Mr. Renaissance

The Martin Buber Reader Martin
        Buber: The Martin Buber Reader

Martin Buber

Teaching and Deed (1934)

Among all peoples, two kinds and lines of propagation exist side by side, for quite as continuous as the biological line, and parallel to it, is—in the words of the philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz—the line of the “propagation of values.” Just as organic life is transmitted from parents to children and guarantees the survival of the community, so the transmission and reception, the new begetting and new birth of the spirit, goes on uninterruptedly. The life of the spirit of a people is renewed whenever a teaching generation transmits it to a learning generation, which, in turn, growing into teachers, transmits the spirit through the lips of new teachers to the ears of new pupils. This process of education involves the person as a whole, just as does physical propagation.

In Judaism, this cycle of propagation involves another and peculiar factor. In Israel of old, the propagation of values itself assumed an organic character and penetrated the natural life of the people. It is true that it does not imitate biological reproduction in guaranteeing the survival of the community as such; it only guarantees its survival as Israel. But can we drown out the voice which tells us that if our life as Israel were to come to an end, we could not go on living as one of the nations? We, and we only, once received both life and the teachings together, and in the selfsame hour became a nation and a religious community. Since then, the transmission of life and the transmission of the teachings have been bound together, and we consider the spiritual transmission as vital as bodily propagation.

The talmudic sages say: “He who teaches the tradition to his fellow-man is regarded as though he had formed and made him, and brought him into the world. As it is said (Jer. 15:19): ‘And if thou bring forth the precious out of the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth.’” In this quotation from the Bible, God summons the prophet, who has just begged for help to wreak vengeance on his foes, to the turning, to the conquest of his own hatred and repugnance, and promises him that if he turns, he will be allowed adequately to fulfil a divine action. And the “forming” and the “making” of the child in the womb (Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139:15) is counted among such divine action. The influence of the teacher upon the pupil, of the right teacher upon the right pupil, is not merely compared to, but even set on a par with, divine works which are linked with the human maternal act of giving birth. The inner turning of the prophet is an actual rebirth, and the educator, who brings the precious ore in the soul of his pupil to light and frees it from dross, affords him a second birth, birth into a loftier life. Spirit begets and gives birth; spirit is begotten and born; spirit becomes body.

Even today, in spite of all deterioration, the spiritual life of Jewry is not merely a superstructure, a nonobligatory transfiguration, an object of pride which imposes no duties. Rather, it is a binding and obligatory power, but one which attains to earthly, bodily reality only through that which it binds to the obligations of Jewish spiritual life. So profoundly is the spirit here merged with the physical life that even the survival of the community in time can be guaranteed only by both operating together.

But if we are serious about the simile of generation, we must realize that in spiritual as well as in physical propagation, it is not the same thing that is passed on, but something which acquires newness in the very act of transmission. For tradition does not consist in letting contents and forms pass on, finished and inflexible, from generation to generation. The values live on in the host who receives them by becoming part of his very flesh, for they choose and assume his body as the new form which suits the function of the new generation. A child does not represent the sum total of his parents; it is something that has never been before, something quite unpredictable. Similarly, a generation can only receive the teachings in the sense that it renews them. We do not take unless we also give. In the living tradition, it is not possible to draw a line between preserving and producing. The work of embodiment takes place spontaneously; and that person is honest and faithful who utters words he has never heard as though they had come to him, for it is thus—and not as if he had “created” them—that such words live within him. Everyone is convinced that he is doing no more than further advancing that which has advanced him to this point; yet nonetheless he may be the originator of a new movement.

That this holds for Jewry is due to the intensity which time and again characterizes the encounters between generations, involving mutual and radical interactions and bringing forth changes in values as though they were not changes at all. In these recurring encounters between a generation which has reached its full development and one which is still developing, the ultimate aim is not to transmit a separable something. What matters is that time and again an older generation, staking its entire existence on that act, comes to a younger with the desire to teach, waken, and shape it; then the holy spark leaps across the gap. Transmitted content and form are subordinate to the tradition of existence as such, and become valid only because of it. The total, living, Jewish human being is the transmitting agent; total, living, Jewish humanity is transmitted. Tradition is concentrated in the existence of the Jew himself. He lives it, and it is he who approaches the new generation and influences it by producing the blend of the old and the new. Israel is inherent in these human beings; they are Israel. Israel is renewed, not by what they say, but by the totality of their existence.

We have already indicated that in our case teaching is inseparably bound up with doing. Here, if anywhere, it is impossible to teach or to learn without living. The teachings must not be treated as a collection of knowable material; they resist such treatment. Either the teachings live in the life of a responsible human being, or they are not alive at all. The teachings do not center in themselves; they do not exist for their own sake. They refer to, they are directed toward, the deed. In this connection, the concept of “deed” does not, of course, connote “activism,” but life that realizes the teachings in the changing potentialities of every hour.

Among all the peoples in the world, Israel is probably the only one in which wisdom that does not lead directly to the unity of knowledge and deed is meaningless. This becomes most evident when we compare the biblical concept of hokmoh with the Greek concept of sophia. The latter specifies a closed realm of thought, knowledge for its own sake. This is totally alien to hokmah, which regards such a delimitation of an independent spiritual sphere, governed by its own laws, as the misconstruction of meaning, the violation of continuity, the severance of thought from reality.

The supreme command of hokmah is the unity of teaching and life, for only through this unity can we recognize and avow the all-embracing unity of God. In the light of our doctrine, he who gives life and gives that life meaning is wronged by a teaching which is satisfied with and delights in itself, which rears structures, however monumental, above life, and yet does not succeed in wresting even a shred of realization out of all the outer and inner obstacles we must struggle with in every precarious hour of our lives. For our God makes only one demand upon us. He does not expect a humanly unattainable completeness and perfection, but only the willingness to do as much as we possibly can at every single instant.

Man is a creature able to make spirit independent of physical life, and his great danger is that he may tolerate and even sanction existence on two different levels: one, up above and fervently adored, the habitation of the spirit; the other, down below, the dwelling of urges and petty concerns, equipped with a fairly good conscience acquired in hours of meditation on the upper level.

The teachings do not rely on the hope that he who knows them will also observe them. Socratic man believes that all virtue is cognition, and that all that is needed to do what is right is to know what is right. This does not hold for Mosaic man, who is informed with the profound experience that cognition is never enough, that the deepest part of him must be seized by the teachings, that for realization to take place his elemental totality must submit to the spirit as clay to the potter.

Here dualism is fought with the utmost vigor. “He who studies with an intent other than to act,” says the Talmud, “it would have been more fitting for him never to have been created” (Pal. Talmud, Shabbat 3b). It is bad to have teaching without the deed, worse when the teaching is one of action. Living in the detached spirit is evil, and worse when the spirit is one of ethos. Again and again, from the Sayings of the Fathers down to the definitive formulation of Hasidism, the simple man who acts is given preference over the scholar whose knowledge is not expressed in deeds. “He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom shall endure; but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom shall not endure.” And in the same vein: “He whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, what does he resemble? A tree with many boughs and few roots. A wind, springing up, uproots it, and overturns it. But he whose deeds exceed his wisdom, what does he resemble? A tree with few boughs, but many roots. Though all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, it cannot be moved.” What counts is not the extent of spiritual possessions, not the thoroughness of knowledge, nor the keenness of thought, but to know what one knows, and to believe what one believes, so directly that it can be translated into the life one lives.

I repeat that in Judaism the true value of the deed has nothing to do with “activism.” Nothing is more remote from Judaism than the glorification of self-confident virtue. But Judaism knows that true autonomy is one with true theonomy: God wants man to fulfil his commands as a human being, and with the quality peculiar to human beings. The law is not thrust upon man; it rests deep within him, to waken when the call comes. The word which thundered down from Sinai was echoed by the word that is “in thy mouth and in thy heart” (Deut. 30:14). Again and again, man tries to evade the two notes that are one chord; he denies his heart and rejects the call. But it has been promised that a time will come when the Torah will be manifest as the Scripture present in the hearts of all living men, and the word will fulfil itself in the harmony of heaven and earth. In Jewry, the way which leads to that promised time, the way of man’s contribution to ultimate fulfilment, is trodden whenever one generation encounters the next, whenever the generation which has reached its full development transmits the teachings to the generation which is still in the process of developing, so that the teachings spontaneously waken to new life in the new generation.

We live in an age when deeds tend to assert their superiority over the teachings. The present generation universally believes more and more unreservedly that it can get along without the teachings and rely on a mode of action which—in its own opinion—is correct. In an address I delivered years ago at a Zionist congress, in memory of our teacher Ahad Haam, I drew attention to the fact that “it is not only the official state politics that is freeing itself from spiritual teachings—that has, on occasion, happened before—but the internal popular movements, and national groupings, are also stressing their independence from spiritual teachings, and even regard independence as a warrant of success. And,” I went on to say, “they are not entirely mistaken. The conduct of life without the teachings is successful: something is achieved. But the something thus achieved is quite different, and at times the very caricature, of what one is striving for at the bottom of one’s heart, where the true goal is divined. And what then? As long as the goal was a pure goal, yearning and hope were dominant. But if in the course of being achieved, the goal is distorted, what then?”

The implied warning I intended for Jewry passed them by almost unnoticed—as was to be expected. Although we are less able to get along without the teachings than any other community, a widespread assimilation of the errors of the other nations has been rampant among us for a long time. It is not my office to discuss what may happen to other nations because of their denial of the spirit. But I know that we, who believe that there can be no teaching apart from doing, will be destroyed when our doing becomes independent of the teachings.

A Jewish house of study—that is a declaration of war upon all those who imagine they can he Jews and live a Jewish life outside of the teachings, who think by cutting off the propagation of values to accomplish something salutary for Jewry. A truly Jewish communal life cannot develop in Palestine if the continuity of Judaism is interrupted. Let me reiterate that such continuity does not imply the preservation of the old, but the ceaseless begetting and giving birth to the same single spirit, and its continuous integration into life. Do not let us delude ourselves: once we are content to perpetuate biological substance and a “civilization” springing from it, we shall not be able to maintain even such a civilization. For the land and the language in themselves will not support our body and soul on earth—only land and language when linked to the holy origin and the holy destination. Moreover, in this crisis of humanity in which we stand at the most exposed point, the Diaspora cannot preserve its vital connection, which has so long defied history’s attempt at severance, without recognizing and renewing the power the teachings possess, a power strong enough to overcome all corroding forces. For all that which is merely social, merely national, merely religious, and therefore lacking the fiery breath of the teachings, is involved in the abysmal problematic of the hour and does not suffice to ward off decay.

Only the teachings truly rejuvenated can liberate us from limitations and bind us to the unconditional, so that spiritualized and spirited, united within the circle of eternal union, we may recognize one another and ourselves and, empowered by the fathomless laws of history, hold out against the powers moving on the surface of history.

Concerning the words of Isaac the patriarch, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau’’ (Gen. 27:22), the Midrash tells this story. Delegates of the other nations were once dispatched to a Greek sage to ask him how the Jews could be subjugated. This is what he said to them: ‘‘Go and walk past their houses of prayer and of study . . . So long as the voice of Jacob rings from their houses of prayer and study, they will not be surrendered into the hands of Esau. But if not, the hands are Esau’s and you will overcome them” (Gen. Rabbah, on 27:22).

The teachings cannot be severed from the deed, but neither can the deed be severed from the teachings! Our tradition assigned quite as much importance to the one danger as to the other. The Talmud tells us that at a gathering of sages the question arose as to which was greater, deeds or teachings. And one of them, who seemed to share our point of view, said that deeds were greater. But Rabbi Akiba said: “The teachings are greater!” And all agreed, saying: “The teachings are greater, for the teachings beget the deed” (Bab. Talmud, Kiddushin 40b). This sounds like a contradiction of the assertions of the importance of action. But after we have more deeply pondered these assertions, we comprehend that the teachings are central, and that they are the gate through which we must pass to enter life. It is true that simple souls can live the true life without learning, provided they are linked to God. But this is possible for them only because the teachings, which represent just such a link to God, have, although they are unaware of it, become the very foundation of their existence. To do the right thing in the right way, the deed must spring from the bond with him who commands us. Our link with him is the beginning, and the function of the teachings is to make us aware of our bond and make it fruitful.

Again we are confronted with the concepts of continuity and spontaneity, the bond of transmission and begetting. The teachings themselves are the way. Their full content is not comprehended in any book, in any ode, in any formulation. Nothing that has ever existed is broad enough to show what they are. In order that they may live and bring forth life, generations must continue to meet, and the teachings assume the form of a human link, awakening and activating our common bond with our Father. The spark that leaps from him who teaches to him who learns rekindles a spark of that fire which lifted the mountain of revelation “to the very heart of heaven.”

Excerpted from:

Buber, Martin. “Teaching and Deed.” The Martin Buber Reader.

See also: Fate: Doom or Destiny? Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

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