Spirituality in the Congregation: From the Teachings of Martin Buber

by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, guest contributor

Martin Buber Postage Stamp

There’s spirituality thriving in our houses of worship, often unnoticed and unappreciated. It flourishes in the ordinary give-and-take of congregational life, in person-to-person exchanges that Jewish thinker Martin Buber called I-Thou. And we would do well to better recognize this very common and accessible spiritual opportunity.

Martin Buber’s 1923 classic book, I and Thou, describes three fundamentals: I-Thou, I-It and Eternal Thou. The I-Thou relationship happens, for instance, at reception following a worship service. You feel a tap on the shoulder and turn around to find someone you haven’t seen in a long time. A conversation erupts and the two of you get so caught up in your words, you lose track of the time, where you are, why you came and where you are going after. And if Martin Buber was observing this exchange, he would likely point to it as an example of I-Thou.

By contrast, many of our interactions are marked by the mechanical, automatic behaviors of another kind of relationship that Buber knew as I-It. Doctors and nurses, bank tellers and accountants, many professionals and business people do the same thing over and over, typically repeating their duties regardless of the specific person before them. In each of these situations, the worker or professional treats the client or customer in a circumscribed and repetitive way, each almost the same, as if a supermarket bar code is stamped on a patron’s forehead. These nearly identical exchanges are typical of Buber’s I-It relationship, I-It is dealing with one another as things that are scanned or tallied, unappreciated for their individuality.

I-It is not inherently evil. We need I-It to get things done at work. Athletes find I-It in competition. And where would we be without the I-It of the doctor’s care? What would happen at the supermarket checkout without I-It when deciding between cash, check or charge? I-It is essential for life. However, I-It can become very evil, as during war, or through discrimination or genocide, or in any extreme treatment of human beings as things.

I-Thou, on the other hand, is personalized. It means stepping out of routine to recognize a specific person. I-Thou is in the extended conversation with a lifelong friend over dinner, as well as in so many of our passing encounters. I-Thou is spontaneous; no one can force it on another. It is unexpected; there is no way to predict the arrival, whether or not it will come, and if it does, when, how it progresses, or how it — inevitably — must end. Each I-Thou is unique, specific to the persons and the situation. Go ahead and set the stage for I-Thou — make a dinner reservation, table for two. Meet at the appointed time, take seats, but beyond that, I-Thou happens on its own, no guarantees. What is more, I-Thou can be warm and embracing, or marked by disagreement. Ultimately, the partners appreciate each other, simultaneously, in I-Thou. And both parties come away changed, having learned something about the world, themselves and the other.

Critically, I-Thou is between people, not in them, visible in their back-and-forth, in the interaction itself. I-Thou lives, not like the blood within, but in the air between. Surely, I-Thou stirs emotions — and it is even more than an interpersonal relationship. I-Thou engages an invisible spiritual dimension that Buber called Eternal Thou. Each I-Thou enters Eternal Thou, abiding with God in perpetuity. When we meet as I and Thou, we also meet God in the Eternal Thou; I have no proof; I take this on faith, as did Buber.

Buber’s thoughts are founded on the Bible. In the biblical book of Genesis, we learn that human beings are created in the Divine image. And as the Bible progresses, many of its conversations — among people or with God — demonstrate the spiritual side of our encounters.

Martin Buber was born in Vienna, was raised by his grandparents, and lived in Europe until 1938, when he fled the Nazis for Israel. He and his family settled Jerusalem, where he worked until his death in 1965. Buber was known as a thinker, teacher, author and social activist. When alone, he studied and wrote. Otherwise he was with people, in community, where I-Thou thrives. Though not a pacifist, he affirmed the goal of achieving security, peace and cooperation across the religious and cultural lines. He dreamed that I-Thou would radiate beyond two people in conversation to include community and nation, and beyond that, bridging divisions among nations of the world. I cherish Buber’s vision, and I invite you to join me in working toward it. But this all begins very much at home and in the house of worship.

I-Thou is common in daily congregational life. It is evident in our study, when we pray, and at social events. During our generation, when conversations about spirituality often turn to the inner life, we look around ourselves and find a spiritual dimension in communion with others, as Martin Buber taught, in the relationship known as I-Thou.


Dennis RossRabbi Ross is author of "God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber" and serves at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York.

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