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.
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.
Instead of using traditional methods of biblical criticism, Leibowitz chose a literary approach to the biblical text. Influenced by Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Ludwig Aryeh Strauss, she implemented various techniques for literary analysis of the Bible, paying attention to keywords, flashbacks, parallelisms, and other literary devices.
She was especially known for comparing repeated narratives. For example, she highlighted subtle differences between how Potiphar’s wife tells the fabricated story of Joseph’s attempted rape, first to her servants and subsequently to her husband. The differences between these two reports, Leibowitz explained, gives the reader insight into this character’s state of mind.
Despite her insistence to the contrary, original literary analysis is present in her work. Consequently, she may be said to have been not “only a teacher,” as she often claimed, but also a pioneering Bible scholar. Many of her literary methods were later popularized in the work of such scholars as Jan Fokkelman and Robert Alter.
Leibowitz’s approach though was not limited solely to the modern literary approach. It also anticipated some postmodern trends in textual analysis, namely the legitimacy of multiple interpretations and looking for hidden psychological or moral dimensions. This introduced a subjective aspect to interpretation, a concept central to postmodernist thought.
She also refocused attention on classic Bible commentaries, such as those of Rashi and Nahmanides. These had been somewhat disregarded by both the Yeshiva world–whose focus lay almost exclusively on Talmud study–and the secular world–whose interest lay in biblical criticism and history. Today, her question, “What is Rashi’s difficulty?” is commonplace.
In her teaching and writing, Leibowitz rejected the approach of biblical criticism that she had studied at German universities in her youth. She dismissed archeological, geographical, and historical dimensions as irrelevant to the text’s true message. Instead, Leibowitz believed that the teacher should focus on the narrative’s important ethical and theological lessons while not wasting time with “trivial” information.
Personality, Values, and Beliefs
Leibowitz insisted everyone call her “Nehama” and refused to let newspapers interview her or allow people to come to her lessons simply in order to meet her. She liked to declare, “I am not a museum!” Her lifestyle was simple, and those entering her apartment were often struck by how little physical comfort she allowed herself.
A passionate Zionist, Leibowitz refused to leave Israel even when offered large sums of money to lecture abroad. She taught her Bible classes in Hebrew, the language that she believed ought to be spoken by all Jews.
Leibowitz was a deeply religious personality, but of the sort that emphasized study and law, responsibility, and ethics rather than ecstatic and mystical dimensions. In this respect she was similar to her brother, Yeshayahu, a famous and controversial Israeli philosopher and social critic.
While she believed in equal pay for women, and that women should be able to study Torah, Leibowitz opposed many feminist ideas. She did not want to change the balance of traditionally designated gender roles in Judaism or to modify halakhot (Jewish laws) pertaining to women. She rejected the call for women to serve in communal roles such as rabbi and to take on more commandments such as laying tefillin.
Although Leibowitz refused to acknowledge that she was a revolutionary, her unique achievements ultimately opened doors for subsequent female Torah scholars.
Leibowitz had no children, and despite all her achievements, was known to confide that she would have given it all up to have children. At her funeral in 1997, her nephew announced, “All those who feel as I do, like a son to Nehama, may join in the Kaddish prayer with me.” Around the room, dozens of voices rose in unison: “Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemei raba.” As per her request, her gravestone reads simply, “Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher.”
Reprinted from the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.