Emailing as a Moral Challenge

How did our ancestors regard the spoken word? What does the Torah say about the word and its power as well as its possibilities?

Biblical writers regarded the Divine Word as a cosmic force reverberating throughout the created order. According to Psalms 33:6, the Word of God animates the cosmos: בִּדְבַר יְהוָה שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ “By the Word of the LORD the heavens were made.” To the Hebraic (as well as the Semitic) imagination, words are powerful—it is the stuff reality is made of. In Biblical Hebrew, among its various nuances, דָּבַר(dabhar) connotes a “thing” (Exod. 35:1); or a “promise” (Deut. 15:6); and a “decree” (Jer. 51:12) or “affair” or “history” (1 Kgs. 14:12). [1] In each of these examples, the term connotes something substantive and real. Everything that exists in the world is viewed as a manifestation of the Word of God that animates it.

The intuitions of primal cultures never cease to fascinate and intrigue me. The spoken word was often used as a supernatural weapon; the curse of a soothsayer was believed to be powerful enough to invoke the forces of death itself.  One of the most well known biblical stories found, the book of Numbers relates how King Balak of Moab, hires the mighty soothsayer Balaam to curse the approaching Israelite people (Num. 22:6). From a modern perspective, one could describe Balaam as a motivational speaker; he is skilled in the art of inflaming the masses. Anti-Semites in the Middle East perform television documentaries on how Jews use Muslim and Christian blood to make their Passover matzas (see for hundreds of examples).

Despite our modernity, in many ways we fail to appreciate the impact that words have on our lives, as well as on the lives of others. As a result, the word in contemporary society tends to be devalued, yet their impact on peoples’ lives has not diminished to the least. There are many practical reasons for this phenomenon. Since the invention of the printing press, the world has become more literate than at any other time of recorded history. Along with the proliferation of literacy, the word has become increasingly more secularized due to advances made in human technology. The telegraph, telephone, television, radio, email, the Internet, and other forms of electronic digital media and telecommunication devices have inundated modern humans with a continuous stream of words—wherever they go—twenty-four hours a day.

Since words tend to be all the more diminished in light of the Internet, people will often rush through their written communications without giving much attention to what they are saying, or for that matter, how they are saying something. The imagination, when left unchecked, can often take two people or more to a unexpected places that create anger, resentment, not to mention—humiliation especially if the email has been sent to multiple receivers, many of whom the original writers do not even know. A reputation of a person can be destroyed with a single keystroke. With complete unanimity, an angry or spiteful posting can be effortlessly circulated for countless of other lurkers to read. Continue reading “Emailing as a Moral Challenge”

Further Reflections on Buber: Where can we find the Eternal Thou?

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students “Where is God?” His students said “Does not the Bible tell us that the whole world is full of His glory?” To this he, responded ” That maybe fine for the heavenly angels, but the answer for man is different. God is present wherever human beings allow God to enter.”

According to Lurianic Kabbala, the existence of world began with the creation of space, which allows for the existence and emergence of our freedom and creativity, so too, according to Buber, the indwelling of God depends upon us creating a space for the Shechina to indwell. It is in our daily encounters with people, this possibility can be realized and fulfilled. It is in our human and eco-relationships, we must come to see God’s Presence unfold within the world. No sterile philosophy or theology will do.

Buber’s theology of encounter may also be understood in terms of God’s own divine act of self-emptying (kenosis) where God intentionally forgoes “losing” some attributes so that we may freely discover the Divine in one another.
Buber once said,

If believing in God means being able to speak of Him in the third person, then I probably do not believe in God; or at least, I do not know if it is permissible for me to say that I believe in God. For I know, when I speak of him in the third person, whenever it happens, and it has to happen again and again, there is no other way, then my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth so quickly that one cannot even call it speech.

In summary, in the meeting of “I and Thou”, for Buber, the edifice through which the human being builds up in his I-centered thinking are abolished, frontiers which imprison him in his egoic vision of the world thus separating him from his fellow human beings. In the thinking of Buber, the I-centered dimension of human life is the It – a world where the modern individual is cut off from the experience of love as well as the experience of transcendence. In the universe of the I– It, human beings are shackled to the securities of his concepts and systems without meeting the last and deepest dimension of human life, isolating himself from his fellow human beings and the world around him. The “I” dimension to life is what makes modern people especially lonely and hungry for genuine human contact that culminates in love, and a sense of belonging.

This limiting isolation is conquered according to Buber in the Thou – once the individual enters the world of the “I – Thou,” in the meeting of “I and Thou”. In this meeting the human being becomes a person in the face of the Other; real dialogue takes place and the eternal Thou of God speaks to the human being through the ordinary reality of the world.

Buber points towards the presence of the eternal Thou in poetical words:

“In every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us, we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou; in each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou. Every sphere is compassed in the eternal Thou, but it is not compassed in them. Through every sphere shines the one present.”

One could say based on Buber’s vital insight, that God is the Presence that overcomes estrangement and enables man to fulfill himself as an integrated personality.

How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?

Q, I am currently working on my thesis for an MA in counseling psychology. My thesis is on applying Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” relationship to the therapeutic situation. Although deceptively simple, an I – Thou relationship seems to have many elusive characteristics about it.

How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?

A: Before answering your question “How does one build an “I and Thou” relationship?”, I think it is important to first answer the question: What is the “I and Thou” relationship? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Buber’s concept of the ““I and Thou”,” here is a brief synopsis:

It is believed by many scholars that Buber is said to have influenced general culture more than any other Jewish thinker since the times of the prophets. Paradoxically, his own contribution to Judaism pales in comparison to the impact he has exerted in Christian theology as well as psychotherapy in general. In a sense, this is indeed tragic, for Buber intuited one of Judaism’s most profound teachings concerning revelation: the ““I and Thou”.” Though he wasn’t the most observant Jew, I do think Buber’s “I and Thou” will neatly fit within a Halachic lifestyle and philosophy.

A piece of biographical might serve to make this matter clearer. For a good part of Buber’s life he was involved heavily in the study and practice of mysticism. Many types of mysticism posit the belief that man must find his purpose in being absorbed in the Divine. Mysticism involves lost of self, a quiescence of the soul of man. To Buber, the mystic was one who surrendered his individuality. It was only later Buber came to reject this brand of mysticism.

One autumn morning, Buber experienced what he believed to be a powerful mystical experience. On a July day in 1914, a young man named Mehe’ soon to enter the army came to see him for guidance. Those were difficult days. Buber politely answered all of his guest’s questions. After the young man left, Buber felt troubled. Although he answered most of his questions, he felt that in has self-centered happiness he ignored the unarticulated question that was really troubling the young man, who didn’t know how to express his soulful query. Shortly afterwards, the young man died in battle. Though Buber managed to convince his guest of the God of the philosophers, he felt that he failed to teach him about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Buber’s private joy kept him from being intimate with the stranger. This incident led Buber to abandon mysticism as a way of dealing with the reality of the world.

This experience led Buber to reflect on the mystery and dynamics of dialogue. Buber wrote: “There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them.”

Genuine dialogue, in Buber’s understanding goes beyond an exchange of words or information and establishes a mutual living relation between the dialogue partners. Authentic dialogue in this understanding is more than just a possibility in life: it is the deepest and basic way persons develop, how human life unfolds and evolves. To Buber, understanding the nature of relationship to others is essential if we are to develop an authentic human existence,

Buber pointed towards the basic dialogical dimension of human life and rejected every attempt to explain human reality in a purely I-centered interpretation: “There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and the I of the primary word I-It.” The I of the human being cannot develop without fellow human beings and the world around it, but comes into existence always through experience and relation. In the meeting with the world and fellow human beings it is, according to Buber, the attitude of the human being that plays a decisive role in the event of the two primary words I-Thou or I-It: “To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.”

This sentence about the correlation of the attitude of the human being and his experience of and relation to the world is the introductory sentence in Martin Buber’s poetic-philosophical work “I and Thou” , the first of his writings in which his dialogical thinking comes clearly to expression. It is the attitude of the human being which is co-decisive for the expression of either the sphere of I-It or I-Thou.

In the meeting of “I and Thou”, for Buber, the walls which the human beings construct thus separating one from the other are abolished, frontiers which imprison him in his ‘Weltanschauungen’ and separate him from his fellow human beings. In the thinking of Buber, the I-centered dimension of human life is the It – world of the primary word I – It, where the human being clamps himself to the armor of his concepts and systems without meeting the last and deepest dimension of human life, isolating himself from his fellow human beings and the world around him. This limiting isolation is overcome according to Buber in the Thou – world of the primary word I – Thou, in the meeting of “I and Thou”. In this meeting the human being becomes a person in the face of the Other , real dialogue takes place and the eternal Thou of God speaks to the human being in the reality of the world.

The essence of the meeting of “I and Thou” happens in the sphere of the between. This is for Buber a primal category of human reality. According to Buber, what is essential does not take place in each of the participants or in a neutral world which includes the two and all other things; but it takes place between them in the most precise sense, as it were in a dimension which is accessible only to them both.”

The event of the between is, as Buber sees it, a phenomenon which is not sufficiently explicable in psychological or sociological terms. For Buber it is an ontological event.

In poetical but nevertheless precise language, Buber describes his ontological understanding of the between: the dialogical situation can be adequately grasped only in an ontological way. But it is not to be comprehended in purely ontological categories pertaining to the nature of being of personal existence, or of that of two personal existences, but of that which has its being between them, and transcends both. On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge, where “I and Thou” meet, there is the realm of ‘between’.” What transpires in the realm of the “between” determines how the Divine unfolds in our discovery of God within the Other. I should add that Emmanuel Levinas develops this particular theme much more clearly throughout his writings. Encompassing and transcending both, “I and Thou”, in the midst of the between, is the presence of the eternal Thou –Buber’s metaphor for God.

Buber came to realize that meaning come from what transpires between two people. Ideas, even spiritual ecstasy per se, and rationalism are no substitute for a direct person-to-person encounter. All meaningful God-human relationships are forged through the medium of encounter, not in the self-satisfaction of a mystical experience. The Eternal Thou is also present is present in every “ordinary” Thou we encounter in the course of a day. The spiritual-minded person must learn to see the Divine Thou is yearning to unfold within his neighbor as we shall soon see.

I and It — The Relationship of Utility

There is a big difference between the knowing of an object vis-à-vis the knowledge of person. Buber describes the knowledge of objects as an example of an “I and It” type of relationship. This type of relationship is based on the scientific knowledge of the thing comprehended. The object can be quantified, observed and manipulated at will. The person deliberately places a distance between the object being observed and himself. The level of encounter is invariably seen whenever one deals with a bureaucracy for bureaucracies aim to depersonalize the people who fall under its sway. In such a world, the only reality that matters is the realm of the “I and It.”

That is not to say that an “I and It” relationship is somehow inherently bad in and of itself. Science especially uses knowledge and objectivity to analyze and comprehend the world. Scientific reductionism to its credit has done a remarkable job in making the world a healthier place. Without an “I and It” relationship, many discoveries in medicine and other disciplines might not have developed as early as they did. Without the I and It relationship, humankind would have fallen prey to magic and superstition; he would have become a denizen of a demon-haunted world. The problem arises when the I and It relationship affects all of our relationships. When it does, our lives become very insular and lonely indeed!

In a capitalistic society such as ours, we become “consumers” whose whole lives are dedicated to the pursuit of utility and consumption. We are focused and intent not on consuming in order to live, but on living in order to consume. As Americans, we are a nation of consumers and consumption is our way of life. The spiritual problem consumerism poses is that we tend to see life and relationships (physical, emotional and spiritual) in terms of the I and It — the philosophy of utility.

The I and It relationship and wield a very destructive power that cannot see, nor understand, the Thou that of a blind, egoistic, basic attitude, which does not understand, nor sees, nor loves the Other, the Thou, is manifested. With the background of such destructively, but also remembering the genuine understanding of the Other in dialogue, remembering the true meetings contributing to the development of the persons in dialogue.

Discovering the “I and Thou”

Let’s say you go to your wife to discuss something important, and all the time you are talking, she is observing your mascara, or your lipstick, or your unkempt hair. Such an encounter can be very frustrating, since one feels shut off from this person’s love and attention. Here’s another example: People will often ask their neighbor “How are you feeling today?” and yet when they ask the question, their minds are certainly elsewhere. You know that if you try saying how you really feel, the other person will simply ignore you, so you merely reply “fine.” Even though there is some measure of social contact, genuine communication is at a bare minimum.

To experience Buber’s “I and Thou”, one must be willing to really open up to the other person. Here’s another analogy: Let’s say you’re talking a friend who really cares about your welfare and happiness. A genuine friend is emotionally present with the person he’s with. You may be inarticulate in expressing what is deeply on your mind. Your tongue is stuck to the palate of your mouth, yet you know that your friend is really listening to you. You know that his heart is attuned to your needs. This is certainly an encounter. “I and Thou” relationships frequently transcend words. Relationship demands participation, but not distance; the “I and Thou” demands the giving of heart and presence. Buber was convinced that no meaningful relationship can occur between two people if there as high degree of personal detachment. As human beings, we all share the need to have our existence confirmed and validated.

Moreover, Buber uses the “I and Thou” to describe a relationship that is intimate and personal. In such a meeting may be characterized by vulnerability, affirmation and being essentially nonjudgemental and understanding. With every authentic ” and Thou” there is a profound disclosure and revelation of the Other person. Martin Buber was convinced that life’s most “ordinary” daily encounters with people may provide the setting for appreciative spiritual growth.

Buber went on to describe how the mutual experiences of reciprocity of shared relations in which the self discovers itself in relation to the other as we see in the process of love. Love is the mysterious quality that enables two people to be intimate and one with one another, yet maintain their own sense of individuality. In an “I and Thou” relationship, one person affords the other the ability to freely grow and develop rather than using one’s influence to mold and control the other person to fit the pattern s/he would like to be True love does not demand that the beloved surrender his or her own individuality in order to be loved; this is not love but servitude. Parents do this quite a bit with their own children. “If you love me, then do such and such a thing….” Love is frequently marketed like any other commodity; book stores contain many works on how to have fulfilling sexual experiences. Love-making has frequently been reduced to a mere mechanical technique rather than a medium through which lovers truly and emotionally experience the Other.

Something very magical occurs when people really begin to experience the world of the Other. Buber’s notion of the “I and Thou” helps us clarify how one sees the self in relation to others in the pursuit of life and happiness; it also sees human-interaction with other persons as necessary for a genuine self-understanding. Through the “I and Thou”, we learn to understand feelings experienced by another and lastly it helps us identify what you demand of others when you accept them as a person.

The same may be said of theology — the “study of God.” History has tried to scientifically study God as if He were an inanimate object or thing, as a result, both God and His creation are left in a mutual state of estrangement, for how can one love a theological idea and construct? Buber once mused: can one explain the concept of a mother-in-law or a sweetheart? Just as people cannot be conceptualized and be reduced to the level of objects, the same holds true with God. God cannot be reduced to any sort of theological construct. Theological knowledge of God pales when compared to the actual experience of God, as Job himself stated:

I had heard of you by the
hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Job 42:5

I hope this answers some of your questions.


Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel