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Teaching and Deed

Martin Buber, 1934

Among all peoples, two kinds and lines of propagation exist side by
side, for quite as continuous as the biological line, and parallel to it, is
in the words of the philosopher Rudolf Pannwitzthe line of the
propagation of values. Just as organic life is transmitted from
parents to children and guarantees the survival of the community, so
the transmission and reception, the new begetting and new birth of
the spirit, goes on uninterruptedly. The life of the spirit of a people is
renewed whenever a teaching generation transmits it to a learning
generation, which, in turn, growing into teachers, transmits the spirit
through the lips of new teachers to the ears of new pupils. This
process of education involves the person as a whole, just as does
physical propagation.
In Judaism, this cycle of propagation involves another and peculiar
factor. In Israel of old, the propagation of values itself assumed an
organic character and penetrated the natural life of the people. It is
true that it does not imitate biological reproduction in guaranteeing
the survival of the community as such; it only guarantees its survival
as Israel. But can we drown out the voice which tells us that if our life
as Israel were to come to an end, we could not go on living as one of
the nations? We, and we only, once received both life and the
teachings together, and in the selfsame hour became a nation and a
religious community. Since then, the transmission of life and the
transmission of the teachings have been bound together, and we
consider the spiritual transmission as vital as bodily propagation.
The talmudic sages say: He who teaches the tradition to his fellowman is regarded as though he had formed and made him, and
brought him into the world. As it is said (Jer. 15:19): And if thou bring
forth the precious out of the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth. In this
quotation from the Bible, God summons the prophet, who has just
begged for help to wreak vengeance on his foes, to the turning, to the
conquest of his own hatred and repugnance, and promises him that if
he turns, he will be allowed adequately to fulfil a divine action. And
the forming and the making of the child in the womb (Jer. 1:5; Ps.
139:15) is counted among such divine action. The influence of the
teacher upon the pupil, of the right teacher upon the right pupil, is not
merely compared to, but even set on a par with, divine works which

are linked with the human maternal act of giving birth. The inner
turning of the prophet is an actual rebirth, and the educator, who
brings the precious ore in the soul of his pupil to light and frees it from
dross, affords him a second birth, birth into a loftier life. Spirit begets
and gives birth; spirit is begotten and born; spirit becomes body.
Even today, in spite of all deterioration, the spiritual life of Jewry is not
merely a superstructure, a nonobligatory transfiguration, an object of
pride which imposes no duties. Rather, it is a binding and obligatory
power, but one which attains to earthly, bodily reality only through
that which it binds to the obligations of Jewish spiritual life. So
profoundly is the spirit here merged with the physical life that even
the survival of the community in time can be guaranteed only by both
operating together.
But if we are serious about the simile of generation, we must realize
that in spiritual as well as in physical propagation, it is not the same
thing that is passed on, but something which acquires newness in the
very act of transmission. For tradition does not consist in letting
contents and forms pass on, finished and inflexible, from generation
to generation. The values live on in the host who receives them by
becoming part of his very flesh, for they choose and assume his body
as the new form which suits the function of the new generation. A
child does not represent the sum total of his parents; it is something
that has never been before, something quite unpredictable. Similarly,
a generation can only receive the teachings in the sense that it
renews them. We do not take unless we also give. In the living
tradition, it is not possible to draw a line between preserving and
producing. The work of embodiment takes place spontaneously; and
that person is honest and faithful who utters words he has never
heard as though they had come to him, for it is thusand not as if he
had created themthat such words live within him. Everyone is
convinced that he is doing no more than further advancing that which
has advanced him to this point; yet nonetheless he may be the
originator of a new movement.
That this holds for Jewry is due to the intensity which time and again
characterizes the encounters between generations, involving mutual
and radical interactions and bringing forth changes in values as
though they were not changes at all. In these recurring encounters
between a generation which has reached its full development and one
which is still developing, the ultimate aim is not to transmit a

separable something. What matters is that time and again an older

generation, staking its entire existence on that act, comes to a
younger with the desire to teach, waken, and shape it; then the holy
spark leaps across the gap. Transmitted content and form are
subordinate to the tradition of existence as such, and become valid
only because of it. The total, living, Jewish human being is the
transmitting agent; total, living, Jewish humanity is transmitted.
Tradition is concentrated in the existence of the Jew himself. He lives
it, and it is he who approaches the new generation and influences it
by producing the blend of the old and the new. Israel is inherent in
these human beings; they are Israel. Israel is renewed, not by what
they say, but by the totality of their existence.
We have already indicated that in our case teaching is inseparably
bound up with doing. Here, if anywhere, it is impossible to teach or to
learn without living. The teachings must not be treated as a collection
of knowable material; they resist such treatment. Either the teachings
live in the life of a responsible human being, or they are not alive at
all. The teachings do not center in themselves; they do not exist for
their own sake. They refer to, they are directed toward, the deed. In
this connection, the concept of deed does not, of course, connote
activism, but life that realizes the teachings in the changing
potentialities of every hour.
Among all the peoples in the world, Israel is probably the only one in
which wisdom that does not lead directly to the unity of knowledge
and deed is meaningless. This becomes most evident when we
compare the biblical concept of hokmoh with the Greek concept
of sophia. The latter specifies a closed realm of thought, knowledge
for its own sake. This is totally alien to hokmah, which regards such a
delimitation of an independent spiritual sphere, governed by its own
laws, as the misconstruction of meaning, the violation of continuity,
the severance of thought from reality.
The supreme command of hokmah is the unity of teaching and life,
for only through this unity can we recognize and avow the allembracing unity of God. In the light of our doctrine, he who gives life
and gives that life meaning is wronged by a teaching which is
satisfied with and delights in itself, which rears structures, however
monumental, above life, and yet does not succeed in wresting even a
shred of realization out of all the outer and inner obstacles we must
struggle with in every precarious hour of our lives. For our God makes

only one demand upon us. He does not expect a humanly

unattainable completeness and perfection, but only the willingness to
do as much as we possibly can at every single instant.
Man is a creature able to make spirit independent of physical life, and
his great danger is that he may tolerate and even sanction existence
on two different levels: one, up above and fervently adored, the
habitation of the spirit; the other, down below, the dwelling of urges
and petty concerns, equipped with a fairly good conscience acquired
in hours of meditation on the upper level.
The teachings do not rely on the hope that he who knows them will
also observe them. Socratic man believes that all virtue is cognition,
and that all that is needed to do what is right is to know what is right.
This does not hold for Mosaic man, who is informed with the profound
experience that cognition is never enough, that the deepest part of
him must be seized by the teachings, that for realization to take place
his elemental totality must submit to the spirit as clay to the potter.
Here dualism is fought with the utmost vigor. He who studies with an
intent other than to act, says the Talmud, it would have been more
fitting for him never to have been created (Pal. Talmud, Shabbat 3b).
It is bad to have teaching without the deed, worse when the teaching
is one of action. Living in the detached spirit is evil, and worse when
the spirit is one of ethos. Again and again, from the Sayings of the
Fathers down to the definitive formulation of Hasidism, the simple
man who acts is given preference over the scholar whose knowledge
is not expressed in deeds. He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his
wisdom shall endure; but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his
wisdom shall not endure. And in the same vein: He whose wisdom
exceeds his deeds, what does he resemble? A tree with many boughs
and few roots. A wind, springing up, uproots it, and overturns it. But
he whose deeds exceed his wisdom, what does he resemble? A tree
with few boughs, but many roots. Though all the winds in the world
come and blow upon it, it cannot be moved. What counts is not the
extent of spiritual possessions, not the thoroughness of knowledge,
nor the keenness of thought, but to know what one knows, and to
believe what one believes, so directly that it can be translated into
the life one lives.
I repeat that in Judaism the true value of the deed has nothing to do
with activism. Nothing is more remote from Judaism than the

that true autonomy is one with true theonomy: God wants man to
fulfil his commands as a human being, and with the quality peculiar to
human beings. The law is not thrust upon man; it rests deep within
him, to waken when the call comes. The word which thundered down
from Sinai was echoed by the word that is in thy mouth and in thy
heart (Deut. 30:14). Again and again, man tries to evade the two
notes that are one chord; he denies his heart and rejects the call. But
it has been promised that a time will come when the Torah will be
manifest as the Scripture present in the hearts of all living men, and
the word will fulfil itself in the harmony of heaven and earth. In Jewry,
the way which leads to that promised time, the way of mans
contribution to ultimate fulfilment, is trodden whenever one
generation encounters the next, whenever the generation which has
reached its full development transmits the teachings to the
generation which is still in the process of developing, so that the
teachings spontaneously waken to new life in the new generation.
We live in an age when deeds tend to assert their superiority over the
teachings. The present generation universally believes more and
more unreservedly that it can get along without the teachings and
rely on a mode of action whichin its own opinionis correct. In an
address I delivered years ago at a Zionist congress, in memory of our
teacher Ahad Haam, I drew attention to the fact that it is not only the
official state politics that is freeing itself from spiritual teachingsthat
has, on occasion, happened beforebut the internal popular
movements, and national groupings, are also stressing their
independence as a warrant of success. And, I went on to say, they
are not entirely mistaken. The conduct of life without the teachings is
successful: something is achieved. But the something thus achieved
is quite different, and at times the very caricature, of what one is
striving for at the bottom of ones heart, where the true goal is
divined. And what then? As long as the goal was a pure goal, yearning
and hope were dominant. But if in the course of being achieved, the
goal is distorted, what then?
The implied warning I intended for Jewry passed them by almost
unnoticedas was to be expected. Although we are less able to get
along without the teachings than any other community, a widespread
assimilation of the errors of the other nations has been rampant
among us for a long time. It is not my office to discuss what may
happen to other nations because of their denial of the spirit. But I

know that we, who believe that there can be no teaching apart from
doing, will be destroyed when our doing becomes independent of the
A Jewish house of studythat is a declaration of war upon all those
who imagine they can he Jews and live a Jewish life outside of the
teachings, who think by cutting off the propagation of values to
accomplish something salutary for Jewry. A truly Jewish communal life
cannot develop in Palestine if the continuity of Judaism is interrupted.
Let me reiterate that such continuity does not imply the preservation
of the old, but the ceaseless begetting and giving birth to the same
single spirit, and its continuous integration into life. Do not let us
delude ourselves: once we are content to perpetuate biological
substance and a civilization springing from it, we shall not be able
to maintain even such a civilization. For the land and the language in
themselves will not support our body and soul on earthonly land
and language when linked to the holy origin and the holy destination.
Moreover, in this crisis of humanity in which we stand at the most
exposed point, the Diaspora cannot preserve its vital connection,
which has so long defied historys attempt at severance, without
recognizing and renewing the power the teachings possess, a power
strong enough to overcome all corroding forces. For all that which is
merely social, merely national, merely religious, and therefore lacking
the fiery breath of the teachings, is involved in the abysmal
problematic of the hour and does not suffice to ward off decay.
Only the teachings truly rejuvenated can liberate us from limitations
and bind us to the unconditional, so that spiritualized and spirited,
united within the circle of eternal union, we may recognize one
another and ourselves and, empowered by the fathomless laws of
history, hold out against the powers moving on the surface of history.
Concerning the words of Isaac the patriarch, The voice is the voice of
Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau (Gen. 27:22), the Midrash
tells this story. Delegates of the other nations were once dispatched
to a Greek sage to ask him how the Jews could be subjugated. This is
what he said to them: Go and walk past their houses of prayer and
of study . . . So long as the voice of Jacob rings from their houses of
prayer and study, they will not be surrendered into the hands of Esau.
But if not, the hands are Esaus and you will overcome them (Gen.
Rabbah, on 27:22).

The Martin Buber Reader

The teachings cannot be severed from the deed, but neither can the
deed be severed from the teachings! Our tradition assigned quite as
much importance to the one danger as to the other. The Talmud tells
us that at a gathering of sages the question arose as to which was
greater, deeds or teachings. And one of them, who seemed to share
our point of view, said that deeds were greater. But Rabbi Akiba said:
The teachings are greater! And all agreed, saying: The teachings
are greater, for the teachings beget the deed (Bab. Talmud,
Kiddushin 40b). This sounds like a contradiction of the assertions of
the importance of action. But after we have more deeply pondered
these assertions, we comprehend that the teachings are central, and
that they are the gate through which we must pass to enter life. It is
true that simple souls can live the true life without learning, provided
they are linked to God. But this is possible for them only because the
teachings, which represent just such a link to God, have, although
they are unaware of it, become the very foundation of their existence.
To do the right thing in the right way, the deed must spring from the
bond with him who commands us. Our link with him is the beginning,
and the function of the teachings is to make us aware of our bond and
make it fruitful.
Again we are confronted with the concepts of continuity and
spontaneity, the bond of transmission and begetting. The teachings
themselves are the way. Their full content is not comprehended in any
book, in any ode, in any formulation. Nothing that has ever existed is
broad enough to show what they are. In order that they may live and
bring forth life, generations must continue to meet, and the teachings
assume the form of a human link, awakening and activating our
common bond with our Father. The spark that leaps from him who
teaches to him who learns rekindles a spark of that fire which lifted
the mountain of revelation to the very heart of heaven.