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The Jewish Roots of Kehilla’s Values: Martin Buber, Part 1

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

In this series of articles I offer readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. Past installments focused on the life and thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel. In this four-part series, I turn to the legacy of Martin Buber for our community. Buber was a renaissance man: philosopher, scholar, theologian, cultural anthropologist, Bible translator and radical social critic. He was arguably the most well-known Jewish religious philosopher of the twentieth century.

As I thought about the congregation I was planning to start during the late 1970s, I knew that it would have to be as much an actual community as a synagogue. I felt that the modern synagogue had become a membership organization rather than a true community, and I wanted to transform that pattern. My vision derived from my experiences as a member of a number of alternative communities in both the general and the Jewish counter cultures. But my thinking was confirmed and deepened through my study of Martin Buber’s religious philosophy.

Buber’s concern about community derived from his understanding of human relationships. His most famous book, I and Thou, was published almost one hundred years ago, in 1923. He wrote that when an individual relates to another person in a fully open way, they are engaging in what he called an “I-Thou” or “I-You” encounter. The hyphen that connects I and you is crucial. We are not totally independent entities, Buber contended. Our authenticity as individuals lies in our interconnectedness with one another: “All real living is meeting,” he declared. And for Buber it is through authentic I-You encounters that we come to encounter the “Eternal You,” Buber’s name for God. What he meant was that we find the divine in and through the richness of our connections with one another.

Buber contrasted the “I-You” relationship with what he called the “I-It” relationship. When an individual is concerned chiefly with his or her own benefit, that person will then use others for their own ends. The other person becomes merely an “It,” an object who is there to fulfill my needs. Buber writes that human society cannot exist without I-It relationships, but when the I-It becomes the dominant mode of relating, as it has in the modern world, the result is the severe alienation witnessed in our world today.

Of course, members of communities engage in both I-You and I-It encounters. But in authentic spiritual communities, members consciously foster I-You relationships with one another, creating a web of connections. And yet, Buber wrote, a genuine community is more than the sum of its I-You relationships. Every authentic community has a center which provides ultimate meaning to the members of the community. And those members have a common relation to that center overriding all other relations. He stressed that this center must be open to the light of something divine. He suggested that such communities allowed for the increased prospect of genuine I-You encounters and relationships in which people would exhibit openness, trust and mutuality.

The new intentional Jewish spiritual communities of the late 1960s and 1970s were attempting to renew the reality of authentic community. Worship on Shabbat, sacred study and acts of kindness were, of course, primary activities. But the havurot and minyanim of the Jewish counter culture aimed to become family-like entities where individuals would come to know, love, and trust one another, where people would share their joys and griefs, and receive support from one another when it was needed. Of course, this ideal was not always carried out in practice; nonetheless, these experiments did represent attempts at creating caring community in Buber’s sense.

Buber’s thought also influenced the educational philosophy of Kehilla. I loved kids, and when I started the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program in 1978, I wanted the classroom to be a place where students and teachers could develop genuine I-You relationships. If you’ve ever witnessed a teacher attempting to teach a class of 20 or 30 twelve year olds, and having to contend with the behavior problems that erupt in such a potentially explosive atmosphere, you will understand why the class size in our Bar/Bat Mitzvah program is usually limited to two students and a single teacher. Such a structure makes it possible to treat every student with love and respect, and it allows for the development of warmth and intimacy in the classroom.

When I considered different names for the congregation, I came up with the designation “Kehilla Community-Synagogue.” The hyphen was important to me. Kehilla would not be organized as a synagogue in the conventional sense; it would be both a community and a synagogue.

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