Martin Buber: The world of ‘between’


In my column four weeks ago (May 13), I wrote about my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who died Jan. 20, a month before his 92nd birthday. I noted that the first of his 17 books, “A Layman’s Introduction to Religious Existentialism” (1966), laid out the pattern of religious thinking with which he would be engaged for the next 50 years.

Borowitz drank deeply from the existentialists, who share a common approach even though they do not necessarily arrive at common conclusions.  At the center of this approach stands not the disembodied intellect but rather the whole person, body and soul – “the self, the concrete individual facing the problems of existence in a very specific here and now,” as Borowitz puts it in his first book.

Of all the religious existentialists, Martin Buber (1878-1965) had the most profound influence on Borowitz’s growth as a Jew who placed his living relationship with God at the very core of his identity. Buber’s best-known work, “Ich und Du,” was published in 1923; “I and Thou,” the first English version of the German original, was translated by Ronald Gregor Smith in 1937, followed by Smith’s revised second edition in 1958. Then, in 1970, Walter Kaufmann offered a new translation, which he titled “I and You.”  Buber’s fundamental distinction between the I-It and the I-Thou types of relationship has been widely discussed in a general way for the past several decades – even by those who have never heard of Buber and who have but a vague understanding of what lies behind these terms.

Broadly speaking, the I-It relationship is one between a person (I) and an object (It).  More often than not, we relate to other people as objects, as “Its”; we use them, we manipulate them, we evaluate their strengths and weaknesses to help us predict their likely behavior.  Buber makes it clear that there is nothing wrong per se with the relationship of I-It; indeed, it is the default relationship by which we make our way through the world.  What is a problem is allowing the I-It to be the only way we relate to other people.

To express our humanity in its completeness, we need to find ways to relate to another person not as an object – an It – but as a subject, as a whole person, as a Thou.  In such cases, the I and the Thou are mutually present, fully open to each other in all of their uniqueness and mystery; yet they preserve their separate identities. Neither the I nor the Thou is absorbed into the other; there is no loss of self. The two remain two – separated by the hyphen, by the “between.”

In some ways, the I-Thou relationship has characteristics of the first stage of a new relationship – the beginning of a friendship, the beginning of a romance.  However, Buber warns us that no human relationship can endure in its I-Thou state; at their best, human relationships oscillate between I-Thou and I-It:

“But this is the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It ... the Thou becomes an object among objects – perhaps the chief, but still one of them, fixed in its size and its limits.”  There is a difference between the world of young lovers and the world of a marriage seasoned by 50 years of togetherness.  Nevertheless, with hope, love and a sense of humor, even the most timeworn relationship can move from I-It to I-Thou before it is “by its nature fated to become (once again) a thing, or continually to re-enter the condition of things.”

In the third and final part of “I and Thou,” Buber develops those beliefs which define him as a religious existentialist: his concern for the fullness of human experience, for the whole person engaged with the world, as opposed to the detached intellectual, for the Thou as well as the It puts him squarely in the existentialist camp.  However, Buber insists that our relationship with God is essential to our wholeness.  Indeed, it is our relationship with other persons that point us toward our relationship with God.

Buber begins Part III with these words: “The extended lines of relations meet in the eternal Thou.

“Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou.”

What Buber is saying is that, during those precious moments when we encounter another as a Thou, we are learning what it means to encounter God, the “eternal Thou,” “the Thou that by its nature cannot become It.”  Our path to God is to be found in our human relationships at their fullest, in what lies between the I and the Thou – in the hyphen, as it were.  As Buber puts it in the final paragraph of his book, God is found “near to the sphere that lies between beings, to the Kingdom that is hidden in our midst, there between us.”

In a profound sense, then, we discover God when we discover each other.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at