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  • Medad Lytton

Freedom and Renewal: An Analysis of Buber's On Religiosity

Martin Buber (1878-1965) is one of the great Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Born in Vienna but raised in Lemberg by his grandfather, a scholar of Midrash, Buber was, from a young age, to the rich world of Rabbinic literature. Despite being from a German Jewish family, Buber was exposed to Hasidism through his contact with the significant Hasidic population of Lemberg. As a young man, Buber broke with his traditional upbringing and went to study German philosophy in Vienna. He was particularly inspired by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Buber was an active Zionist and edited the Zionist weekly Die Welt. Early in his career, Buber developed a deep academic and personal interest in Hasidism, and he published his own editions of Hasidic tales. Strong Hasidic influences can be seen throughout his work. Buber’s work opened up the rich world of Hasidism to the Western intellectual world for the first time. Buber’s most famous works are his translation of the Bible into German, a project he undertook with Franz Rosenzweig, and his book I and Thou, a work that has inspired generations of Jewish and Christian theologians.

On Religiosity is a lecture which Buber gave in 1913 to the Free Jewish Club of Berlin, a group of young Jewish intellectuals and artists. It comes from a series of lectures which he gave between 1909-1918. In these lectures and in On Religiosity in particular, the reader encounters Buber’s many influences, Hasidism, Zionism, and Protestantism coalescing into his distinct brand of existentialist philosophy. Yet over a century later, this lecture’s call for Jewish renewal still feels relevant.

Freedom and Renewal: An Analysis of Buber’s On Religiosity

The Enlightenment set into motion the great crisis of modernity. Enlightenment thought elevated human reason above all else and undermined belief in God which had formed the foundation of traditional modes of life. Enlightenment thinkers asserted the equality of all men, an assertion which manifested in the emancipation of European Jewry. Opening secular European society to Jews for the first time, emancipation provided an alternative to traditional communal structures. In this way, emancipation significantly diminished the coercive power of Jewish communal authorities and weakened the pull of traditional religious life. By challenging the theological and social foundations of traditional Judaism, the Enlightenment gave rise to a crisis that would come to define Judaism in modernity.

Martin Buber’s lecture On Religiosity reflects a deep need to find a foundation for religious life in the modern world. Buber rejects the reactionism of Orthodox Judaism which, in the face of Enlightenment skepticism, doubled down on the rigidity of the tradition. Buber argues that Jewish vitality lies in Judaism’s cultivation of the individual’s free expression of the religious impulse to transcend. Through his articulation of the Jewish tradition, Buber not only offers a model for Jewish continuity, but also a more universal response to the crisis of modernity.

Against the radical upheaval of modernity, Orthodox Jewish doctrine reaffirmed the eternal and immutable truth of the tradition. While the Enlightenment placed its hopes in the individual’s capacity for reason, Orthodox Judaism argued that the authority of Jewish tradition lay in its unaltered transmission from a Divine revelation at Sinai. In the continuity of the tradition from antiquity, Orthodox Judaism found proof of a direct revelation which superseded human reason. Orthodox Judaism doubled down on strict obligation and the subservience of the individual to tradition. Buber’s On Religiosity must be read as a rejection of the Orthodox response to the crisis of modernity. For Buber, rather than offering a model for Jewish continuity, Orthodox Judaism poses a critical threat. He argues that Judaism is perpetuated not by strict observance, but by genuine religiosity.

For Buber, religiosity is the necessary component for Jewish continuity. He argues, “Jewish religiosity … [is the] motive power of [Judaism’s] destiny, [the] force whose upsurging blaze would restore it to new life and whose total extinction would deliver it to death.” [1] Buber begins his address by drawing an important distinction between what he calls religiosity and religion. “Religion,” for Buber, consists of “customs and teachings … prescriptions and dogmas,” that is, the institutional elements of a faith community. [2] “Religion” is, in many ways, what Orthodox Judaism saw as the key component of Judaism. “Religiosity,” on the other hand, “is man’s sense of wonder and adoration, an ever anew becoming, an ever anew articulation and formulation of his feeling that transcending his conditioned being … there is something that is unconditioned.” [3] Religiosity is the religious impulse that drives humans to participate in religion, providing it with new energy and meaning. For Buber, Jewish continuity relies not on the rigidity of religion but on the dynamism of religiosity.

Buber argues that religiosity facilitates religion’s survival by infusing it with flexibility. “Religion is true so long as it is creative; but it is creative only so long as religiosity … is able … to imbue them with new and incandescent meaning.” [4] The danger in “religion” lies in its inflexibility. Paradoxically, religion wants to build a system “stabilized for all time,” but in its attempts to achieve longevity, it sows the seeds of its own death. [5] Because religion consists of “laws and doctrines,” with the passage of time it becomes stale and unable to meet the needs of its adherents. By imbuing the laws “with new and incandescent meaning,” religiosity allows religion to stay relevant, to “seem to have been revealed to every generation anew.” [6] Continuity requires renewal. Every generation must reinvigorate Jewish practice. In fact, Buber insists that every individual must take ownership of Judaism for it to survive. He quotes the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that explains the line from Jewish liturgy, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,” by saying, “Isaac and Jacob did not rely on Abraham’s tradition, but they themselves searched for the Divine.” [7] Cultivating their own unique relationships with the Divine, each of the forefathers set an example for future Jews.

In Buber’s account, religiosity is realized through individual choice. “The act that Judaism has always considered the essence and foundation of all religiosity is the act of decision as a realization of divine freedom and unconditionality on earth,” declares Buber. [8] He asserts that Jewish religiosity demands unconditionality. Judaism demands that one rise above the “conditioned” state of “being acted upon,” and act unconditionally, choosing for oneself. [9] Buber argues that the “inertia and indecisiveness” which arise from conditional living are considered by Judaism to be the “root of all evil.” [10] For Buber, to accept the conditions that life imposes on us, to accept the religion of our ancestors is unacceptable. Jewish practice demands the individual rise above conditionality and act with the conviction and intentionality of choice.

Buber supports his claim with a historical narrative of Jewish history which places the striving for unconditionality as the point of continuity. For Buber, Jewish religious history is a history of “heretics.” That is to say, Buber sees the important figures and movements of Jewish history as those who challenged the status quo with a demand for authentic religious expression. Buber’s history begins with Moses’ demand for unconditionality, his demand that the Israelites choose to serve God and rise above their idolatrous conditions. Buber points to the prophets as the next perpetuators of Judaism. The prophets demanded that the Jews rise above the ritualized structures of the sacrificial cult and pursue the “true service of God: ‘justice,’ … living unconditionally with God and with men.” [11] Buber continues his narrative of Jewish history with the Essenes, early Christians, and Hassidim, groups which broke out of the rigid strictures of Jewish practice and demanded authentic and unconditional service. “All three movements … have in common the impetus to restore decision as the determining motive power of all religiosity,” argues Buber. [12] These movements were seen to greater or lesser degrees as heretical by the Judaism of their day, yet Buber claims that it is in these groups that we can find the lifeblood of Judaism. He describes the forces that drove these movements:

They are not the forces that belong to specific periods of the people, nor are they the forces of insurrection and sectarianism. They are the forces that fight living Judaism’s spiritual battle against bondage; they are the eternal forces. Only from them can come the religious inner shock without which no renewal of Jewish peoplehood can succeed. [13]

These forces are the forces of Jewish religiosity, the forces of unconditionality. For Buber, the drive for human freedom does not threaten Jewish continuity, but animates it. This could not be farther from the Orthodox narrative which points to strict preservation of the tradition as the animating force of Jewish history.

Yet it is important to clarify that Buber is not arguing against the strictures of Orthodox Judaism with a vision of freedom characterized by license. Rather, Buber replaces Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on obedience with an emphasis on responsibility. Obedience is easy. Deciding what to do for yourself is far more difficult. Judaism seeks “to make man’s life not easier but more difficult.” For Buber, “genuine religiosity … has nothing in common with the fancies of romantic hearts, or with the self-pleasure of aestheticizing souls, or with the clever exercise of a practice intellectuality.” [15] Unconditional choosing in Buber does not simply mean following one’s desires for these too are a kind of condition. To choose unconditionally, is to take full responsibility for one’s own actions, the tradition, and the world.

In Buber’s account, Judaism gives individual choice a transcendent meaning, identifying unconditionality with Divinity. “God is unconditioned,” asserts Buber. [16] When we act unconditionally, we imitate God, fulfilling “imitatio Dei.” [17] Buber suggests that Judaism sees the drive for unconditionality within us as a drive to realize our potential for Divinity. Judaism demands that we choose so that we may transcend. Buber states, “God is unconditioned; therefore man shall extricate himself from the shackles of his conditionality and become unconditional.” [18] Yet, not only is unconditionality our imitation of God , but God’s realization. For Buber, unconditional action is the medium through which God can exist in the world. Buber explains that “the act of decision is conceived as meaning God’s realization through an intensification of His reality.” [19] When we choose, our actions have meaning because they increase the reality of the Divine.

Buber pushes further, arguing that unconditionality is not only a realization of the Divine, but a redemption of the Divine and of the world. “His shekhinah (God’s imminent presence) has fallen into the world of the conditioned,” explains Buber. [20] Buber sees the world itself as an expression of the shekhinah trapped in conditionality. Through our individual, unconditioned choices, we elevate the unconditioned within ourselves and “thereby the world, that is, the shekhinah, [is] lifted.” [21] Buber understands that Judaism demands that humans take responsibility to choose for themselves and in doing so, choose for the world and redeem it. Judaism makes the individual human life “more difficult, while at the same time inspiriting and exalting it.” [22] Judaism places the weight of Jewish continuity and of the entire world on the shoulders of every individual.

Buber’s exaltation of individual choice should not be seen as a rejection of tradition, but a rejection of the way that it is practiced. He argues, “Not the matter of a deed determines its truth but the manner in which it is carried out.” [23] Buber is not seeking to challenge the Orthodox conception of the content of Judaism, but rather the form. “Hasidism,” one of Buber’s examples of a successful Jewish movement, “had no desire to diminish the law.” [24] The arguments about the contents of Jewish law and practice miss the point. Buber understands that Jewish renewal comes not from “What” Jews do but “How” they do it. [25] For Buber, an important example of Jewish religiosity done well is “Jewish mysticism … which strives to revive the ossified rites through the notion of kavanah, intention, and to endow every religious act with hidden significance directed toward God’s destiny and the redemption of the world.” [26] Buber understands that the power of an action ultimately comes not from its contents, but from whether it is done as a choice.

Buber’s emphasis on form (religiosity) over content (religion) is the source of his break with Orthodox Judaism and the key to his articulation of a new response to the crisis of modernity. Buber understands that Judaism can neither accept the elevation of human reason nor reject it. He offers a third option. For Buber, Judaism’s truth does not lie in its content, a thing that can be rationalized, but rather in its form. Modernity’s rationalism threatens to undermine the intellectual foundations of Judaism, but for Buber, Judaism’s foundation is not intellectual but experiential. What gives Judaism its force is not its possession of an intellectually apparent truth but its ability to cultivate a transcendent experience: the experience of unconditionality. This experience, explains Buber, has value which “cannot be judged by our meager knowledge of the causes and effects of this world.” [27] One cannot rationally understand the power of free choice. When we act unconditionally, “something infinite flows into a deed of man; something infinite from it.” [28] The free expression of the human will cannot be understood rationally. It breaks out of the realm of human reason and realizes something infinite, something divine.

Buber’s Judaism serves as a response to positivist determinism. Positivism is a movement in European thought which can be seen as a kind of outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Like the Enlightenment, positivism emphasizes reason and sought to discover truth through rigid empiricism. Positivism attempts to apply the empirical rigor of the hard sciences to human life. Humans become objects of scientific study, understood in terms of cause and effect. In this way, humans are denied freedom and choice is belittled. Buber understands that this account of humanity is fundamentally flawed. That “transcending [man’s] being yet bursting from its very core, there is something that is unconditioned.” [29] We may sometimes seem to live conditioned lives, as positivism suggests, but deep down every human has the potential to transcend this conditionality through choice. Buber’s Judaism recognizes the human potential for transcendence which positivism denies.

Buber’s emphasis on the experiential over the intellectual is reflected in his theology. For Buber, the medium for human relationship with the Divine is not intellectual but experiential. He ends his address by declaring that “God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply realized through us.” [30] In Buber’s account, God’s reality is determined not by an intellectual process, but by human action. “The more man realizes God in the world the greater his reality,” explains Buber. [31] For Buber, God is dependent upon human choice. Buber offers us a theology that can withstand modernity. The Enlightenment had, as Nietzsche so aptly put it, killed God. There was no rational proof, no empirical logic that could support the existence of God, and so, within the Enlightenment’s insistence on the ultimate authority of reason, God could no longer exist. Buber’s theology allows God to exist once again. For Buber, Nietzsche’s death of God is a truism. A God who can be grasped rationally is conditioned and finite and therefore not God. Only that which is unconditioned and therefore beyond the reductionism of reason can be Divine.Buber’s assertion of human choice redeems God from the shackles of conditionality and offers God a path to existence in the world.

The “death of God” also had profound ethical implications. Without God, there was no authority to underpin ethical obligations. Buber’s account of Judaism offers a response to this crisis as well. Buber understands that unconditional action implies a tremendous ethical obligation. Judaism’s demand that we choose freely means that we, and we alone, must reckon with our ethical responsibility. “Justice,” argues Buber, “is living unconditionally with God and with men.” [32] To choose means to constantly act out of an awareness of our responsibility to others and the world. This is what Buber means when he says that every individual has the power to redeem the world. When we choose to act unconditionally, we declare the existence of God and we demand ethical responsibility of ourselves and others.

Buber’s account of the Jewish tradition foreshadows the Existentialist philosophy which would come to define European thought in the middle part of the twentieth century. Existentialism traces its roots to Heidegger whose move from epistemology to ontology, from questions of knowledge to questions of being, clearly parallels with Buber’s prioritization of the experiential over the intellectual. Furthermore, the Existentialists, like Buber, elevate the human subject above all else, locating ethical authority and responsibility within the individual. Buber’s emphasis on unconditionality prefigures the Existentialist demand for authenticity and choice. Buber must be read as a proto-Existentialist. Buber’s work roots Existentialist philosophy in Jewish tradition. On Religiosity reveals that while Judaism may not have been well-suited for the Enlightenment, it is primed to blossom in the age of Existentialism.

Despite being written over a century ago, Buber’s vision of Judaism in On Religiosity feels deeply relevant to the world of Modern Orthodox Judaism in America today. Like the Orthodoxy of Buber’s time, today’s Modern Orthodoxy has placed its hope for Jewish continuity in a religious mode of submission to the tradition. The individual in Modern Orthodoxy must yield to the law. This has left Modern Orthodoxy deeply lacking in the vitality and renewal which Buber describes. On Religiosity offers the antidote to the stagnation inherent in the strict traditionalism of Modern Orthodoxy.

Yet, there is also a broader American cultural context which makes Buber once again feel deeply relevant. Advances in the sciences have led to a belittling of the human being, a reduction of human existence to the interaction between molecules. These views threaten religion by reducing it and questioning its necessity. Buber’s articulation of the Jewish tradition offers a powerful counterargument. Buber reminds us that the human can rise above their molecular condition and express the infinity latent within them.



1. Martin Buber, On Religiosity, 79.

2. Ibid, 80.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, 81.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid, 82.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid, 89.

12. Ibid, 92.

13. Ibid, 93.

14. Ibid, 92.

15. Ibid, 93.

16. Ibid, 84.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid, 85.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid, 92.

23. Ibid, 87.

24. Ibid, 92.

25. Ibid, 87.

26. Ibid, 92.

27. Ibid, 86.

28. Ibid, 86.

29. Ibid, 80.

30. Ibid, 94.

31. Ibid, 84.

32. Ibid, 89.

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