A Jew trapped in a Gentile’s biography

Two details from a passage in Martin Buber’s Between Man and Man have stayed with me over the years.

My friendship with one now dead arose in an incident that may be described, if you will, as a broken-off conversation. The date is Easter 1914. Some men from different European peoples had met in an undefined presentiment of the catastrophe, in order to make preparations for an attempt to establish a supra-national authority. The conversations were marked by that unreserve, whose substance and fruitfulness I have scarcely ever experienced so strongly. It had such an effect on all who took part that the fictitious fell away and every word was an actuality. Then as we discussed the composition of the larger circle from which public initiative should proceed (it was decided that it should meet in August of the same year) one of us, a man of passionate concentration and judicial power of love, raised the consideration that too many Jews had been nominated, so that several countries would be represented in unseemly proportion by their Jews. Though similar reflections were not foreign to my own mind, since I hold that Jewry can gain an effective and more than merely stimulating share in the building of a steadfast world of peace only in its own community and not in scattered members, they seemed to me, expressed in this way, to be tainted in their justice. Obstinate Jew that I am, I protested against the protest. I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. “In a way that remains inaccessible to you” — so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. “It is gone,” he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood.

The discussion of the situation between Jews and Christians had been transformed into a bond between the Christian and the Jew. In this transformation dialogue was fulfilled. Opinions were gone, in a bodily way the factual took place.

The first striking detail is the indication of a palpable shift of relationship that both parties feel with immediacy. “It is gone.” I believe this kind of shift is not just an experience, but an experience of something real: the essential reality of all sacred being. Without this immediate mutual knowing, there is no marriage, no friendship, no conversation, no reconciliation, no sacrament.

The second striking detail is bothersome to me. It is the claim that “Jews know Jesus from within, in the impulse and stirrings of his Jewish being,” in a way that is “inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him.” At first glance, this appears to be an essentialist (congenialist?) “it takes one to know one” argument.  I have a strong aversion to this kind of thinking.

But rereading it, the point can be interpreted in a non-essentialist way. The point is less about being non-Jewish, than with having a submissive relationship to Jesus, which would be an un-Jewish attitude — a distancing, dehumanizing and objectifying I-it mode. To relate to Jesus in a more mutual and intimate fellow-person I-Thou mode invites Buber’s impulses and stirrings of Jewish being to stir and impel.

Precisely this impulse toward I-Thou is what I feel in my own being when I read my Jewish heroes, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Richard J. Bernstein, Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Husserl, Walter Benjamin, Jonathan Haidt and even the great aspie Ludwig Wittgenstein. And Jesus of Nazareth, too, of course.

It is this feeling that makes me say that “I am a Jew trapped in a Gentile’s biography.”

This and the fact that I look so Jewish that nearly everyone who meets me assumes I am Jewish, especially other Jews.

And another clue: when my mother and uncle told me that they found evidence that we have Jewish ancestry, and that it appeared to go straight up the matrilineal line I lost my mind with happiness.

This is obviously far too important a matter to leave to my Great Great Great Grandmother Anna Maria Scheidegger’s mother (Elisabeth Sigerist?) and her mother’s mother back in Switzerland or Alsace.

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