Buber and Benjamin on Messianic Redemption

The below text is adapted from a panel presentation.


The project I'm presenting today is intended as an intervention in the political theory literature on Martin Buber. Buber is best known for I and Thou, his theory of dialogic exchange, but he also wrote extensively on the topic of utopian socialism, and lately we've seen a very productive effort to assess him as a political theorist in his own right. The title of this paper, "prophecy against apocalypse," references the introduction to Paths in Utopia, Buber's most systematic work on socialism, published in the aftermath of World War II. There he writes that all socialist movements are eschatological, and that there are two types of eschatology they fall under: the "prophetic" and the "apocalyptic."

Prophecy is the province of utopian socialists, whose projects take the form of voluntary cooperatives, and who privilege human agency in the redemption of the world. Apocalypse, meanwhile, is the province of Marxist socialism, a doctrine of grand historical tendencies, the reality of which is revealed to preordained revolutionary agents at decisive moments. Essentially, Buber refracts Engels's distinction between utopian and scientific socialisms through a theological lens, inverting the value judgment. Utopian socialists, Buber argues, are prophetic in that they emphasize building a redeemed world from the bottom up rather than demolishing the profane world from the top down. Utopian socialism achieves its ends through voluntary association and non-domination rather than revolutionary terror. From our present vantage point, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this voluntary, decentralist version of socialism may seem quite attractive.

Yet some of Buber's contemporaries did not share this appreciation. Walter Benjamin, for one, intensely disliked Buber's politics. This was a disposition he initially formed on the basis of Buber's support for Germany in World War I, and one which would only deepen over the next two decades. In a 1936 letter to Gershom Scholem, Benjamin proclaims an "insurmountable mistrust" of Buber, stemming from what he considered Buber's appropriations of nationalist and racial terminology. As Buber's political thought enjoys renewed attention, I think it is worth situating Buber in relation to Benjamin's "insurmountable mistrust" and probing this mistrust's implications. In this vein, I sketch some central elements of Buber's political eschatology, then revisit them through the lens of Benjamin's stated objections.


Much of Buber's "theopolitical" system hinges on the biblical narrative of ancient Israel's transition from judgeship to monarchy. This is Exodus through I Samuel, basically. For those of us in need of a refresher: Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, Joshua leads them to conquer the promised land, and for a while after that, the twelve tribes are mostly left to their own devices, with no king except God. The problem is that periodically the Israelites forget who they're supposed to worship, so they turn to idolatry, and God has to punish them by raising up a rival nation to subjugate them. Once the Israelites remember God and call to him for help, God raises up a judge to deliver them from subjugation. This is the template of just about every story in the book of Judges — Gideon, Deborah, Ehud, Samson, and so on. The cycle is finally broken in I Samuel 8, when the Israelites ask God for a king "like all the other nations," and God reluctantly agrees.

Buber has two things to say about this. First, he describes pre-monarchical Israel as a "direct theocracy," or, as Samuel Brody has glossed it, an "anarcho-theocracy." In Judges, Israel is a federation of autonomous tribal cooperatives, over which God presides as melekh in the term's most literal, political sense. In Buber's reading, each of the twelve tribes constitutes a Gemeinschaft in which individual Israelites live and form relationships, and so the tribe serves as the primordial site of everyday political life. Politics as such is sublimated into two sets of dialogic relationships: the "organic" social relationships within each tribe, and the relationship between the tribe and God. In the direct theocracy, when it's operating like it should, every human activity is an encounter with the divine, and the divine can be encountered directly, without mediation. This immediate relationship with God is what the Israelites lose in the transition to monarchy, from kingship of God to kingship of men. Thus, I Samuel 8 is, for Buber, the lapsarian moment. This is the moment of the Fall. When direct theocracy dissolves, there is established a permanent intermediary between humanity and God in the form of a mortal king. From this point forward, distance between the human and the divine can only increase. This is contiguous with what Buber refers to in his lectures on the philosophy of religion as the "eclipse of God."

I read the eclipse of God as the bedrock of Buber's teleological view of history. Paralleling Weber's chronology of disenchantment, Buber reads all historical development post-monarchy as a continuous process of desacralization. What Weber called "the religious rejection of superstition" consists, for Buber, in the excision of religion from material existence — i.e., what is rejected as "superstition" is religion's concretization through ritual. The rejection of ritual as superstition, in turn, produces social atomization. For Buber, this is plainly evident in Pauline Christianity, especially as it develops over centuries, as it converts faith from a social practice of the tribe to an interior belief of the individual. Because Christianity extracts the faithful individual from the lived concreteness of the tribal community, it reifies God, in the literal meaning of the term: it makes God a thing. The faithful individual no longer encounters God as an absolute being, but "reflects on it [a pointed pronoun choice] as on an object." Naturally, the Protestant Reformation only makes this worse, since Protestant individualism is tied to capitalist development and the social atomization that goes along with that. Industrial capitalism, for Buber, is the vulgar climax to three millennia of disenchantment, of humanity retreating from God.

My core claim here is Buber propounds a teleological view of history, in the same sense that Ellen Meiksins Wood imputed to Weber. In Buber's outlook, as in Weber's, "all history is a drive" toward the disenchantment of capitalist modernity. In contrast to Weber, though, Buber’s prophetic socialism provides the disenchanted capitalist world an escape route. To break free of the iron cage, utopian socialist projects like voluntary cooperatives are needed. The object is what Buber calls "social renewal," to rejuvenate human community and to recover an immediate relationship to the divine. The object is, in other words, to prepare the ground for a return to direct theocracy.

This is where we can get a sense of the "world-historical mission" Buber imparts to the Jewish people. In Paths in Utopia, Buber's key example of a successful utopian socialist project, the one he ends the book on, is the kibbutz. The kibbutzim appear collectively in Buber's account as a utopian socialist federation with a clear religious mission. Each kibbutz is a communal cell of a greater structure akin to the tribes of Israel in his reading of Judges. The individual members of each kibbutz live in rich dialogic relationships to one another as well as to God, and the divine presence permeates the whole experience. Yet the kibbutzim do not simply exhibit a structural homology with the direct theocracy of ancient Israel; they exist in ethnic, religious, and territorial continuity with it. These are Jewish cooperatives on the model of the "direct theocracy" of ancient Israel, in the Promised Land. It doesn't get much more messianic than that. In this light, the kibbutzim assume world-historical importance, constituting a significant step toward the reestablishment of theopolitics as a condition and practice of everyday life.


It's here that I want to bring in Benjamin. Of course, Walter Benjamin did not take the systematic view of Buber's political thought that I've sketched out. He never criticized Buber systematically, and several of the books I'm referencing were published after his death. Benjamin's objections are fragmentary, raised in scattered correspondence over decades. Still, they provide a valuable window into some of the potentially problematic components of Buber's "theopolitical" system.

Buber and Benjamin have roots in the same intellectual milieu. Both serve as prime examples of the "elective affinity" Michael Löwy observes between Jewish messianism and libertarian socialism among fin de siècle Central European intellectuals. This elective affinity produces a politics premised on the need for and possibility of redemption within this world. Benjamin owes a debt to Scholem here, whose interpretation of tikkun, repair, reads "redemption as the return of all things to their primal state." Buber in his early writings gives a similar gloss to the concept of teshuvah, return, which he interprets as a renewal of "primal forces." Both conceptions entail a view of redemption as embedded within history.

To put it a bit roughly, I think Benjamin and Buber share three key contentions: that a redeemed world is a socialist one; that building a redeemed world is an historical project; and that the process of redemption requires the recovery of some lost past. To demonstrate the necessity of such a recovery, both authors offer a pathological reading of capitalist modernity, arguing that the history of economic and political development is one of protracted crisis. For Buber, as I have argued, the history of the capitalist world is one of ever-increasing distance from God. And to similar effect, we can recall Benjamin's famous ninth thesis, which depicts historical development as a perpetually unfolding catastrophe, a cascade of rubble, a procession of brutalities and defeats. To repair the world is to arrest the storm of "progress" that blows us inexorably into the future so that we may reach back and redeem the dead. On this and other points, Benjamin and Buber share a family resemblance. It is with this family resemblance in mind that I want to visit some of Benjamin's stated objections to Buber's work.

Probably best documented is Benjamin's objection to Buber's collaboration with Rosenzweig on a new German edition of the Hebrew Bible—this is in 1925. The central impetus behind the Buber-Rosenzweig Bible was their hope to reintroduce the Hebrew Bible as if the later rabbinical tradition did not exist; indeed, as if the reader had never seen the scriptures before at all. With this new German translation, they aimed to recover a sort of purified religious language. This kind of linguistic project would of course be of interest to Benjamin, in whose view the lapsarian moment, the moment of the Fall, is not the installation of the monarchy but the collapse of Babel. That's when we lost the universal language that made possible the communication of perfect knowledge. Benjamin's objection is not to Buber's goal, to the recovery of a divine language, but to his method. As Agata Bielik-Robson has put it, Benjamin undertook to "mend the broken whole from within" in his approach to language (and this is, broadly speaking, the usual sense of tikkun). To put it differently, Benjamin attempted to approach the universal by identifying sacred fragments across existing, "fallen" particularities, accessing the divine fleetingly through the practice of translation. Buber and Rosenzweig, meanwhile, approach the practice of translation more bluntly, sweeping away fragmentary and particular commentaries on the scriptures in an effort to return to a purportedly authentic source.

Here, Benjamin's challenge to Buber on the subjects of language and translation reveals a fundamental dispute about the nature of redemption itself. As far as language goes, Benjamin's concept of redemption requires the gathering-in of fragments: the universal language that humanity spoke in paradise has been lost, but its fragments are salvageable through translation. Buber's approach, on the other hand, is a more sweeping effort—one of "total reversal," as he would put it.

Gershom Scholem described Buber as tasking himself with rescuing this "genuine … primordial" Judaism: the Jewish Urwesen, in Buber's terms. Returning to this primordial essence did not entail a gathering-in of fragments to "mend the broken whole." The whole is recoverable only by sweeping these fragments away. His return to the Hebrew Bible as though it were utterly new, independent of all subsequent interpretation, synecdochally represents his effort to recover an unalloyed Jewishness. The atomization of capitalist modernity renders such a return to the primordial necessary. Buber long maintained that so long as the Jews remained in exile, Judaism could only exist as an individualized relationship to a reified God. To remain in the diaspora is to remain suspended in disenchantment. The roots of not just Buber's approach to the Hebrew Bible but also his commitment to the kibbutzim can be located in this impulse to restore the primordial whole of Judaism by discarding the dross of diaspora.

Benjamin rejected this impulse and the characterization of an impoverished or inauthentic diasporic life that informed it. As he wrote to Scholem in 1917, the view that Jews can only be authentically Jewish upon leaving the diaspora presumes a permanent, immutable animosity between Jew and gentile. For Benjamin, Buber's intimations of diasporic inauthenticity are plainly false. Worse, insofar as they are premised on some primordial essence of Jewishness, they carry racial connotations. In a contemporaneous exchange, Benjamin listed Buber's conception of Jewish Urwesen as one of the three critical flaws of Zionism generally, the other two being "agricultural mania" and "racial ideology." Given the role Benjamin assigned Buber in his correspondence writ large, it seems clear enough that he considered these three malign elements intertwined.

Benjamin did not soften this appraisal over the next two decades. On the contrary, he despaired to Scholem in October 1936 that in defining Jewishness as he had, Buber had "seamlessly transpos[ed] the terminology of National Socialism into debates about Jewish questions." This is where I'll be wrapping up, as I'm not sure there's anywhere to go from a statement like that. Benjamin's assessment is hyperbolic (and Scholem distances himself from it accordingly in the footnotes of the collected correspondence), but it proceeds from the elements of Buber's thought I've outlined here. Benjamin does highlight something worth considering in the reevaluation of Buber's political thought. We can see in Buber an impulse to jettison existing social relationships, reverse the course of social development, and construct a new society around some authentic, unalloyed core. Buber's attempt to identify a primordial Jewish essence which could constitute the point of return may prove especially troubling from a contemporary standpoint. Certainly, Buber cannot and should not be dismissed as a reactionary thinker, but neither is his work devoid of revanchist elements. If we enter a "Buber renaissance" akin to the Schmitt renaissance of the 1980s and '90s, as it appears we might, these elements will require greater critical attention.

November 15, 2019

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