Did Martin Buber distort Hassidism?

According to Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs in his 1999 study of Jewish philosophers, Buber’s approach to Hassidim was an outgrowth of his childhood.

Jewish Hassidic men walking in Eastern Europe   (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish Hassidic men walking in Eastern Europe
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is no doubt that the tales of the Hassidim will be featured in many of rabbis’ sermons. Most of the tales are simple and convey a message that inspires congregants. The best short collection and analysis of the early hassidic tales – originally oral but put into writing in both Yiddish and Hebrew – is Elie Wiesel’s classic Souls on Fire (1972). But the translations of the tales by great theologian Martin Buber into German in the early twentieth century, and later translated into English, remains the most comprehensive collection of hassidic tales outside of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Buber’s collection is a masterwork and remains a pioneering project of a Jew whose “I-Thou” theology seems to contradict the adherence to Halacha (Jewish law) that is the core of the telling of the tales in the community from which it emerged. The existentialist theologian emphasized the relationship between Man and God, and downplayed the role of Jewish law in Jewish life. I will explore whether this was a distortion or appropriation of Hassidism or a genuine attempt to adapt the tales to a modern audience influenced by existentialism.
According to Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs in his 1999 study of Jewish philosophers, Buber’s approach to Hassidim was an outgrowth of his childhood. “Buber was born in Vienna in 1878. At the age of three, the boy’s parents became estranged and he went to live in Poland with his grandfather, Solomon Buber, a noted scholar of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment movement. In this home he received a solid grounding in traditional Jewish education. He was exposed to the teachings of two great Jewish movements of that period: the Haskala and Hassidut, which influenced his future life immeasurably.”
The origins of Hassidism as a protest movement against the scholarly Jewish establishment in the 18th century fit perfectly into Buber’s attempts to revive spirituality in the assimilated world of Central European Jewry 100 year ago. Yet, Buber’s Hassidism and hassidic tales were wrenched from their original context. Does this render his Hassidut illegitimate?
The early Hassidic movement appealed to the Jewish masses, poor and ignorant, and had a great contempt for intellectualism. With God valuing inner spirit and good intentions, with the hassidic movement emphasizing the joys of song and dance and illumination, Buber’s background in the hassidic world led him to emphasize spirit over intellect. Hassidic tales presented a world where all – rich and poor, literate and illiterate – were equal. This was a perfect message for the theologian and Zionist to present to young Jews in Berlin, Vienna and Prague in a revival of the Jewish spirit.
IN RABBI Samuel H. Dresner’s The Zaddik (1960), the author quotes Buber on Hassidism and the rebbe: “I consider hassidic truth vitally important for Jews, Christians and others; and at this particular hour more important than ever before. For now is the hour when we are in danger of forgetting for what purpose we are on Earth, and I know of no other teaching that reminds us of this so forcibly.”
This is high praise of the existentialist elements that Buber gleaned from Hassidism. But most Hassidim would have rejected Buber’s universalizing of their faith and way of life. They certainly would have disagreed with a theology divorced from Jewish law that Buber rejected. Spirituality and purpose in life are certainly important elements of Hassidism. But the influence of the Jewish Enlightenment on Buber produced a transformation of a Hassidism no longer centered around the holiness of the tzaddik, and stripped Hassidism of its reason for existing. The hassidic tales were not primarily an exercise in spirituality but a way to express the rebbe’s critical role as a lifeline of the Hassid to God. Did Martin Buber believe that this was the message that would resonate with Christians? I doubt that Hassidim believe this.
Martin Buber did distort the message of the original Hassidim and he did appropriate it to deliver a modern message never intended by the Baal Shem Tov or any of the early spiritual leaders of the hassidic world. If you are an “originalist” in the mold of late US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, the theologian’s use of Hassidism would be problematic. And while I do sympathize with the originalists who want to know what the original intent was of those who composed the tales, I think it is unfair to forbid Buber from taking Hassidism out of its original context.
Is not the heart of Judaism’s vitality the power of interpretation and adaptation? Martin Buber inspired a generation of youths with a message that would enhance their spirituality and inculcate a love of the Land of Israel. That he did this, in part only, by wrenching the hassidic tales from the world of Berditchev and Breslov, is not a sin. It does distort the original meaning. It is appropriation.
Still, that comes with the territory. Any group or people who usher in a new movement must know that later generations will reinterpret their original purpose. Buber made the hassidic tales relevant to the world, and for that we should applaud him. His abandonment of Jewish law in favor of the “I-Thou” dialogical relationship is unfortunate to some. However, for a faith to remain vital and thrive, interpretation is perilous but necessary.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.