EMBRACING THE WORLD IN OUR ARMS – Martin Buber’s dialogical and spiritual perceptions as a basis for commitment to the environment

by Einat Kramer and Yair Tiktin

“I contemplate a tree. 

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law–those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.”

(Martin Buber, I and Thou)

One of the great thinkers of twentieth-century Jewry was Martin Buber (1878-1965), a scholar, philosopher, educator, and Zionist-political activist. His phenomenal essay “I and Thou,” published about a century ago (1921), outlined the main tenets of his dialogical teaching, which centers on the difference between two concepts – “I-it,” in which a person interacts with the other in order to exploit them for his own needs; and “I-you,” in which a person interacts with the other in a genuine encounter. According to Buber, every genuine and sincere “I-you” encounter contains a spark from the encounter with the eternal “you,” a spark from the encounter with God. Buber’s essay “I – You” has been extensively studied over the years in various contexts. We seek to apply ​​Buber’s dialogical perception as a basis for environmental responsibility.

Buber’s writings frequently discuss potential encounters not only with other human beings, but also with creation itself. For example, in the text with which we opened this essay, Buber describes the different ways a tree can be observed, the last of which, “if will and grace are joined,”depicts an actual relationship. The encounters with natural phenomena, which appear in this essay and others, suggest that a real encounter (I-you relationship) can occur with nature, in the form of a conversation, as S.H. Bergman writes in the foreword: “It by no means needs to be a man of whom I become aware. It can be an animal, a plant, a stone. No kind of appearance or event is fundamentally excluded from the series of the things through which from time to time something is said to me. Nothing can refuse to be the vessel for the Word.”

According to Jewish tradition, the world was created by words: “With ten utterances the world was created” (Pirkei Avot 5:1) and in the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah) it says: “By thirty-two mysterious paths of wisdom God has engraved [all things] in three books, [derivatives] of [the Hebrew root-word] sefar: namely, sefer (a book), sefor (a count) and sippur (a story). The divine choice to create things with words and not by construction or fashioning, has a metaphysical meaning, namely that divine speech is immersed within creation itself as divine sparks. So perhaps it is THIS element which those seeking dialogue with nature encounter, according to Buber, and this element is the gateway to an encounter with the Creator, who continues to speak to us through nature. In other words, because of the words invested in all phenomena, any one of them can be a vessel for speech and any event that occurs to a person can also be a spoken message directed at him. For those who are open to listen to them, the various events serve as signals, as Buber says: “Signals appear before us incessantly. Life means being called upon, and all we must do is be ready and willing to heed the call.”

Furthermore, Buber explicitly states that our real mission is to respond to these words by taking responsibility.  Buber perceives the unfolding creation as words directed at man, with man’s response constituting his assumption of responsibility over the world. In fact, this is a clear call for taking environmental responsibility as a way to serve God, through a concrete encounter with creation, while providing a response to what it asks of us. This echoes the remarks Buber made in a different context, in a speech in honor of May Day:

“Our belief in the redemption of the world does not mean that this world will be replaced by another. But rather, we believe in a new world on this earth (indeed the terms “this world” and “the next world” do not exist at all in the Hebrew language). This hope, which includes the whole world, means we do not leave the world to its own devices. We are not permitted to appeal to the world unless we embrace it in our arms as much as we can, that is, bring the truth and righteousness of God into everything… Religion and politics are inseparable. Real faith must be expressed in all areas of life… Each of us is beholden to the divine order, according to the responsibility given to us.

This period, known for its tremendous technological development and other global processes, is called by many scholars as the Anthropocene – the age of the human. This label means that we face a new geological and evolutionary doorway – where humanity is the main force shaping the atmosphere and consequently the geology of the earth (for example: depletion of natural resources and climate change leading to extreme weather patterns). In this age, where man is perceived as a real “force of nature,” Buber’s belief that we, as Jews, are forbidden to ‘leave the world to its own devices’ and his call to embrace the world in our arms as much as we can, seem more relevant than ever. Moreover, Buber urges us not to separate religion from politics, or our perception of the essence of the world and our role in it, from its actual realization.

This concept of Buber’s can also foster reconciliation between two other areas that are perceived as controversial – Judaism and environmentalism. Religious leaders and conservative communities in Israel often shy away from the environmental movement for fear that the deep ecological worldview (treating man as part of nature) is an extreme biocentric concept bordering on neo-paganism. Thus, for example, Rabbi Israel Rosen stated the following in an essay on ecology: “The deification of nature poses a danger of reducing man to the level of beast.” The concept presented here, whereby there is sanctity in nature by virtue of the divine words embedded in it, as well as the call to look at natural phenomena as divine speech that mandates responsibility, can both expand the religious-environmental perspective, allowing it to take an active and even leading role in the environmental movement. In doing so, Buber essentially joins the eco-theological thinkers who seek to study religion in a way that helps create, support and build environmental-social opportunities.

Furthermore, the prevailing notion today is that human society must undergo a profound cultural and behavioral change in order to prevent, adapt and cope with climate change. A wide range of scholars refer to the climate crisis as a religious-cultural event, due to the way it affects consciousness and the questions it raises. Regarding natural forces and phenomena as holding divine words enables us to broaden our view from the conventional religious notion of “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God” to an attitude that seeks to hear what the Word of God is asking of us, and respond to the call that is imprinted in nature every single day – the call to take responsibility.

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