic thinker, a close reading of his scriptural commentaries reveals that he found an alternative in the Hebrew Bible’s earliest political theory: the kingship of God—what he called “theopolitics.””
I never thought Martin Buber had anything to teach us about politics or religion and now I am even more deeply confirmed in that opinion. Theopolitics as presented by Charles Esch bears as much resemblance to politics as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea bears a resemblance to democracy. The theopolitics sketched above belongs only in fantasy, much like communism and Platonic thought.
“As originally conceived, theopolitics is principled and uncompromising.”
That’s the wonderful thing about fantasies — they can be as principled and uncompromising as you want. My fantasies, for example, are truly righteous and without any compromise.
“It teaches that no human being, at any time, in any sphere of activity, has the right to make another dependent on her will. Theopolitics’ history, however, teaches that this has been unworkable.”
Your theopolitics teaches nothing because it bears no relationship to reality and has never been practiced. There is no history because history takes place in reality.
“It tells of a people who tried to sustain a radical egalitarianism, who cyclically fallowed their fields and freed their slaves, then backslid into idolatry, had stretches of real success, but ultimately failed, succumbing to egoistic defection, the craving for security, and the all-too human need for a tangible semiotics of political
I used to write stuff like this when I was composing letters for Penthouse Forum.
“To be a prophet in the present requires living in deep moral tension.”
Could Charles Esch be any more pompous? Has there ever been a time when any human being wanting to do the right thing has not lived in moral tension?
“Rather than overthrow the secular state with the modern equivalent of direct divine rule (anarchy), we criticize human authority in every sphere of activity. We provide a clear and steady voice for the theopolitical
spirit, reminding persons and institutions alike that they have no inherent right to power and of the wrongfulness
of domination. We censure and chasten, rebuke and reprimand. This, Buber insists, is the “nabi [prophetic]
attitude—with or without the application of the term”.”
This guy needs to read some John Mearsheimer. There are no natural rights except in the world of fantasy.
“Of course, this is by no means the extent of Buber’s political program. He writes, for example, about how
the state’s role can be gradually scaled back to make room for more organic and spontaneous forms of social
organization,like the kibbutz…”
Buber wanted the Jewish state’s role so scaled back that it did not exist and thus Hitler’s work could be completed. The upshot of Buber’s life’s work was to facilitate Hitler’s mission. Such noble theopolitics. What a great man.
“He deeply opposes all forms of imperialism, xenophobia, and “hypertrophic” nationalism.”
Stunning and brave. Imagine an intellectual criticizing imperialism, xenophobia and nationalism. Martin Buber was the Caitlin Jenner of Jewish intellects.
“And as foils, not to kings, but to naturalizations of all kinds, we constantly reaffirm the basic
theopolitical message: That interpersonal exploitation is not a necessity, but a choice; that true freedom is not
lordship over others, but mutual non-domination; and that “destiny is not a dome pressed tightly down on the world of men,” but lives shared together in genuine solidarity.”
I’ve had many dreams about flying, just running down the street and then soaring into the air. I’ve decided to call these dreams theopolitics.
“Thus instead of using theological language to support preconceived ideas, Buber looks to the Hebrew
Bible to ground his normative views..”
The Hebrew Bible of Buber’s imagination, not the actual text that the rest of us study.
“His concept of theopolitics arises from ethically attentive exegesis, not philosophical rumination. It reflects an enduring lesson of Israel’s nomadic ethos: That our hope, in the end, lies not with the philosopher’s pen or the sovereign’s sword, but in the hard, daily task of ethical life. Political theory may help to guide these labors; only we can work for their success.”
Let me know how that works when Arab armies attack Israel.
If I disarm you when you are surrounded by people intent on killing you, I have effectively played a significant role in your death. That was Martin Buber’s mission towards the state of Israel. He tried to kill it and with its destruction, his own people, his extended family.
“When we live the spirit of theopolitics in all our relationships, we effectively restore a condition of divine sovereignty (1946, 70). We drain our social relations of coercion. We realize God’s purpose without God’s presence. And this, for Buber, is ultimately the point.”
I wonder if Charles Esch has any experience in lived Judaism, where the more traditional the community, the more hierarchical and coercive it is.
I sent Charles Esch an interview request. He did not respond.