April 18, 1997
A passion for teaching


Professor Nehama Leibowitz, who died last Saturday aged 92, touched the lives of thousands of people all over the world with her passion for teaching Torah. Leibowitz's fusion of a remarkable intellectual capability and her outstanding biblical scholarship compounded with unassuming modesty, earned her the reputation of the first talmida hachama, female Torah scholar, of modern times.

"She had a great love for the Jewish people," said Rabbi Ben Hollander, who knew Leibowitz for over 35 years and served as her teaching assistant at Jerusalem's Hebrew University over the last decade. Describing her as the great mind of the generation, Hollander said, "she constantly reminded us of the fact that Torah was all of our inheritance, and brought us together.

"Before I met her I was going to teach English literature, confessed Hollander. "After I met her, I realized Torah was literature."

"She had a way of mobilizing the class by making sure that every single brain in the class was engaged with the text," recalled Dr. Aviva Zorenberg, an instructor at Matan College for Women and several other yeshivot, who said that she adopted many of her teaching methods from Leibowitz.

Using the classroom as an activity center, Leibowitz believed that students had to be prompted with questions if they were to seriously engage in thinking about the text. With this aggressive approach to inquiry, Leibowitz was able to "galvanize people into thinking and analyzing the text," in a way that left room for multiple interpretations, according to Zorenberg.

She was a champion of the Maimonidean expression: "Accept the truth from wherever it comes," and in her lectures, Martin Buber and Haim Hazaz were mentioned in the same breath as Rashi and Nahmanides. Although today, Leibowitz's methods and attitudes toward biblical texts are widely used and accepted, when she began the tradition of making the student an interactive partner with the text through exploration and discovery, her ideas were considered an innovation. Leibowitz was awarded the Israel Prize for services in the field of adult education in 1956 and the Samuel Rothberg prize in Jewish education in 1986.

Leibowitz's questioning method went global with the publication of her Gilyonot (sheets on the weekly Torah portion). The Gilyonot served as the basis of her correspondence with people all over the world who mailed in answers to questions she posed.

Leibowitz's aggressive approach in the classroom, however, could be somewhat terrifying for novice students, admitted Zorenberg. Leah Abramowitz, an old student and friend of Leibowitz's, recalled that she often ejected from her class people who had come unprepared. In one story, a yeshiva student who had walked into her classroom was met with the figure of a glaring Leibowitz. "Where is your Tanach {Bible}?" she demanded. When the yeshiva student confessed that he had not brought one, she kicked him out, exploding: "How could you come to my class without a Tanach! What, did you come to see my beautiful face!?"

While Leibowitz's scholarship served as a model for the high level women could reach in the study of Torah, her intention was not to pioneer the women's Torah learning movement, and students say she was not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. She never broke the bounds of halachic tradition.

"There was nothing remotely political or vulgar about her teaching," maintained Zorenberg. "One did not think of her as a pioneer of any 'ism'; you just learned from her."

"She was an innovator, not a revolutionary," added Prof. Alice Shalvi, chairperson of the Israel Women's Network.

Nevertheless, Leibowitz paved the way for the acceptance of women as serious Torah scholars. When a minor stir erupted after Rabbi Eliezer Schach declared that it was inappropriate for her to be teaching Torah to male rabbinical students at an Ohr Torah institution in Efrat headed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Leibowitz never got involved, leaving the battle for Riskin to fight. She eventually won the support of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and went on teaching as the only woman instructor in the yeshiva.

However, her influence in the non-yeshiva world was no less impressive. According to Hollander, one could be at an event where secular and haredi Jews found themselves seated together with nothing in common about which to speak, but at the mention of Leibowitz's name, suddenly everyone had something to say. Indeed, at her funeral, rabbis with black hats and peyot mingled with bare-headed men and women in pants, all in awe of the same individual.

In her pursuit of Torah, there was no audience too small or too unlearned. Traveling to so many speaking engagements, Leibowitz frequently rode in taxis, and perhaps not a ride went by in which she did not engage the driver in deep discussion. She was a true believer in the Mishnaic saying: "One who is wise is one who learns from others."

Her enthusiasm for learning was irrepressible, and students say that she often was surprised by the intellectual insight of the cab drivers who ferried her from class to class, whom she counted among the wisest of her students. Rarely did a class go by in which Leibowitz did not mention some story she learned in a taxi. One woman is even putting together a book of these stories.

In one episode, a cab driver phoned Nehama after the Yom Kippur fast, refusing to eat until she could answer his question about the Book of Jonah.

Another time, Leibowitz was on her way to a lecture in Efrat during the years of the intifada, and when her cab reached the army checkpoint on the Jerusalem-Efrat road, the soldiers pulled the car over and said that because of Palestinian unrest, nobody was permitted to use the road without a prearranged military escort.

The cab-driver, taking this as a personal affront to Leibowitz, demanded of the young officer: "Do you know who this is? This is Nehama Leibowitz!"

"Oh! Why didn't you say so?" exclaimed the officer, who then turned to one of his soldiers and ordered him to drive Leibowitz in an army jeep to Efrat, wait there until she was finished, and bring her back. As the soldier helped Leibowitz into the jeep, his officer called after him, "and you should go in and listen to the class! It won't do you any harm!"

Although Leibowitz was more of a political moderate than her brother, the late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they shared the "passion of a prophet" and an intellectual capability that formed a bond that was the strength of their relationship, according to Hollander. They would often have powerful intellectual exchanges while exploring biblical texts together; he would take a philosophical approach while she would pay close attention to the nuances of the text.

According to Prof. David Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute, while Leibowitz did not have the charisma of her brother, she had "a spiritual power" about her, which captivated audiences and instilled many with a deep respect and admiration for the woman.

Despite her uncanny pedagogic abilities, Leibowitz never sought praise or saw herself as anything other than a "vessel of Torah," in the words of Hollander, exemplifying the mishnaic aphorism that states: "All that run from honor, honor shall chase after them."

When people told her of the influence she had on their lives, she insisted that it was the Torah, and not she, which had the power to transform lives.

"She had a deep simplicity about her," remembered Hartman. At a ceremony in which she received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University, Leibowitz refused to wear the academic cap and gown, insisting that only on Purim should people wear costumes.

Another time, when an old friend was helping Leibowitz pack for an overnight stay, he asked her where she had put her newest suit. They looked for it together until she remembered that the day before, representatives from a charity had come to her door asking for clothes for the poor. "And you gave them your new suit?" asked a shocked Reiner.

"What!" she shot back. "Was I to give them my old clothes?" Leibowitz, say her acquaintances, knew how to give better than anyone, and what she gave most of was herself. Some even say that Leibowitz was giving of herself when she married her uncle, an elderly man who was losing his sight, so that she could help him function on a daily basis.

In recent months, when an ailing Leibowitz had to restrict her classes to biweekly gatherings at her home, there were some days she felt she did not have the strength to teach. "So you'll teach for 15 minutes, and everyone will be satisfied," reassured Hollander.

Two hours later, he said with a smile, Leibowitz would still be going strong as her students struggled to keep up.

"Teaching was therapeutic for her," he explained. "She loved seeing people learn."

In accordance with Leibowitz's request, she was buried in an inconspicuous part of the cemetery at Har Hamenuhot in a simple ceremony with no eulogies. And in accordance with her instructions, the only inscription on her tombstone will read, "Nehama Leibowitz: teacher."