Towards Fuller Relationships – Part 2
Martin Buber (1878—1965)

 By Ran Lahav


As we have seen in Part 1, Buber’s book I and Thou discusses our relations to others. It tells us that our relations are usually “I-It” relations—distant, partial, fragmented, pragmatic. This happens when we analyze other people, when we examine them, use them, guess what they have in mind, and so on. At those times, we do not live fully, authentically.

        Sometimes, however, we have a fuller kind of relationship: a togetherness which Buber calls “I-You.” In this togetherness we live fully, meaningfully, authentically.

But what exactly does Buber mean by I-You relations? And how can we attain them?

Buber tells us that the I-You relationship cannot be analyzed and defined. This is because it does not consist of separate elements, and cannot be broken down into components.

Nevertheless, we can say that in I-You relations, you are not a specific thing for me. My thoughts and feelings are WITH you, they are not ABOUT you. For example, when we walk silently in togetherness, or when we play and laugh in togetherness, I do not perceive you as simply a specific person next to me. Rather, your presence “colors” my entire being. Your presence colors my behavior, my feelings, my thoughts, my mood. As Buber says: “…he is You and fills the skyeverything else lives in his light.”

In other words, the difference between I-You and I-It is “between presence and object.” This doesn’t mean that I don’t see who You are. Rather, I don’t see You as a collection of elements – You are a whole person for me:

There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather, everything is included and fused inseparably, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number.

Whatever belongs to [the You] is included in our relation: its shape and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements, and its conversation with the stars—all this in its entirety.

We can now better understand some of Buber’s points:

First, when I am in an I-You relation, my entire self is involved: “The basic word ‘I-You’ can only be spoken with one’s whole being. Whoever commits himself, may not hold back part of himself.”

Second, in I-You relations there is no boundary between me and you, or between you and others: “wherever there is something, there is also another something. Every It borders on other ItsBut where You is said, there is no something. You has no borders.

Third, Buber emphasizes that an I-You relation is not an experience or a feeling: “I do not experience the human being to whom I say You. But I stand in relation to him… Only when I step out of this do I experience him again. Experience is remoteness from You.”

All this means that the self-transformation which Buber envisions is a transformation of our relationships. In order to live fully, authentically, meaningfully, we need to transform our way of relating to people around us, as well as to animals and plants and nature.

But how can we do this?

        Buber’s answer is: I cannot force myself into I-You. I cannot impose togetherness, because imposition would split me, while togetherness means my whole being. To some extent, togetherness simply happens to me (through “grace”). As Buber says, sometimes I am “drawn” into the relationship, or the power of the relationship “seizes” me. However, to some extent, I must respond to the situation. With will and effort I must open myself to the relationship. Buber says, therefore, that I-You relations happen when “will and grace are joined.”


By now, we should be able to understand Buber’s text (which is poetic and not always easy):

The You encounters me by grace—it cannot be found by seeking. But my saying ‘I-You’ is an act of my whole being, it is my essential act.

The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship with him. Thus, the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at the same time. An action of my whole being must approach passivity, because it does away with actions that are partial. Thus, it does not involve any feeling of action, which always depends on limited efforts.

I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. Concentrating myself and fusing myself into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, and can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.

[The quotes are all taken, with minor changes of simplification, from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Martin Buber’s I-Thou, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1970]