Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” is the classic text articulating a philosophy of dialogue. ICJS Jewish Scholar Ben Sax shares his insights into this concept that is both seemingly simple, and at the same time, deeply profound.
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This video was produced by ICJS, the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, which has a mission to advance interreligious dialogue and understanding in order to build bridges between people and communities. The video introduces the ideas of Martin Buber (1878–1965) and his philosophy of dialogue as he explains it in his most famous work, I and Thou.
Following the video, we’ll discuss what we heard.
Available on the ICJS web site.
“I–It describes a relationship between the I—you as a subject, an interesting person—interpreting the world [the It]. And you interpret the world through your five senses. But you understand that it’s not you, that it’s separated from you.”
“You can’t live in a world without I–It. There are certain relationships that require you to be an ‘I’ and the other end to be an ‘It.’”
“In the I–it world, you run into the danger of racism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry. Because once you have the ability to objectify a human being, it allows you to understand it in a way that gives you some sense of power, some control, and some understanding.”
“For Buber, if that cashier and I exchanged a moment, we could have an I–Thou relationship in which all of those I–It relationships that make up the empirical world, that make up reality, will disappear. We’re no longer the people we were in that moment, we’re something different. And both of us recognize that. That’s called genuine mutuality, in which we recognize each other in our absolute subjectivity, in that you are a unique person at this moment in time, as am I, and we’re sharing something.”
“For some people, it’s transcendent. For some people, it’s simply time stopping. And for Buber, that disrupts the I–It world because it reminds us that no matter how well we know the world, there’s something missing. There’s something lost. And that something missing is where Buber would like to build community. For Buber, he would call that some sort of ‘eternal now,’ an engagement with God or whatever other word you want to attach to the beyond.“
“In our contemporary situation where people are trying to find meaning in a variety of places, [Buber] offers an opportunity for us to experience transcendence without the borders of religion.”
“So drawing from the Talmud, the Jewish tradition’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, but also of oral laws, is his concept of machloket, which is commonly translated as argument or disagreement. I’m more comfortable translating it as a form of sacred arguing in which you can debate with your interlocutor about a whole set of issues, whether it’s theological, political, cultural, whose sports team is better. So at the end of that debate, I should be able to articulate back to you what your intentions were, what the ideas were, to give it the most charitable meaning imaginable, so that when you hear it coming from me, you say, ‘yes, that’s what I was saying.’ Then I can engage it. Then I can debate with it.”
“Once you have that moment with the other, with someone different from yourself, it is transformational in such a way that you relate to every other person with the same potential for that kind of experience. And when you do that, it’s a lot harder to categorize or objectify that person because they no longer are who they say they are, or who you think they are. You can engage them in certain ways that allow for I–Thou encounters. When you build community in that way, how we discuss politics, how we discuss religious difference, will take on a different urgency.”