BORN: September 3, 1905 • Riga, Latvia
DIED: April 12, 1997 • Jerusalem, Israel
Latvian Bible scholar
Nechama Leibowitz was a noted biblical scholar, teacher, and radio commentator in Israel. She was a professor at Tel Aviv University and wrote many books on Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people. She was best known for her weekly lessons on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and for her efforts to educate Jews about their religion. She created gilyonot, or study pages, with information about the faith that were printed and mailed to thousands of students of Judaism around the world. In 1956 she was awarded the Israel Prize for Education and is recognized as one of the leading Torah teachers of the twentieth century. The Torah refers to the first five books of the Tanakh, also known as the Hebrew Bible, the sacred text of Judaism. To Christians, the Tanakh is known as the Old Testament.
"The light that had become reduced to nothing more than a tiny dot in a world of darkness now shines brighter and brighter…. Now we are shown a tranquil world adorned with the rainbow … as a sign of surety of life and peace for the coming generations."
From Latvia to Israel
Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia, a country in north-central Europe. Her family was Orthodox Jewish, the branch of Judaism that holds to the faith's traditional practices. Orthodox Judaism includes a devotion to and study of the Torah, dietary rules such as avoiding pork, and daily attendance at the synagogue, the Jewish house of worship. Nechama was the younger sister of the well-known philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994). A philosopher is someone who studies art, science, and other subjects in an effort to gain greater understanding on the workings of the world. The family left Latvia in 1919 and settled in Berlin, Germany, where Leibowitz studied. She earned a doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1930, after completing her thesis, or long paper, on Bible translations. The Bible contains the Old Testament, a sacred text in the Jewish faith, and the New Testament, which is accepted by the Christian faith alongside the Old Testament.
The political climate in Germany by 1930 was not favorable to Jews. The Nazis, members of the National Socialist Workers Party led by Adolf Hitler (1889–1949), were blaming Jews for many of the country's problems. Anti-Semitism, or discrimination against Jews, was becoming more and more common. As a result, after she earned her doctorate Leibowitz immigrated to Palestine, which was then under British control. Palestine is considered by many Jews to be their ancestral homeland. There she lectured for twenty-five years at a school that trained religious teachers. Her subject was the methodology (techniques) of teaching the Hebrew language and the Hebrew Bible.
Begins her weekly lessons
Leibowitz also began to give lessons outside the school on various topics in the Bible. In 1942 she was asked to teach a group of women from a kibbutz, an agricultural collective or commune, who were on a break for educational purposes. She agreed to lead the six-month class. When it was over, the women were so interested in their studies that they asked Leibowitz if they could continue the class by mail. She began sending them weekly lessons, questions that required the women to examine and analyze parts of the Bible. Then she received their answers back by return mail, corrected and graded them, and sent them back to the kibbutz. She called these lessons simply gilyonot, or "pages." Soon others began requesting these weekly lessons. In 1943 there were fifty people taking part in the mailings. The next year the list grew to three hundred, and still Leibowitz was personally preparing the weekly worksheets, copying them, mailing them, and then correcting each one.
In 1954 Leibowitz began publishing her "Studies" series, which included many of the questions from her weekly lessons. In 1971 she stopped writing new material but continued to correspond with those who wrote to her with their own religious study. A wide variety of people took part in these lessons, which were translated into many different languages and sent to countries around the world. Before finally giving up the weekly lessons in 1992, Leibowitz estimated that she had corrected approximately forty thousand such lessons, and that some of her students had been with her for more than thirty years.
An example of one of her gilyonot concerns the first book of the Torah, called Bereshit. Discussing the great flood that God sent to Earth, and which Noah survived by building an ark and populating it with one of each gender of animal and man, Liebowitz provides commentary and interpretation. She draws attention to the symbolism within the story, from the darkness of the rains that killied all except those in the ark with Noah, to the renewal of life that occurs once the rains stop. She explains that the flood washed away the sins of man, such as the decline in moral behavior and the increasing glorification of things such as warfare and other violence. The Jewish Agency for Israel has reproduced her lessons online, where she says:
The light that had become reduced to nothing more than a tiny dot in a world of darkness now shines brighter and brighter, till it once again illuminates the whole of our canvas. Now we are shown a tranquil world adorned with the rainbow, reflecting its spectrum of colour through the clouds, as a sign of surety of life and peace for the coming generations.
The First Female Rabbi
The first woman to be ordained, or officially made, a rabbi (the chief official in a synagogue) was Regina Jonas (1902–1944). Jonas, unlike Nechama Leibowitz, was almost a forgotten figure in twentieth-century Judaism. She was a victim of the Holocaust, the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), and died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Concentration camps were camps where Jews and others were imprisoned. Millions of these prisoners were either killed or died of disease and lack of food. After the fall of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1989, secret state archives were opened and new information was discovered about this first female rabbi.
Jonas was born in Berlin in 1902, and after her school years she taught for a time. She then attended the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin and graduated in 1930. She took further classes at a seminary, a college for those going into religious professions. Eventually she decided that she wanted to become a rabbi, but no woman had ever done this before. She went through all the course work necessary to become a rabbi and wrote the thesis, or long research paper, necessary to earn her degree. Her thesis topic was whether a woman could become a rabbi according to the Talmud, the collection of Jewish law and traditions.
She concluded that, according to Jewish law, a woman could become a rabbi. At first, however, she could find no Jewish scholars or rabbis who would ordain her and officially give her this title. Many were afraid of the negative reactions of more conservative Orthodox Jews. Finally she found a rabbi who ordained her in 1935, but Jonas could still find no synagogue where she could function as its rabbi. Instead she worked as a chaplain, or religious counselor, for Jewish social clubs and institutions.
As World War II approached and persecution (mistreatment and harassment) of the Jews worsened, many rabbis left Germany. Jonas decided to stay and, because of the lack of male rabbis, was finally able to preach in a synagogue. In 1942 she was sent by the Nazis to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and in 1944 she was transferred to Auschwitz, where she was killed in the gas chambers. Jonas left behind several lectures on the history of Jewish women and other subjects. It was not until 1972 that less traditional Jewish groups in the United States again began to ordain female rabbis. The first female rabbi since Jonas to be ordained in Germany was in 1995.
The state of Israel had been created in 1948 out of much of the land that was Palestine. Leibowitz became a regular commentator on the Voice of Israel radio station, and in 1956 she won the Israel Prize for her efforts in religious education. The following year she began lecturing at the University of Tel Aviv, and in 1968 she was made a full professor there. Yet she always preferred the more humble title, morah, or "teacher."
Leibowitz claimed there were several goals to achieve when studying religion. She believed that first, and least important, was to gain knowledge of the facts. Next was the development of independent learning skills. Most important to Leibowitz were a love of learning and a love of the Bible. In order to reach these goals, Leibowitz proposed a method called active learning. In this kind of teaching there is no formal lecture and no introduction to the material to be studied. Leibowitz thought teachers should not ask questions to which there are obvious answers that can be memorized. She further believed teachers should avoid lessons that are always organized in the same way. She claimed both of these methods only lead to students learning by rote, or by memory, and not really thinking for themselves. Instead, she said students should be encouraged to think independently and actually analyze the material they are studying rather than merely memorizing it. Finally Leibowitz believed the teacher should be a role model and should display the sort of love of learning that he or she wants to instill or place in his or her students.
Leibowitz used this active learning method in her gilyonot and in the courses she taught at the university. She helped produce a new generation of religious scholars and gave a deeper understanding of the religious works of Judaism to all levels of Israeli society. When she died in Jerusalem in 1997, she was buried with a tombstone that read simply "Nechama Leibo-witz 'Morah.'" As Moshe Sokolow noted on the Web site Remembering Nehama Leibowitz, "Nehama Leibowitz did not open new windows on the Torah; she simply polished the glass so we could all see inside much more clearly."
For More Information
Abramowitz, Leah. Tales of Nehama: Impressions of the Life and Teaching of Nehama Leibowitz. New York, NY: Gefen Publishing House, 2003.
Peerless, Shmuel. To Study and to Teach: The Methodology of Nechama Leibowitz. Jerusalem, Israel: Urim Publications, 2005.
Bonchek, Avigdor. "Professor Nechama: Teacher of Israel." Jewish Action (fall 1993). Also available online at http://www.ou.org/yerushalayim/lezikaronolam/nehama/ja93.html.
"In Remembrance: Nechama Leibowitz z'tl (1902–1997)." Jewish Action (summer 1997). Also available online at http://www.ou.org/yerushalayim/lezikaronolam/nehama/ja97.htm.
Sokolow, Moshe. "Nehama Leibowitz: The "Compleat" Didact. Jerusalem Report (May 15, 1997). Also available online at http://www.ou.org/yerushalayim/lezikaronolam/nehama/rememberingnehama.html.
Leibowitz, Nechama. "Lesson of The Flood." The Jewish Agency for Israel. Department for Jewish Zionist Education. http://www.jafi.org.il/education/torani/NEHAMA/indexgil.html (June 5, 2006).
"Leibowitz, Nechama (1905–1997): Bible Scholar, Commentator, and Teacher." Jewish Agency for Israel. http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/people/BIOS/nleib.html/ (accessed on June 5, 2006).
"Nechama Leibowitz (1905–1997)." Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/nleib.html (accessed on June 5, 2006).
"Nechama Leibowitz." Torah Community Connections. http://www.moreshet.net/oldsite/nechama/gilayonarchives.htm/ (accessed on June 5, 2006).
"Nechama Leibowitz's Methodology: An Overview." Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. http://www.lookstein.org/nechama_methodology.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).
Sokolow, Moshe. "The Korban Pesha: Prerequisite to Geulah: A Shiur in Memory of Nehama Leibowitz" Orthodox Union. http://www.ou.org/yerushalayim/lezikaronolam/nehama/pesach58.html (accessed on June 5, 2006).