On Buber, the “Paradox of Humility” & “The Proof of Uniqueness”


Living in a world that is getting bigger and bigger, one feels as if one is becoming smaller and smaller. This realization can lead one to feel anonymous and depressed. Feeling unique or special, it seems, is the only antidote. But is this the right way to think?

The tug and pull of anonymity and uniqueness spurs a kind of manic-depression that has become endemic in a “connected” society.   If you aren’t seen, you don’t exist. This way of thinking will push many to be obsessed with being seen, but not so much in public as on social networks.

People can’t stand being small.

But perhaps that smallness is big when it is relational. This is what Martin Buber suggests in his reading of humility in Hasidism.   There is nothing new here. The tension between the individual and the community is paramount.

The paradox of humility consists in holding together being unique and singular yet, at the same time, being a “part” of a larger community.   And this spans two relations: between God and man, on the one hand, and man and man, on the other.

Citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Buber makes the case for uniqueness.

Uniqueness is thus the essential good of man that is given to him to unfold. And just this is the meaning of the return (to God), that his uniqueness may become ever more pure and complete; and that in each new life the one who has returned may stand in ever more untroubled and undisturbed incomparability. For pure uniqueness and pure perfection are one, and he who has becoming so entirely individual that no otherness any longer has power of him or place in him has completed the journey and is redeemed and rests in God. (52, Hasidism and Modern Man)

While this sounds all fine and good, Buber tells us that this kind of uniqueness isn’t proven; rather, “the uniqueness of man proves itself in his life with others”(53).     Uniqueness gives one the possibility of being able to give something of oneself to the other, which suggests that if one doesn’t embrace uniqueness one has nothing to give:

The more unique a man really is, so much more can he give to the other and so much the more will he give him. And this is his one sorrow, that is giving is limited to the one who takes. (53)

The “mystery of humility” occurs when one realizes that the more unique his or her relationship with God is, the more he or she realizes that “there stirs him the community of existence.” This doesn’t make sense since, as many mystics show, being alone and unique with God (as one sees in the erotic meditations in the Zohar) are the goal of contemplation and theosophy.   Citing Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, Buber points out that this erotic relation between man and God is personalized. By equating the meeting of one man with another to a kind of birth or “generation,” Rabbi Nachman is suggesting a displacement of the unique erotic relation in the Zohar:

Every man has a light over him, and when the souls of two men meet, the two lights join each other and from them there goes forth one light. And this is called generation.

For Hasidism, becoming small doesn’t mean – as it does in Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik in his essays on humility – becoming so despondent that one “forgets that he can bring an overflowing blessing through his words and actions”(53).   Rabbi Nachman of Breslav calls this kind of smallness or humility “impure humility.”

Commenting on this notion, Buber says that “he is truly humble who feels the other as himself and himself in the other.”  For Buber this is a key distinction that Rabbi Nachman is making. While the “haughty man” does not know himself and must “contrast” or “compare” himself with others in order to know how great he is, the truly humble person doesn’t lift himself above others or compare himself with others.

The haughty person is, for Rabbi Nachman, tortured:

The soul of the haughty lives without product or essence; it flutters and toils and is not blessed…..He who measures and weighs becomes empty and unreal like measure and weight. (54)

Rabbi Nachman suggests that the haughty man may be crushed by reality and can, perhaps, become humble. But this is not true humility.   This comes from the humble man who is able to retain uniqueness by being…simple and small. He doesn’t make or will himself to be small:

But the humble man has the “drawing power”….The humility which is meant here is no willed and practiced virtue. It is nothing but an inner being, feeling, and expressing.   Nowhere in it is there a compulsion, nowhere a self-humbling, a self-restraining, a self-resolve. It is indivisible as the glance of a child and simple as a child’s speech. (55)

What makes the humble man humble is the attention to small things. He trusts things and makes everything personal.   Buber suggests a kind of phenomenological receptivity that is humbling:

The humble man lives in each being and knows each being’s manner and virtue….For him, the colors of the world to not blend with one another, rather each soul stands before him in the majesty of its particular existence. (55)

Buber calls this “living with the other” and equates it with “justice” and “love.” The simpleton is the model for this kind of humility. Since he suspends judgment and takes to each being in the “majesty of its particular existence,” he is the “proof of uniqueness.”

The man who presumes too much is the man who contrasts himself with others, who sees himself as higher than the humblest of things, who rules with measure and weights and pronounces judgment. (54)

And it is this suspension that, in a salvational sense, helps. Walter Benjamin, in a letter to Gershom Scholem about Kafka’s work, suggests this kind of help when he says that Kafka’s “only certainty” was that a “fool can help.”   From the perspective of the sophisticate, the humble man is a fool and the help he offers is meaningless. However, Buber, by way of Rabbi Nachman, argues that the humble man’s drive to help the other is the “artery of existence”(58).   Good deeds “save one from death.”   But intention is all. One should not help out of pity but out of love.   And this love is fostered, first and foremost, by learning how to love small things.

The humble man is “devoted to the multitude” and “collected in his uniqueness.”  Buber notes that he is at home in the world and greets every small thing as special. Moreover, he has neither “fear of the before or after” nor desire. He doesn’t expect anything.   These same words could be used to describe Rabbi Nachman’s schlemiel character which served, as Ruth Wisse and David Roskies argue, as the basis for much of the Yiddish literary project.

For a Yiddish writer like I.L. Peretz this acceptance of smallness and the world, this non-willing, is a big problem. He insisted that if Jews don’t think big, they will be squashed.   Politics demands expediency, vision, and will.   The love of the small – in this view – needs to be displaced by its opposite. The proof of humility, for Peretz, is failure; it is different from the proof of success which would be equated with the founding of a Jewish State, socialism, a workers movement, etc.   For Peretz, there is no “paradox of humility.” To be sure, it’s a Jewish problem.

Unfortunately, we seem to be forced into a corner. If Judaism, as Buber and Rabbi Nachman suggest, is about small things and doesn’t involve desire or hope, how could it be political? And how could Moses, the “most humble man on earth”(Numbers 12:3), be a leader? How could the two be reconciled?

Buber’s answer can be found in his essay “Biblical Leadership.” There he argues that, in the Torah (Bible), we find a lot of failure.   The fact that Moses accepts failure makes him humble:

The Bible knows nothing of this intrinsic value of success. On the contrary, when it announces a successful deed, it is duty bound to announce in complete detail the failure involved in the success. When we consider the history of Moses, we see how much failure is mingle in the one great successful action, so much so that when we set the individual events that make up his history side by side, we see that his life consists of one failure after another, through which runs the thread of success. (143).

Perhaps the “paradox of humility” is different.   In being successful, a humble leader must always remember that his success is permeated by failure and that he should never become haughty.

Even though a religious Jew may anticipate the fulfillment of the covenant, this anticipation is challenged by the failures of Jewish history. Perhaps the schlemiel’s trust of all things and the humility that attend it may emerge from an acute sense of history and failure. If history and politics are all about winning, success, and the biggest things, perhaps the schlemiel and even Moses himself remind us that history doesn’t, in the end, trump the smallness of the world and what we can give to the other. Perhaps the schlemiel teaches us that – because the “majesty of the particular” and smallness will never go away – the proof of humility is greater than the proof of history.

Failure is more prominent than success because small things always get in the way of who we are or want to be.   But in seeing the small things we can see one another and we can help. If we think big, however, we may not see the person in front of us. The proof of humility is right in front of us. But history and its drive for success may prompt us to miss this. For history, there is no “paradox of humility.” But if, as Peretz warns, you focus on this paradox you may do more to harm humanity than to help it.   Perhaps there is a third path, which Buber seems to suggest in his reading of Moses. Let’s call it micro-politics. It would be permeated with failure and would always opt for smallness.   It would think of success but not on a grand scale – since it’s the small things that matter most.  But is such a politics possible?  If there is a political vision of success, can there be any room for failure?  If there is desire for a different world and it comes by way of my action or inaction, how can there be a “paradox of humility” let alone a “proof of uniqueness”?


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