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The Jewish Roots of Kehilla’s Values: Martin Buber, Part 2

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

I spent my junior year in Israel in 1964-65, and one of my teachers was Martin Buber’s closest friend, Ernst Simon. Prof. Simon had arranged for us to meet with Buber, but before this could take place, Buber became ill and died. Yet even though I never met him personally, Buber’s teachings had affected me indirectly as a child through my relationship with Milton Bendiner, my Bar Mitzvah mentor. Milton treated me and all of his young charges with respect, love and caring, exemplifying Buber’s I-Thou philosophy. It was only as an adult that Milton told me that the hour he spent with Buber in Jerusalem had been the most important experience of his life.

Buber’s spiritual understanding of human interactions had an important and direct influence on my own life from the time that I first read I and Thou as a rabbinic student. The book spoke deeply to me, teaching me to value my relationships as potential or actual epiphanies of the divine.

My rigorous practice of traditional Judaism eventually became oppressive, and I gave it up in 1970. I moved to California, searching for a life of greater openness and spontaneity. For a few years I remained hostile to Judaism, but in 1974 I discovered the Ba’al Shem Tov and soon after I moved to Berkeley to be part of the Aquarian Minyan. At that time I wondered how I might live a daily spiritual life as Jew now that I no longer observed the 613 commandments of Jewish tradition. It was Martin Buber who offered me the answer to this question. His writings enabled me to adopt an existential approach to living guided in every situation by the Spirit, rather than by a book of laws. Here is what he wrote:

I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man’s life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.

Reading these words was an ahah moment! I was buoyed up by Buber’s faith in what he called “the voice of the situation” that speaks in every circumstance, and offers us guidance through the difficulties we may encounter in our daily lives. When we find ourselves in a moral quandary, Buber wrote, we can reflect on the entire situation and if we listen deeply enough we will be able to perceive the truth and know how to act. What a liberating way to live one’s life!

I started what I called “Kehilla: The Synagogue Without Walls” in 1978. The first project I initiated was a new and novel Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Buber had written a striking essay on how to apply the I-Thou principle to the field of education, and that article was a clear influence on my thinking at the time. I also knew that I needed to treat my young students with the same kind of respect, love and caring that I had received from Milton Bendiner as a child. Kehilla’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program still exemplifies Buber’s educational philosophy.

Much later in my life, I came to spiritual direction, the practice of guiding seekers as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the mystery called God, learning to discern the presence of the divine in their daily lives. I studied to become a spiritual director at a Catholic institution in the early 1990s, and I very much wanted to bring this discipline into a Jewish context. It was Buber’s I and Thou understanding of human relationships that provided me with a framework for spiritual direction from a Jewish perspective. One of the chief functions of spiritual direction as I see it is teaching individuals how to reflect on their lives in a deep manner, so they will hear the “voice of the situation,” and know how to act when facing difficult issues.

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