TO STUDY AND TO TEACH: The Methodology of Nechama Leibowitz
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by: Shmuel Peerless|
Nechama Leibowitz has become widely recognized as one of the most influential Torah scholars of the 20th century. For approximately thirty years, Nechama published gilyonot (study sheets) on the weekly Torah portion, which she distributed to students throughout the world. In these gilyonot, Nechama presented selections from the Torah text and accompanying commentaries along with probing questions designed to guide the readers through a textual analysis that would deepen their understanding of the passage.
Over the years, literally thousands of individuals studied in Nechama’s enlightening classes and used her gilyonot to guide their Torah study. Among these devoted students were a large number of teachers of Torah in both Israel and the Diaspora.
Nechama was the teachers’ teacher, and her insights on methodology have been utilized by educators throughout the world.
In this work, Shmuel Peerless, one of Nechama’s students, systematically presents Nechama’s unique approach to Torah instruction, organizing some of her methodological teachings and pedagogical techniques in a manner that makes them easily accessible to teachers and students of textual study alike. The information provided in this work is collected and extrapolated from Nechama’s lectures, published writings and gilyonot. It is a treasure that will help to preserve Nechama the teacher, the scholar and the personality as an inspiration for future generations of teachers and students.
Rabbi Shmuel Peerless is the Director of the Center for Jewish School Leadership at Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. Previously, he served as the educational director of the Hillel Academy of Dayton, Ohio and the Hebrew Academy of Montreal, and was the director of the World Council for Torah Education. He studied with Nechama Leibowitz for several years and co-authored Studies on the Haggadah from the Teachings of Nechama Leibowitz and an expanded edition in Hebrew called Haggadat Nechama: Iyunim B'Haggadah shel pesach al pi hagilyonot v'hashiurim shel Nechama Leibovitz.
Published with The Lookstein Center, Bar-Ilan University
Hardcover, 183 pages
publication: January 2004
The Lookstein Center of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Education was established in order to promote the advancement of Jewish education in the Diaspora. The Center's permanent staff and team of consultants include some of the most outstanding and experienced Diaspora educational leaders. Drawing upon the extensive Jewish and academic resources of Bar-Ilan University, the Lookstein Center creates programs that successfully combine current educational theory with practical application - programs that are relevant to varied Jewish educational systems in communities worldwide.
Lookstein Center activities focus on professional development for Jewish school leaders and educators, curriculum development, the planning and implementation of school improvement programs, research and publication, fostering networking among Diaspora Jewish educators, and distance learning. The Lookstein Virtual Resource Center (www.Lookstein.org) has created a venue for worldwide interactive communication among Jewish educators, and houses a rich collection of quality curricular and instructional materials.
Praise for To Study and to Teach:
Nechama Leibowitz was a teacher of Torah for over 70 years. Her thousands
of students will presently be treated to a familiar, pleasurable and
renewed experience by reading and studying the recently published volume
by Rabbi Shmuel Peerless, a perceptive and diligent student of Nechama. For those who have had no previous connection to Nechama's study sheets
(gilyonot), this book will be an eye opener. It is user-friendly, as
Rabbi Peerless introduces the reader to Nechama's classroom with the
promise of great discoveries.
Rabbi Peerless points out (P. 163) "Much of the material in this book is
taken from courses that Nechama Leibowitz delivered in 1990-1992 under the
auspices of the Jerusalem Fellows Program...." He also meticulously cites
additional sources for each of the 9 chapters that comprise this volume
whose title is most revealing. First and foremost in discussing Nechama's
approach to Torah is "Study". Anyone seeking to study Torah She'bich'tav
(the Written Law-Bible) will find an indispensable road map which will be
constantly consulted by the serious student. How does the Torah student
maneuver among the differing commentaries? What literary devices and
nuances should the reader look for in the Torah text as an indicator of
the Torah's direction and message? Chapters 6 & 7 zero in on these
"And Teach"-the second half of the title deals with Nechama's
methodology. How does the teacher convey the message? To Nechama it was
axiomatic that learning should involve the student as an active
participant rather than a distant observer. Spoonfeeding students and
rote learning were anathema to her. She was opposed to teachers asking
mostly factual questions, rather than questions requiring analysis. She
also discouraged frontal teaching and she was displeased with too much
emphasis on notetaking by students. Nobody could sit in Nechama's
classroom and simply relax.
The volume contains detailed model lessons for teaching the Torah's
narrative and legal sections with practical suggestions on how to involve
each and every student. Thus the work can serve not only as a prod for
teachers, but as a guide and mirror for teachers to compare their
methodology against Nechama's approach. Just as we accept the Talmudic
teaching that "No two prophets prophesy in the same style "(Sanhedrin
89A), so do we take it for granted that each teacher has his or her unique
teaching style. But all should have to agree that a successful Torah
lesson must bring students to internalize the lesson and emerge with a
significant educational message. Although Nechama never ever allowed
herself to become embroiled in public controversy, there is no doubt that
this volume will be a serious challenge to those who emphasize memorizing
texts of commentators and do not teach students to connect the commentary
to the text. Many (if not most) students function with the perception
that the more you write in your test answer, the better. Nechama's
incisive questions in her study sheets never required long answers. If
you didn't answer in less than 3 sentences, you knew that you should
rethink the answer. It should be interesting to see the reactions of
parents to this book as they compare Nechama's methods to how their
children are being taught. There is no question that this work will be a
vehicle for parental empowerment!
If Nechama's methodology is taken seriously by Torah educators then it
ought to become obvious that tests should be administered to students who
will have before them a text with commentaries. Then the questions will
have to deal with WHY Rashi made a specific comment rather than WHAT did
Rashi say on a verse. Successful preparation for an open book test would
then not depend on memorizing "a good set of notes".
In reading this book, it would appear that Nechama's approach is geared
for high school students and beyond. In truth Nechama's methodology is
applicable to all ages. While the volume does contain suggested
activities for younger students, it might have been more helpful had R'
Peerless included some "Nechama stories" as illustrations. Let me mention
3 stories related to elementary school children that I heard her tell.
1) Nechama was teaching Parashat Korach to a class of elementary
school children and she called upon a student to read the verse in which
Dothan and Aviram showed their defiance to Moshe's call to discuss their
grievances (B'midbar 16-12). The student read the verse in a lethargic
manner. Nechama then asked the student to come to the front of the room
and demonstrate how Dothan and Aviram rejected Moshe's call to them. At
this point the students, with full strength, stamped his foot on the floor
and shouted "lo na'aleh"-we will not come!
2) When Nechama was a young teacher, she found herself in an elementary
school teaching Hebrew composition. She assigned the students to write a
composition on the topic "What person would you want to be if you could
become somebody else". Some students wrote about becoming King David;
others wrote about Rabbi Akiva while others chose a variety of Jewish
historical figures. One student wrote that he would want to become an
owner of a kiosk in the Sinai desert at the time that Bnei Yisrael were
encamped there. "Imagine", he wrote, "how many cups of soda I could
sell". Nechama was effusive in her praise of the Chumash teacher in that
school because she succeeded in making the Torah text come alive for the
3) One day Nechama was walking in the street carrying a shopping bag of
groceries. A girl of about 11 years of age approached and offered to
carry the bag for her. Nechama accepted the offer and as they walked
along, Nechama typically started a conversation with her little helper
telling her that the offer to help was truly an act of chesed. The girl
replied "it's a mitzvah of the Torah". Nechama asked "where does the
Torah teach that?" The girl explained that in Parashat Mishpatim
it states that if a donkey is in trouble because its burden is too heavy,
a passerby should help. How much more so if a human being is carrying a
heavy package, you should certainly help!" Nechama pointed out that the
student was able to extend the teaching about an animal to the realm of
offering aid to an elderly person. The student in this case had truly
internalized the Torah lesson.
Rabbi Peerless expresses the hope that the persona of Nechama will be
evident between the lines of her teaching methodology. Indeed the
personality of the teacher plays a prominent role especially when students
hear the teacher illustrate a point through the telling of a personal
experience. Most of the "Nechama stories" emerged from her classroom
One could easily picture Nechama in her honored place in the Yeshiva Shel
Ma'a'la (the heavenly academy) taking note of the publication of this
book. She would probably have 3 reactions: first, she would thank her
student-"Shmuel, asita avoda tova" (You did a fine job); secondly, she
would express the hope that the book would be translated into Hebrew;
thirdly, she would say (with a slight frown) that the tribute to her at
the end of the volume wasn't necessary. Those who were privileged to be
present in Nechama's classroom would disagree with the last comment. They
would point out that the future generations of students who will study her
gilyonot should also know who she was and what she meant to her students.
To drive this point home, they would quote from Isaiah (30-20) "...your
eyes shall see thy teacher." Nechama would then slowly shake her head
while displaying an indulgent smile.
To Study and to Teach: The Methodology of Nechama Leibowitz, by Shmuel Peerless (Urim), provides insight into the teachings, teaching style and the personal qualities of one of the most influential 20th century Torah scholars, known as “the teacher’s teacher.” This is the first time that Leibowitz’s singular approach to Torah instruction has been comprehensively and systematically presented in one work, making her teachings and methods accessible.
The material in the book is extrapolated from her writings, lectures and study sheets. Many Leibowitz students were themselves teachers of Torah, and her style was to have all those in her shiur, or class, actively involved in the learning. Leibowitz opposed rote learning and believed that true learning “takes place only when students are engaged in a thought provoking process of analysis.”
Leibowitz urged teachers to follow five practices, which are useful points: not to lecture, not to allow students to write while the teacher is speaking, to provide an introduction to the material to be studied, not to ask students factual questions (or any questions where the answer is obvious from the context), not to use a repetitive lesson structure.
Peerless, who studied with Leibowitz for several years, is the director of the Center for Jewish School Leadership at Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora and co-author of “Studies on the Haggadah from the Teaching of Nechama Leibowitz.”
The Jewish Week
This will teach you
The last page of Shmuel Peerless' book on the methodology of Nechama Leibowitz is perhaps the most telling in terms of pedagogic advice.
It is a picture of Peerless and the majestic Torah teacher with a personal note to him in her handwriting. The background is a wall of books, and in the foreground stands the teacher and her student.
Much of this image - the intellectual, spiritual background she brought to her classes, with the relationship of student to teacher front and center - aptly describes an educational encounter with her. For those who studied with her, it was not only the demanding content or style of her teaching that appealed, it was also her personality, which spilled over into every class. For the thousands who corresponded with her about her gilyonot (detailed question sheets on the biblical text and its interpretations), this personal connection was a gift. In her absence, several books and articles have tried to step into the breech to give us a better picture of her as a person and a teacher.
Peerless, director of the Center for Jewish School Leadership at Bar-Ilan University's Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, himself authored a book on her insights into the Haggada which has also been translated into Hebrew. His new book on her methodology is most suited to teachers, but is accessible to the layman.
In his foreword, Peerless claims that Leibowitz's "unique approach to Torah instruction has never been comprehensively and systematically presented in one work." His volume intends to be a corrective. He begins by setting out her four teaching goals: 1) the accumulation of factual knowledge, 2) the development of independent learning skills, 3) love of study, 4) observance of the commandments.
Independent mastery of the material is captured in her first two goals. The last two are the product of that study: an enhanced devotion to the subject matter and the strengthening of religious commitment.
Toward these ends, Peerless includes five common practices teachers should avoid, the first - and most evident one experienced in her classroom - is "do not lecture;" Leibowitz believed that the frontal style adopted by most teachers does not engage students in active learning. As a correlate, she did not want students to take notes while she was speaking. This, too, prevented students from being engaged in the educational moment. Indeed, virtually all her pedagogic advice as passed on by Peerless is student-centered. Although the subject of the book is the teaching of the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that her teaching style speaks to any subject.
Peerless also includes a brief section on how to select biblical texts according to Leibowitz's approach, and tackles the breadth-versus-depth question that most teachers face when teaching a subject as expansive as Tanach. Leibowitz preferred depth and focus to scattered texts dealt with superficially. On the other hand, she believed that students are more engaged when moving at a rapid pace than when they spend days or months lingering over a few verses or a specific chapter. She advised a choice of biblical texts and commentaries which allow easy comparison with other texts, and ones which exhibit obvious textual difficulties or a unique literary style. Midrashim and commentaries should be studied when they are relevant to a deeper understanding of the verses themselves and contain "significant educational messages."
AFTER SETTING up some general guidelines, Peerless walks us through a class as if we were shadowing Leibowitz herself. He shows us how she would introduce a unit, replete with exercises and questions.
Then he devotes specific chapters to her treatment of midrash, use of commentators, and the teaching of textual difficulties (kushiyot). Each chapter provides several examples of her method which may be used in a classroom or paired-study (havruta) setting.
Chapter seven, on literary style, may be particularly helpful to students and teachers who have not been exposed to the academic tracts of contemporary literary scholars of the Bible. Developing a feel for repetition, alliteration and parallelism creates a fruitful close reading and helps students develop a relationship with the biblical text. This is particularly true when traditional interpreters are silent on stylistic issues.
The last chapters are illustrations of how these methods are employed in setting up actual classes - typically called "model lessons." One doesn't read through them; one studies them. This is true for all of Peerless' examples. Reading them, like sitting in on Leibowitz's classes, requires complete engagement, preferably with a reference library near at hand. The reader may actually have benefited from a few more model lessons.
It is hard to say how a teacher who never saw "Nechama" in action would absorb the methodology without more exposure to it in writing. Many of her students hear her voice on the written page when we read her questions. How others who didn't personally hear that voice will respond to her style is hard to say.
When the book first arrived on my desk I wondered about its length. How could a book of so few pages get to the heart of a teaching method decades in the making? The book is, however, much like the teacher who inspired it: short, powerful and to the point.
Jerusalem Post Literary Quarterly
Nechama Leibowitz zt”l requested to be identified on her matzevah (tombstone) only as “morah” - teacher. As one of the great contemporary teachers of Tanach, she was a role model to the many who attended her classes, studied her weekly gilyonot (study sheets) and read her books. While she never identified as a “feminist,” her influence on Jewish women of all ages has been immense. Shmuel Peerless, one of her many students who knew her simply as “Nechama,” skillfully presents her method of teaching and pedagogic techniques with detailed examples from her lectures and published works.
As a teacher, her goal was to inspire a love of Torah learning and observance of mitzvot, but there was nothing of the “feel-good” approach to texts in her teaching. Always aiming at making the text come alive, she modeled rigor in her method of independent and active learning. She introduced her students to a broad range of commentators and taught them how to use the commentaries to answer questions and resolve textual difficulties. Nechama gave her students a competence in literary analysis that could be applied to any form of literature in any language, but most significantly opened up the richness and complexities of Torah to them all. This well-organized book will help to preserve the legacy of Nechama’s teaching and provide teachers and students with the essential skills she aimed to provide in her classroom.
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Journal