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NEHAMA LEIBOWITZ: Teacher and Bible Scholar
 
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* 2009 National Jewish Book Award finalist winner

in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience


by Yael Unterman

Hardcover, 607 pages (includes over 50 b/w photos plus an index)
ISBN 13: 978-965-524-019-1
Series: Modern Jewish Lives - volume 3
publication: 2009


Professor Nehama Leibowitz (1905–1997), winner of the Israel Prize in Education, was a unique figure in the twentieth century Jewish landscape. She wrote a best-selling series, Studies in the Weekly Torah Portion, and provided a one-woman correspondence course in Bible, using her famous gilyonot (worksheets), for more than thirty years. A brilliant teacher, an erudite scholar, and a forthright, warm and humorous human being, she left her mark on tens of thousands of people around the world: taxi drivers, waitresses, professors, rabbis, kibbutzniks and students.

This book documents her life story, inspiring personality and scholarship. It discusses her strong views on such issues as Zionism, humanism and feminism, as well as the influences that shaped her. Other topics covered include her pioneering approach to Bible and commentaries that changed the face of Jewish Bible study, her acceptance as a prominent Torah scholar despite her gender, and the future of her work in light of recent scholarship.

Nechama Leibowitz's story is not only that of an accomplished woman or even of a great Jewish personality, but also touches upon some of the major developments and concerns of twentieth-century Jewish life.


About the author:

Yael Unterman grew up in the UK and resides in Jerusalem. She holds degrees in psychology and Talmud, Jewish history and creative writing. She has lectured worldwide and has published articles in various genres, including in the critically-acclaimed books Torah of the Mothers and Wisdom from All My Teachers. She facilitates bibliodramas and performs in educational theater productions, including original pieces, and is also a life coach.


About the series Modern Jewish Lives:

Many in our generation are unfamiliar with some of the great Jewish personalities of recent history. The intention of the Modern Jewish Lives series is to tell their stories. These works – penetrating biographies with a religious heart – provide readers with an understanding of and appreciation for the lives of real people whom we can admire and from whom we can draw inspiration.

Vol. 1: Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Torah Sage and General
Vol. 2: Rabbi Haim David Halevy: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker
Vol. 3: Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar


Excerpts from Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar:

“I hear lectures on the weekly portion all over Israel, and think of Nehama. I see women studying Tanach as Talmud is studied, and I think of her. I go to Alon Shvut, a vibrant center for Tanach learning, and witness creative students of Tanach who want to go further than the classic Jewish commentaries to experience the biblical text in fresh ways, and again I see her influence. And in the Diaspora, I think of the Limmud conferences, thousands of people learning Torah for the love of it, and I feel Nehama’s presence in this Torah li-shmah.”
–Dr. Gabriel H. Cohn


“I do not think I exaggerate in saying that we may divide the study of Bible throughout Jewish history into two periods: Pre- and post-Leibowitz.”
–Gedalyah Nigal


“She was the Grande Dame of Bible teaching.”
–Professor Michael Rosenak


“Just as R. Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk established a conceptual method for learning Talmud that transformed the yeshiva world, just as Professor Gershom Scholem created a scientific approach to learning Jewish mysticism, so Nehama paved an innovative pathway toward understanding Torah through midrash, commentaries, and translations into the vernaculars as well.”
–Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky


“The Midrash states that teachers go straight to heaven because they have more than their fair share of hell on earth. But this is one of the few times I disagree with the Sages, because I think that teachers have more than their fair share of heaven on earth!”
–Professor Nehama Leibowitz


Praise for Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar:


The scholar who happened to be female

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.
-Rachel Adelman
Jerusalem Post


Yael Unterman’s thorough, wide-ranging, and engaging biography of the legendary Bible educator Nehama Leibowitz (1905–97) is a welcome addition to the volumes delineating Nehama’s life and work. The author devoted ten years to this project, and although she had very limited contact with her subject, a complete and nuanced portrait emerges based on extensive research and interviews with Nehama’s pupils, friends, and family members. In addition to fascinating photographs and intimate details of Nehama’s personal life, the book includes in-depth chapters devoted to her religious and educational philosophy, methodology, and contributions to the field of Biblical scholarship. Unterman presents not only the glowing views and recollections of Nehama’s legion of devotees, but also the opinions of her critics, enabling the reader to develop a more balanced appreciation of this iconic individual’s achievements. The author concludes the book by speculating about the extent to which Nehama will remain a notable influence on students of Bible in years to come. This volume deserves wide readership not only among professionals in the field but also among those readers interested in learning more about one of the most influential Jewish women and teachers of Torah of the 20th century.
-Jack Bieler
Jewish Book World


In 1930, the newly-married Nehama Leibowitz left Germany and emigrated to what was then Palestine. There she taught Bible in a variety of different frameworks including university, radio, school, and her own one-woman large-scale correspondence course entitled “Gilyonot.” She unobtrusively played her part in a number of revolutions. Through her work, the Bible became important and relevant. For many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox institutions, she was the first woman teacher. She was the recipient of the Israel Prize for Education in 1956.

Two weeks ago, I was at the Herzog Teacher Training College in Alon Shvut. Every summer they have a four-day “happening.” Each day some 1500 people come to hear lectures about the Bible. Since most people do not come for four full days, we are probably talking about 3000 people who are willing to travel to a remote spot and sit down voluntarily to listen to lectures on the Bible. This successful institution certainly owes something to Nehama.

Nehama was the subject of Yael Unterman’s master’s thesis, which she has expanded into a book. To call this book a biography is a mistake. About 40% is devoted to Nehama’s life. The author then discusses Nehama’s beliefs, her methodology, and her brother Yeshaya Leibowitz, who was an important influence on her life. The book concludes with a discussion of future directions and developments. Nehama’s approach to teaching Bible was to start from the classical commentators and to step backwards and consider what stimulated their comments and analyses. Her approach was primarily literary, treating the text as an independent entity. Hebrew speakers will be pleased to know that Ms. Unterman’s book was preceded by a biography in Hebrew. Ms. Unterman mentions that the Hebrew text came out as her work was in press. The two works were written independently.

Hayuta Deutsch has produced a far more detailed biography and pays more attention to Nehama as a young girl and as a student. The author’s wealth of information, however, sometimes results in repetition.

I think both books succeed in presenting Nehama’s very special personality. Deutsch had an advantage in that she was in contact with the family and had access to Nehama’s papers. The Unterman work is better organized. Both authors used available sources liberally and conducted interviews with many of Nehama’s friends and admirers. There is inevitably a lot of duplication between the two books.

The Unterman book is highly readable. It is recommended for the so-called general reader, and is a must for educators, feminists, and Zionists. The bilingual reader has a choice of two good works with slightly different emphases.
-Chaim Seymour
Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Newsletter


This biography looks at the life and methodology of Nehama Leibowitz, certainly one of the most influential Tanach (Bible) teachers of modern Israel. Born in Latvia, she was educated in Germany after her family moved to Berlin in her teens, gaining a doctorate before marrying and moving to Palestine in 1930.

Nehama, as she was widely known, is famous for her unique gilyonot, worksheets on the sidrah, which she originally distributed as homework to students attending her classes. As their popularity grew, they became widely available over a period of 30 years: to soldiers, kibbutzniks and anyone else who asked for them.

The book describes her progress from teaching small groups, to becoming the savtah melamedet Tanach the Bible-teaching granny (although she never had any children). It displays clearly how her distinctive style could only be the product of an incisive rationalist background, combined with a German passion for truth and exactness, imparted by her general education.

The second section of the book looks at Nehama’s beliefs and opinions, often very different to those of her equally famous brother Yeshayahu Leibowitz, to whom a chapter is devoted. The third section deals with Nehama’s methodology, which was formative for many current teachers of Tanach as well in curriculum development in both Israel and the diaspora.

The biography is a fascinating depiction of an old-style religious Zionist. Nehama left Israel only once after her aliyah, to escort her parents there, and insisted on speaking Hebrew in all her classes, believing it to be the appropriate language for Bible study. It also reveals the sharp intellect and refined character that enabled her to relate to the whole spectrum of Israeli society, from university academics to some of her favourite people — taxi drivers.

Overall, an essential read for Nehama aficionados, but worthwhile, if slightly slow-moving, for everyone.
-Vicki Belovski
Jewish Chronicle


Yael Unterman has written a long, but very readable volume devoted to the biography, scholarship and impact of the renowned Tanakh teacher Nehama Leibowitz who died in 1997 at the age of 92. Unterman’s focus is on how Nehama has been remembered by friends and pupils and those she influenced and to whom she was a role model. Many will be surprised to learn that Nehama married her paternal uncle, thirty one years older than she in 1930, according to Unterman for love, and they remained married until his death in 1970. The volume contains many wonderful pictures of Nehama and her family, including her parents, her husband and her brother, Yeshayahu Leibowitz to whom Unterman devotes a whole chapter, exploring similarities and differences between the two. Unterman assesses Nehama’s Zionist philosophy and discusses her influence on future generations of bible scholars. A fascinating section explores whether Nehama was a feminist. Nehama herself always said she was not and refused to be so classified, seeing no reason for women to take on extra mitzvot to meet their considered spiritual needs. Nevertheless, she has had tremendous impact on women by serving as a role model of a scholar and bible commentator as well as teacher. Her work has also validated the Tanakh as a central text of study for both men and women.
-Jennifer Breger
JOFA Journal