Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Here I am" - the turning point of Martin Buber's life and philosophy

     Martin Buber's I and Thou philosophy is based on a moment when Buber failed to say “Here I am” to one of his students.  Buber, the towering giant of modern Jewish philosophy, had just finished his morning studies and was still absorbed in his own thoughts when a young man knocked on the door of his study.  Buber was known as a wise counselor to many young, seeking souls.  Buber did not know Mehe, the young man at the door; nonetheless, he invited Mehe to come in.  Buber was far from rude to the man.  He listened politely to Mehe, but Buber’s mind and heart were very far from the conversation.  Buber failed to discern the urgency of Mehe’s visit.
     Two months later, one of Mehe’s friends came to see Buber and told him of Mehe’s death and what the young man had hoped his talk with Buber would be.  Mehe had come to Buber not casually, not for a chat but for a decision.  The decision was one of life and death.
     Buber was devastated by this revelation.  This young man had come to him out of burning need, but Buber was too absorbed in his own thoughts and in his own world to truly notice.  Buber’s life was changed forever by this encounter.  Buber’s life and philosophy were permanently redirected because of how he had failed to respond.  He wrote his new philosophy of religious living in a book called I and Thou. - Richard Jacobs


  1. amazing how this moment comes to me just at this time. amazing.

    Did Buber truly hold himself responsible? Should he have?


  2. Thanks, I'm very glad to hear that. I can't speak about the responsibility or "should" part, just that this incident changed his life.

  3. I too, want to thank you for this interesting and well written piece about what happened in this encounter with Mehe and Buber. There is little doubt that events that happen in the 'between' (as Buber referred to it); or that fail to happen there, can be very life changing. Whether Buber felt responsible or not, it certainly showed a longing for and a desire to connect with others that was in this case thwarted, and Buber felt remorse. That is, it was thwarted by a moment of humanity that was not fully intentional is a valid point perhaps. Buber also has another word for it when we fully encounter another person; a person face to face, person to person and are in a moment of genuine dialogue as we prepare for the hopeful but graceful appearing of an I and Thou encounter; followed by such a connection and encounter; such moments he called 'meetings'. This incident with Mehe was not an example of meeting, but may represent a moment of another term, that of 'mismeeting'. So what we have is the birth of Buber's central concept of meeting out of the regret of a mismeeting. I use the uncertainty of 'may' here because the young man was not aware that Buber was absorbed in his own thoughts, so it was likely not a mismeeting from both viewpoints, at least not consciously. But it was for Buber. There was for sure yet another core moment of mismeeting in Buber's life that his biographers have written about (Maurice Friedman) and that occurred when Buber was but a young child. Buber had been left by his mother at his grandparents' home when he was quite young, and one day some time later he was playing with another child a little bit older then he was (I think she was a cousin, but I am not sure) and Buber uttered that one day his mother would return for him. The other child replied that it was unlikely, and directly told Buber that she thought his mother would never come back. This too, had a strong impact upon Buber, and later he said this moment of 'mismeeting' when he realized he had likely been abandoned at his grandparents was also very foundational to his I and Thou philosophy. (Which happened to turn out to be basically true as he did not see his mother again for many years). It was due to these mismeetings, and the struggle with his own humanity and the failings in relationships that he encountered, that brought home to Buber the central notions of acceptance, affirmation, and confirmation of the Other, that are so central to Buber's philosophy of the I and Thou. Thanks again for this wonderful piece. (I hope you don;t mind me mentioning Buber's mother, but the mismeeting with Mehe struck a chord.~~Tim Kavi

  4. Interesting about Buber's relationship with his mother. Thanks for your comment.

  5. I believe this was a question concerning the young man's service in the war, was it not? He died in the war, if I remember correctly.

    1. I believe you're right. That's my vague recollection as well.