Leibowitz, Neḥama

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LEIBOWITZ, NEḤAMA (1905–1997), Bible scholar, sister of Yeshayahu *Leibowitz. Born in Riga, her mother died when she was a child. In 1919, her father moved the family to Berlin to provide his two precocious children with a better education. Nehama and her brother Yeshayahu were tutored at home until they entered the university. Neḥama attended the University of Berlin and the University of Marburg. Asked many times if she knew Rabbi Joseph B. *Soloveitchik when she studied at the University of Berlin, Leibowitz would reply that someone pointed to a giant stack of books in the library and said that the young Soloveitchik was behind the books, but she never met him. In 1929 she married her uncle, Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz. In 1930 she received her Ph.D. from Marburg. Her dissertation was titled "Techniques of Judeo-German Bible Translation in the 15th and 16th Century as Exemplified by Translations of the Book of Psalms." In 1930, she and her husband immigrated to Palestine. Shortly thereafter he became blind and could not work. Thus, Leibowitz embarked on her lifelong career teaching Bible. From 1930, when she settled in Palestine, until 1955, she taught at the Mizrachi Women Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem. She was a regular Bible commentator on the Israel Broadcasting Service. From the late 1950s she taught Bible at Tel Aviv University (becoming a tenured professor in 1968) and at Bar-Ilan University.

In 1941 Leibowitz taught a group of religious kibbutz women, who traveled to Jerusalem once a week to study. After they expressed their desire to continue studying at home, Leibowitz began mailing them a weekly Gilayon (page) with sources and questions relating to the weekly Torah reading. Her audience for the Gilyonot grew quickly. Leibowitz insisted that those receiving the Gilyonot should send their answers to her for correction. Over the next 29 years, Leibowitz mailed Gilyonot to thousands of "students" all over the world, corresponding with hundreds of them. Over time she turned numerous Gilyonot into essays on the weekly Torah portion (parashat ha-shavu'a). These were published in Hebrew and English and distributed as small pamphlets by the World Zionist Organization's Department for Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Eventually, in the mid-1960s the pamphlets became collections of essays, Iyyunim Ḥadashim, a volume for each of the books of the Pentateuch. The Iyyunim have been published in Hebrew, English, Dutch, French, and Spanish; they have remained in print into the 21st century. She was awarded the Israel Prize for education in 1956. Aside from her Gilyonot, Leibowitz continued to teach, including the instruction of teachers on how to teach Bible. In addition to Tel Aviv University, she taught in the overseas program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at a variety of other one-year study programs for overseas students, including Machon Gold and Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel for semikhah students in Jerusalem. In 1980, she received the Leibman Prize for disseminating knowledge of Torah; in 1982 she received the Bialik Prize from the City of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

After retiring from formal classroom and university teaching, Leibowitz continued to teach small groups of students in her home. The secular books in English, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew that lined the wall of her vestibule were evidence of her voracious reading in literature, history, and other topics beyond the realm of Bible and Jewish studies. Both in her writing and in her classes, Leibowitz would quote from nonreligious Jewish scholars, as well as from world literature, to make a point. As an observant, believing Jew, Nehama rejected Bible Criticism out of hand. However, she sought truth wherever she could find it. Her specific selection of sources was based solely on each one's contribution to understanding the peshat (plain meaning) of the biblical text and to the revelation of the significance of that text. Marla Frankel (1998) points out that her reading of the Bible is defined as "close study" as opposed to "close reading." Leibowitz never limited herself to the words of the Bible alone. Rather, her context included the entire range of the Bible, rabbinic literature, medieval and modern commentators, modern Bible scholarship, and the world of philosophy and literature. She was never satisfied just teaching the biblical text. Her second goal was to demonstrate how the Bible's narrative, laws, and prophecies provide the student with a blueprint for his life. Leibowitz clearly understood that the layers of meaning in the Bible could only be taught if the student was an active player in the classroom. For this reason, her classes were not lectures but dialogues between herself, her students, and the written texts. She prodded her students to answer her questions, often criticizing their answers to sharpen their minds and hone their interpretive skills. For this reason, many of her students found the classroom experience with her somewhat intimidating.

Aside from 29 years of Gilyonot and the Iyyunim Hadashim (Studies in the Weekly Parashah), Leibowitz's work includes Leader's Guide to the Book of Psalms for Hadassah (1971), Gilyonot le-Iyyun be-Sefer Yirmiyahu (1974), and Lilmodu-Lelamed Tanakh (1995), a collection of essays on teaching Bible. The English edition appeared the same year. In 1990, Leibowitz produced, together with Moshe Ahrend, a two-volume course for the Open University called Perush Rashi la-Torah. She also published teachers' guides and numerous essays. In 2002, Yizhak Reiner and Stanley Peerless published Studies on the Haggadah from the Teachings of Nechama Leibowitz.

For all of her accomplishments, Leibowitz was an exceedingly humble person. She never used her academic titles, always referring to herself as simply Neḥama. She loved to tell stories and to hear stories. In 2003, Leah Abramowitz published Tales of Nehama, stories by her and about her contributed by her students. It can be argued that Leibowitz had a greater impact on Bible study and the teaching of Bible than anyone in the 20th century. She succeeded in opening up the world of Bible for everyone by taking Bible study out of academia and returning it to the people. David Bedein, an Israeli journalist, reports that he invited Leibowitz to teach the story of Rebecca in honor of the birth of his first daughter, Rivka. So Nehama traveled to Safed for the Sabbath and more than 300 people showed up to sit on the lawn of the Wolfson Center to hear the lesson. They all came with their Bibles in hand because they all knew that to attend a class with Neḥama Leibowitz you needed to bring along just two things: a Tanakh and a desire to learn.


S. Peerless, To Teach and to Study The Methodology of Nehama Leibowitz (2004); A.M. Toledano, The Pedagogical Influence of Nehama Leibowitz (dissertation, 2002); L. Abramowitz, Tales of Nehama: Impressions of the Life and Teachings of Nehama Leibowitz (2002); Y. Unterman, Background and Examples of Nechama Leibowitz's Literary Approach to Bible (Dissertation, 2002); M. Frankel, Iyun ve-Hora'ah: Hanharat Shitatah shel Nehama Leibowitz (dissertation, 1998); idem, in: Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives on Jewish Education (1999), 359–374; M. Ahrend, R. Ben-Meir, and G.H. Cohen (eds.), Pirkei Nehama: Sefer Zikaron le-Nehama Leibowitz (2001); H. Deitcher, in: Journal of Jewish Education, 66:1–2 (2000), 8–22; A. Strikovsky, in: Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzvah (2003), 186–195; A. Oren, in: Forum on the Jewish People, Zionism and Israel, 38 (1980), 155–159; J. Rochwarger, in: Torah of the Mothers (2000), 57–81; M. Breuer, in: Limudim, 1 (2001), 11–20; E. Green-stein, in: ibid., 21–33; E. Yadgur, in: ibid., 45–80; Y. Resler, in: Talelei Orot, 5 (1994), 291–300; I. Rosenson, in: Al Derkh ha-Avot: Sheloshim Shanah le-Mikhlelet Ya'akov Herzog (2001), 433–453; M. Ahrend, in: Mayim mi-Dalyav, 14 (2003), 35–42; A. Mondshein, in: Bet Mikra, 44:2 (1998), 107–118; A. Ha-Cohen, in: Alon Shevut le-Vogrei Yeshivat Har Eẓion, 13 (1999), 71–92.

[David Derovan (2nd ed.)