Aesthetics of Renewal Martin Buber's Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik
by Martina Urban
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Cloth: 978-0-226-84270-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-84273-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226842738.001.0001


Martin Buber’s embrace of Hasidism at the start of the twentieth century was instrumental to the revival of this popular form of Jewish mysticism. Hoping to instigate a Jewish cultural and spiritual renaissance, he published a series of anthologies of Hasidic teachings written in German to introduce the tradition to a wide audience. In Aesthetics of Renewal, Martina Urban closely analyzes Buber’s writings and sources to explore his interpretation of Hasidic spirituality as a form of cultural criticism.
For Buber, Hasidic legends and teachings were not a static, canonical body of knowledge, but were dynamic and open to continuous reinterpretation. Urban argues that this representation of Hasidism was essential to the Zionist effort to restore a sense of unity across the Jewish diaspora as purely religious traditions weakened—and that Buber’s anthologies in turn played a vital part in the broad movement to use cultural memory as a means to reconstruct a collective identity for Jews. As Urban unravels the rich layers of Buber’s vision of Hasidism in this insightful book, he emerges as one of the preeminent thinkers on the place of religion in modern culture.


Martina Urban is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.


“Urban’s superb study combines remarkable erudition with refined interpretative skills in an innovative contribution to our understanding of the often elusive role of Hasidism in Martin Buber’s thought. Because her focus on Buber always points towards an evocative periphery, her book opens a field of larger relevance that will engage readers far beyond the circle of Buber scholars.”

— Asher D. Biemann, University of Virginia

“Martina Urban’s Aesthetics of Renewal is an excellent work and certainly one of the most important books on Buber to appear in recent years. By bringing together Buber’s writings on Hasidism and Zionism, Urban allows Buber’s critical voice to speak once again in contemporary cultural conversations.”

— Leora Batnitzky, Princeton University

“Martina Urban’s lucid and erudite study situates Martin Buber’s collections of Hasidic tales and teachings within the larger project of modern Jewish anthology-making and its effort to retrieve and revitalize Jewish spirituality. This book fills a lacuna in our knowledge of Jewish thought and literature in modernity, and makes an important, indispensable contribution to our understanding of modern Jewish theology as cultural criticism.”

— David M. Stern, University of Pennsylvania

"Buber may yet teach us something about a Jewish vitality that can be renewed without searching for the authenticity of something naively essentialized, and it will be thanks to Urban if this possibility can be reconsidered as modeled by Buber."
— Michael Zank, Journal of Religion

"Urban's Aesthetics of Renewal has done an invaluable  service to scholars not only of Buber but of the intellectual exchanges that defined fin-de-siecle culture, Zionism in its most creative phase, and modernism with all its deeply entrenched contradictions and inner dialectic. . . . Her book is lucid and accessible, well organized and impressively learned."
— Asher Biemann, Shofar

"Urban convincingly frames the esthetics of Jewish renewal as anti-metaphysical and anti-historical discourse ala Nietzsche, with Hasidism acting as the vital bridge between Apollonian form-appearance-illusion and Dionysian ecstatic experience. . . . Buber's early hasidica is brought into deep conversation with the German culture and intellectual currents that were contemporary to him."
— Zachary Braiterman, Religious Studies Review




1 Buber’s Hermeneutic Horizon

An Attempt at Definition

Anthology as a Jewish Form

The Jewish Library Reconfigured

Buber’s Anthologies and German Romantic Nationalism

Moderate Modernism: Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s “Ingathering”

Between Eastern Hebrew Nationalism and Western Jewish Renewal

Berdyczewski’s Sefer Hasidim

The Role of Marcus Ehrenpreis

Micha Josef Berdyczewski: An Ambivalent Collaborator

Shmuel Yosef Agnon: An Anthology Shelved

Mordekhai Ben-Yehezkel: The Folklorist as Anthologist

Samuel Abba Horodezky: A Silent Collaborator

6 Ahad Ha’am’s Theory of Culture Revised

Language and the Jewish Renaissance

7 Sprachkritik: The Crisis of Perception

8 Jewish Culture: Between Mystical Aesthetics and Lebensphilosophie

Excursus on Ecstasy and Temporality

Preparing the Readers: Basic Religious Ideas

Hitlahavut—On Ecstatic Immediacy

’Avodah—On Mystical Self-Sacrifice

Kawwanah—On Redemptive Devotion

Shiflut—On Relation


Appendix: Buber’s Sources for Die Legende des Baalschem