Jewish theologian and philosopher whose approach to the man–God relationship has had considerable impact on both Jewish and Christian theology in the twentieth century.
Born in Vienna, Buber moved to Lvov (now in the Ukraine) after his parents separated and was raised by his grandparents. He studied philosophy at the universities of Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, and Zürich and became a supporter of the Zionist cause. After briefly editing the Zionist weekly Die Welt, he split with the Zionist leader, Theodore Herzl, and formed the Zionist Democratic Faction. Der Jude, founded by Buber in 1916, became the leading periodical for German Jewish intellectuals. Dissatisfied with modern Judaism and what he regarded as the alienation between man and God, Buber turned to Hasidism, the Jewish sect founded in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. In his great philosophical work, Ich und Du (1923; translated as I and Thou, 1937), Buber distinguished two basic forms of relationship between man and the world: ‘I–It’, in which we only partially engage with an ‘object’ or some abstract notion of it, and ‘I–Thou’, in which our entire being conducts a ‘dialogue’ with another ‘subject’. These latter profound relationships, usually with people but also with things, point the way to the supreme I–Thou relationship, that between man and God.
Buber was co-founder of the Free Jewish House of Learning in Frankfurt and in 1930 was appointed professor of religion at Frankfurt University. Dismissed by the Nazis in 1933, he devoted his efforts to Jewish teacher-training throughout Germany. But the Nazis increasingly restricted his activities and in 1938 he emigrated to Palestine, where he became professor of social philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He consistently urged cooperation with the Arabs, served as first president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Arts, and was co-author, with Franz Rosenzweig, of a new German translation of the Bible, completed in 1961.