A Review of
My Friendship with Martin Buber
Hardback: Syracuse UP, 2013
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Review by Michial Farmer
All Americans who love the work of the great German-Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber owe an immense debt of gratitude to Maurice Friedman, whose 1956 analysis of Buber’s work, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue, was the first book of its sort. Friedman was the first translator of many of Buber’s best-loved essays, including most of those published in 1952’s The Eclipse of God; these essays were read and loved by many of the most important theologians of mid-century America, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Buber died in 1965, but Friedman continued to think and write about his friend and mentor for decades, publishing three more books on his philosophy (and a number of others on existentialism and related subjects). Friedman himself died last year at the age of ninety, leaving one last book, My Friendship with Martin Buber, to be published after his death.
And what a strange and befuddling book it is. Friedman, for the most part, does not seem to have known what sort of book he wanted to write, and the result is a chimera with the head of a memoir, the body of an intellectual autobiography, and the tail of a philosophical analysis. There is a strangely hodge-podge feeling to the end result, as if it were the unedited result of several notebooks’ worth of rough drafts—and all this in a book of fewer than 170 pages.
I am hesitant to blame a ninety-year-old man for the problems with his final book—particularly one who has contributed so much to the American understanding of existentialism in philosophy and theology. But this book desperately needed an editor. For instance, the book begins with a short section of autobiography, which should introduce us to the movements in Friedman’s intellectual life, but which seems incomplete and raises a number of strange questions. “Before I was nine,” Friedman writes, “I used to cry because my feelings were hurt, but after that I never cried.” But he gives no indication of what happened to him at age nine to change this habit. This section is filled with dead-ends. Nearly every sentence could begin an interesting paragraph, but Friedman has an aggravating tendency to abandon them before they go anywhere. At the end of the chapter, he explains that much of this section comes from “a twenty-three-page autobiography” that he sent to Buber with his doctoral dissertation, but this doesn’t explain what it’s doing here or why it’s so incomplete. It’s as though Friedman, who wrote a groundbreaking biography of Buber, doesn’t really consider his own life to be worth recounting.
Even the sections of the book that deal directly with Buber feel curiously incomplete, abundant with loose ends that the reader wishes were tied up. For example, Friedman says that Buber was not allowed to teach a theology seminar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because “opposition by Orthodox Jews had prevented his teaching religion in any official capacity by the university,” but he does not explain why this was or what problems, exactly, the Orthodox Israelis had with him. Later, he talks about Buber’s friendship with Niels Bohr—for exactly two sentences, with little mention about how this friendship affected Buber or even, beyond an offhand mention of Nicholas of Cusa, what drew the two figures together.
But I’m going to stop complaining about this book’s omissions now, because the truth is that there are some excellent passages in it—not coincidentally, the ones where Buber himself appears, either in Friedman’s recollections or in the letters from him that he quotes. We learn, for example, that Friedman was shocked at the shortness of his mentor when he first met him in 1951: “Since I had seen his photograph with his great face and impressive beard so often, I was astonished by how short he was—just less than five feet tall.” We also learn that Buber and Einstein bonded over their love of—of all things—Ellery Queen novels, and that the Bubers were immensely moved by their visit to the Grand Canyon.
It is the sections of the book in which Buber’s own voice is reproduced, however, that make the biggest impact. My favorite involves a dinner thrown in his honor at Yale, at which the host announced that the guest of honor would say grace: “Buber said shortly, ‘Don’t believe in it.’” And then there is a wonderful exchange between Buber and Friedman’s wife Eugenia:
When Eugenia came in [to deliver some papers], Buber asked her to sit down. “What work do you do?” he asked. “I was a college teacher,” she replied, “and I worked two years as a university librarian. Now I am trying to find a job as an editor.” “Pardon me,” said Buber and laughed, “but I don’t see you at all as an editor. I see you rather as working with young adults. But not boys over nine,” he added. “Women cannot understand them.”
At moments like these, Buber seems to lurk behind Friedman’s pages, ready to be encountered in the sort of dialogue that he so prized in his own work. Moments like these give the reader an experience of what we might as well call “I and Thou and Thou,” in which we “meet” Buber through the words of another man we’ve never actually met.
Unfortunately, the better part of My Friendship with Martin Buber is far from moments like these, and more than anything it is an argument for the importance of a good editor. It’s a shame that Maurice Friedman’s long career as a friend, reader, and interpreter of Martin Buber ended this way.