Martin Buber has what to say about Jewish Geography
By Yasha Magarik
Last summer, working at the UJA-Federation of NY, the epicenter of the Jewish non-profit world, I was regularly mired in Parker Brothers-worthy rounds of Jewish Geography, a game in which players identify (Jewish) friends they have in common. “Geography,” I would object, half-jokingly, “is a misnomer, since geography is a passive concept, whereas we are actively networking. It should be relabeled Jewish cartography!” My feeble attempts to evade the game resulted not only from a rigid linguistic approach; I was also in the midst of Walter Kaufmann’s 1970 translation of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (hereafter mistitled I and Thou), in an effort to read some light contemporary literature. My uneasy ambivalence toward networking springs in large part from Buber’s theory of alienation and empathy, which I have been happily referring to for years (like most, without having read the book), because I and Thou’s condemnation of those who objectify the Other for efficiency’s sake resounds with me. Networking—by no means limited to the Jewish community, but certainly welcomed there as warmly as is the Sabbath Bride—has ignited deep-seated doubts about the values of intimacy and efficiency in modern society and especially, in light of Buberian thought, 21st Century Jewry.
I and Thou lays out different categories of relationships: I-It, in which one individual sees another individual as a means to an end; I-Them, in which one individual feels alienated or even ostracized by the group; Us-Them, in which one group views another group in absolutist terms or even antagonistically; I-Thou, in which two individuals form an intensely intimate bond, although it may be brief and is certainly transient. I-It connections are those between cashiers and customers, the contours of the I-Them mindset look something like a Kafka novel, and foreign policy usually exemplifies the Us-Them attitude, but the I-Thou relationship is indescribable while immediately recognizable. Whereas the others are all different facets of the same, inherently sullied, gem (objectification), the I-Thou relationship connects the individual, USB-style, into the Eternal Thou. Only when perceiving the Other as made in the image of God can God be accessed. Inversely, the treatment of other human beings as objects is a defilement of the divine.
There are three major problems with Jewish Geography. First, networking creates exclusivist groups of those who know each other, which furthers the Us-Them mentality that Buber describes. We begin to see people in absolute terms: on the inside or the outside. In doing so, we alienate rather than engage the Other who exists outside of the circle of mutual names and associations, and we also alienate ourselves from them. Second, this Us-Them attitude employs an ethnic form of identification; Jewish Geography is usually played between Jews. Even when outsiders join in the game, they do so at a disadvantage, since they only rarely know as many Jews as the Jewish players do. Third, Jewish geography leads many times to lashon hara, or gossip. After all, once two players have identified that they both know a certain person, what more can they do but trade stories about that person or move on to another possible link? I mention these three flaws in Jewish Geography—exclusivity, ethnic identification, and gossip-mongering—because they are the tentacles of the monster that lurks within the joys of Jewish Geography.
With that simultaneously chilling and stimulating structure in mind, let us renew our inquiry: does networking objectify the Other? When we play Jewish Geography, are we growing more intimate with fellow players? It seems, rather, that we are fitting them into a mental LinkedIn, the purpose of which is explicitly divorced from the appreciation of individuals as ends in and of themselves, and focused instead on the capitalistic pursuits of careers, connections, and, honestly, cash. Still, to quote a well-known rebbe, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” I too network. It’s fun.
Certainly, one defense of networking is that it is harmless entertainment—just another form of small talk. The joys of Jewish Geography are manifold: the moment when, several names having proven to be duds, the link is finally secured; the mutual recognition of a shared acquaintance’s idiosyncrasy or neurosis; the discovery of an entire cavernous clique of people known to both players. Especially outside the corporate world, networking seems to lead to meaningful relationships by reassuring those who play it that they run in the same general circles. Jewish Geography seems particularly meaningful for Jews because our community is so small, so the game is easy enough for most of us to play.
Many of the people who work in the Jewish non-profit world also view networking as imperative. As an intern, I encountered Moshe Bellows, who is something of a big shot in the Jewish community. Bellows, a wildly successful social entrepreneur, specializes in connecting people who need something with those who have something to offer. He networks like an ever-burning flame, the result being numerous non-profit and for-profit web sites, a massive community of friends and contacts, and much happiness for those who happen to know him. You may immediately think, as I did, that not only this lifestyle but even its vocabulary clearly objectifies everyone he meets, insofar as he sees everyone as a potential resource. He told an interesting story, though, that made me question this analysis. He knew one couple who could not have a child, and another couple, in which the woman was pregnant, that was neither eager to raise a child nor willing to abort the fetus. By introducing the two couples, he was able to do what the biblical God does again and again: grant a child to a barren pair. What more intimate, divine act could there be?
Maimonides, when he outlines the various levels of charity, puts the employment of a poor person on the highest rung, for granting self-sufficiency and thus a sense of decency. And Judaism is a religion (unlike some others I could mention) intensely interested in good works. My discomfort, however, is not with the good deed. What bothers me is twofold: first, that usually networking does not take so profound a form, but is instead a way to make conversation or, more sinisterly, to get a job, and second, that social enterprise becomes an irresistible force in the networker’s life, to the exclusion of both a healthy lifestyle (Bellows, for instance, remarked on getting just a few hours of sleep each night) and, more importantly, meaningful relationships. Those who embrace the world of I-It sacrifice the world of I-Thou. They lose relational perspective, by seeing others as units of supply and demand, as assets and liabilities; becoming obsessed by what can be done with others, they forget how to empathize with individuals.
I have witnessed this phenomenon in many friends and acquaintances who consider themselves social operators, and I saw it quite a lot over the summer, in the Jewish non-profit world. We American Jews, drunk on the success of our socioeconomic advancement over the past century, continue to copy the same aggressive social and financial strategies that put us here, which brings up another, albeit less convincing argument against networking—that it serves to obscure meretricious or incorrect business practices, as in the case of Bernie Madoff. By emphasizing the value of connections, we also open ourselves up to the same problems that plague all entrenched groups of society: stagnation, lack of innovation, resentment by less socially-savvy members of the caste, and corruption. All of these problems, I would argue, arise from a confusion of I-It and I-Thou relationships; we pretend to be having I-Thou relationships when we network, but secretly still objectify each other. Buber argues that there is a place for I-It connections, especially in modernity, in which so much social interaction takes place in business settings. But to conflate the I-It connection with the I-Thou relationship is to distort the boundary between two well-divided spheres.
Finally, we must consider the argument that, when conducted on a personal, and not business, level, Jewish networking leads to meaningful relationships. Sure, sometimes this happens. But this concept is inherently flawed because it relies on a linear model of relationships: that the more time we spend talking to someone, the closer we grow to them. It’s just not true. I am close to almost none of the people with whom I play Jewish geography, and some of them I have known for years. Every time we see each other, we work over the same material, sometimes adding a name here or a group of people there. We are not on a linear path toward an I-Thou connection; we are in an infinite feedback loop of social geography, from which we will never escape. We have enslaved our relationships to a social networking game, mistakenly assuming friendship development to be linear. That is the price we pay for Jewish geography.
My argument is not that networking, and with it, Jewish geography, are bad activities, but rather that they are too frequently taken to extremes. We must be able to distinguish between our I-It relationships, which are all-too-necessary in society, and the I-Thou, where we mean to engage someone as a real human being. Ultimately, we should allow the I-Thou moment to occur more often (it is pointless to attempt to instigate the moment itself, yet fruitful to grant time and space to the possibility of the moment). Only then can we hope to know the Eternal Thou.
 See Kaufmann’s note in his introduction; Ref