The Embodiment of True Dialogue: Reflections on the Life of Dr. Maurice Friedman

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A great man has departed our world, and his death reverberates across the lives of all those who knew him, and those, like me, who wanted to know him. I never had the chance to fulfill my dream of meeting Maurice Friedman in person, so all I can do now is offer this reflection on his amazing and authentic life.

Friedman was the translator, biographer, and world renowned authority on the work of Martin Buber, the 20th century philosopher, theologian, and scholar. For me, as an aspiring Buber scholar, Friedman’s work was just plain essential. If I was ever stuck trying to understand a concept of Buber’s, I would turn time and time again to Friedman. Through his close personal relationship with Martin Buber, spanning 15 years, plus his lifelong fidelity to Buber’s teachings and his uncanny ability to demystify Buber’s genius, he made Buber’s thought and life accessible to all. The I Thou relationship, the “between” space, healing through meeting, confirmation, Hasidism—it is all there in Friedman’s prolific writings. With his gift for helping us understand Buber’s thought, he brought the principles of authentic dialogue into psychology, philosophy, and religious studies.

A philosopher and religious scholar in his own right, Friedman was also a humanistic psychologist. He applied Buber’s dialogical principles to psychology and developed a method he called Dialogical Psychotherapy. Friedman also expanded upon Buber’s work by developing his own concept of “touchstones of reality,” which he said were significant moments or events in peoples’ lives, the things that have indelibly stamped us and shaped our existence. One of his own touchstones was his status as a conscientious objector in World War II. Touchstones form the foundation for meaningful dialogue, and stand in place of any creed, belief, or teaching. In the last years of his life, Friedman proposed a dialogue of touchstones as the only realistic approach to establishing true interfaith dialogue.

But beyond his obvious genius, scholarly endeavors, and widespread generous mentoring of students of dialogue, there was something extraordinary about the man himself. I discovered this when I viewed a little seven-minute video from 2011 that is posted on his website. Watching it, I felt as if I’d entered phenomenologically into the reality of Buber’s “between space,” that “third reality” where true dialogue and healing through meeting occur. Meditatively, the camera explores Friedman’s home environment as he provides a voice over narrative of Buber’s teachings, an amazing primer that could be subtitled Buber 101. In this brief narrative, he covers all the important bases. The camera pans over his abundant library, with books in several languages. We see on his computer screen a page bearing the title of one of his projects, “Praying Dialogically.”

However, the most important teaching comes unspoken from the man himself, the man with the kind smile and humble nature. His very presence exudes an undeniable gentleness and love. He loves his wife. He loves his little cat. Watching him, I am transfixed. I want to be a part of his family. I want to be included in all this beauty. It is then that I realize that I have witnessed the culmination of Buber’s beautiful philosophy of dialogue. Friedman embodied the living fulfillment of the life of true dialogue. Buber’s work is real, and I know it because I’ve seen it all come together in this one man.

— Lael Curtis

Today’s guest contributor, Lael Curtis, is a doctoral student in psychology at Saybrook University. She also has a master’s degree in pastoral ministry, a master’s in social work, and a JD.

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