BY DR. MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH
We see people but hardly ever meet them. We talk to them but hardly ever communicate our soul or enter into a genuine dialogue with them. We owe everything to the other and hardly ever realize this and no wonder we are all lonely and are reduced to being islands unto ourselves. To speak “we” word has become a convention. Even God who addresses us in every encounter with the other we fail to notice and no wonder our worship and devotion is mostly sham. Life is such a joy, such an ecstasy, such a communion of spirit for those who know who is the other addressing them or addressed by them. It is virtually God we meet everyday in homes and streets and offices. But few feel the thrill of heavenly vision (deedar) in greeting and talking to fellow humans. Martin Buber, arguably the most influential Judaic philosopher-mystic, may help us here. His meditations on what does it mean to say “I” and “Thou” and “we” are an education for life. May those who have paid so much for educating themselves or their children learn to speak these three words. “When two or three are truly together, they are together in the name of God” Buber argued. “Let us be friends” is really “Let us say thou to each other.” “All real living is meeting.” “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings.” “Spirit is not in the I but between I and You.”
Anyone suffering from or complaining about problems in relationships may consider reading Martin Buber. Reading him is a healing. Anyone who thinks he believes in God but is put off by neighbor or stranger or any other who one judges negatively should read him to see how he is really a nonbeliever. An atheist may read him to discover that God is everywhere, gazing from the face of the other or in every Thou one addresses. Buber has said that he is no philosopher, prophet, or theologian, but “a man who has seen something and who goes to a window and points to what he has seen.” Today we attempt to see what he has seen that we may all treasure.
Buber’s most famous contributions are retelling or reinterpreting Hasidic lore for modern audience and distinctions between I and Thou and I and It. His most enduring insights on the meaning of Jewish heritage and dialogue have been influential across cultures and theologies.
Buber has shown how modern critiques of religion are bypassed by more mystical understanding of it. Popularly it is believed that religion postpones auditing moral accounts to another life and all hinges on belief in the otherworld or beyond as if God is not swift in account taking and virtue is not its own reward and our moral choices don’t matter in this world. It is also not appreciated popularly (exoterically) that akhira (usually translated as other world) needn’t be necessarily limited to posthumous life but somehow informs or surrounds this world as well. Dunya (this world) means something near and refers to sensory world while akhira embraces our intellectual/spiritual life besides implying posthumous life. To quote from the classic work of Buber on Hasidism: “To find God means to find the way without end. The Hasidim saw the ‘world to come’ in the image of this way, and they never called that world a Beyond. One of the pious saw a dead master in a dream. The latter told him that from the hour of his death he went each day from world to world. And the world which yesterday was stretched out above his gaze as heaven is today the earth under his foot; and the heaven of today is the earth of tomorrow. And each world is purer and more beautiful and more profound than the one before.” This shows how awry is understanding of religion and mysticism as writing cheques that are bounced if cashed in any bank in this world. Religion is said to issue post-dated cheques that we can take at our own risk and only on faith. Buber explains, by quoting another zaddik, that by two worlds expression,
“Israel believes that the two worlds are one in their ground and that they shall become one in their reality.” This notion of unity of this world and coming world, of samsara and nirvana is at the heart of world religions as understood by esoterism.
Buber reminds us of certain radical Sufis in his drawing attention to the question: Why should there be wicked people or sinners of all kinds? “God’s relationship to the wicked may be compared to that of a prince who, besides his magnificent palaces, owns all manner of little houses hidden away in the woods and in villages, and visits them occasionally to hunt or to rest. The dignity of a palace is no greater than that of such a temporary abode, for the two are not alike, and what the lesser accomplishes the greater cannot. It is the same with the righteous man. Though his value and service may be great, he cannot accomplish what the wicked man accomplishes in the hour when he prays or does something to honor God, and God who is watching the worlds of confusion rejoices in him. That is why the righteous man should not consider himself better than the wicked.”
Juristic hairsplitting over how and what of prayer is put in perspective by noting Rumi’s story of Moses and shepherd addressing God in naïve or apparently blasphemous manner. Buber presents the same point thus: “No prayer is stronger in grace and penetrates in more direct flight through all the worlds of heaven than that of the simple man who does not know anything to say and only knows to offer God the unbroken promptings of his heart. God receives them as a king receives the singing of a nightingale in his gardens at night, a singing that sounds sweeter to him than the homage of the princes in his throne room.”
God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us and arguably the best site is relationships. What glues friends, spouses, communities is God. For Buber God is the space between persons when they truly meet. “The only possible relationship with God is to address Him and to be addressed by Him, here and now—or, as Buber puts it, in the present.” Buber further states that “The atheist staring from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own false image of God.”
“Only he who brings himself to God as an offering may be called man.” We are invited to remind ourselves this on every Eid-az-Zuha when we sacrifice animals. We usually resist, unlike Ismail, the invitation and no wonder for the whole year are burden to ourselves and to the world. Our worth lies in being lambs of God and we have chosen roles of butchers or farm owners.
One finds in this God intoxicated philosopher’s work a provocative statements under the subheading “When it is good to deny the existence of God?” “There is no quality and there is no power in man that was created to no purpose. And even base and corrupt qualities can be uplifted to serve God. When, for example, self assurance is uplifted, it changes into proud assurance of the ways of God. But to what end can the denial of God have been created? It too can be uplifted through deeds of charity. For if someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ You shall act as though there were no God, as though there were only one person in all the world who could help this man—only yourself.”
Who says that great philosophers of the secular age don’t know something essential of
the higher world or God? Who can dismiss Heidegger or Wittgenstein and Derrida or Levinas for instance? However it is in such philosophers as Buber who closely engaged with traditional canon that one finds God welling up on every page. Here also noteworthy is the intellectual integrity and humility of a believer. “I who am truly no zaddik, no one assured in God, rather a man endangered before God, a man wrestling ever anew for God’s light, ever anew engulfed in God’s abysses.” As noted by Buber scholar Maurice Friedman, “And the inability to believe in a God about whom one can speak in the third person which dawns on Buber in ‘Question and Answer’ brings to light that witness for speaking to the ‘eternal Thou’ and not about it to which Buber remained true in every line that he wrote in the forty years of life left to him. It was this unwavering life-stance that compelled the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich to testify a month after Buber’s death that one could not speak of God as an object in Buber’s presence.”
The lofty ethic of Hasidism may be illustrated by noting that Buber refers to a Rabbi’s declaration epitomizing faqr to the effect that he owns to be ownerless before he goes to bed at night, so that the burden of sin may remain far from the thieves who might enter in? How far it is from cursing thieves whom penury compels to be our uninvited guests?
Our task is becoming who we are and not mechanically copying other lofty figures. “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: Why were you not Moses? They will ask me: Why were you not Zusya?” Buber prized human contact so much that it was the main reason why he insisted on leaving the hospital in order that he might die at home. Fear of death and failure to appreciate the Sacred in human contact explain why we have denied ourselves the great adventure of dying in a style amidst our near and dear ones. We die, defeated and cowardly, in hospitals in ICUs.
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philos¬ophy, literature, religion and mysticism