Reviews of "Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar"


The scholar who happened to be female

Feb. 19, 2009
After 10 years of labored love, the biography Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar finally came to print and proves to be well worth the wait. By the author's own admission, the biography of the first prominent woman Bible scholar was problematic from the outset: How can one write about someone who adamantly shunned the limelight?

Prof. Leibowitz (known to all, at her own behest, as Nehama) was exceedingly modest and covetous over her privacy to the point of hanging up the phone when asked for an interview. To people who wanted to meet her because she was famous, she declared: "I am not a museum!" She wished to be known as an educator, not a scholar and commentator, and requested that only one word be written on her gravestone: mora (teacher).

Yet Yael Unterman valiantly rescues Nehama from what might have been self-willed oblivion. It's not surprising that this biography required a decade of gestation. It serves as an invaluable record of Nehama's legacy to the world, peppered with anecdotes, photographs and extensive quotes from her own writings, as well as from the teachers and scholars most influenced by her method and personality, all systematically organized under the rubric of such topics as "pedagogical methods," "Zionism," "religious identity" and "Bible scholarship".

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1905, Nehama grew up in a well-to-do, enlightened, Orthodox home, alongside her brother, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, two years her senior. Together they were educated primarily at home, until the family moved to Berlin in 1919. Unterman records an incident that happened one snowy morning when Nehama was just nine. Having woken up late and in a hurry to get to school, she missed her morning prayers, ran out, slipped on the ice and was struck by a passing tram. Upon returning home, she told her father that it must have happened because she had not prayed that morning. He scolded her: "Do you think you are such a saint that God immediately reacts to your actions?" Unterman comments: "This kind of outlook, shying away from superstitious thinking, or an assumption of direct knowledge of God's ways, would later characterize both Nehama and Yeshayahu's thought."

She completed her doctoral dissertation on Judeo-German translations of the Book of Psalms at the University of Marburg, managing to circumvent the trend of source criticism so prevalent in academic Bible departments at the time. She made aliya in 1930 and, on principle, never left Israel again, except for one brief trip.

While Unterman did not have access to the family annals, as Hayuta Deutsch (author of the recent Hebrew biography) did, she manages to eke out some interest in this very private woman's life without being voyeuristic. Perhaps the most intriguing personal detail is that she married her much older, ailing uncle, not for altruistic reasons, but for love. Soon after they made aliya, he went blind and she began teaching out of necessity to support them financially. Tragically, she never had children and, by her own admission, would have traded her illustrious teaching career to raise a family. To a delegation from the feminist movement, who asked for Nehama's permission to use her name to spearhead their cause, she declared: "Writing books? That's nothing! Raising six children, now that's an achievement!"

In the chapter on "Feminism and Femininity," Unterman engages the reader in a complex portrait of Nehama's relationship to gender. Overtly rejecting feminism, she never wanted to draw attention to her novelty as a female Bible scholar (seeing herself, rather, as "a scholar who happened to be female"). The inroads she made were in Bible, not Talmud, a realm from which women were still largely excluded. Following the Lithuanian analytical style, she raised the study of Bible to a serious level, perhaps because she used a rigorous "male" approach. But she never let go of her sensitivity to emotional innuendo, drawing on ethical, imaginative and psychological readings of pivotal scenes.

Shrugging off the label "revolutionary," she served as an important role model for such women writers, scholars and teachers as Blu Greenberg, Simi Peters, Bryna Levy and Erella Yedgar. She taught men and women, at university and in the yeshiva world, never behind a mehitza. It wasn't until her 80s that her role as a woman scholar and teacher became controversial. As the best Bible teacher, she was hired by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to teach in his program that trained rabbis for work in the Diaspora. Spurred by a pernicious report, Rabbi Eliezer Schach issued an edict against the program, many haredi students felt compelled to drop out, and Riskin was excommunicated; the fact that a woman taught there served as a pretext. Deeply embarrassed by the controversy, Nehama offered to resign but Riskin adamantly refused. In Unterman's words, "for the first time in a lifetime of tiptoeing between the raindrops, Nehama had got wet."

This biography is a must read for anyone engaged in Jewish education, the chapters on "pedagogical methods" and "looking to the future" especially valuable. She demonstrated a unique teaching style, perhaps impossible to emulate, including dramatics, storytelling, the use of humor, with clearly articulated goals: to impart knowledge, to activate the students, to imbue a love of Torah and not to lecture.

In her rejection of biblical criticism, Nehama turned almost exclusively to comparing and contrasting medieval and modern commentators. Her question "What's bothering Rashi?" still reverberates throughout classrooms, her method now mainstream in the religious school system. When Yoel Bin-Nun tried to introduce historical, geographical and philosophical approaches to the study of Bible, Nehama and her students adamantly rejected them, and his proposals were ousted from the Israeli religious curriculum. Consistent with this conservatism, she refused to write her own systematic commentary, because she saw "herself not as a commentator but as a teacher of commentaries," declaring, "I do not innovate."

Unterman, however, refuses to take Nehama's words at face value, gleaning, instead, her innovations from between the lines. Nehama was one of the first to systematically engage in a comparison of parallel biblical passages, and to point out the use of repetition and key words.

In the words of Dr. Gabriel Cohn, "The idea behind her method was not to write a commentary, but to enable the student to arrive at his or her own interpretation - the most accurate and personal interpretation possible." Unterman's biography has placed Nehama alive among us once again in a love's labor that has not been lost.

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BookJed review by Rabbi Francis Nataf

In her final chapter of Nehama, Teacher and Bible Scholar, Yael
Unterman bemoans that all of Nehama's key followers "are busily
engaged with his or her own Nehama." Accordingly, while reading
Unterman's study of the woman who could well have been the 20th
century's greatest Jewish educator, I could not escape the comparison
between my Nehama and Unterman's.

Unterman makes a brave attempt at collating and coherently organizing
the whirlwind of voices who all knew their own Nehama. And if Unterman
occasionally speaks admiringly about post-modern approaches, her
volume does not attempt to be a post-modern study of unmediated
perspectives. Rather, she tries to organize all of the data
painstakingly collected to recreate her own Nehama, which at times
seemed very familiar to my own experience and at other times very

This book is brave in other respects as well, sometimes overly so. On
some level, Unterman attempts to cover everything, something that
simply can't be done even with the voluminous length of this book.
Even after her death, Nehama remains larger than life and cannot be
encapsulated by one author, even one as generously inclusive as

The book is divided into three major sections, the first biographical,
the second about Nehama's  worldview and the third about her approach
to the Biblical text and its study. Each section could have been a
book in its own right, as is also the case with the final stand-alone
chapters - which may be the most interesting - on her relationship
with her famous philosopher brother, Yeshayahu, and on the educational
future of Nehama's approach.

Trying to overlook my own biases, I would still say that the book is
somewhat uneven. In the biographical section, we sometimes feel
pleasantly guided by the author, feeling the voice of Nehama in all
her unadulterated grandeur. Other times, one feels that the author is
too heavy-handed in interpreting (and occasionally misinterpreting)
material that needs little or no comment. Likewise, especially in the
later sections where we justifiably hear more from the author, she is
sometimes extremely insightful, yet at other times seems to miss the

An example of the former is when she points out that Nehama's approach
to the text can be best be described as a continuation of the
rationalist school of classical Jewish Biblical interpretation, which
explains why she was willing to accept certain elements and ideas from
various modern approaches while rejecting others. Similarly, the
author is entirely correct when she points out that Nehama never lost
sight of her educational goals as a teacher of Torah in the finest
sense of the word. As such, no matter what her academic credentials,
she was much more of a rebbe than an academic. Indeed, she clear
wanted all those that she met to love the Torah and be influenced by
the moral teachings she saw so clearly in her own studies. This
included her taxi drivers about whom we always heard stories, some of
which are appropriately included in the biography. (In the 1980's, we
used to wonder why her drivers all seemed to be Torah scholars,
whereas the ones we met were always trying to overcharge us! Of
course, the answer was that these were the same drivers, but the
difference was that this is what Nehama brought out of people.)

One serious shortcoming in the book is Unterman's section on Nehama's
favorite commentators. This section should have been greatly
expanded. To take the most extreme example, the second item on the
list of commentators is the Talmudic sages, about whom we correctly
read that Nehama revered. The author then proceeds to devote no more
than two additional sentences to this. Granted, it is addressed
somewhat in other chapters, but Nehama's view of the sages' centrality
is clearly why she was such a fan of Rashi (whose commentary is almost
completely comprised of their words) and thus, certainly worth more
than three sentences in a book of nearly six hundred pages. Another
unfortunate lacuna is the lack of focus on Nehama's impact outside of
Israel and especially in North America, where the hundreds of students
who studied under her at Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel took her
approach and ran with it -- often with better results than in Israel.
For several reasons, some of which Unterman mentions in the final
chapter, Israel may ironically be less suited to Nehama's approach.

Similarly, Unterman tries too hard to describe Nehama as a
post-modernist, as an original commentator and as a pioneer of
literary Bible scholarship. Of course, none of these claims are
without foundation. But it is somewhat like looking to Albert Einstein
as a man who changed the way we look at religion or at pacifism.
Indeed, Einstein had interesting ideas about both of these topics but
this is not what made him great. While Unterman is correct that Nehama
was more than a teacher, being a teacher is what made her great.

So when the author tells us that Nehama's gravestone and the street
named for her followed her wishes in how she wanted to be remembered,
namely as a teacher, one can't help but wonder if the author erred in
not respecting these wishes as well. In fact, Unterman's questionable
insistence that Nehama was so much more than a teacher is made
apparent from the very subtitle, Teacher and Bible Scholar, as if the
first were not enough.

There is often debate as to whether teachers should be trained
primarily as experts in the field of instruction or in pedagogy.
Nehama was uniquely situated at the top of her discipline in both
fields, something I have never experienced in a teacher before or
after.  Moreover, Nehama taught us just how much impact a teacher can
have. She gave us a role model and made us realize that Jewish
education is about the relationships that are created when teacher and
student work together to honestly understand our treasured texts.

Her sincerely encouraging view about Jewish education is cleverly
summarized by the well chosen quotation on the jacket flap, which
tells us that she disagreed with the rabbinic statement that teachers
get a special place in the next world due to all that they suffer in
this world, believing instead that teachers undoubtedly get more than
their fair share of otherworldly bliss in this world. One cannot help
but be certain that in her case this will not be counted against her.

All criticism aside, Jewish educators as well as the general reading
public owe the author a debt of gratitude for all the time and effort
she spent in gathering all of the information eruditely presented in
this important biography. Certainly, the ten years of voluminous
research that the author put into this serious work speaks for itself.
(I was told that each time she was ready to finish the book, a new
contributor would tell her that she couldn't possibly publish it
without this one last story.) The book reads easily in most parts and
is attractively presented, enhanced as it is by photographs of Nehama
and her world.

The bottom line is that the student of Nehama will read this book very
differently from one who never knew her. And as Nehama had thousands
of devoted students, the former will certainly be a significant part
of this book's readership. Be that as it may, the book is not only
worth reading - it is a great starter for many discussions about
topics important to us and more critically, important to Nehama. And,
no doubt, such discussions would have pleased her.