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Monday, November 15, 2010

Celebrating Buber's "I and Thou"

By Dow Marmur, Toronto Star, November 15, 2010
(Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple)
According to Martin Buber, one of the great 20th century religious thinkers, the “I-thou” encounter between Jesus and God and similar experiences of other great teachers constitute the very essence of faith. However, the unique testimonies of individuals that are at the root of world religions are soon reduced to “I-it” manipulations that distort faith by turning subjective experiences into objectified institutions manifest in webs of incomprehensible doctrines and arbitrary decrees.

Buber was a Jew steeped in Jewish tradition, particularly the Hebrew Bible and Hasidism, the religious movement that emerged in 18th century Eastern Europe and continues to influence Jewish life to this day. He died in Israel as a vociferous critic of what he saw as disastrous distortions brought about by unholy alliances between religion and politics. Had he been alive today, he would have been even more appalled by the many ostensibly religious leaders who manipulate power to their institutional advantage and at the expense of ordinary citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike.
When I was a student in theology school, Buber's I and Thou was held up as a respectable model of potential glimpses of "God" as the state of relationship that exists when two people, fully present, and fully vulnerable to the fullest expression of the truths that emerge in the encounter...and of course, the role of manipulation, naturally, is non-existent, to the extent that its absence is possible whenever two people fully experience not only each other but also the "in-between" that surpasses intellectual and emotional and psychic realities, into something more profound than can be described in those terms.
It is a state that neither individual can create alone; it is a state that no one can truly engineer; it is an encounter that prompts some to write that God is not a person but rather a relationship.
From Marmur's perspective, it would seem that one's encounter with 'great teachers' would be another example of a similar encounter, and to the extent that such encounters are illuminating and enlightening and freeing and compelling and nurturing, I would agree.
And yet, we are all, potentially, both teacher and student, depending on our openness to both our own reality and to the reality of the other...and such openness requires a letting down of our own defences, and a setting aside of our agenda to change, convert, to nudge or even to persuade....and to replace all of these urges with simple "being". When that "being" is available to us, and to the other, it is more likely, so goes the way it was presented to me, that the other's "being" is more likely to be available to both the other and to our being.
And, the ideology, the economics, the politics, the psychology and even the belief system that might encrust our perceptions of ourselves can and often does give way to our "nothingness" and present our nothingness to the other's nothingness.
It is, argues Buber, as it was explained to me, in this mysterious encounter of the sacredness of one with the sacredness of the other that God can and does exist, not that such a figure is even then easily or clearly discernible.
However,  a state of being, like no other at least, is created. And because humans are constantly and irrepressibly yearning for such an experience, and because the experience is a kind of transcendent one, compared to our many different encounters, it can be said to be an encounter with the mystery of God.
And, in order for such an experience to occur, it can and must have no other meaning than that of its existence. It cannot sustain any other "agenda" or purpose including that of religious conversion or political argument.
It is also a Jewish tradition, called "tsim-tsum," whereby God removed "himself" from the universe so the universe could "become" or "create" itself.
And this tradition would be a welcome inclusion to many so-called spiritual experiences, in that our spirits are more likely to soar, given the openness and the opportunity that comes with such openness, without the prevailing "pressure" to become a "convert" or an "adherent" or an "apostle" for a religion, or for a political cause.
It is in this sense that the separation of faith from politics makes sense to this writer, and not in the legal sense that the U.S. so valiantly, but in vain, attempts to prosecute.
And when one sees God as speaking to a single individual through all of the potential avenues of encounter, it is the "i-thou" encounter that seems to capture the essence of this potential experience better than many other attempts to express it.
And certainly, all "I-It" encounters represent nothing if not the antithesis of the "I-Thou" encounter.
It is the subjectivity that Buber places at the core of the encounter, uninvaded by the objective, or the objectivity of the "it" thereby not reducing any party, including God, to an "it."
And isn't that one of the primary aspirations of all authentic human spirits?
And does anyone think that "God" does not intimately "know" that about us.

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