Biography Torah teacher / A Revolution of the Old

Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholarby Shoshana Kordova

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover, but as it happens, the cover of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar is actually quite instructive, especially when compared with another recent book on the same subject. On the front of Yael Unterman’s English-language book is a fuzzy photograph of an elderly Leibowitz standing in front of a blackboard, her face dominated by the thick black rim of her glasses and her hair modestly concealed beneath her signature beret. By contrast, the cover of a recently published Hebrew-language biography features a crisp image of Leibowitz as a young, smiling woman, her heavenward gaze unmediated by spectacles as a breeze ruffles her unrestrained hair.

And indeed, Hayuta Deutsch’s Nehama: The Life of Nehama Leibowitz (Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books, 2008) allows the reader to see just how the old woman the one remembered, respected and loved by the many former students quoted in Unterman’s book – went from being the young Nehama facing the wind to the venerated, yet eminently accessible, Torah scholar and role model she became.

Though Deutsch’s book does more or less gloss over Leibowitz’s role in Diaspora Judaism, it is much more of a classical biography than Unterman’s; it progresses in chronological order, and puts Leibowitz’s accomplishments squarely in the context of her family (including her outspoken and controversial philosopher-scientist brother, Yeshayahu Leibowitz) and of the events and prevailing trends in her native Europe and adopted homeland of Israel, lending an added depth to the reader’s understanding of where Leibowitz was coming from.

The first section devotes a single cursory chapter to Leibowitz’s youth, from her birth in Riga, Latvia, in 1905, all the way through to her early years in Mandatory Palestine, where she moved in 1930 with her husband – her father’s younger brother, Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz. (Though there has been much speculation about the reasons behind Nehama Leibowitz’s marriage to an uncle three decades her senior, with whom she never had any children – including the possibility that she was motivated by an altruistic decision to take care of him without violating the religious strictures that would otherwise have prohibited her from touching him – Unterman concludes that the two married for love.)

Unterman’s book is in part a kind of oral history based on the memories of English speakers who knew Leibowitz. In that sense, it resembles a 2003 English-language book called Tales of Nehama: Impressions of the Life and Teachings of Nehama Leibowitz, by Leah Abramowitz (Gefen), which Unterman cites. Though the new volume is the more sophisticated and analytical of the two, both authors make it clear that their books reflect, as Unterman puts it in her introduction, “more than how Nehama actually was, how she is remembered – a composite remembering based on each person’s own Nehama.” (Unterman explains in a reader’s note that her use of Leibowitz’s first name “is not meant disrespectfully, but is in keeping with her own insistence that she be called ‘Nehama’ by all.”)

Unfortunately, some of the people she cites are identified (at least initially) only by name, leaving it to the reader to guess whether the people being quoted were students of Leibowitz’s and whether they are reliable sources. They are sometimes identified more fully later on, and there are references to quotes, biblical passages and ideas that are distractingly repeated throughout the book – giving rise to the suspicion that after almost a decade of grappling with the subject matter, Unterman had difficulty figuring out exactly how to structure all the material. The reader gets the impression that various sections of the book were moved around throughout the writing and editing process, without the final product getting the vetting necessary to make for a smoother read.

Even though identification of the interviewees is often scant to nonexistent, those who travel in English-speaking modern-Orthodox circles will probably recognize at least some of the names in any case (two former teachers of mine were quoted at length and, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say here that my husband’s name appeared in the rather extensive list of acknowledgments).

The more biographical section of Unterman’s book, which is the third volume in Urim Publication’s “Modern Jewish Lives” series, also discusses some of Leibowitz’s major achievements, like her gilyonot, the worksheets in which she posed questions of varying difficulty on the weekly Torah portion and mailed them out to respondents all over Israel and abroad. This was significant in that it provided a forum for Torah study not only to the learned, but also to those who were unwilling or unable to attend traditional Torah classes, including soldiers deployed to Israel’s borders, avowedly secular kibbutz members, and working-class people – like the cabdrivers who played a prominent role in the many stories Leibowitz liked to tell as a way of bringing her lessons to life with dramatic flair.

“In her day, Nehama functioned as a bridge between two worlds, connecting religious and secular Israeli populations to one another’s values – to Zionism and to tradition, respectively,” writes Unterman. “She introduced secular Israelis to traditional commentaries, demonstrating to the university-educated that the Tanach [the Hebrew acronym for Torah, Prophets and Writings] could be an accessible and enlightened text; while those from very traditional homes, such as the members of the old Yishuv (Jews living in Palestine before the Zionist settlement) and the simple Zionist laborers, had their eyes opened to the riches of the Tanach and to analysis of the commentaries, as well as to modern ideas and scholars.”

The extensive time and effort Leibowitz spent marking the answers to thousands of worksheets mailed to her over several decades, asking only for postage so she could send back her responses, was a sign of her dedication to her students, many of whom she had never met, and to her steadfast encouragement of Torah study. She began producing the gilyonot in the summer of 1942, when young immigrant women she had taught over the year asked her for more work. Though she stopped creating new ones in 1971, she continued to send and receive existing worksheets, and had marked more than 40,000 of them by 1986.

What’s bothering Rashi?

The gilyonot also showcase a major element of Leibowitz’s educational philosophy, in that they asked questions that challenged people to think for themselves. A teacher of teachers, Leibowitz – a professor in Tel Aviv University’s education department and the recipient of the Israel Prize in Education in 1956, though she modestly downplayed her scholarship and disdained honors – was unabashedly critical of teachers who bored their students by asking them to regurgitate factual information. She was renowned for popularizing the question “What’s bothering Rashi?” – compelling students to look behind the words of the medieval biblical commentator and critically examine both the exegesis and the passage being interpreted in order to uncover the textual difficulty that prompted Rashi’s remarks.

Unterman quotes Israel Rozenson, the rector of Efrata Teachers College in Jerusalem, as saying of Leibowitz: “She played a vital role in the battle to prevent the decline of traditional commentary into an assortment of random explanations often left to the mercies of various sermonizers; and in turning it into a ‘science’ with stringent methodological requirements.'”

“From this we learn,” writes Unterman, “that not all revolutions introduce the new – Nehama’s revolution reintroduced the old, though in a new way.”

Indeed, Leibowitz played an important part in “restoring the Tanach to its rightful place in the center of Jewish study,” at a time when it was relegated to cropping up on pages of Talmud in the yeshiva world, to archaeological and historical aspects in the secular world, and to the secular curriculum even in religious public schools in Israel. “The widespread interest she generated in Tanach and commentaries and her new approach to them was tantamount to a movement,” writes Unterman, noting that this particularly benefited women, who were barred from the world of Talmud when Leibowitz began teaching. “She receives much credit for the fact that today, Tanach and commentaries are widely studied in schools and private homes.”

This “movement” affected Jewish studies both in Israel and abroad. Though Leibowitz was adamant that Torah classes be taught in Hebrew and regularly turned down speaking invitations abroad because she didn’t want to leave Israel, she did teach many native English speakers who are themselves teachers, thus extending her influence to the next generation. And though Leibowitz was initially resistant to writing her “Studies” series of insights into the weekly Torah portion and to having her writing translated from the Hebrew, the English translation of the series has resulted in a widespread familiarity abroad with Leibowitz’s name and work, to the point that whereas her brother, as Unterman points out, is the more well-known Leibowitz in Israel, hers is the better-known name abroad.

It can be argued that Leibowitz has also done worlds to show women that they too can be recognized as Torah scholars in the Orthodox world. She was in favor of women studying Talmud, which has since become de rigueur in some Orthodox institutions, and refused to be treated any better than other women, announcing upon arrival at a yeshiva where she was about to give a class that, “If all the women are over there behind the curtain then I must join them!” – at which point the women moved into the men’s section so the lesson could begin. In addition, Leibowitz never took an interest in cooking or cleaning, leaving it to her housekeepers, with whom she developed close relationships.

But at the same time, she rejected the idea of women taking on commandments or practices that are customarily seen as the man’s province. She refused to speak from the synagogue dais, was strongly critical of women’s prayer groups and could not understand why women would want to wear tzitzit or lay tefillin. Unterman writes that, “in Nehama’s own eyes she was not a feminist of any stripe, and she adamantly refused to be classified as one. She saw herself as a teacher, and any other title or agenda was extraneous.” Leibowitz also explicitly said she would have given up a life devoted to scholarship in order to have a child, and responded to a disparaging comment regarding women who choose children over career by saying: “Do you think I’d be writing these gilyonot if I had children?!”

Whether or not Leibowitz can or should be seen as a feminist role model, she was certainly seen as both a pedagogical and a personal one, legendary for her warmth, humor, humility and a material simplicity that shocked many of the American students seeing the cramped apartment of her later years for the first time. (“She slept on a shelf!” Unterman quotes one astonished student as saying.)

The question of whether Leibowitz – who died in 1997, at the age of 92 – can or should be seen as a Bible scholar in the academic sense, given university Bible departments’ emphasis on the biblical criticism she opposed, is rather less interesting, but the author devotes three chapters to the subject. She did address the seeming repetitions and contradictions in the Bible (as did the commentators she analyzed), but she did so by reading the text closely to draw psychological and ethical insights from the differences and similarities of different passages relating to the same subject. While Leibowitz – whom Unterman describes as a literary Bible scholar rather than a critical one – operated from the traditional Jewish assumption that the Torah’s source is divine, some Bible critics use such textual difficulties to bolster their theory that the Bible was authored by different people at different times.

The length of the author’s discussion of this issue is presumably related to the fact that, as she notes, much of the material comes from her thesis for the Israel branch of Touro College, where Unterman earned a master’s degree in Jewish history; she also has a master’s in creative writing and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and Talmud, all from Bar-Ilan University.

Overall, Unterman’s familiarity with her material, extensive interviews and clear writing come through in her book, though those qualities do not preclude the need for a more tightly edited volume. Those who can read Hebrew and are interested in a comprehensive and telling biography of Leibowitz’s life are advised to pick up Deutsch’s Nehama. But Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar is a worthy read for English speakers looking for a critical and in-depth analysis of Leibowitz’s beliefs and writings, as well as insight into the way her students viewed their revered teacher.

The original review appeared in Haaretz.

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