Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, and the Jewish-Christian encounter

Elie Wiesel is known for making up his own Hasidic tales to fit his ideas of arguing with God and his views of misotheism or dystheism. I used to get lots of phone calls trying to identify Wiesel’s original Hasidic tales. Buber may take out the particualism of Torah uMizvot to make a story with universal appeal but you can always identify the original story. Wiesel is confident and free enough to invent things, put lines from Camus and Doestoevsky in the mouth of his Hasidic protagonists and make his Hasidim share his angry arguing with a God for His evil deeds. Wiesel screams at his critics that the story was from his childhood teachers and his critics were not there in Sighet where he claims tohave heard the stories.

But it seems Wiesel has also applied his craft of memoir (he rejects the label novelist) directly to Martin Buber. There is a story about the Jewish-Christian encounter that seemed not to be like Buber in thought or character for several reasons. The false story downplays the difference between the faiths since the real Buber was a harsh critic of Christianity. The story has an agnostic or relative edge to it- the real Buber was a believer in a universalism of hallowed everyday action. And the real Buber was not seeking to be pragmatically cleaver in a “got you” kind of way.

After emailing many people, it seem that the origin of the story is Elie Wiesel in the late 1980’s. Many people picked it up as a true. Using this story skewers real positions. Here is the probably phony story:

My good friends, what is the difference between you and me? Both of us, all of us believe, because we are religious, in the coming of the Messiah. You believe that the Messiah came, went back, and that you are waiting for Him for the second coming. We Jews believe He hasn’t come yet, but He will come. In other words, we are waiting. You for the second coming, we for the first coming. Let’s wait together.” After a pause, he said, “And when He will come, we will ask Him, have you been here before?” Said Buber, “I hope I will be behind Him and I will whisper in His ear, please do not answer.”

Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (New York: Knopf, 1995), pp. 354-55.
Or from Wiesel’s commencement Speech at Depaul

Now back to the real Buber.
In his Two Types of Faith Buber distinguishes between two kinds of faith. The Hebraic emunah: total trust and reliance on God; where one shows trust through actions. Paul’s version of faith is pistis: a more intellectual belief in the cognitive truth of something.

The closest you will find in Buber’s actual writings to anything like alleged story is in “The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul” in Israel and the World, p. 39 (pages varies between editions) he asks, speaking of differences of Jews and Christians: “what do you and we have in common?” And he answers:” A book and an expectation.” Then he goes on to say: “But we can wait for the advent of the One together, and there are moments when we may prepare the way before him together….” Even here we find Buber speaking of preparing the way through holy action.

Whenever Buber did encounter other faiths he always stressed the immediacy of the present moment. He found commonalities between religions in ecstasy, service, intention, humility—not messianic doctrine. Truth is opening oneself up to others. One is to strive for transparency and pure I-Thou dialogue, not hiding truth.

“Religiosity, I say, is the urge of man to live in commune with the unconditioned, and his will to bring this about through his deeds and into the world of man… True religiosity is doing…
“Having awakened to an awareness of their universal being, individual beings open themselves to one another, disclose themselves to one another, help one another.”
“To become human is what we are created for”, and approaching God is only possible by becoming human.

Until I hear otherwise, I will take it as a story imposing an alien theology on Buber.

6 responses to “Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, and the Jewish-Christian encounter

  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    I am almost certain that I heard this story in the 60s, and that it was not connected wth Buber. But let me do some checking. Perhaps the attribution to Buber is Wiesel’s own special contribution.

  2. 1960’s?! I would have to see that. Show me.

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: If you google Irving Greenberg + second or future coming of the messiah, you will see that he already presented the “no comment” idea in a speech he gave at Sacred Heart University in 1973! I am almost certain I remember him mentioning this idea earlier in a symposium in Judaism magazine. IIRC, David Berger refers to Greenberg’s view in his review of his book in Tradition.

  4. Larry,
    It fits perfectly with Yitz Greenberg, who views were created in symbiosis with Wiesel. But it is not Buber who had firm beliefs in the immediacy of the present moment- no waiting for an escaton and saw the two faiths as different.
    According to the google search, it does seem to be from Yitz Greenberg. But did Wiesel add the last line “please do not answer” and the false attribution to Buber?
    1973 is about right. 1963 would be theologically anachronistic.

  5. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: I’ll do some checking in the McGill library and try to track down the symposium I referred to.

    IIRC, David Berger responded to Greenberg’s point by saying, “And what if one asks the Messiah: Are you the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity?”

  6. I love Martin Buber. I’ve read almost everything by Him. Also, much by Maurice Friedman concerning him. However, Martin was totally wrong about Paul when he claimed Paul’s version of faith is pistis: a more intellectual belief in the cognitive truth of something. This was definitely not Paul’s idea. It is the idea of gentiles who have turned their backs on the real message of Paul, because it is too difficult for them to bear. It is simply the way gentiles worship. They have (and want) no organic connection to Who or what they worship.

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