Here are my notes on I and Thou and Martin Buber (1878-1965). WK page number references are to Walter Kaufmann's translation of I and Thou (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970).   RG page number references, when they occur,  are to Ronald Gregor Smith's translation (Macmillan/Collier Scribner Classic, second edition, 1958).Comments and criticisms are welcome. Please email them to or mail them to me at the following address:

Rabbi Michael Kagan
Dept. of Philosophy
Le Moyne College
Syracuse, NY  13214-1399

(Note: these notes last received minor revisions in August, 2002; May, 2011)

I and Thou and Martin Buber (1878-1965)

Some general historical and philosophical background to I and Thou:

The post Cartesian situation, Humean and Kantian responses, the separation of the realms (philosophy and habit for Hume, the phenomenal and noumenal for Kant). The imminent Hegel (1770-1831),and the existential aftermath (Kierkegaard, 1813-55).

Review the Cartesian argument [refer students to  my DESCARTES NOTES ],then the line through Berkeley (1685-1753), Hume (1711-76), and Kant (1724-1804) refer students to my noteson Kant  .   Hegel (1770-1831),(Kierkegaard, 1813-55). and Buber's friend Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929)[See Arnold Betz's Rosenzweig page at].

Note the cultural and religious parallels and separations. The rise of nationalism and WW1 (1914-1918). (The works of Hesse, Freud, Agnon; Joyce's Ulysses out in about 1922; Gibran's Prophet out in 1923.)

Baal Shem Tov (c. 1698-1760), central theme of serving G always (all one's deeds).

Buber's religious sources include Taoism and Hasidic Judaism.

The three betweens of I and Thou and rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism distinguishes relationships and responsibilities holding

between a person and creation (discuss in terms of blessings, protection of land, trees, and animals)

בין אדם לבריות

between person and person

בין אדם לאדם

and between a person and the Divine

בין אדם למקום

This division structures I and Thou, as I read the work. (Note the parallel division in Taoism as Smith interprets it, and remember that Buber did work in this area; see Schmidt's Buber page, cited below, note 2.)
According to Maurice Friedman  in Martin Buber:  The Life of Dialogue (NY:  Harper & Row, Publishers Harper Torchbook edition, 1955, 1960, p. 27). "The influence of Hinduism and Buddhism was most important at an early period.  That of Taoism came slightly later and has persisted into Buber's mature philosophy."


Other key concepts

Turning (תשובהteshuvah, often translated as "repentance" )
 In Judaism, "the gates of repentance(teshuvah )are always open."  [see note 3]  At any time a person can turn directly to God and away from her/his sins.  It is always possible to turn and change one's life.   See Walter Kaufmann's translation of I and Thou (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons,1970, pp. 35-37).

Commentary on the text

Part I.  Between the person and creation בין אדם לבריות

WK p. 53/RG p. 3.  twofold attitude and the 2 yetsers; discuss the basic rabbinic concepts of yetser tov and yetser rah, relate these to the obligation to love G with all one's heart in the interpretation of the shema and veahavta(Deut. ch. 6).

WK p. 54, first new section/RG p.3 s2 ('s'plus a numeral will indicate section markers in the text).  Discuss the primacy of relations and relation al quality of the "I" of the combinations I-Thou and I-it.  Discuss "whole being" in context of above comment.

WK p. 54, center/RG p.4 sI.  Discuss the Hebrew word davar ( ), and the shehakol blessing.

WK p. 55, center - p. 57/RG p4-6 top. The difference between the "experience" world in terms of objectification and separation and the world of relation.

WK pp. 56ft- 57/RG p. 6, new section. Discuss the three spheres and the three betweens of I and Thou and rabbinic Judaism indicated above; in each of the three we "address the eternal thou."  Discuss in terms of the source of the world, and of the world as revelation, and in terms of the psalmist and Maimonides.

WK pp. 57-59/RG p. 7.  The tree.  Discuss in detail.  Discuss the combination of will and grace involved. Make sure to discuss that there is nothing which needs to be not seen or forgotten for this to occur.

WK pp. 59-60.  RG p. 8. The person, the shift in center.  Non-Awareness of the relation does not preclude.  Discuss,

WK pp. 60-61/RG p. 9-11.  Art. Describe some of the risks and responsibilities of the artist  in scripture and subsequent Jewish tradition.  Compare with Islam.

WK p. 62, center: "All actual life is encounter"; translated in RG p. 11s1.  as "All real living is meeting" the resemblance of whole action to suffering; not finding through seeking. Discuss.

WK p. 62ft/RG p.11s2.  The directness of the relation.  Discuss in terms of what is not there as means;

WK p. 63ft/RG p. 13 discuss enduring present, as opposed to the pastness of objects (compare with Whitehead's "objective immortality")

WK p. 64-65/RG pp. 13-14, new section, the ideas.  Ask what students make of this.

WK pp. 65-67, esp. 66/RG pp. 14-15 Love as the responsibility of an I for a You.  The connection between being responsive to do (), listening(being directly open to another () and loving/taking responsibility as an I for a Thou ().  Compare with M. Scott Peck's work in The Road Less Traveled.

WK p. 67, center/RG p. 15ft (see also end of 1st paragraph in WK, p. 157; RG p.109).  The mutualness of relation.  See Lao Tzu:  Tao Te Ching,  Book I, XXVII, "Not to value the teacher/ Nor to Love the material/Though it seems clever, betrays great bewilderment." (Trans. D.C. Lau, Penguin, 1963, p. 84.)

WK pp. 68-69/ RG pp. 16-18, the going back into it.

WK p. 69, new section/RG p. 18, new section, note the allusion in the first sentence.  Discuss the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.
WK pp. 69-74/R G pp. 18-22, discuss the experience described.

WK p. 74/RG pp. 22-23, the exile from the tree to the tree of experience.   Note that the subsequent pages (see, e.g., the second new section in WK p. 75/the first new section on p. RG p. 24) indicate that MB may be  alluding to the Eden story.

WK p. 76/RG pp. 24-28, the experience of the child parallels the human experience.

WK pp.84-85/ RG pp. 33-34.  The temptation to moving into it  permanently.   Its ultimate insufficiency for being fully human.

Part II: between person and person  בין אדם לאדם

WK pp. 87-89/RG pp. 37-39  The augmentation of the world of it; discuss in terms of the temptation discussed at the end of part one.  Consider the ultimate dystopic consequences in fact(20th century totalitarianism) and fiction (e.g., the World of It in Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time).

WK p. 89-92/RG pp. 39-42.  The role of and importance of silence, the role of speech, knowledge, art, and pure action/effective action (compare with wu-wei in Lao Tzu, Akiba's "This too is Torah an d I must learn it," and the concern with how the master ties his shoes in Hasidut).   WK p. 92 end of first paragraph/RG p. 41 ft., the dangers of institutionalizing the teaching.  (Also discuss the dangers of not doing so).

WK pp. 92-95/RG pp. 43-46 Institutions and reactions.  P. 45, the basis of community in a living mutual relation with a living center.  Pp. 45-46.  Marriage, discuss this interpretation, explain the status of such a relationship in traditional Jewish evaluation of spiritual progress; briefly describe Buber's critique of Kierkegaard in Between Man and Man where Buber  argues contra K that the beloved partner is not the obstacle but the way.

[Note, subsequent page references to WK's translation, unless otherwise indicated.]

WK p. 95ft,ff., I-It and evil; compare to the traditional treatment of the "evil inclination" in rabbinic psychology.
Show how this is supported by the last sentence on p.97(and the middle of p. 101); here MB relates this (I think) both to the individual and to the community.

WK p. 100-101, new section; discuss the realm of causality, relate this to Kant. Discuss psychological determinism and Buber's response involving freedom fate and destiny

p. 102 Discuss sparks in Hasidism.

107--"To gain freedom from the belief in unfreedom . . ."  Discuss parallel and possible connection to William James; esp. given Buber's work in Ecstatic Confessions.

wu-wei 109, 111, (hitting bottom involved),112 nb.157

110-111, compare with the Hasidic tale distinguishing heaven and hell.

112 center, the difference between Egos and Persons.  113 top, connection here to Eternal.

113ft-114ff self deception

115 I as shibboleth of humanity; discuss.  [see note 4 for definition and etymology]  Consider his treatment of Socrates, etc. through p.117, and to 119.

121 world pictures.  122 the deeper horror.

Part III between a person and the Divine בין אדם למקום

127 compare and contrast with Lau Tzu

128 on seeking God

130 on proper relationship between God and person

131 prayer and sacrifice vs. magic

131 discussion of Hinduism and Buddhism

134 Buber's own experience

135, the everyday quality

138-39 one criterion for true teachers

139 view on reincarnation, point out that this found in Jewish mysticism.

144 his response to Kant

145 the cat

147-148 more on relationship between God and person

149 Teshuvah

151 relationship between human couple and person with God discussed. Talk about criterion of
Jewish mystical teacher and the book Song of Songs,

152 Buber's critique of "mere spirituality" as psychic isolation.

153 criticism of Scheler and those who think God can ever properly be an object.

156 One's relationship to God reflected in one's other relationships to world.

157 wu-wei again

158 similar to William James with respect to the More.

158ff 3 elements of revelation:

the abundance of actual reciprocity

the inexpressible confirmation of meaning

the meaning is of this life and this world and cannot be interpreted nor "experienced" but
rather is there to be done.

160, (and Bergman on Buber in his Faith and Reason (p. 91) on Ex. 3:14 "

168 his concluding prophecy in standard prophetic warning and comfort form.

Buber on Buber 171ff

174 appeal to reader's relationships

177 assertion that this is not mystical

178 as it occurs in education

179 in psychotherapy


Note 1: Where other sources are not indicated, I used Microsoft Bookshelf (1996-97 edition) to check the dates.

Note 2:  For an online  biographical outline of Buber's life and work see Andreas Schmidt's Buber page at  For extended book-length treatments see the works of  Maurice Friedman(available in our library).

Note 3:   Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:12, as quoted the Gates of Repentance:  The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe  (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978, revised 1996), unnumbered p. ii.

Note 4:  A Shibboleth is "A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another";  The term derives"from Hebrew šibbolet, torrent of water, from the use of this word to distinguish one tribe from another, who pronounced it sibboleth (Judges 12:4-6)"; quoted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation.

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