Martin Buber: a mentor for Jewish adult education

Michael Sommer

Fifty years ago, on 15 June 1965, came the death of the religious philosopher Martin Buber, who worked not only as an academic and publicist but also in adult education. According to Karl-Josef Kuschel, who has just brought out a book on Buber (1), he “was the first to become very, very committed to Jewish adult education”, as Kuschel explained in a radio interview (on Deutschlandfunk) on his new publication.

Buber held interreligious debates, for example with the Protestant theologian Karl Ludwig Schmidt (1891–1956), when Buber set out for the first time his “Theology of Alterity”, on interreligious dialogue as we still know it today. True dialogue is based on understanding the person with whom one is talking, not on trying to persuade them through argument.

Education through dialogue

Buber frequently used this method of discussion in adult education; it fitted in with his general philosophy of dialogue. One central aspect is the art of asking questions in order to set off a process of self-learning. Participants bring their experience of life into the learning situation, and teachers their expert knowledge. Whereas the dialogue with Schmidt in Stuttgart was on a high theological and intellectual level, Buber also met with other “target groups” Kuschel reports of three evening lectures at the Volkshochschule evening school in Jena in 1924. The school director was Wilhelm Flitner, later part of the alternative education movement. Flitner chose Martin Buber as he was an interesting character, a liberal socialist, and would communicate his theories to the audience (mostly workers) in an authentic manner.

Resistance and supporting the Jewish identity

After 1933, until his emigration in 1938, Buber concentrated solely on adult education for Germany’s remaining Jews, who, under mounting pressure, were still trying to find their Jewish identity. “If we retain our inner self”, the publicist Ursula Homan quotes Martin Buber as saying, “we can never be dispossessed. If we are true to our calling, we can never be deprived of our rights”.3

Buber saw adult education as especially purposeful and effective in times of crisis. Only when it comes to the crossroads between catastrophe and survival is there a chance of “cracking through the adults’ unyielding ideas”, says Martha Friedenthal-Haase of Buber’s motivation in applying himself to adult education, of all things, in such dramatic times. A crisis makes demands on the unyielding adults’ ability to grow. “In its 100 years of history, major, real, productive adult education has only ever taken place at times of crisis.” (2)

A crisis brings out humanism

According to this approach, a crisis brings out the humanism which work in education is designed to reinforce. The fundamental idea behind Buber’s take on Jewish humanism was that the Jewish religion’s goal is charity At the time of the Nazi regime, Buber’s main intention was to use adult education to reinforce the Jewish identity and Jewish self-confidence. His main audience was progressive, liberal Jews, whom he wanted to bring closer to the roots of their faith. Assimilation into their Christian, German environment, so his thought, had only led to their own obliteration. These basic roots included the typical Jewish optimism; seeing hope even in difficult, hopeless situations.

Education and learning, conveyed by “experts” such as the rabbis and scribes, still play a key role in Judaism up to this day. Intensive reading, discussion, rote learning and learning from examples are the central methods used to teach the faith in traditional places of learning. “Learning means the constant attempt to mould one’s life in the shape of the Biblical commandments and ethics.” According to Friedenthal-Haase, a critical dialogue between learners and those bearing testimony to the Jewish faith is not aimed at teaching people how to act outwardly in a way which will please God, and thus smooth their way into Heaven; Judaism is about constantly shaping oneself, showing that one is made in the image of God. (3)

The Free Jewish House of Study in Frankfurt

The traditional educational establishment in Judaism is the beth midrash, where young people and adults are taught in the Jewish faith, and which is documented as far back as the 2nd century A.D. (The Wisdom of Sirach 51, 23), though there is no evidence of it as an independent institution in the Middle Ages or at the start of the modern age. When Franz Rosenzweig founded the “Free Jewish House of Study” (Freies Judisches Lehrhaus) on 17 October 1920 in Frankfurt, he was thus bringing back an institution which, though it had traditional roots, was no longer kept up at the time. Martin Buber worked at the House of Study as a teacher and motivator. (4)

The idea was to reintroduce the basics of Judaism to people who had lost touch with their faith.The focus was not on the rabbi’s teaching, or reading the Torah and other writings, as in a traditional beth midrash, but on conveying the basics of the Jewish faith and culture in a contemporary manner. Hebrew courses also played a major role, allowing learners to read the original texts. Many academics from various fields, for example including Erich Fromm, gave lectures or ran working groups and discussions. These took place at various venues.

For seven years, participation was high, then there was a drop in interest until, from 1927, the Free Jewish House of Study no longer existed as an institution, and events were only held sporadically – especially after the founder and key driving force, Franz Rosenzweig, died in 1929. From 1926, however, other houses of study sprang up in Stuttgart, Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Karlsruhe, Wrocław and Munich. In 1933, Martin Buber opened a new House of Study in Frankfurt (dropping the “Free”) as part of the reorganisation of German Jews into the “Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden” (Reich Deputation of German Jews), meant to organise Jewish interests. Here, as well as the theological and philosophical events, general adult education courses were also held.

Though Buber was forbidden from holding public events, in 1935 the regime explicitly allowed him to each at the “Centre for Jewish Adult Education”, which was forced to merge with the House of Study. The National Socialists evidently saw the work as a means of encouraging Jews to emigrate. By 1937 there were 17 such Jewish Houses of Study in the German Reich, which were in many cases critical of the Nazis. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the Jewish communities were largely shattered, and the centres and Houses of Study closed along with them. Time for Martin Buber to emigrate to Israel.

Academy for Adult Educators in the spirit of Grundtvig

In Israel, Buber started out as a lecturer within the kibbutz movement, holding philosophical and theological seminars for farmers. In 1949 he founded the Institute of Adult Education at the University of Jerusalem: one of the oldest institutions specifically dedicated to teaching adults. The educational concept he followed was that of Grundtvig, the founder of the first folk high school (a type of residential school for adults). To this combination of living and learning he added a spiritual, Jewish component; he and other lecturers explicitly based their teaching on Jewish humanism.

Houses of Study after the Shoah

The first House of Study to be opened after the Shoah was in 1951 in Zurich; it was very much in line with the original idea of strengthening Jewish self-confidence through education. From 1966, Houses of Study were built in the Netherlands. In 1982 Frankfurt became the first place in Germany where a learning institution was founded which was explicitly aimed only at Jews, rather than being designed as an institution for dialogue with Christians. The House of Study founded in Stuttgart in 2010, meanwhile, sees itself specifically as an inter-religious institution. In 2013 this was followed by the House of Study founded by the Jewish community in Wiesbaden, with the support of the local Volkshochschule evening school and local institutions of Protestant and Catholic adult education.


1 Karl-Josef Kuschel: Martin Buber – seine Herausforderung an das Christentum. Munich (Gütersloher Verlagshaus) 2015.

2 According to the publicist Ursula Homann,

3 Martha Friedenthal-Haase: Krise und Bewährung. Martin Buber zu Grundlagen der Bildung im Erwachsenenalter. Oldenburger Universitätsreden No. 44, Oldenburg 1991, p. 17.

4 Information from Kalman Yaron: Martin Buber. The quarterly review of comparative education, Vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, pp. 135–146 (UNESCO: International Bureau of Education) and Ursula Homann (above).

European InfoNet Adult Education, 05.07.2015