Chilean miners, the Interfaith Spouse as Holy Other, Buber’s “I and Thou,” and Cats
As we watched the Chilean miners emerge last night, one by one, from their nifty rescue capsule, the camera captured one miner testifying about his faith in God. My thirteen-year-old son stunned me by commenting, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
I do not know where he picked up this aphorism (or how he knows about foxholes), but I was interested to see the philosophical gears turning. Part of the Jewish identity I cling to, and one of the aspects I want to impart to my interfaith children, is the lifelong love of questioning and wrestling with the concept of God.
That questioning and wrestling is a constant theme in our interfaith families community, where we are lucky to have Rabbi Harold White as one of our two Spiritual Directors. Rabbi White tells engaging personal stories steeped in intellect and mysticism, and he constantly challenges the members of our community, both young and old, to wrestle with theology. My son listens closely when the Rabbi speaks.
Just last week, Rabbi White led us in a discussion of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Buber, who was born in Vienna and fled Europe for the Holy Land, lectured in his later years at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, a headquarters of progressive Christian thinking. During this same period, in the 1950s, Harold White was studying to become a rabbi at Jewish Theological Seminary, in the same neighborhood. “Morningside Heights, on the Upper West Side, was called the American Acropolis” because of the density of great teachers and thinkers there, recalls Rabbi White. He had the privilege of studying with many of them: Buber, but also Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Tillich, and others.
Buber lectured at the Christian seminary, and his influence, the rabbi noted, was perhaps greater on Christian theologians. His stance in favor of a single bi-national Israeli state embracing both Arabs and Jews created controversy in his own tribe, as did his openness to thinking about and writing about Jesus the Jew. (He wrote: “I do not believe in Jesus but I believe with him.”) Buber was an early proponent of interfaith dialogue, and his house in Germany now serves as a center for the International Council of Christians and Jews.
But Buber’s greatest contribution to religious thinking is the idea of the “I-Thou” relationship, a personal relationship the individual has with God, but also with fellow beings, with the “holy other.” He described “I-Thou” meetings as “strange, lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes. . .shattering security.” Rabbi White has very eloquently cited his understanding of Buber in his own decision to perform interfaith marriages. (It is interesting to read the recent explanation by Rabbi James Ponet, who co-officiated at the wedding of Chelsea Cinton and Marc Mezvinsky, of how he came to make the same decision.)
Anyway, I was not entirely surprised to learn that Buber had married Paula Winkler, a woman of German Caholic background. She converted, but according to Rabbi White, she did so only years into their relationship, before having children (presumably so that the children would be considered Jewish). Buber was notoriously uncomfortable with answering questions from the press about his personal life. But when I asked Rabbi White whether he thought Buber’s intermarriage influenced his development of the “I-Thou” concept, he replied, “Of course!”
But Rabbi White (a great cat-fancier himself) pointed out that Buber also used as an example of the “I-Thou” relationship the deep and wordless communication he shared with his cat, who would sit on Buber’s round stomach, purring. Of course, fully embracing a human being, a being who will talk back and who brings their own spiritual baggage, no matter what their religion, is significantly more complicated than communing with a cat.