Sorry to read Robert Alter’s review of the long awaited biography by Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent and the lazy reading of its subject. You can read it here and this is a key line: “The deeply felt sincerity with which Buber invoked the idea of God shouldn’t be doubted, but it’s not easy to know what he meant by it.” As Martin Kavka notes regarding a recent review by Adam Kirsch, this rather lazy refusal to think through what Buber meant by God is of a piece with readers who write off Buber as “vague” and “hazy.”
Starting with Mendes-Flohr’s field defining study, From Mysticism to Dialogue, Martin Buber’s Transformation of German Social Thought, a lot of ink has been spent trying to get at what Buber meant, and what Buber meant was pretty simple. Anyone who has spent a minute of time before an abstract canvas by Mark Rothko would grasp intuitively that what Buber meant by God is tied up with “spiritual presence.” Alter just throws up his hands Alter is by no means unique, although in his case, this automatic reflex is inexcusable given that Alter’s own analysis of “zero-sum revelation” in his discussion of Scholem in Necessary Angels is about as good as it gets for cracking the nut to get at the kind of theology reflected in, for instance, I and Thou.
It is as if Alter has simply forgotten what it was that had so fascinated him about Buber in the 1960s when Buber was very old and Alter was very young, on his way to becoming a great literary critics and translator of the Hebrew Bible. Hanging over the refusal to read the theology, which is tricky, hard to get, but more or less reasonable when you take a step back, is the acrid, neoconservative hot-take on everything that was naive and amiss about Buber’s politics. This is especially so as Israel slouches into the bi-national future that the Israeli and Jewish right are building for the country, proving that maybe he was right all along about the Jewish-Palestinian “encounter.” About Buber’s claim that on the battlefields of World War I, “a new Jewry has taken shape,” Alter, like all of Buber’s readers is rightly dismissive; which is not to say that Buber wasn’t right, despite himself, and that maybe, yes, in fact, World War I altered the constitution of the Jewish people forever. That’s the problem with quick cynicism. One also notes in passing that Alter is exceptionally unkind toward Buber, whose decision to stay in Germany for as long as he did to shore up the community at this moment of crisis was nothing but heroic.
Maybe I am making too much of Alter’s review. Maybe it doesn’t rise to the occasion, except for its public appearance in the New York Times. As Jerome Copulsky notes, lost in the shuffle is a considered look at the actual biography itself. It is as if the super-commentary, including my own super-super commentary has lost sight of the direct object at hand, which is Paul Mendes-Flohr. This confusion, this inability to get to the more limited point, to keep the object in view, might have a lot to do with the aura that Buber and the figure of God without figures still command against the judgment of the critics, who are only able to see haziness, a world without objects, without knowing how to approach if not grasp it.