May 2021

III. Kulturgeschichtliche Analysen: Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible

 

“A Voice, Crying in the Wilderness…”:

 

Martin Buber’s German translation of the Bible

 

Part I: Jewish and Ecumenical Contexts

 

for Buber’s revolutionary work, “Die Schrift”

 

Michael Panitz, Norfolk, Virginia

 

 

Abstract: This essay, the first of a two-part series, examines “Die Schrift,” Martin Buber’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. That work differed radically from all its predecessors. In this essay, the unique features of the translation are presented and analyzed, with the historical question in mind: was the work of value only to a pre-Holocaust, Jewish audience, as some of Buber’s critics thought, or did it speak to broader hermeneutical circles as well? The answer is, Christians as well as Jews were an important part of Buber’s intended audience, and his translation was part of a broader ecumenical engagement.

Stimme eines Rufers: In der Wüste bahnt SEINEN Weg, ebnet in der Steppe eine Straße für unseren Gott! (A voice calls out in the Wilderness: clear a way for the LORD’s road, level in the desert a highway for our God.)[1]

 

a rude but important question

In February 1961, a remarkable group of German-Jewish refugee academicians gathered in the Jerusalem home of one of their company, Martin Buber. Renowned as a leading Jewish theologian and as a public intellectual, Buber hosted this gathering to celebrate his accomplishment in yet another domain: Bible translator. He had just completed his translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into German.

 

Illustration: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Die Schrift, first edition. Photo Credit: Zentrales Verzeichnis Antiquarischer Bücher. https://www.zvab.com/buch-suchen/titel/die-schrift-verdeutscht-von/autor/buber

 

This publication was the fruit of nearly a half century of thought and of three and a half decades of work. Buber had contemplated translating the Bible afresh even before the First World War but did not make any progress at that early date.[2] He turned to the project in earnest in 1925, in response to a request by the publisher Lambert Schneider. Schneider sought a translation that would not be influenced by Christian presuppositions. Buber found it significant that the request had come from a Christian and responded positively. He turned for help to the Jewish philosopher and pedagogue, Franz Rosenzweig, whom he had earlier assisted with the translation of the verse of the medieval Hebrew poet, Judah Halevi. Although he was terminally ill, Rosenzweig agreed to the collaboration, and they completed much of the project before Rosenzweig’s premature death in 1929. Then, Buber continued working by himself, publishing 15 of the projected 20 volumes of the translation in 1936. Subsequent progress was hindered by the upheavals in Buber’s life: the turmoil of escaping the consuming fire of Nazism, immigrating to the Land of Israel and meeting the linguistic and personal challenges of taking up a position on the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.[3]

 

Illustration: The beginning of Buber’s revised translation of Genesis, in Buber’s hand. Photo Credit: Martin Buber archive.

 

Even so, Buber did not abandon the translation project, and he returned to it after the downfall of Nazi Germany. In a letter written in March 1948 to his publisher, Salman Schocken, Buber indicated that he had completed his translation of the biblical book of Job “during the past years” and indicated his pleasure in learning that Schocken was considering publishing it. In 1954, he resumed work on the translation of the remaining books of the Hebrew Bible. Over the next half decade, Buber divided his efforts between the translation and seeing other works through the press. In 1959, he intensified his efforts, setting aside other projects to concentrate on it.[4] (Already in his ninth decade, he may have worried that he would die before completing the project.) In addition to translating the last few books of the Bible, he also revised his earlier work, finishing by 1961.

At Buber’s author party, each of the guests delivered a speech of appreciation for the work of the translation. One of the guests, however, delivered a bombshell. Gershom Scholem raised the uncomfortable question of whether there was any utility in Buber’s having returned to the project after the Holocaust.

For whom is this translation now intended and whom will it influence? Seen historically, it is no longer a Gastgeschenk of the Jews to the Germans but rather—and it is not easy for me to say this—the tombstone for a relationship that was extinguished in unspeakable horror. The Jews for whom you translated are no more. Their children, who have escaped from this horror, will no longer read German… As to what the Germans will do with your translation, who could venture to say? For… many of us the living sound which you tried to evoke in the German language has faded away. Will anyone be found to take it up again?[5]

Scholem’s question struck the other participants in the author party as embarrassing.[6] But if anyone could have been counted on to ask the inconvenient but urgent question, it would have been Scholem. In fact, by 1961, Scholem was known within that refugee group as Buber’s greatest critic, and within a few years, their disagreement would become the talk of middle-brow circles, both in Israel and in the English-speaking world, as well as the smaller scholarly community.[7] One of the main foci of Buber’s work was his presentation of Hasidism, the Jewish pietistic movement originating in Eastern Europe in the 18th century and continuing strongly until the present. For Buber, Hasidism was an example of the spiritual revival he sought, mutatis mutandis, in his own non-orthodox world. Scholem sharply criticized Buber’s interpretation of Hasidism, essentially accusing him of deliberately misreading it for his own ideological purposes. Moreover, academic disagreements aside, Scholem and Buber were locked in an ambivalent relationship. At a personal level, Scholem saw Buber as a failed mentor. Early in the twentieth century Buber had awakened the young Scholem to Zionism. In response to that ideological impulse, Scholem had emigrated from Berlin to the still-undeveloped Land of Israel while Buber himself remained in Germany, deeply disappointing his erstwhile disciples.[8]

Even so, Scholem’s question, however unmannerly when it was posed, deserves an answer. For whom did Buber toil? What was the purpose of his post-Shoah return to work on his Bible translation, when most of his initial readership had been murdered, and the survivors were acculturating to speaking Hebrew, English, French and Spanish, the tongues of their countries of refuge?

 

different translations, different goals

As a personal goal, Buber might have persevered with the translation project even without a contemporary readership. The Bible translation had become one of his defining life projects. Even after the publication of the revised and completed translation in 1962, he continued to ponder issues of biblical translation, reexamining his earlier work until the last days of his life in 1965.[9]

Buber never stopped thinking, lecturing, and writing in German. Even while establishing himself in Israel, where speaking Hebrew had become an imperative filled with ideological as well as practical significance, Buber continued to express himself, as a scholar and as a public intellectual, in his first language. During the years of the Second World War, when he had no German publisher, he authored seven books in German. Four of them had been published in Hebrew translation, but by 1947, he renewed his relationship with the publisher Lambert Schneider so that he could resume publishing in German.[10]

 

Illustration: Martin Buber, 1951. Note Buber’s three-piece suit. At that time, native Israelis were doggedly informal in dress. Over a decade of living in Israel had not erased Buber’s habitual dress and grooming, a legacy of his Central European identity. (Photo Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/289356344800780965/)

 

And yet, it was not merely an issue of a purely personal Doppelidentität. Finishing his translation was only not a matter of staying true to his life’s trajectory, a creative parallel to his fidelity to German cultural preferences in his daily life. He did indeed maintain his Germanic ways, such as his retention of pre-war German standards of dress and grooming or his regimen of taking his evening repast German-style, in the form of Abendbrot. But there was more. Contrary to Scholem’s dark evaluation, Buber did have both a living audience and a potential one.

To understand how Buber’s translation could still be relevant in the post-war generation and beyond, to a German audience and to the world as well as to himself, it is necessary first, to understand how Buber succeeded in distinguishing it from the other translations of the day (and especially Martin Luther’s, the most influential of them), and second, to identify the readers whom Buber considered to be the audience for whom his translation would be uniquely successful in allowing the Bible to be heard in their day.

As Buber recounted the incident, when Schneider first approached him to ask him to undertake the translation, he immediately pulled a Luther translation from his bookshelf and read a passage, to show that the venerable work was indeed inadequate.[11] Why so? For two reasons: the translation was “too German,” and it was also “not Hebrew enough.” As Schneider had surmised, it overlaid the text with Christian assumptions, and moreover, it failed to convey much of what is essential in the Hebrew original. Buber appreciated the paradigm-setting sixteenth-century translation for its literary merits, but not as a faithful window to the Bible, declaring: “Luther’s Old Testament remains an awe-inspiring work, but henceforth is no longer a translation of Scripture.”[12]

This judgment would have struck most Germans of the day as provocative or even blasphemous. Luther’s translation was not only an epochal event in the development of German as a language and as a literature; it was also a foundation stone of Protestant Christianity in German-speaking lands. Subsequent Protestant translations of the Bible into German were revisions of Luther’s work, not independent creations. Until Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s audacious translation, Jewish renderings were more independent but did not have an interfaith readership.[13] Even Rosenzweig, initially, felt that the new work needed to be a revision of Luther’s version. Buber disagreed; they tried it both ways, and only then resolved to retranslate afresh.[14]

In conveying the Scriptures into German, Luther famously sought to reproduce the common German diction of the day.

We do not have to ask about the literal Latin or how we are to speak German, as these asses do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this. We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.[15]

This was true of Hebrew no less than Greek and Latin. Luther removed traces of Hebrew syntax and style that he considered uncongenial if rendered literally:

[…] What is the point of needlessly adhering so scrupulously and stubbornly to words which one cannot understand anyway? Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it, once he understands the Hebrew author, that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, “Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?” Once he has the German words to serve the purpose, let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows.[16]

 

Illustration: Luther’s translation of the Pentateuch, first edition, 1523. Photo credit: The Gruber rare books collection, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

 

Buber, on the other hand, insisted that the message of the Bible is inseparable from its actual “spoken-ness” (as he termed it, its “Gesprochenheit.”)[17] A more literal rendering was not a matter of enslaving German to Hebrew. It was, rather, a liberation of the text from patterns of thought that were obscuring the Bible’s vital message. The traces of the Hebrew needed to become tangible, precisely because the Bible was a memorialization of an oral original.[18]

In the following analysis, I will contrast Luther’s and Buber’s translations of the Hebrew Bible, presenting them in that order, to highlight Buber’s goal of making the original biblical Hebrew palpable to the German reader. Two short textual examples will suffice: Genesis 1:1-5 as a specimen of biblical prose, and Psalm 1:1-2 as a representative example of biblical poetry. These examples could be readily multiplied in the translations of other Biblical texts. The “Hebraizing” nature of Buber’s translation, as compared to Luther’s, may be seen immediately upon a synoptic comparison of the two, informed by a knowledge of the Hebrew original. In each of these texts, issues of both language and theology are close to the surface.

 Genesis 1:1-5 is the famous first paragraph of the Bible’s Creation Story. (Exposed to the Luther translation from his youth, Buber may well have been familiar with the 1883 revision of that work. But since the most recent revision at the time of Buber’s own translation was the 1912 edition, that one will be used for comparison.)[19] In Buber’s day, Luther’s version was familiar to all biblically literate Germans:

1) Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde.
2) Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser.
3) Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! und es ward Licht.
4) Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis
5) und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.

As can be seen in the accompanying illustration, Buber intentionally laid out his translation on the page in a way designed to lead the reader to pause between “cola” (i.e.: the phrases recited in a single breath).[20] That layout is reproduced here.

 

Illustration: Buber’s translation of Genesis, chapter 1 (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1936). Photo credit: Leo Baeck College, London. https://lbc.ac.uk/library-resources/explore/schrift/

 

 

1) Im Anfang schuf Gott den Himmel und die Erde.
2) Die Erde aber war Irrsal und Wirrsal. Finsternis über Urwirbels Antlitz. Braus Gottes schwingend über dem Antlitz der Wasser.

3) Gott sprach: Licht werde! Licht ward.
4) Gott sah das Licht: daß es gut ist. Gott schied zwischen dem Licht und der Finsternis.
5) Gott rief dem Licht: Tag! und der Finsternis rief er: Nacht! Abend ward und Morgen ward: Ein Tag.

Buber’s departures from Luther restore, to the degree possible in a German translation, the syntax and the sound of the Hebrew text. Buber’s attentiveness to conveying Hebrew syntax is first seen in verse 1 …et ha-shamayim v’et ha’arets, literally, “the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew construction “et + ha…” indicates a definite direct object. Luther disregarded that, treating “Heaven and Earth” as indefinite nouns, probably on German stylistic grounds. But Buber restored the definite article (“den Himmel” rather than “Himmel”, “die Erde” rather than “Erde”). Another example: Hebrew does not contain an equivalent of the impersonal subject “es” in German. In verse 3, where Luther gave “Es werde Licht! Und es ward Licht”, Buber removed the “es” and used the more Hebraic phrase, Licht werde! Licht ward. And again: The Hebrew of the second half of verse 4, va-yavdel Elohim bein ha-or u-vein ha-choshekh, literally rendered, is “God separated between the light and the darkness,” not, “God separated the light from the darkness.” Hence, in place of Luther’s rendition, “Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis,” Buber rendered “Gott schied zwischen dem Licht und der Finsternis.”

This refashioning of the German language to serve as a vehicle for displaying the Hebrew extends to issues of word order. The following interlinear arrangement presents Buber’s German, the original Hebrew, and a word-for-word literal rendering into English, to demonstrate that, insofar as was possible, Buber presented the Hebrew in its original word order:

The only consistent departure from Hebrew word order is when the German sentences obey the strong rule of putting the working verb in the second position. Biblical Hebrew, by contrast, has a preferred syntax of verb-subject-object. Otherwise, the preservation of the original word order in the translation is remarkable.

Turning from issues of syntax to the attempt to convey the sonic impression of the original: Buber’s concern to approximate the very sound of the Hebrew is seen in his rendering of the phrase in verse 2, tohu va-vohu. The two Hebrew words are difficult to translate, because, as a pair, they appear again in only two other biblical texts, Isaiah 34: 11 and Jeremiah 4:23, but those citations do not elucidate the meaning of the pair further.[21] Luther had textual support for rendering tohu as wüst, because tohu can be understood as “wilderness/wasteland” in Deuteronomy 32:10, yimtsa’ehu bamidbar/ b’tohu y’lel yeshimon, literally “He [i.e. God’ found him [i.e. the people Israel] in the wilderness, in a chaotic, howling wasteland.” Luther renders that verse “Er fand ihn in der Wüste, in der dürren Einöde, da es heult.” But his rendering does not bring out the assonance of the Hebrew phrase. Buber’s “Irrsal und Wirrsal” stretches German to suggest the sound of the Hebrew.

Buber was not ultimately content with that rendering. He revised it between his original work in 1925 and the appearance of the Schocken edition in 1936; but even in his second rendition, his translation conveyed something of the music of the original. Instead of replicating the assonance of the Hebrew, as he did with “Irrsal und Wirrsal,” Buber employed the alliterative “Wirrnis und Wüste,” “confusion and desolation” (perhaps, to preserve the alliteration, one could render this phrase, “confusion and chaos.”)[22]

Thus far, the sound of the Hebrew. What of the sense? The phrase ruach ‘Elohim in verse 2, rendered by Luther as der Geist Gottes and by Buber as Braus Gottes, is an apt illustration of what Buber was attempting to undo and replace.[23]

This verse is a prime illustration of Buber’s argument that the message of the Bible had become obfuscated because of the veneer of post-biblical worldviews superimposed upon it.[24] He intended his translation to restore the pristine understanding of Biblical words, prior to the reinterpretation of later eras.

The largest part of the Hebrew Bible dates to an era long before the contact between Hebraic and Hellenic culture. (Only the late-biblical book Prediger (Ecclesiastes), most probably composed in the 3rd century B.C.E., clearly reflects Hellenistic patterns of thought.) Other than in that comparatively late work, the Greek notions of matter and spirit being two separate domains of reality is not in the original Hebrew text. Humans, for example, are animated matter, according to the Bible; they are not embodied souls.[25]

The impact of Hellenization upon Judaism was profound. Once the basic body/spirit dualism of the Greek worldview had been internalized, Jewish, and later, Christian, readers reinterpreted the words of the Hebrew Bible in keeping with their latter-day understanding.
This is seen in the various renderings of the term ruach ‘Elohim in Genesis 1:2. Biblical Hebrew “ruach” can variously be understood as “wind” or “breath.” The rendering “spirit” does not convey the original sense of the word. It reflects post-biblical developments. But looking back at the Bible from that later vantage point, once God was understood, in accordance with the categories of Hellenistic thought, to be a purely spiritual being, then, what could God’s ruach refer to? Grammatically, the Hebrew phrase is a construct: “The ruach of God.” Now, that construct could bear two different kinds of meaning: Either the ruach was something other than God, while belonging to God; or the ruach was part of God, and hence only spiritual.

Post-biblical Jewish and Christian interpretations of the phrase explored both possibilities. In Judaism, the preference was for the ruach to be something other than God. The Aramaic Targum Onkelos, a rabbinic-era translation of the Hebrew Bible, rendered ruach ‘Elohim by rucha min kodam elohim, “a wind from before God.” Here, the wind is an actual wind, but it is not God; it is in front of God. Similarly, the late-medieval commentator, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, considered the ruach to be an angelic being. God’s angel, in that reading, was the entity that hovered over the primeval waters. Rabbi Sforno’s commentary reflected the fusion of religious and Aristotelian cosmological pictures. For him, as for Dante, the ever-obedient angels propel the spheres of heaven in their orbits: Love (of God) makes the world go round. The other possibility, for Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic readers, is that the ruach in the phrase ruach ‘Elohim means a part of God, and therefore a spiritual entity. Among the Church Fathers, this became the Christian way of understanding the phrase. Luther follows that tradition in rendering “The Spirit of God” –“der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser.”

Opposing this long tradition, Buber’s choice restored the physicality of ruach and yet insisted that it was part of God. He rejected the dualism of the Greek worldview, holding that “body and spirit” were not originally opposites, only becoming distinct during the creation of the cosmos. He rendered the Hebrew by “Braus Gottes.” Buber explained his word-choice: “That primordial rushing that goes forth from God is neither nature nor spirit but the two in one, prior to any split, so that it takes on its natural form in ‘wind’, its psychological, or soul-form, in ‘spirit’.”[26]

When Buber revisited the translation of the verse in the 1950’s, he substituted “Braus Gottes brütend allüber den Wassern” for his earlier rendering, “Braus Gottes schwingend über dem Antlitz der Wasser.” The altered verb, “brooding,” fits better with the one other biblical text where that particular Hebrew verb r.ch.ph. appears, Deuteronomy 32:11, with its avian image– an eagle hovering over its nestlings. He also removed the hyper-literal “Antlitz der Wasser” in favor of “allüber den Wassern.” Changes of this nature are probably what Scholem had in mind in his assertion that the revised translation was more “urbane” than the original.[27] But Buber retained the rendering “Braus Gottes,” since it conveyed what he considered to be an essential theological insight.

Turning to Biblical poetry, a comparison of the Luther and the Buber translations of the first two verses of Psalm 1 immediately brings similar issues to the fore. In place of Luther’s version:

1) Wohl dem, der nicht wandelt im Rat der Gottlosen noch tritt auf den Weg Sünder noch sitzt, da die Spötter sitzen,
2) Sondern hat Lust zum Gesetz des HERRN
und redet von seinem Gesetz Tag und Nacht!”

Buber rendered:

O Glück des Mannes, der nicht ging im Rat der Frevler, den Weg der Sünder nicht beschritt, am Sitz der Dreisten nicht saß
Sondern Lust hat an SEINER Weisung, über seiner Weisung murmelt tages und nachts![28]

Some of Buber’s substitutions were an attempt to convey the physicality of the Hebrew. For example, “murmelt” in place of “redet” corresponds to Hebrew yeh’geh, which denotes reciting softly rather than simply speaking. This word choice puts into the foreground the ancient cultural practice of reading softly, but never silently.[29]

Two of Buber’s alterations reflect his own theological stance: “ER” for God’s name, and “Weisung” for God’s teaching. In each case, Buber departed from long-standing traditions of interpretation to allow a more secularized age to hear God’s voice in the Bible.

The original system of Hebrew writing rendered only consonants. Vowels were supplied by oral tradition. In later centuries, various systems of vocalization became part of the written language, but the spelling of the words of the biblical text was stabilized by approximately 2,000 years ago, at a stage when vowels were mostly left unindicated. By religious convention, the scrolls of the Bible preserve the original, unvocalized form of the written language, whereas codices intended for study, rather than for use in worship, contained the vocalized forms of the words.

One of the principal commandments governing the relationship of the People Israel with its God is the injunction against taking God’s name in vain. Over the centuries, that produced a reticence to recite God’s name at all. By Rabbinic times, the beginning of the Common Era, it had become customary to substitute one or another circumlocution for YHWH, the personal name of God given in the consonantal text of the Bible.[30] Rabbinic tradition taught that one ought to substitute the word ’adonay, “Lord”, for the name of God. Codices, where the vowel points are added, place the vowels of ’adonay with the word YHWH to indicate that teaching.[31] That tradition influenced Christians as well, hence the Greek kyrios and the Latin dominus as appellations for God. Luther’s “HERR” for God is in that same tradition.

Buber, on the other hand, rejected terms such as “LORD”, conveying hierarchical relationship as substitutes for the personal name of God. For Buber, God is the paradigmatic “Thou”, and the hierarchical language of lordship subverts that essential feature of God’s relationship to the believer, which is God’s immediate and eternal presence. If “HERR” is inadequate, what would be a more illuminating way of conveying what the name of God meant to those who heard it in its original context? Buber and Rosenzweig went through a process of rejecting other alternatives, such as “Der Ewige” (The Eternal), in favor of a Divine Name that was essentially a pronoun. They believed that the name YHWH was a form of the third person masculine singular pronoun in Hebrew, conveying the nuance of “HE [is present].” Hence, they rendered YHWH by “ER”, when the narrative speaks of God in the third person, and by the other appropriate personal or possessive pronouns when the context requires them.[32]

 

 

Illustration: Buber’s translation of the Five Books of Moses. Note his employment of “Weisung,” “Instruction,” rather than “Gesetz”, for the Hebrew torah. Photo Credit: https://www.zvab.com/buch-suchen/titel/die-schrift-verdeutscht-von/autor/buber.

 

This had a ramification for Buber’s understanding of God’s word for humans. In the Bible, God’s word is the vehicle for issuing divine mandates regulating human behavior. God gives commandments, not suggestions. For that reason, the Hebrew term torah, referring to God’s instruction, has long been rendered by terms denoting normative language. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures rendered torah as nomos, “Law.” The word torah refers both to any one divine mandate and, in a collective sense, to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, since those books are the text in which torah is collected. Hence, in the New Testament, “the Law” is a synonym for the Pentateuch, as in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Nonetheless, the word torah itself does not mean “law.” It is a noun formed from the root y.r.h. and it denotes “teaching.” For Buber, God’s presence did convey imperatives for human behavior, but those imperatives were not captured by the various law codes of religion. Buber objected to the division of life into a sacred and a mundane and considered that the various law codes found in religious texts all suffer from that basic flaw. When Buber rendered torah as Weisung, “instruction” rather than as Gesetz, “law”, therefore, he was simultaneously pursuing two of his goals: he was conveying a closer German approximation of the Hebrew original, and he was grounding his own antinomian understanding of God’s relationship to humans in the Bible itself.

Did Buber’s translation succeed? This question is not asked as a matter of aesthetics. De gustibus non disputandum est. Rather, it is meant to inquire as to whether, in his novel rendering of the Bible, Buber succeeded in reaching an audience in the way he had hoped to accomplish. Here, the verdict is mixed. Clearly, Die Schrift presented the Bible far differently than did previous translations. When Buber and Rosenzweig’s translation first appeared, readers had mixed reactions. Some found the work strange and unconvincing, while others responded that it was strange indeed, yet inspiring. Negative criticisms focused on the disregard for the conventions of German vocabulary and syntax. On the other hand, defenders retorted that those critiques “missed the main point of the endeavor. The translators strove, by means of certain linguistic and stylistic devices, to lead the reader from the written record back to the spoken word that lies in the record’s core […]”[33]

Note the stress on the spoken word. Buber considered this point fundamental. In a 1926 essay describing his and Rosenzweig’s project, Buber stated, “Do we mean a book? No, we mean the voice.”[34] Buber insisted that, with proper attentiveness to the spoken rhythms audible in the original Hebrew, to the sound as well as the sense of the Bible, it can still be heard, not only read. “The Book still lies before us, and the voice speaks forth from it as on the first day.”[35] The reason for his focus on the orality of the Bible was ideological, even spiritual, and not merely aesthetic. Buber was no religious fundamentalist. He accepted the bedrock assumption of modern, secular Bible study, that the Bible is a human cultural creation. Nonetheless, he believed that the Bible points to an actual, objective reality in the life of the people Israel. That objective reality was their encounter with the Divine. Something happened to give the band of fugitive Israelites slaves an unquestioned consensus that their escape from Egypt was no ordinary happenstance. Their abiding sense of wonder gave rise to the sagas that are recorded in biblical texts. Those texts are not history, in the secular sense, but they are connected to a definite, if not fully recoverable, historical reality, and they are signposts to it.[36] Buber approached the Bible, therefore, from a standpoint of faith.

One basic theme unites all the stories and songs, sayings and prophecies contained within [the Bible, MP]. The theme of the Bible is the encounter between a group of people and the Lord of the world in the course of history, the sequence of events occurring on earth. Either openly or by implication, the stories are reports of encounters.[37]

Buber’s stance was thus a synthesis of traditionalism and secularism. He was a product of the modern West in holding that humans are the proximate authors of the words contained in the Bible; but he insisted nonetheless that those words are not simply imaginative or deluded; they refract God’s voice.

What are the implications of this stance? If the Bible, for Buber, is not the Word of God in the orthodox sense, it is nonetheless the word of the encounter with God. Therefore, the voice behind the text is the Divine Voice, as heard by its human authors. As such, the Bible is the key text undergirding Buber’s philosophy of dialogue. In his epochal philosophical treatise, Ich und Du, Buber articulated his understanding of God as the Eternal “Thou”, never simply an object of human conceptualizing, but an immediate presence. Indeed, God as the primary “Thou” is the guarantee that I-Thou relationships are possible. In line with this religious understanding, Buber insisted that the message of the Bible is not only relevant, but urgent. Therefore—and this is the heart of the matter, for Buber—the translation of the Bible is not simply an academic or literary exercise. It aims to render audible not only the one-time words of an ancient author, but rather a message that people still need to hear and to which they need to respond.

Living through Holocaust and World War II, Buber certainly felt that it was as imperative to hear and to respond to that voice in the present as ever before. He concluded the preface to his Moses (1944) with just such an assertion: “That Moses experiences Him in this fashion and serves Him accordingly is what has set that man apart as a living and effective force at all times; and that is what places him thus afresh in our own day, which possibly requires him more than any earlier day has ever done.”[38]

 

Buber’s translation of the Bible and Jewish-Christian dialogue in the twentieth century

It is clear, from the foregoing, that Buber believed both that his own generation urgently needed to hear the message of the Bible and that his translation was better fashioned than other German renditions to accomplish that. The Holocaust and the murder of most of Buber’s initial audience did not destroy that belief. But Scholem’s question remains: how did Buber’s translation into German, as distinct from his exegetical writings, available in several languages, help the message of the Bible to be heard, after 1945?

Scholem’s question, whether there remained anyone to take an interest in Buber’s translation, dismissed without analysis the possibility of a serious engagement with that work on the part of German Christians. “As to what the Germans will do with your translation, who could venture to say?”[39] But this dismissal was not well grounded, historically. German Christians were among Buber’s most serious dialogue partners, both before and after the Holocaust. Buber was always interested in influencing them, and not only his Jewish readers. Buber considered that existing Bible translations misled Christians both by obscuring the essential message of the Scriptures and by giving textual support to anti-Semitism. His efforts were designed to remedy that situation.

The point made in passing at the beginning of this essay, that already in the 1910’s, Buber had given thought to translating the Bible, may now be put into sharper focus. Those thoughts arose because of obstacles to ecumenical dialogue presented by Luther’s translation.

Writing in 1938, Buber related that he first contemplated translating the Bible because of the frustrations he experienced while participating in an ecumenical dialogue group in Berlin before the First World War. Buber characterized the relations among the “German” and the “Jewish” members of the Stammtisch as being openhearted and friendly.[40] The dialogue partners wanted to understand each other. Ostensibly, they shared the Hebrew Bible and wanted to discuss it. And yet, the German of Luther’s translation was “stamped with Christian theology,” which made it impossible for the Jewish participants to convey who they really were to their Christian friends.

Were not we ourselves, however intimate we were with our German friends, accessible to them only in a Christian translation? Something was wrong. We felt more and more the need to correct it […] We had only an indirect way to proclaim our truth: a faithful translation of scripture. We had no choice but to evoke the troubling truth. [41]

This reminiscence shows that in Buber’s thinking, the encounter of Jews and Christians, no less than the need for Jewish renewal, was present at the inception of his translation project. This point is worthy of emphasis, because most scholarly discussions of Buber’s Verdeutschung der Schrift put it mainly into the framework of Buber’s effort to spark a spiritual renewal among Germany Jewry.[42] Indeed, the assumption that a Jew would translate the Bible for fellow Jews, rather than for an ecumenical audience, was perhaps justified by the history of earlier German Jewish translations of the Bible.[43] But Buber was the exception to that rule.

The decade when Buber accomplished most of the translation, 1925-1935, overlapped with his most intensive years of efforts on behalf of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In 1924, he allowed his journal, Der Jude, to cease regular publication, in order to focus on more ecumenical expression. A year later, he published the inaugural issue of a new journal, Die Kreatur. This publication broke new ground: it was “the first high-level periodical coedited by a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew.”[44] After Buber concluded the run of that journal, he continued to pursue ecumenical encounter. This concern links a number of his notable initiatives in the final years before the Nazi take-over: his address of 1930 to the gathering of German missionary societies, his extended correspondence with the humanitarian, Bach scholar and theologian, Albert Schweitzer, and his publication in 1932 of Zwiesprache, (Dialogue) the “sequel” to I and Thou. In all these activities, Buber’s characteristic focus of living the life of genuine relationship with “The Other” included, either explicitly or implicitly, the dialogue of the Jew and the Christian. The basic framework of that dialogue was the shared religious text they revered, the Hebrew Bible.

Buber’s ecumenical activities ought to be understood against the backdrop of the conflicting cultural currents of the Weimar Era. On the one hand, it was a time of democracy and freedom. As a formerly persecuted minority, Jews relished the enhanced opportunity to participate in German society. But on the other hand, it was also a time of growing anti-Semitism. This had influence not only in secular society but also within Christian circles.

The rise of anti-Jewish thinking within Christian society during the Weimar period was abetted by a feature of Luther’s translation. As has been shown, Buber criticized Luther’s translation for weakening the “signal” of God’s voice in the Scriptures by the “noise” of his idiomatic German rendering. But he was also concerned to counteract what he considered a still more pernicious effect of the substitution of Lutheran German for the unvarnished voice of God in the Bible. Luther is said to have claimed, “I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.”[45] It is not certain that Luther said exactly those words, but they fit into a more general phenomenon that was all too factual: the elimination of the consciousness of the Hebrew element of the Hebrew Bible was of a piece with the dismissal of the significance of both the Hebrew and the Jewish aspect of the make-up of Christianity. One might argue that a purely linguistic obfuscation of the Hebrew original was not necessarily an anti-Jewish act. It represents one of the main schools of translation in pre-modern times as well as the modern era. But for Luther, it fit into a disturbing larger picture. Luther was also outspoken in his anti-Jewish invective. His 1543 treatise, Von den Jüden und iren Lügen (On the Jews and their Lies) was one of the most virulent, anti-Semitic documents of the pre-modern era.[46] Consequently, German Christian readers inclined to anti-Semitism would have regarded the excision of the Hebraic element in Scriptures not a matter of proper translation procedure, but rather of removing the Jew from their religious world. They understood fully the relevance, beyond the technicalities of translation, of Luther’s oft-quoted remark.

Christian theology involves not only biblical interpretation, but also the attempt to integrate biblical texts with other currents of thought in an intellectual system. Influential Christian theologians of the early twentieth century were revising their understanding of their own faith in such a way as accentuated the alienation of the Jew.

Elucidating this point requires a brief review of the changing currents in Protestant thought. Prior to World War I, Liberal Protestant theology, in Germany as elsewhere, had focused on the ethical responsibility of the Christian in society. For example, the influential late-19th century Lutheran thinker Albrecht Ritschl erected a theological system based on the central role of morality in religion. Following the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Ritschl argued that human certainty of God’s existence can only be grounded on our consciousness of morality. Religion, in this (neo-Kantian) teaching, is “the help toward moral self-realization.”[47] For Protestant theologians of that era, the Christian focus on individual salvation through accepting Jesus Christ, while never denied, was less important than the moral deed.

However, in the wake of World War I, a new school, “neo-Orthodoxy,” came to the fore in Protestant theology. Its leading proponent was the Swiss Protestant thinker, Karl Barth. In Barth’s teaching, the sinfulness of the human is so pervasive that “man is convicted, not for any particular breaches against the life of the human community, but for being human and not divine. Everything in human history being identified with evil, the ‘nicely calculated less and more’ of social morality lose all significance.”[48] In this construction, being a Christian is less about acting morally within society and more about achieving personal salvation.

This changed viewpoint had a negative impact upon the evaluation of the Hebrew Scriptures within the Protestant community. Those Scriptures, after all, are all about the attempt to fashion a moral community. According to the core story of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery, given the Sinai Covenant and guided to the Land of Israel, so that they could live as an ethical society according to God-given rules. The focus of the Hebrew Bible is life in society, and not individual salvation apart from the social realm. It follows that, for Christians living in an era that devalued the importance of the social realm as the arena for humans to live out their covenant with God, the Hebrew Scriptures were less and less relevant to the aims of faith.

Church historians accentuated this theological turn. The leading Lutheran Church historian of the early twentieth century was Adolf von Harnack. He was also a noted theologian. He had long been fascinated with the second century Christian author, Marcion of Sinope. When he was still a student, Von Harnack wrote a prize essay about him. In his mature writings, von Harnack advocated for a revival of Marcion’s influence.

Completely carried away with the novelty, uniqueness and grandeur of the Pauline Gospel of the grace of God in Christ, Marcion felt that all other conceptions of the Gospel, and especially its union with the Old Testament religion, was opposed to, and a backsliding from the truth. He accordingly supposed that it was necessary to make the sharp antitheses of Paul, law and gospel, wrath and grace, works and faith, flesh and spirit, sin and righteousness, death and life, that is the Pauline criticism of the Old Testament religion, the foundation of his religious views, and to refer them to two principles, the righteous and wrathful god of the Old Testament, who is at ‘the same time identical with the creator of the world, and the God of the Gospel, quite unknown before Christ, who is only love and mercy. This Paulinism in its religious strength, but without dialectic, without the Jewish Christian view of history, and detached from the soil of the Old Testament, was to him the true Christianity.[49]

Harnack reproduced the patristic polemics against Marcion, and yet, his own sympathies for the anti-Jewish logic of Marcion’s thought is unmistakable:

The way in which he attempted to sever Christianity from the Old Testament was a bold stroke which demanded the sacrifice of the dearest possession of Christianity as a religion, viz., the belief that the God of creation is also the God of redemption. And yet this innovation was partly caused by a religious conviction, the origin of which must be sought not in heathenism, but on Old Testament and Christian soil. For the bold Anti-Judaist was the disciple of a Jewish thinker, Paul, and the origin of Marcion’s antinomianism may be ultimately found in the prophets. It will always be the glory of Marcion in the early history of the Church that he, the born heathen, could appreciate the religious criticism of the Old Testament religion as formerly exercised by Paul. The antinomianism of Marcion was ultimately based on the strength of his religious feeling, on his personal religion as contrasted with all statutory religion. That was also its basis in the case of the prophets and of Paul, only the statutory religion which was felt to be a burden and a fetter was different in each case. As regards the prophets, it was the outer sacrificial worship, and the deliverance was the idea of Jehovah’s righteousness. In the case of Paul, it was the pharisaic treatment of the law, and the deliverance was righteousness by faith. To Marcion it was the sum of all that the past had described as a revelation of God: only what Christ had given him was of real value to him.[50]

Still later, in 1921, von Harnack published a study of Marcion in which he advocated that Christians follow Marcion’s lead in setting aside the Hebrew Testament and the Jewish conception of God.[51]

Buber viewed this post-World War I development of Christian thought with grave concern. He was alarmed to see that in the Church of their day, a neo-Marcionite movement was gathering strength. As Buber analyzed the evolution of the idea in Germany, he noted that one of the founders of the movement to sever Christianity from its Jewish roots was Paul de Lagarde, the 19th-century theoretician of anti-Semitism who had called for a “German God and a German Christ,” totally severed from the Hebrew Testament.[52] Rosenzweig concurred with Buber. “When the Christian today speaks of the Bible,” Rosenzweig wrote, “he means only the New Testament.”[53] Nor was this merely an issue of which texts informed the canon of Sacred Scripture. It had a real-life consequence. Antipathy to the Hebrew Scriptures was connected, historically, to eruptions of hatred of the Jews.

This was not Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s insight alone. In 1925, the Chief Rabbi of German Jewry, Leo Baeck, had also published an analysis on those lines.[54] But for Buber, engaged in the translation project, the specter of resurgent Marcionism, with all of its anti-Semitic concomitants, gave added impetus to his desire to present the word of the Bible, not as it was filtered through Christian notions of “the Word” (“Logos”), but directly. His translation work was part of his attempt to counter the rising influence of the Nazis among Christians, for whom the Hebrew Bible was still officially part of the religious canon. Buber appealed to Christians to resist Jew-hatred because, before they were members of any Volk, they were Christians, and hence mandated to obey the voice of God.

The urgency of Jewish-Christian dialogue, and accompanying it, the presentation of the Hebrew Bible in German in a form that revealed rather than obscured the Hebrew/Jewish original, grew after 1933. In the worsening atmosphere of the first half-decade of Nazi rule, Buber still hoped to engage Christians, as well as to sustain the morale of the increasingly beleaguered Jewish community. His outreach to German and Swiss Christian thinkers encompassed Schweitzer, the Protestant theologians Karl Barth, Ernst Lohmeyer and Paul Tillich, the Christian Socialist, Pastor Leonhard Ragaz, the Catholic theologian Ernst Michel, the psychoanalyst Hans Trueb and the philosopher Rudolf Pannwitz.[55]

However difficult for Buber it had been to deal with the obstacles to genuine dialogue, it was still more challenging after 1933. Prior to the Nazi takeover, the greatest challenge to the kind of mutually respectful and revelatory dialogue that Buber sought had been the age-old Christian attitude that the Church had superseded the Jewish people as the “Israel” of the Covenant, and thus that Judaism was, at the deepest level, illegitimate. But after 1933, Christian theologians were among the intellectuals who allied their efforts to the Nazi program of eliminating Jews from the body politic of Germany. This is the background for the remarkable exchange between the Christian Nazi, Gerhard Kittel, and Buber, in 1933.

“Christian Nazi” sounds like an oxymoron. As opposed to traditional anti-Judaism, racist anti-Semitism, originating in the late nineteenth century, was anti-Christian as well as anti-Jewish.[56] The Nazis were the heirs of that anti-Christian anti-Semitism. Yet, part of the totalitarian program of the Nazis was the attempt to coopt all other sources of authority within society—law, medicine, and religion included. They were all too successful in each of these domains. Christian theologians found ways to align their religious understanding with Nazism.

Kittel was a preeminent Bible scholar as well as a Lutheran pastor and theologian. He sought, as he characterized it, to “lend a Christian meaning to the struggle against Judaism.” Kittel abetted the Nazi effort immediately following Hitler’s accession, publishing Die Judenfrage in 1933. In that work, he advocated for stripping German Jews of their citizenship in the Reich.[57] As is well known, the Nuremberg Decrees did exactly that, two years later. In 1943, Kittel expanded his argument, publishing The Treatment of the Stranger According to the Talmud, in which work he argued that the Jews were guilty of genocide in the second century. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, Kittel was arrested by the French occupation forces in May 1945, released in 1946 pending a trial, and died in 1948 before the case came to trial.

Kittel sent Buber his 1933 tract. In the cover letter, Kittel argued that Jews should accept their status as aliens because it would be a just dispensation from Heaven. That prompted Buber’s reply.

Addressing Kittel (ironically?) as “werter Herr Kollege,” Buber rebutted Kittel’s assertions about the Bible’s mandates concerning the treatment of the ethnically different neighbor. Buber referenced the biblical texts dealing with the treatment of the ger (the most common Hebrew term in the Bible for the non-Israelite living as a minority in Israelite society.) An examination of Buber’s discussion of how best to render this term illuminates the connection between his efforts as a public intellectual, seeking to defend the status of Jews in Germany, and his biblical translation.

Kittel’s understanding of the biblical category, ger, was ultimately Luther’s, and Kittel’s prescription was also Luther’s, taken to the nth degree. Luther’s rendering, “Fremdling,” highlights the quality of the ger as a stranger.[58]

Buber argued, against the position of Kittel, that the term ger refers not to the alien, as Kittel understood the term, but rather to one “who is a guest in the land.” Following the Bible, Judaism enjoins both justice and loving kindness in dealing with the minority living in the midst of the Israelite community.

In an extraordinary appeal, the community is admonished (Numbers 15:16; cf. Lev. 24:22) “einerlei Weisung und einerlei Recht sei für euch und für den Gastsassen, der bei euch gastet” (“There shall be one and the same instruction and law for you and for the resident guest […]”) Thus, no discrimination! But it is not only a question of law; it is a question of love.”[59]

Buber rejected the translation based on the German stem “Fremd-” (stranger), considering it an illegitimate distortion of the meaning of the Hebrew term. Employing the stem “gast-” both as a verb, “gasten” and as a noun, Buber coined the term “Gastsasse” (“Resident-guest”) to capture the linguistic economy of the underlying Hebrew. The noun ger and the verb gur (“reside”), both appearing in the Hebrew text, are formed from the same Hebrew root, g.w.r. Buber held that this is not merely a linguistic factoid. It is a window into the conceptual framework of the biblical authors. It means that the term ger encompasses more than the quality of being different from the ethnic majority. Indeed, the stem g.w.r. in its verb form is not at all limited to the experience of being a resident alien. It is the common verb for dwelling, i.e. residing, in any land, one’s native land or another’s. In conveying this feature of the original in his translation Buber showed that the ger is not essentially alien. Quite the contrary: he resides in the same country as the majority.

This has a powerful application for biblically conscious Christians living in pre-war Nazi Germany. In the Bible, the Israelites were the majority culture in the Land of Israel, and they were the recipients of the command not to oppress the (non-Israelite) ger, but rather, to love him as they would love themselves. But in the context of the Germany of Buber and his Christian readers, the Israelites are not the majority. The Jew is the ger. The German Christian, in the context of the 1930’s, is the recipient of the Biblical commandment not to oppress the ger, i.e., the Jew, but rather to treat him with brotherly love.

The point may be stated more broadly. Who is a ger? In its use of that term, the Bible rebuts the völkisch ideology of Nazism. For the Bible, ultimately, all the world is God’s.[60] No one person owns his plot of land unconditionally, and no one nation controls its Heimat absolutely. Whether or not they are members of the ethnic majority of their place of residence, all people are essentially sojourners on this earth.[61] Membership in a nation does not confer unlimited rights over everything that happens within the geographical borders of that region. Minorities’ rights are guaranteed by God.

As is well known, Buber’s attempt to catch the conscience of German Christians, regarding their treatment of the Jews living in their midst, did not resonate widely. Sadly, all too many German Christians were seduced, coopted, or silenced by Nazism. Despite Buber’s efforts, the Hebrew Scriptures did not become a well-spring of resistance to the Nazi program.

The question remains: while Buber’s efforts did not suffice to forestall the tragedy, were they nonetheless of value in helping German-speaking Christians, Jews and humanists to advance the work of moral and spiritual reconstruction after the Holocaust? That topic will be explored in the second of this pair of essays.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Isaiah 40:3. The English translation used in this essay is Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2018. The use of capital letters for the various substitutions for God’s name is standard practice. Note that Buber parses the verse differently from Alter: “The voice of one calling: In the Wilderness, pave God’s way…” The nuance preserved in Buber’s rendition is that the voice is not itself in the Wilderness. It is presumably in Babylon, where the members of the Jewish community to whom Isaiah 40 was addressed were living. This parsing follows the Masoretic Jewish tradition. In these notes, all biblical quotations in German, not otherwise attributed, are from Buber, Martin. Die Schrift. Buber published the various portions of his Verdeutschung der Schrift over many years. The initial set of translations was Buber, Martin and Franz Rosenzweig, Die Schrift, vols. I-X. Berlin: Lambert Schneider, 1926-1930. During the Nazi era, Buber republished his translation of the “Suffering Servant” chapters of Isaiah, under the title Die Tröstung Israels: aus Jeschajahu, Kapitel 40 bis 55. Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1933. This was part of his effort to sustain the morale of the oppressed Jewish community of Germany. He completed the project of translating all 24 books of the Bible in 1961, republished as Die Schrift: Aus dem Hebräischen verdeutscht von Martin Buber gemeinsam mit Franz Rosenzweig. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1992.

[2] In 1938, Buber wrote a poignant and illuminating narrative of his life-long “love affair” with the Bible. Growing up in the house of his grandfather, the rabbinic scholar Solomon Buber, young Martin was enraptured by the Bible in its original Hebrew. Translations disappointed him and left him disillusioned, even when he acknowledged the “beauty” of Michael Sachs’ version and the “charm” of Luther’s. After a hiatus of several years, as an adult, he returned to the Bible, in the original Hebrew, and then, he was struck by its “voice”: “The book lay before me; but the book was melting in the voice.” Buber Martin. “The How and Why of our Bible Translation.” In: Buber, Martin and Franz Rosenzweig. Scripture and Translation, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 207-208 (Henceforth: Scripture and Translation).

[3] Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber’s Life and Work: The Middle Years, 1923-1945 (NY: E.P. Dutton, Inc, 1983) (henceforth: F2), pp. 50-75. Friedman’s narrative, in turn, rests upon Buber’s own autobiographical account, in his preface to the 1954 revision of his translation: “Zu einer neuen Verdeutschung der Schrift.” In: Beilage zum ersten Band Die fünf Bücher der Weisung, verdeutscht von Martin Buber gemeinsam mit Franz Rosenzweig. Heidelberg: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1976 (Henceforth: Buber 1954). In these notes, German and French words are not italicized, but Hebrew words are, because it is not presumed that Hebrew is a language familiar to Glossen readers.

[4] Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber’s Life and Work: vol. III: The Later Years, 1945-1965. NY: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1983 (henceforth: F3), pp. 377-378.

[5] Scholem, Gershom G. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and other Essays in Jewish Spirituality. NY: Schocken Books, 1971, pp. 318-319 (henceforth: Messianic Idea).

[6] Mendes-Flohr, Paul. Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019 (henceforth: MF), p.305 and p.382, note 6.

[7] Scholem, Gershom G. “Martin Buber’s Hasidism.” In: Commentary Magazine, October 1961. Two years later, Buber replied to Scholem’s critique, and a similar one voiced by Scholem’s former student, Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer, in the same middlebrow journal. Buber, Martin. “Interpreting Hasidism.” In: Commentary Magazine, September 1963. Scholem then extended the critique in two of his published books. He explicated his disagreement with Buber over the interpretation of Hasidism in “Martin Buber’s Interpretation of Hasidism.” In: Messianic Idea, pp, 228-250. His most general critical assessment was his essay, “Martin Buber’s Conception of Judaism.” In: On Jews and Judaism in Crisis. NY: Schocken Books, 1976, pp. 126-171.

[8] Buber had preached the importance of realization (Verwirklichung) in his philosophy, and the discovery that he did not intend to “realize” his own Zionism by emigrating to Palestine came as a grave disillusionment to Scholem. Biale, David. Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, second edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 21.

[9] F2, p. 71.

[10] MF, p. 265. Gilya Gerda Schmidt, a scholar specializing in Buber’s early writings, has suggested that Buber’s resumption of work on the Bible translation project was an aspect of his deeply felt Heimweh for German language as well as culture. In her words, “returning to the Bible translation after Hitler was a way for Buber to hold on to something he loved very much, and that was the German language” (personal communication, December 6, 2020).

[11] MF, p. 157.

[12] “Es hatte sich erwiesen, daß Luthers ‚Altes Testament‘ in alle Dauer ein herrliches Gebild blieb, aber schon heute keine Übertragung der Schrift mehr war.” Buber 1954, p. 39. Intriguingly, at the same time, proceeding from a wholly different starting point, another Jewish, biblically engaged creative thinker unwittingly echoed Buber’s conclusion about Luther’s translation. Arnold Schoenberg was an assimilated Jew, for whom the Luther translation was a lifelong companion. Yet Schoenberg rejected it as the source of the libretto of his opera, Moses und Aron, because he felt that it was “medieval German,” rather than the unvarnished word of the Bible. Panitz, Michael. “Variations on a Theme: The Reconstructed Jewish Identities of Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill. Part One: Arnold Schoenberg: The Mystique of Moses.” Glossen #45.

[13] On Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible into German, see Plaut, W. Gunter. “Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture #36: German-Jewish Bible Translations: Linguistic Theology as a Political Phenomenon.” NY: Leo Baeck Institute, 1992, pp. 6-18.

[14] Buber, Martin. “From the Beginnings of Our Bible Translation” (1930). In: Scripture and Translation, p.178.

[15] The pre-modern spelling in the following quotation is Luther’s. “Denn man mus nicht die buchstaben inn der Lateinischen sprachen fragen/ wie man sol Deudsch reden/ wie diese Esel thun/ Sondern man mus die mutter ihm hause/ die kinder auff der gassen/ den gemeinen man auff dem marckt druemb fragen/ und den selbigen auff das maul sehen/ wie sie reden/ und darnach dolmetschen/ so verstehen sie es den/ und mercken/ das man Deudsch mit ihn redet.” http://www.bible-researcher.com/luther01.html.

[16] Luther, Martin. Defense of the Translation of the Psalms (1531). In: Luther’s Works, vol. 35, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960, pp. 213–214. See Haemig, Mary Jane. “Luther on Translating the Bible.” In: Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry 31:3. St. Paul, Minn.: Luther Seminary, 2011.

[17] Buber, Martin. “Biblical Humanism.” In: On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, ed. Nahum Glatzer. NY: Schocken Books, 1982, p. 214 (Henceforth: “On the Bible”).

[18] MF, p. 158. This point will be developed further, below. See footnote 29. It is interesting that concurrently with Buber, the classical scholar Milman Parry was developing the theory that the Homeric epics were originally oral tradition.

[19] Luther Bible, 1912. In: https://www.biblestudytools.com/lut/ (henceforth: Luther).

[20] On the concept of breath units, see Rosenzweig, Franz. “Scripture and Word.” In: Scripture and Translation, p.43.

[21] The Rabbinic rendering of the terms reads the Isaiah passage literally: “A line of tohu and stones of bohu.” Based on that text, Rabbinic tradition regards tohu as “a green line encompassing the entire world from which darkness emerges” and bohu as “stones in the abyss from which water emerges.” Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah 12a. The “b” of bohu softens to a “bh” or a “v” after a long vowel. Therefore, the Hebrew is vocalized tohu va-vohu.

[22] Buber’s reasons for abandoning the rendering “Irrsal und Wirrsal” are discussed in de Villa, Massimilano. La Verdeutschung der Schrift di Martin Buber e Franz Rosenzweig: una Bibbia ebraico-tedesca. Ph.D. dissertation, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, 2010, pp.234-7. Basically, the rendering later struck Buber as too artificial. Modern German (and Modern French) have borrowed the Hebrew expression, but not English. Robert Alter, the most recent English translator, considers tohu va-bohu a “nonce”, the second term intentionally rhyming with the first but not having independent meaning, such as the English expressions “helter-skelter,” “pell-mell,” and “roly-poly.” In his rendering, as in Buber’s second rendering, he too, opts for an alliterative solution, giving “welter and waste.” Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. NY and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996, note to Genesis 1:2, p. 3. To preserves the assonance in the Hebrew, I suggest, “without norm and form.”

[23] Buber, Martin. “People Today and the Jewish Bible.” In: Scripture and Translation, pp. 14-17.

[24] “Die besondere Pflicht zu einer erneuten Übertragung der Schrift, die in der Gegenwart wach wurde und zu unserm Unternehmen geführt hat, ergab sich aus der Entdeckung der Tatsache, daß die Zeiten die Schrift vielfach in ein Palimpsest verwandelt haben. Die ursprünglichen Schriftzüge, Sinn und Wort von erstmals, sind von einer geläufigen Begrifflichkeit teils theologischer, teils literarischer Herkunft überzogen, und was der heutige Mensch gewöhnlich liest, wenn er »das Buch« aufschlägt, ist jenem lauschenden Sprechen, das sich hier eingetragen hat, so unähnlich, daß wir allen Grund hätten, solcher Scheinaufnahme die achselzuckende Ablehnung vorzuziehen, die »mit diesem Zeug nichts mehr anzufangen weiß«.”—Buber 1954, p. 5. Buber’s attempt to repristinate the Bible, to remove the later philosophical default positions superimposed upon the original, biblical worldview, also figures in his treatment of the Divine Name, to be analyzed below.

[25] This is immediately apparent in a comparison of Buber’s and Luther’s renderings of the biblical term nefesh. Buber employs “Wesen” in place of Luther’s “Seele.” Compare their translations of Genesis 2:7, which Buber rendered: “und ER, Gott, bildete den Menschen, Staub vom Acker, er blies in seine Nasenlöcher Hauch des Lebens, und der Mensch wurde zum lebenden Wesen” rather than Luther’s rendering: “Und Gott der HERR machte den Menschen aus einem Erdenkloss, und blies ihm ein den lebendigen Odem in seine Nase. Und also ward der Mensch eine lebendige Seele.”

[26] “Wie aber haben wir die ruach zu verstehen? …Welche aber von den beiden Bedeutungen des Wortes ruach hier gemeint ist, Wind […] oder Geist […] darüber sind die Meinungen von je geteilt. Beiden Deutungen liegt die Auffassung zugrunde, man müsse sich für eine von beiden entscheiden. Dem ist jedoch nicht so. Die dynamische Grundbedeutung des Wortes, von der allein aus wir die Stelle erfassen können, ist: das Hauchen, das Wehen, das Brausen. Als ein solches erscheint dem biblischen Menschen nicht bloß der Wind, sondern auch der Geist. An dieser Stelle ist beides in einem gemeint; gemeint ist das schöpferische Wehen und Sausen, der Urbraus. Die Schrift denkt nicht lexikalisch, sondern elementar, und sie will, daß ihre Leser denke wie sie, will hier, daß die Bewegung von Gott her, die vor aller Differenzierung ist, undifferenziert, aber sinnlich-lebendig sein hörendes Ohr treffe. Ihrer Absicht dienen wir, wenn wir hier »Braus Gottes« übersetzen […] da und nur da sagen, wo vom Geist als dem von Gott ausgehenden und den Menschen begeisternden Geistessturm […] gesprochen wird […]. Buber 1954, pp.26-27.

[27] Messianic Idea, p. 316.

[28] As will be explored in the epilogue of this essay, Robert Alter’s English rendering follows Buber in several details: “Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel, nor in the way of offenders has stood, nor in the session of scoffers has sat. / But the LORD’s teaching is his desire, and His teaching he murmurs day and night.” Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms. NY: W.W. Norton, 2007, Psalm 1:1-2.

[29]Alter’s note to “murmurs” anchors the text in the cultural realities of its day: “The verb hagah means to make a low muttering sound, which is what one does with a text in a culture where there is no silent reading.” Alter, note to Psalm 1:2, p. 3. This practice is preserved in parochial settings. In the 1960’s, when I attended an Orthodox Jewish elementary school, we children were instructed to move our lips when reading religious texts voicelessly and not to read silently, with eyes alone.

[30] Following Hebrew grammatical principles, the name was probably vocalized Yahweh.

[31] Protestant translators, ignorant of that practice, applied the vowels to the word YHWH itself and produced the erroneous but popular reading “Jehovah.”

[32] On the development of Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s thinking on how to render the name of God, see Losch, Andreas. “Kann Gott einen Namen haben?” In: 50 Jahre Martin Buber Bibel, ed. Daniel Krochmalnik and Hans-Joachim Werner. Heidelberg: Hochschule für jüdische Studien und die Martin Buber Gesellschaft, 2014, pp.165-183. See also Losch, Andreas. “What is Behind God’s Name? Martin Buber’s and Franz Rosenzweig’s Reflections on the Name of God.” In: Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook vol. 60 (2015), pp. 91-106.

[33] Glatzer, Nahum N. “Editor’s Postscript.” In: On the Bible, p. 235.

[34] Buber, Martin. “People Today and the Jewish Bible.” In: Scripture and Translation, p. 21.

[35] Glatzer, op. cit., p.235.

[36] Buber adopts this stance throughout his biblical writings, expressing it most clearly in the chapter, “Saga and History.” In: Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant. London: Horowitz Publishing Co., 1946; reprinted NY: Harper Torchbook, 1958 (Henceforth: Moses).

[37] Buber, “The Man of Today and the Jewish Bible.” In: On the Bible, p. 1. The unabridged original essay is “Der Mensch von heute und die jüdische Bibel,Werke II (1964), pp. 860-869.

[38] Moses, p. 10. [Emphasis MP]

[39] Messianic Idea, p. 318.

[40] Buber, Martin. “The How and Why of our Bible Translation.” In: Scripture and Translation, p. 208. The bifurcation “German” and “Jewish” is anachronistic in the context of a reminiscence about the pre-World War I period. For Buber to have expressed himself in this manner is evidence that by 1938, with his forced emigration from Nazi Germany, Buber considered the symbiosis of the German and the Jew to have ended. He made a formal declaration to that effect in an essay, “The End of the German Jewish Symbiosis,” published in the following year.

[41] Ibid., p. 209.

[42] F2, p. 59.

[43] Plaut, pp. 6-18; Greenspoon, Leonard. Jewish Bible Translations. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2020, pp. 91-109.

[44] F2, p. 106.

[45] Quoted in Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. NY: Meridian Books, 1995, p. 255.

[46] Luther, Martin. The Jews and Their Lies. In: Talmadge, pp. 34-36. Again, note Luther’s pre-modern spelling. Luther’s tract continues to be republished by anti-Semites. A recent reprint (York, South Carolina: Liberty Bell Publications, 2004) uses Gustave Doré’s well-known anti-Semitic caricature, “The Wandering Eternal Jew,” as its cover illustration. In the preface to that reprint, p.3, the publishers voice the anti-Semitic trope of a purported conspiracy to silence opposition to Jewish interests, alleging that “a well-organized plot to keep this book hidden exists.”

[47] Tillich, Paul. Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology, ed. Carl E, Braaten. NY: Harper and Row, 1967, p. 217.

[48] Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960, p.68.

[49] von Harnack, Adolf. History of Dogma, vol. I. Boston: Little Publishing, 1901, pp.281-286.

[50] Ibid. See also Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 68-81.

[51] von Harnack, Adolf. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steeley and Lyle Bierma. Eugene, Oregon: Baker Books, 1990. The translation includes von Harnack’s revisions for the second edition of his work, 1924, the first one having appeared in 1921.

[52] Buber, Martin. “The How and Why of Our Bible Translation.” In: Scripture and Translation, p. 219.

[53] Ibid., p. 214.

[54] Baeck, Leo. “Judaism in the Church.” In: Jewish Perspectives on Christianity, ed. Fritz A. Rothschild. NY: Continuum Books, 1996, pp. 95-99. Baeck’s essay was published in English in 1925, but did not appear in German until 1938, when Baeck included it in his book, Aus drei Jahrtausenden: Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des jüdischen Glaubens. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr Verlag, for the Leo Baeck Institute, 1958, p. 402.

[55] MF, p. 172.

[56] Tal, Uriel. Christians and Jews in Germany: Religion, Politics, and Ideology in the Second Reich, 1870-1914, trans. Noah Jacobs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975, chapter 5, “Christian and anti-Christian anti-Semitism,” pp. 223-289.

[57] Talmage, Frank Ephraim, ed. Disputation and Dialogue: Readings in the Jewish-Christian Encounter. NY: Ktav Publishing House and the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, 1975, p. 49. On Kittel, see Eriksen, Robert. Theologians Under Hitler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 28-78.

[58] Compare Luther’s rendering with Buber’s. Luther: “Die Fremdlinge sollt ihr nicht unterdrücken; denn ihr wisset der Fremdlinge Herz, dieweil ihr auch seid Fremdlinge in Ägyptenland gewesen”. (Luther: Exodus 23:9) Wenn ein Fremdling bei dir in eurem Lande wohnen wird, den sollt ihr nicht schinden… denn ihr seid auch Fremdlinge gewesen in Ägyptenland. Ich bin der HERR, euer Gott. (Luther: Levitikus 19:33-34). Buber: „Den Gastsassen quäle nicht: ihr selber kennt ja die Seele des Gasts, denn Gastsassen wart ihr im Land Ägypten. (2 Mose: 23:9) „Wenn ein Gastsasse bei dir in eurem Lande gastet, plackt ihn nicht […] denn Gastsassen wart ihr im Land Ägypten. ICH bin euer Gott.” (3 Mose 19:33-34). It may be said that Luther captures the connotation of ger because that term is the complementary opposite of “the citizen” in Leviticus 16:29 and similar passages, whereas Buber’s term, more precise, captures the “residential” denotation of ger.

[59] Buber, Martin. “An Open Letter to Gerhard Kittel.” In: Talmage, p. 52.

[60] As in Psalm 24:1b: „SEIN ist die Erde und was sie füllt, der Boden und seine Siedler.“

[61] As in Psalm 119:19: „Ein Gast bin ich auf der Erde, nimmer verhehle mir deine Gebote!“




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