Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher

An educator who changed the face of Bible study.

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Born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia, Nehama Leibowitz grew up in a family that valued both Jewish and secular culture. In 1919 the family moved to Berlin, where the young Nehama taught Bible in Jewish schools, wrote articles on methods of teaching Bible in Hebrew (Ivrit B'Ivrit), and studied for her doctorate, focusing on 15th and 16th century Judeo-German Bible translations.

She married her older uncle, Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz, and they moved to Palestine in 1930.

Nehama Leibowitz

Upon arriving, Leibowitz traveled around the country teaching Torah at academic institutions, religious academies, and informal gatherings. Her students included people from all walks of life: new immigrants, soldiers, and kibbutzniks, religious and secular, young and old.

While still in her twenties, Leibowitz began training other educators to teach Bible, eventually publishing several works of pedagogical insights. She soon became known as a superb teacher, espousing a warm, humorous, and creative style alongside a strict classroom manner.

She received a professorship at Tel-Aviv University, and was awarded several prizes throughout her life, including the prestigious Israel Prize in the Field of Education in 1956.

Worksheets and Books

In 1942, some of Leibowitz's students, a group of female immigrants in their twenties and thirties from a special graduate education program decided that they wanted to continue studying her material even after the semester had ended. In response, Leibowitz began mailing worksheets--known as gilyonot--to them on their kibbutzim.

The worksheets contained Bible commentaries unavailable at that time, which Leibowitz had unearthed at the Jerusalem National Library--for example, the work of the Italian scholar, Isaac Reggio (1784-1855). Leibowitz's students replied as best they could to her challenging questions on Bible verses and commentaries, and mailed their answers in. Nehama sent her responses in the next worksheet, creating an ongoing dialogue.

Soon, mostly through word of mouth, others expressed interest in Leibowitz's worksheets, and the number of correspondents eventually swelled into the thousands. Leibowitz continued this massive undertaking for several decades without ever being paid.

In the 1950s, Leibowitz began to publish pamphlets and then books of essays on the weekly Torah portion (the Iyunim, or Studies, series). These books have been translated into six languages.

Impact on Bible Study

The analytical manner in which Leibowitz introduced, probed, and compared the ideas of various Bible commentators was unprecedented. She dared to bring in varied voices of interpretation, including certain non-Orthodox and non-Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Thomas Mann.

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Yael Unterman is a teacher, writer and life coach living in Jerusalem. She is the author of an extensive biography of Nehama Leibowitz's life and work, "Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar."