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MARTIN BUBER – Symbolic & Sacramental Existence In Judaism

Martin Buber, Austrian Jewish theologian and philosopher.

-Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

taken on November 10, 1954-


Another sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is part I (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.


A little introduction

Martin Buber (1878–1965) was a prolific author, scholar, literary translator, and political activist whose writings—mostly in German and Hebrew—ranged from Jewish mysticism to social philosophy, biblical studies, religious phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, education, politics, and art. Most famous among his philosophical writings is the short but powerful book ‘I and Thou’ (1923) where our relation to others is considered as twofold. The I-it relation prevails between subjects and objects of thought and action; the I-Thou relation, on the other hand, obtains in encounters between subjects that exceed the range of the Cartesian subject-object relation. Though originally planned as a prolegomenon to a phenomenology of religion, ‘I and Thou’ proved influential in other areas as well, including the philosophy of education.

The work of Martin Buber remains a linchpin of qualitative philosophical anthropology and continues to be cited in fields such as philosophical psychology, medical anthropology, and pedagogical theory. Buber’s writings on Jewish national renaissance, Hasidism, and political philosophy made him a major twentieth-century figure in Jewish thought and the philosophy of religion. Buber’s extensive writing on the political dimensions of biblical historiography and prophetic literature not only made contributions to the history of religion but also to contemporary discussions on political theology with an anarchistic bent. His translation, with Franz Rosenzweig, of the Hebrew Bible into German remains a classic in the German language. (Source: From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s biographical information).


Article Part I

‘Not only is human existence the area in which symbols and sacraments are manifested or the substance they assume: the tangible existence of a human person can itself be a symbol, a sacrament. It is not in the essence of the symbol to hover timelessly over the concrete and contingent. Precisely because a symbolic act is by nature unique and unpredictable, it can occur at any time. The symbol derives its permanence from its transience. Thus when we have reached the end of our life span, we may look back and realize that all things transient are “only” a symbol; but our experience teaches us that only the transient can become symbol. For the representation of the unmutilated meaning, its authentic utterance, compared to which everything we call speech is mutilation, can originate only in the begotten, mortal body; all else is repetition, simplification, imitation.

The mind with its timeless works is self-contained—it does not point beyond itself; only the body, enmeshed in time, can achieve transparence in its fleeting gesture. The covenant which the absolute, reaching beyond the universal—the “idea”—concludes with the concrete always selects a sign more fugitive than the rainbow of Noah’s covenant: a movement, attitude, or action of the human form. And this sign endures. It can indeed lose some of its immediate force, its “credibility,” but it can also gather fresh life from new—newly enacted—human existence. Every symbol is in constant danger of degenerating from a real sign sent down into life to an intellectual, arbitrary construction; every sacrament may cease to be a living interaction between above and below and become a surface experience on the “religious” plane. Only through the man who gives himself can the power of the primal source be saved for renewed actuality.

Plato in the ‘Timaeus’ (72 b) distinguishes between the μάντεις (manteis, divination), whom he conceives as μανέντες (manentes, diviners)—those who are ravished by the god and “prophesy” in mysterious sounds what they have received from him but are ignorant what is happening to them and of the origin of their utterance—and the προφήται (profítai, prophet), the “divulgers,” who translate these mysterious sounds into human speech.

The passive element in the former recedes, but the basic relation remains the same when Pindar (fr. 150) says that the Muse “prophesies,” while the poet “divulges”: the Muse gives the poet the keynote, the poet frames it in word and verse; but the Muse does not express herself; she expresses the god by whom she, a superhuman Pythia, is possessed—her lord Apollo. And he, too, as he confesses in Aeschylus,(‘Eumenides’, 17 & 615)  is both μάντις (mantis, soothsayer) and προφήτης (profitis, prophet), serving a higher god, Zeus, who has endowed him with wisdom; he does not speak his wisdom; to the Muse or Pythia he conveys no word, but only a mystery, of which he moans inarticulately and which finally the “prophetic” interpreter divulges.

To the Greek, μαντεία (manteia, divination) is not “finished” discourse. It bursts forth unshaped and to the non prophet unintelligible; only the προφήτης (profitis, prophet) can give it shape and fashion it into λόγος (logos, speech). The prophet translates, but from a language which to the ear of the profane is no language at all. When a man combines both functions, we must assume that for a time he is only a μάντις (mantis, soothsayer) and then becomes a προφήτης (profítis, prophet)-, the personal differentiation is replaced by one of condition, a differentiation between states of mind, a transformation within the person. The duality remains. Not so the Biblical nabi. It is significant that this term is not also used in a profane sense, as in Greek, where the interpreter of a philosophy or even a crier at the games can be called προφήτης, signifying one who publicly proclaims.

The nabi exists only in the relation between God and man; he is one who “carries the word along the vertical,” and this not only downward as the bringer of God’s message, but also upward: Abraham “intercedes” for the king of the Philistines (this is the basic meaning of the Hebrew word for “pray”); it is as a messenger that Miriam sings and that Deborah proclaims her song of thanksgiving and victory. The mission of the nabi is to let the dialogue between God and man be accomplished in his speaking. God elects him “in the womb,” in order that through him the divine cry of admonition and promise should strike the ear of man, but also that through him the cries of men’s hearts should be gathered and borne on high. True, the divine purpose is not mediation but immediacy; however, the intermediary is the road to this aim—to the longed-for day when all God’s people will be prophets with the spirit upon them (Numbers n : 29).

The Biblical concept of the nabi stands out most clearly in one passage (Exodus 7:1), where it is used metaphorically, where two men stand to one another in precisely the relationship of Elohim, the divine power, and nabi, His herald. “See,” God says to Moses, “I have made thee as Elohim to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy nabi.” The metaphor clearly reveals the relation between the two, Elohim, the inspiring power, and nabi, the speaker. The full intimacy of this relation is shown by a parallel passage (4 :16) earlier in the narrative: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and it shall come to pass that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him as an Elohim.” To be the nabi of an Elohim means then to be his “mouth.” His mouth and not his mouthpiece: the nabi does not communicate a finished utterance that might have been heard before; he puts into words a hidden, soundless utterance, God’s primal word, for man anterior to all words; just as a man’s mouth puts into words the hidden, soundless speech of his inwardness.

This fundamental conception attains its full force where God speaks of His relation to the nabi in exactly the same image and preserves the Biblical distance between God and man merely by saying: not “my mouth,” but “as my mouth.” In a critical hour Jeremiah has prayed God for help against his persecutors (15 : 15). In answering him, God not only rejects his prayer, in which the prophet has been unfaithful to his mission, but tells him (15 : i9ff.) that only if he returns from the all too human path on which he has strayed to the path of God, will He reinstate him and cause him to “stand before my face”: “And if thou bring forth the precious out of the vile, thou shalt be as My mouth.” Here it is essential to note that God does not declare His intent to use the man’s mouth as His own: it is the man’s whole person that shall serve Him as a mouth.

This the Greek προφήτης (profitis, prophet) is not, and this he cannot be. It is his mouth and not his person that “divulges.” Likewise, the μάντις (mantis, soothsayer) is not the mouth of the god, nor can he be. His person, entranced and possessed by the god, utters but does not divulge. As long as a man functions as a μάντις (mantis, soothsayer), he remains unintelligible to those who receive his message; and once he becomes his own προφήτης (profitis, prophet), he is merely the speaker of a word that is distinct from himself. In the world of Biblical faith, it is not two men who confront God, one immediately and one mediately, but one; the man upon whom the storm of the divine spirit descended, to “clothe him” (Judges 6 : 34), is not with his mouth and tongue alone but with his whole life and being the spokesman of the secret voice, the “still, small voice,” that blows through him (I Kings 19 : 12).

“Here there was no separation between Pythia and interpreting priest/poet: the Israelite prophet was both in one person” (Max Weber). This means that in the prophetic word of the Bible, unlike that of the Delphic oracle, speech in ‘statu nascendi’ and finished speech are identical, whereas for the Greeks an ecstatic babbling must be transposed into ordered discourse. The speech that bursts forth from the Biblical prophet is already stamped into words; it is rhythmically articulated, “objective” speech. And yet it is not a discourse separable from the speaker, which he merely utters: it embraces the whole person, the whole speaking human body, alive in itself and now inspired by the ruach, the pneuma; it embraces the whole existence of this man: the whole man is mouth.

Here there is no distinction between the passivity of μαίνεσθαι, (manesthai, trance and ecstasy), and the action of προειπειν, (proeipein, expressive and effective discourse). The form of the speech is here not “received”; it is born in the original impulse to utter sound—and this is why all rules of metrics must fail the scholar, because the “ready-made” meter is always overwhelmed by the unique stream of prophecy. The man who has been seized by the ruach and compelled to speak does not stammer before he speaks; even when God has touched his mouth, the language he speaks has a rhythmic rigor, but it is flooded with the headlong surge of the moment. And to speak of a “development” from the “primitive ecstatic seer” to the “articulate prophet” is misleading: in the Bible the former never appears distinct from the latter, and though we read of a wild, frantic—but not unmusical—outpouring, we hear no inarticulate babbling or ranting; we encounter the voice of the nabi only as word, and his word only as discourse. And chronologically, the passive and active elements are not divided; they are one. There is a single comprehensive function, and this indivisible function demands the undivided man.

For a sound appreciation of the nature of prophetic existence, we must inquire into the purpose of prophecy. Both the Greek oracular utterance and the utterance of the Biblical prophet are bound up with a specific situation. But the oracle responds to a situation described by an embassy in quest of advice, while the nabi, sent by God, addresses himself unbidden to the biographical or historical situation. The response of the oracle is the prediction of an unalterable future; the utterance of the nabi refers to an hour that is undecided but bears within it the potentiality of decision. In the answer of the Greek oracle the future is written on a scroll, the unrolling of which constitutes history; in Biblical prophecy nothing is fixed or foreordained, and God mysteriously holds his sheltering hands over the free play of human responses to events as they occur: his power, which is greater and more mysterious than the formal omnipotence of dogma, can spare a little power for the moment of his creature.

In Herodotus (I, 91) the Pythia proclaims that even a god cannot evade the destiny that has been decreed. The paradigmatic book of Jonah relates that God sent a prophet to announce the doom of the sinful city of Nineveh, and this was no conditional, avertible doom: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” cries the prophet (3 :4). But Nineveh turned back from its ways, and God too “turned and repented.” This reciprocity of repentance was the secret import of Jonah’s message; it was unknown even to himself, and that was why he shrank back from it. And the Jewish tradition offered a sound interpretation of Biblical faith when it asserted that the prophets prophesied “only on behalf of penitents.” Speaking to the people in a given situation, the nabi assumes a real power of decision inherent in them. His words are not, like those of the Pythia, merely called forth by a situation: they are entirely contingent on that situation. Only this contingency can penetrate the mysterious depths of existence in creation. And just because the words of the prophets refer to the historic hour and are in keeping with it, they retain their force for all generations and peoples. Prophecy is grounded in the reality of history as it is enacted. In contra-distinction to all mantic historiosophy, to all knowledge of the future, whether of dialectical or of gnostic origin, we have here an insight into the true character of decision, determined by so many factors and yet so determining in its simplicity.

But the spoken word alone cannot be adequate to this character of the moment, so pregnant with decision. To be adequate to it, to cope with its limitless reality, the word must be complemented by the symbolic attitude and action which alone can enable the word to express and evoke the free choice that lives in the historic moment. It is not the word as such that acts on reality, but only that word which is an integral part of a whole human existence, which springs from it and epitomizes it.

The Biblical sign can encompass proof or confirmation; but in essence it is neither one nor the other. This may be illustrated by one example among many. When Moses expresses his misgivings: “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?”—God replies (Exodus 3 :12): “Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.” This “token,” or sign, is not to be taken as an authentication. In the Bible, “sign” has a different meaning. Biblical man and with him the Biblical God demands that the spirit manifest itself more fully, more “really” than in the spoken word, that it materialize itself. Stated in Biblical terms, man asks a sign of God—that is, asks substantiation of His message; while God “proves” a man—that is, brings out what is in him, makes him manifest himself; so did God in His relentless mercy prove Abraham (Genesis 22) by giving him the utmost opportunity to embody his inner devotion.

And God wants man to desire the embodiment of His spirit; he who asks a sign from Him is confirmed in his belief; he who refuses a sign offered by God to man attests not faith but lack of faith (Isaiah 7 :11-13). The mission conferred on Moses by the voice from the burning bush is embodied in a sign when the people led out of servitude in Egypt come to the burning mountain and serve the God who has borne them “on eagles’ wings” and brought them unto himself (Exodus 19 : 4).

This sign cannot be rendered in words or replaced by words; there is no book of signs in which one can look up its meaning; but the spoken word is fully incarnated in the sign. Precisely through being spoken the spoken word is itself a part of that corporeity: it is part of a living attitude and action. Only the transient can become a symbol. Both sign and symbol are irreducible, a statement cannot be distilled from them; both state what cannot be stated otherwise—body and image cannot be paraphrased, the body like the image is needed to render all the depth of the word; and the bodily sign is no proof, any more than the imaged symbol is a comparison.

The prophecy of the nabi is not an oracle but the exact opposite. It aims at an event which may or may not take place, according to the either-or implicit in the moment. Such an aimed-at event can be adequately expressed only by a symbolic act. Only a symbolic event or action can do justice to the plenitude and freedom inherent in the moment of decision. It is from this standpoint that we must understand all the symbolic actions of the Biblical prophets, whether, like Jeremiah’s shattering of the pitcher in the presence of the elders or Ezekiels fitting together of the two blocks of wood, they are acts of a moment, or whether they thrust deep into a life, as when Hosea marries a harlot and to the children of this marriage gives names of doom. This last, cruel example makes it plain that the symbolic act is not a practical metaphor but a literal acting out in his own flesh. The marriage is meant to represent in the human world the marriage between God and the whore Israel. “Go,” says the voice in its first proclamation to the nabi (i : 2), “take unto thee a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry; for the land doth commit great harlotry, departing from the Lord.” This “for” states brutally that God exacts the physical life of his just-elected prophet as a sign, as a physical image of His experience with Israel. Here we have a sacred action in terrible earnest, it is a vital ‘dromenon’.

The narrative of the marriage and the directly identifying word of God are gruesomely intertwined. The naming of the children of whoredom—that is, the legitimate children of Hosea and the whore—is recounted. One daughter is named “That hath not obtained compassion” (“for I will no more have compassion upon the house of Israel, that I should in any wise pardon them”); one son is named “Not My people” (“for ye are not My people, and I will not be yours”). And now suddenly (2 : 2) the voice of God in these children speaks to the children of Israel: “Plead with your mother, plead; for she is not My wife, neither am I her husband; and let her put away her harlotries from her face, and her adulteries from between her breasts.” Here it is sharply brought home to us into what depths of reality the “sign” penetrates. The nabi does not merely act by signs; his whole life is a sign. In the last analysis it is not what he does that is the sign; in the act of doing it, he himself is the sign.

But the symbolic existence of the prophet becomes most intense and also clearest in Isaiah (8 :11-22). It is a time of the greatest confusion in which the future catastrophe of the people is foreshadowed; truth and falsehood are so mingled that the soul can scarcely distinguish between them, can scarcely recognize which is the right; God himself is misunderstood and misused “for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Even in this situation, to be sure, there is a consolation pointing beyond the coming catastrophe (Isaiah 9 :1-6). But to utter it now would be to expose it to misunderstanding and abuse. And so Isaiah’s word of the hour is “Bind up the testimony, seal the instruction among My disciples” (8 :16). As one binds up and seals a book, so does the prophet bind up the testimony which he has handed on to his disciples: they themselves now represent the sealed book, which shall be broken open only when, in the midst of the catastrophe, the call “for instruction and for testimony” (v. 20) goes out to the people who in vain have been consulting the oracles, the “wizards that chirp and that mutter” (19). In the approaching “distress and darkness” (22) the prophet, in the midst of the people that have “no light” (20), will wait for the day when God, who now “hideth His face from the house of Jacob” (17), will take pity on his repentant “remnant”—he and his disciples and his own children, to one of whom, plainly at God’s bidding, he has given the prophetic name “Remnant repent ye.” And thus does he speak of this waiting: “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me shall be for signs and for wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwelleth in mount Zion” (8 : 18). These men, the nucleus of the holy remnant, exist as signs; they live their lives as signs. This whole man as sign is the mouth of God. What needs to be said at such a moment is said through his symbolic existence.

This is something rather different from what is often spoken of as symbol. But no symbol, no timeless elevation, can ever achieve and recapture reality otherwise than by such incarnation in a living and dying human existence.’

Note: Part II will be posted in the near future.

Martin Buber, picture for Life Magazine.


More about Martin Buber: 🌿Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ biographical information:🌿About the book and the publisher:
MARTIN BUBER – Symbolic & Sacramental Existence In Judaism

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