Associate Professor of History at Lehigh University Nitzan Lebovic hosted a lecture titled “Dialogism and Prophecy of Destruction: Martin Buber, Stefan Zweig, and Franz Werfel” on Monday, Nov. 7 in the Daniel Family Commons. The talk was part of the Center for the Humanities’ Monday Lecture Series for its semester-long theme of Hope and Hopelessness.
Lebovic presented a new portion of his project on Jewish temporalities, part of a larger project that focuses on German Jewish thought between 1900 and 1950. He discussed several works of Martin Buber and described the relationships he had with his correspondents.
Lebovic began by speaking about the hope he saw in the works he studied.
“I see [hope] in this project…as a social movement,” he said.
The associate professor discussed Buber’s novel “For the Sake of Heaven,” whose title alludes to Gog and Magog, a prophecy from the Hebrew Bible that describes the end of days. In the book, a Jewish man called “Yehudi” saves a man destined to die.
“I persuaded him not to let death get the best of him, but hope,” he says.
Buber, a philosopher, corresponded with the authors Stephen Zweig and Franz Werfel from the mid-1910s until the two authors’ deaths in the 1940s. They discussed the fall of the Habsburg empire and the state of Germany post-World War I. The three men viewed the present and their current situations from the perspective of an ancient prophetic past, writing with biblical inspirations.
From the 1930s onward, Buber moved from writing utopian stories of hope to writing about only the glimmer of hope. Rather than continuing to write stories about Chasidim and prophets, he began to write about the destruction of the Temple. Buber also befriended the well-known social anarchist Gustav Landauer.
“In 1913, Gustav Landauer…talked about Buber as the Jewish apostle of humanity,” Lebovic said.
He also emphasized the friendship of the two men, one a Utopian Zionist and the other a communist. He went on to describe their discussions of revolutionary action.
“Buber and Landauer used Jewish mysticism to undermine enlightenment,” Lebovic said. “[They] rebelled against the notion that identity is the product of sovereign decision.”
Isabel Fattal ’17, a Student Fellow at the Center for the Humanities, attended the talk and was intrigued by Buber’s take on Jewish mysticism.
“I was really interested in Professor Leibovic’s descriptions of the elements of mysticism that Buber adopted into his worldview,” Fattal wrote in an email to The Argus. “My thesis deals with forms of mystical experience, and I was fascinated by Professor Leibovic’s descriptions of how these experiences can expand outward to political action and societal change.”
The friendship between Buber and Landauer fell apart during World War I, and Landauer died in 1919. As that relationship was fading, Buber befriended fellow philosopher Hugo Bergmann, who emigrated to Israel.
In 1944, Buber wrote a book titled “Gog und Magog: eine Chronik,” or “Gog and Magog: A Chronicle.”
“For Buber, the apocalypse is always within that temporal horizon,” Lebovic said. “It is never behind us.”
Lastly, Lebovic spoke about the limitations of dialogue. At the beginning of the talk, he had said that Buber once said that in order to have a conversation, two people need to have a shared metaphysical horizon.
“Everyone has a certain divine entity,” Lebovic said. “Only dialogue can make that divine spark appear.”
However, Lebovic also underscored restrictions in Buber’s dialogue.
“Both philosophically and critically I think there are limitations to [Buber’s] critique,” he said.
The associate professor explained this statement, saying that Buber was not in dialogue with any of the “others.” When he, for example, wrote what a Palestinian said, it was still in Buber’s language and words.
Overall, the lecture served to highlight the different influences that surrounded Buber and his works, which fascinated the audience.
“Buber’s work is inspiring for anyone hoping to make theory and practice fit together or to connect intellectual work with social change,” Fattal wrote. “It was really interesting to learn more about the people and schools of thought that influenced him in his development.”
Lebovic plans to add two parts to his presentation, including Buber’s translation of the Bible into German.