MARTIN BUBER – Sacramental Existence In The World Of Hasidism

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Martin Buber, Austrian Jewish theologian and philosopher.

-Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

taken on November 10, 1954-


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is part II (out of II) of an article by Martin Buber given in 1934, excerpted from volume 4 of the English selections of the Eranos Yearbooks, published by Princeton University Press. English translation from the original German by Mr. Ralph Manheim.


Article Part II

Symbol is the manifestation, the radiation of meaning in incarnate form. In it the bond between the absolute and the concrete is manifested. But the sacrament is the binding of meaning to body, the tying, the enactment of the bond. It is in the sacrament that the absolute is bound up with the concrete. The manifestation of the symbol is a movement in one direction, from above to below; it descends and is incarnated. But the binding has two direc­tions: the upper attaches itself to the lower and the lower attaches itself to the upper; the upper binds the lower and the lower binds the upper; they bind one another-meaning and body bind one another. Where the bond is manifested, it is like the reflection of one invisible; where the bond is enacted, it is like a hand within a hand. Hand in hand, the bond is concluded and renewed.

To connect the divine and the human though without fusing them, to form them into a living Beyond, compounded of transcendence and im­manence-that is the chief though not the only function of the sacrament. Even when it is only two human beings who sacramentally consecrate them­ selves to each other-in marriage, in brotherhood-that other bond, the bond between the absolute and the concrete, is secretly enacted; for the source of consecration is not any power in the human beings; it is the power of the eternal wings that hover over them. Every absolute relation into which men enter with one another derives its force from the presence of the absolute.

The sacrament has rightly been called “the most dynamic of all ritual forms.” And the important thing about this dynamism is that it loses its authenticity if it ceases to encompass an elementary and living experience of the other, of otherness as an effective force. The sacramental rite is not merely something that man “performs” or “experiences“; it seizes him and exacts his whole being, and he requires his whole being to fulfill it. This is what constitutes its three-dimensional character, the reality of its dimen­sion of depth. The sacral convention of the church or other institution flattens the event into a gesture, while mystical enthusiasm contracts it to an inwardness so inward as to be no more than an ardent, glowing point.

Every sacrament requires a natural activity drawn from the natural course of life-and consecrates that activity. It requires also a substantial or ma­terial otherness with which a sacred contact is established. In this contact the secret force of the other becomes effective.

“Primitive” man is a naive pan-sacramentalist. For him everything is full of sacramental substance; everything, every thing and every function, can appear in a sacramental light. He knows no selection of objects and activi­ties, only one of methods and favorable moments. The “substance” is every­ where; one needs only the power to capture it. For this there are rules and rhythms; but these-one can acquire only by daring, and even he who has the knowledge and the power must continually renew the dangerous grip and challenge of the contact.

The crisis of primitive man occurs when he discovers the essentially un­holy, a-sacramental-the things which resist his methods and have no “hour“; and this province becomes constantly larger. This critical phase, in which the world threatens to become neutralized, to evade the sacred contact, can be found among certain tribes which we are accustomed to regard as primitive, though sometimes only in marginal individuals. The Ba-ilas of Northern Rhodesia, for example, characterize this phase when they say of their god: “Leza has grown old” or “Leza is no longer what he ought to be.”

What we call religion in the more restricted sense has perhaps always come into being in such crises. All historical religion is a selection of sacra­mental substances and actions. Through the separation of sacred elements from all those now abandoned as profane, the sacrament is saved. The con­secrated bond is concentrated in certain objects and functions.

But now the sacrament enters into a realm of new and more difficult problems. For a concrete religion can preserve its living significance only if it exacts not only faith, but the whole person of the faithful. But such is the power of the sacrament, based on the separation of the sacred from the profane, that it easily beguiles the believer into feeling secure in a mere “objective” performance of ritual, a mere opus operatum without personal devotion. And so he evades the grip and challenge of his own wholeness.

But when the vital substance of the faithful ceases to flow into it, the sacra­ment loses depth, three-dimensional reality, substantiality. As, for example, when in the sacramental sacrifice of Biblical Israel the central intention of self-sacrifice (where the believer is actually “represented” by an animal) is lost in the security of an objective, ritual atonement. Or when the Biblical anointment of kings, which confers a living responsibility on him who is entrusted with God’s eternal stewardship, degenerates in Western corona­tion rites to a pompous confirmation of arbitrary power.

Where the inner crisis of sacramentalism has placed the original content, the original force, of a religion in question, an attempt at reformation has sometimes been successful. Such an attempt strives also to save the conse­cration of the bond: by reviving an attitude of seriousness toward the pres­ence of man. (The controversy between Luther and Zwingli regarding the divine presence in the Last Supper was secretly concerned with the human presence as well; Luther sensed, as Zwingli did not, that a merely symbolic presence could not capture the whole man and summon his full presence.) But the reformer does not tamper with the principle of selection as applied to sacramental substances and actions; only sectarians occasionally assail it, though they never transcend or replace it. It would seem as though the man who had experienced the discovery of the essentially profane could never regain a sacred relation to the whole cosmos; as though reduction of the life of faith to a single sphere were indispensable and central to all religion, the only possible bulwark against the pantheism which threatens concrete religion with dissolution. “He alone existing,” says the poet of the South Seas of his god Taaroa or Tangaroa, “he transforms himself into a world. The axis on which it turns is Taaroa, the blocks which sustain it Taaroa; Taaroa is the primal grain of sand.” Concrete religion must see to it that the image of the Lord, the eternal religious confrontation, does not dissolve into primal dust.

But there is one great religious movement, essentially of a reform char­acter, which has devised a new pan-sacramentalism. This was not a retreat into the time before the critical discovery of which we have been speaking­ the road to such a return is barred, and anyone seeking to travel it can arrive only at madness or mere literature-but a progression to a new, comprehensive vision. This movement knew that the sacramental substance cannot be found or grasped in the totality of things and functions, but that it can be awakened and released in every object and every action-not by any method that can be acquired, but by the fulfilling presence of the whole, wholly devoted man, by sacramental existence.

This great movement, Hasidism, came into being two centuries ago (according to the legend, its founder was “revealed” about 1735) in an obscure corner of Eastern Europe and there-degenerated, but still capable of regeneration-it has remained. But this movement must go down in religious history as an incomparable attempt to rescue the life of man from the ruin of everydayness.

For Hasidic pan-sacramentalism the sacred in things is not, as it was for primitive pan-sacramentalism, a power over which man can gain mastery; it is embedded in them, it inheres in them like sparks, waiting to be released and fulfilled by the devoted man. The man of sacramental existence is no magician; he not only ventures to approach the sacrament, but really and absolutely dedicates himself; he exerts no power but performs a service, the service. He dedicates himself in service; and this means always, on every occasion. What is important (in the sacramental sense)? The answer: “What­ ever a man happens to concern himself with.” And the momentary, when it is taken seriously in its momentary, unique contingency, proves to be that which cannot be anticipated or prepared for. The man of sacramental existence is aided by no acquired rules and rhythms, by no traditional methods, no special knowledge or aptitude; he must continually withstand the unforeseen and unforeseeable moment; he must continually, in the on­ flowing moment, offer release, fulfillment to a thing or creature encountered. And he can effect no selection, no division, since it is not for him to decide what will come his way and what will not; and there is no such thing as the profane, there is only the not-yet-sanctified, the not-yet-redeemed-into­ sanctity, which it is his mission to sanctify.

Hasidism is commonly interpreted as a rebellion of “feeling” against a religious rationalism which exaggerated and rigidified the doctrine of divine transcendence, and a ritualism which made religious practice independent and barren. But the actual force at work in this rebellion is not covered by the term feeling; it is the resurgence of an authentic vision of unity and a passionate longing for wholeness. It is not merely a repressed emotional life demanding its rights, but a magnified vision of God and a stronger desire for realization. The sharp boundary drawn between God and world in doc­ trine, and between sacred and profane in life, no longer satisfies this twofold growth, because both boundaries are static, rigid, timeless, because they allow no room for unique, concrete events. The magnified image of God de­mands a more dynamic, fluid boundary between God and world, for it implies knowledge of a force striving to pour itself out and at the same time limiting itself, a resistant but also pliable substance. And the increased desire for realization demands a more dynamic, fluid boundary between sacred and profane, because it cannot leave the redemption, which will, it is promised, assimilate the two realms generically to the Messianic Age; it must actively give to the moment whatever may be its rightful due.

And yet, from a historical point of view, we must recognize that all the elements of this “new” world were alive, struggling for dominance, and making headway in the “rabbinical” world against which the struggle was directed. In order to understand this, we must realize (though this is far too seldom done) that there had always been a strong tendency toward sacramental life in Judaism. Contrary opinions notwithstanding, it can be shown that there is scarcely any Christian sacrament without its sacra­ mental or semi-sacramental Jewish prototype. And moreover, throughout Jewish history, even in the Talmudic period, there have been masters of an unmistakably sacramental form of existence, men whose whole life and attitude represented and enacted the consecration of the bond. The historical series of such men is well-nigh unbroken. The “Zaddik” of the early Hasidic period, the classical Zaddik, is only a particularly clear, theoretically cir­cumscribed form of the one archetype, originating in the Biblical world and foreshadowing a future world.

But a study of the relation between Hasidism and the cabala reveals a still more significant aspect of Hasidic pan-sacramentalism. Hasidism did not, like rabbinical Judaism, oppose the cabala; it took over the con­cepts, often the style, and to some extent the doctrine of cabalism; and the cabalistic works of Hasidic authors remain within the late cabalistic tradi­tion. Theurgic practice of a cabalistic character makes several appearances in the history of Hasidism, sometimes in strangely anachronistic form. Yet, fundamentally, Hasidism rejected the basic principles of the cabala; where it concerns itself with its true object, life within the bond, it speaks from an entirely different source and in essential points reveals a nowhere uttered, perhaps never conscious, and yet evident opposition to the cabalistic doctrine and attitude; and even more important: leading figures of Hasidism, and above all the many zaddikim as described in Hasidic legend-whose equal for scope, variety, vitality, and wild popular charm I do not know­ are very far removed from cabalistic existence; these men are open to the world, they have an attitude of piety toward this world, they are in love with the world.

A difference that may at first seem superficial but is nevertheless signifi­cant: the cabala is esoteric. What it says conceals something that is unsaid. The ultimate meaning is disclosed only to the initiate. Even from the point of view of access to the reality of God, a dividing line runs through mankind. This is a conception intolerable to Hasidism: as regards access to the king­dom, there may no longer be division; here stands the brotherhood of all God’s children, the secret is manifested to all or to none, to all or none is the heart of eternity open. What is reserved to a knowing segment of man­ kind, what is withheld from the simple, cannot be the living truth. Lovingly, the Hasidic legend praises the simple man. He has oneness of soul; where there is oneness of soul, there will God’s oneness dwell. The sacramental bond signifies a life of oneness with oneness.

In its origin, but also in its central nature which continually emerges, the cabala is a gnosis, but unlike every other form of gnosis, it is anti-dualistic. The source of all gnosis-forgive me a simplification which I believe to be necessary in the present context-is the primal question, intensified to the point of despair in the world: How can the corrosive essence of existence in the world, the insoluble contradiction in every life and historical context, be reconciled with God’s being? The question did not become thus acute until after the Old Testament period; all true gnosis originated in a cultural sphere touched by the Old Testament, and almost every branch of it was a more or less explicit rebellion against the Old Testament.

The Biblical experience of unity-One essential power, One superior counterpart to man-meets the experience of contradiction, rising as it does from painful depths, with insistence on the mysteriousness of the mystery: the meaning of that which is manifested as contradiction or irrationality surpasses the limits of knowledge (Job), but can be surmised in the living mystery of suffering (Deutero-Isaiah); and here occurs the most powerful manifesta­tion of sacramental existence: suffering itself becomes sacrament (Isaiah 53). But the apocalyptic Jewish writings can no longer meet the question; the Apocalypse of Ezra (Fourth Book of Ezra), for example, has lost the pious acceptance of the mystery and reveals merely a mechanical subjection, which amounts to renunciation of the world and a drying up of sacramental life. Here gnosis intervenes, taking stones from the crumbled giant edifices of the ancient oriental religions and fitting them into the strangest new struc­ture.

It interprets the conflicts of the world as conflicts of the godhead: either the good God is confronted by an evil, or merely inferior, negative principle; or else the good God engenders frail or seducible powers which fall into the sphere of evil and become a world soul caught in contradiction, until they are permitted to rise up again. The Other, the Opposing principle, the contrary power or contrary world, is always more or less explicitly posited, though sometimes it is spoken of merely as “spaces of shadow and emptiness.” To take away from this Other its independence, to draw it into the dynamic of the divine oneness-that is the striving of the cabala.

Using an amalgam of gnostic and Neoplatonic schemata, the cabala takes a Talmudic doctrine and expands it prodigiously. This is the doctrine (de­veloped in opposition to apocalyptic resignation) of the divine attributes of sternness and mercifulness, and of their dialectical interrelations: the drama of the world process appears as a drama enacted within God. This dual dialectic, which must be construed as real and yet not as dualistic, is mul­tiplied by the cabala in the interrelations of the Sephiroth, the divine primal numbers or primal radiances, of the powers and orders which it, the cabala, evokes from the eternally hidden inwardness of God, which is called “the endless,” by a “limitation” and a “sifting“; these powers and orders remain in God and yet they are the foundation of the world. Their hierarchy reaches down into all the levels of the cosmos, even to the lowest, corporeal “husk” world; the dynamism of their veilings and unveilings, effusions and obstruc­tions, bindings and un-bindings creates the dialectic of cosmic and terrestrial being. Like such pre-cosmic catastrophes as the “death of the primal kings” or the “breaking of the vessels“-catastrophes with cosmic repercussions-so likewise every obstruction and disturbance in the world, down to the daemonic powers which assail the human soul, are the consequence of bind­ings, shifts of weight, over-flowings in the realm of the aeons. And yet it is precisely in this world that something can be done toward resolving the conflict: it is the sacramental act of man-who in his prayers and actions aims at the elementary mysteries of God’s names and their interrelations and works toward the unification of the divine forces-that the second, the perfecting, unity of being is prepared. The cabalistic reconciliation of the experience of unity with the experience of contradiction, like the Biblical reconciliation of the two, is ultimately sacramental.

Never explicit but nevertheless very real, there is in Hasidism a twofold opposition to the cabala. First, Hasidism rejects the schematization of the mystery. Like any other system of gnosis the cabala purports to penetrate the contradiction of existence and to rise above it, while the essential attitude of Hasidism is to endure the contradiction in piety and thus redeem the contradiction itself. The cabala draws a map of original mysteries, and on this map the sources of the contradiction also have their place; Hasidism may imitate the cabala (this is often the case, though even here its cabalism is purely peripheral); it may retain a cabalistic picture of the upper world, precisely because it knows no other with which to replace it-but in its own province it is ag­nostic; it is concerned not with objective, formulable knowledge, susceptible of schematization, but with a vital knowledge, with a Biblical “knowing” which consists in a reciprocal relation with God.

To be sure, “the classical cabalists deny over and over again that the movement into the finite world, of the goodness inherent in God, described in those cabalistic doctrines which combine theology and cosmogony in such a way as to make them indistinguishable, is an objective process, i.e., a process manifested by God.” But this is merely a parenthetical, metaphysical-epistemological principle without application; it never enters into the system itself, and the whole cabalistic edifice rests upon a certainty which almost never pauses, almost never trembles, almost never sinks to its knees. But it is precisely through pausing, through openness to emotion, through a profound aware­ ness of the frailty of all positive knowledge, of the incongruity of all pos­sessed truth, through “holy uncertainty,” that Hasidic piety truly lives. This is the reason for the Hasidic love of the “fool.” What is the essential?

You may “climb about in the upper worlds“-suddenly the storm strikes and everything is blown away; in the infinite, inarticulate darkness you will stand before your own presence. And it is only the hand of the insecure man, stretched forward without defense, that is not paralyzed by the thun­derbolt. We have been sent down into a world of contradiction; to glide off into spheres where the contradiction seems transparent is to evade our mis­sion. It is contrary to the faith and humor of our existence (Hasidism is dis­tinguished by both faith and humor) to suppose that there is a level of being to which we need only lift ourselves in order to fathom the contradiction. Contradiction is given me to endure along with my life and also to fulfill; this endurance and fulfillment of the contradiction is the only meaning accessible to me.

Hasidism also rejects the cabalistic magicalization of the mystery. Magic is not identical with belief in the transcendental efficacy of man’s acts­ that is, in the influence of human being and human life beyond the sphere of logical causality; no, within faith, magic is the belief that there are certain transmissible and transmitted, inward and outward, actions and attitudes through which a definite effect can be obtained. Thus where magic (which can exist both inside and outside of sacramentalism) is connected with gnosis, it is simply its reverse side: its definition of the instruments-here the instruments for combating the contradiction of existence-goes hand in hand with the gnostic claim to penetrate the contradiction. In the cabala these traditional magical methods can be applied in connection with very diverse activities; these are the kavanot, the intentions which, gathering from the rich store of name and letter mysticism, aspire through manipula­tions of letters and names to influence the essences themselves.

And again: as Hasidic doctrine retains the cabalistic schemata in a peripheral sense but centrally disregards them, so in practice it retains all those manipula­tions that can be learned, and indeed all sorts of cabalistic-magical trappings, such as magical formulas and amulets, but its true nature is often realized in actual, and not seldom in programmatic, opposition to these elements. In opposition to the intelligible kavanot-you must meditate thus and so remember this and that-there rises the single kavanah, encompassing all life, of the man dedicated to God and His work of redemption. As Hasidism strives to transcend the split between the sacred and the profane, it also opposes the isolation of fixed manipulatory procedures out of all the abun­dance of living action. Not by accompanying any action with a preconceived mystical method, but by performing this action with his whole being turned toward God, does man practice a true kavana. That which can be known in advance is not suited to release the central content of the act; for it is not in any arbitrary, self-willed way, but solely as a counter-movement to that which meets us, that the sacramental act may be performed; but that which meets us cannot be known in advance; God and the moment cannot be known in advance, and the moment is God’s cloak; hence we can always prepare ourselves for the act, but we cannot prepare the act.

Always the substance of the act is given, or rather offered us: by what befalls us, by what crosses our path, by everything that crosses our path. The consecra­tion of the bond is the consecration of contingency. All things-all secular things in their secularity-want to be sanctified, consecrated. They desire not to be de-secularized, but within their secularity to be consecrated in the kavana of redemption-all things desire to become sacrament. Creatures and things seek us out. Whatever crosses our path needs us for that path. You shall pray “with the plank and with the bench“; they want to come to us, all things want to come to us, all things want to reach God through us. What are the upper worlds, if such there be? Our task is “to make the hidden life of God shine in this lower world, the world of matter.”

The word yihud, unity or unification, which Hasidism took over from the cabala as a designation of the sacramental act, has a threefold sense. Orig­inally, it means the unity of God, which embraces and sustains all the mul­tiplicity and multiformity of being. Next, it means the human profession of this unity, wherein man apprehends all the powers in nature, history, life, as emanations and rays of the one power, and by his word restrains the striving for independence of any among them, transforming it into wor­ship and humility. And finally it means the unifying act of man. For the cabala this means: participation in the marriages of the Sephiroth. For Hasi­dism this means: to draw all impulses and passions of the person into a unity moved toward God, a unity utterly open to the world, which sanctifies all things and even their resistance to unity. It means to offer this unity of immanent sacramental existence to God for the work of his redeeming unification-that is to say, the “union of the transcendent God with his immanent glory.”

Martin Buber, picture for Life Magazine.


More about Martin Buber: 🌿Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ biographical information:🌿About the book and the publisher:

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