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  • Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue
  • S. Daniel Breslauer
Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue, by Dan Avnon. Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. 277 pp. $63.00.

As a philosopher of dialogue, a representative Jew addressing public figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, and a political figure active in Zionism and in opposing Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in his demand for ethical action toward Palestinians, Martin Buber (1878–1965) has fascinated thoughtful Jews and non-Jews alike. Several eminent scholars such as Maurice Friedman, Malcolm Diamond, and Paul Mendes-Flohr have offered biographical and insightful studies of his life and thought. The distinct contribution of Dan Avnon’s Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue is that it places Buber’s thought in the context of both modern and postmodern thinking. The many virtues of this book make it difficult to categorize. The book offers beginners a biographical introduction, and close attention to the book opens the variety of Buber’s writing to the reader. While, therefore, not unsuitable for someone just starting to read Buber, the book has a richness and depth that may make it more useful for those with previous experience with Buber’s writing. The specialist will find Avnon’s correction of interpretations by Harold Bloom and Leo Strauss instructive. Avnon provides a much needed discussion of Buber’s views on the Holocaust. Not only does he summarize Buber’s perspective and place it in context, he also offers an insightful critique that suggests the limitations of that perspective (pp. 201–210). Avnon clearly knows and has examined critically the secondary literature on Buber and the major arguments concerning his thought. Nevertheless, the special perspective of this book lies in its dialogue with the latest theories in literary and intellectual analysis. Avnon notices that Buber titles the Hebrew version of his rendition of stories from Hasidic masters OrHaganuz (The Hidden Light). This light, according [End Page 174] to the tale that Buber provides, is hidden in the Torah. The righteous can read this light from the textual form of the holy book. They then reveal its meaning through their way of life (Avnon, pp. 121–122). The juxtaposition of writing and living seems significant to Avnon. Buber’s dialogical theories reveal and conceal his meaning. They reveal that the lives and words of the righteous provide the most accessible means to the divine light that we possess. They conceal that the discovery of that light is found by the righteous through their reading of books.

Buber, from this perspective, has an evident dialogical concern for listening, for hearing words that are spoken. He also respects the visual art of seeing, the ability to discern meaning through texts. Discussing the way Buber emphasizes both seeing and listening, Avnon comments on Buber’s implicit critique of Western philosophy’s “logocentrism.” He claims that “Buber anticipated the post-modern reaction to modern Cartesian forms of Western philosophy” (p. 46). He acknowledges that Buber opposed what could be called “deconstruction,” yet much that Avnon says suggests Derrida’s view of Grammatology, of the immediacy of the form of writing over its content, of the presence of the shape of the text rather than the reality to which it supposedly points. Hailing Buber as an opponent to the primacy of the word over the letter seems a strange movement. Buber’s classic work I and Thou maintains that reality is two-fold, corresponding to the two primary words that humanity speaks. His translation of the Hebrew Bible, prepared together with Franz Rosenzweig, seeks to evoke the orality that lies behind the script of scriptures. The image of Buber as a champion of logos against writing, however, arises from the usual division of his life into two parts—a mystical period followed by a dialogical one. Avnon creatively suggests a tri-partite periodiza tion—mysticism, dialogue, and attentive listening. The latter, he announces, results from Buber’s “deepening insight into the paradoxical quality of thought and of language” (p. 42). This suggests that Buber gives as much attention to the written form of words as to their dialogical expression. Language paradoxically conceals and reveals by its distance from orality. Avnon never...

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pp. 174-176
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