The scholar who happened to be female

The famously reticent Nehama Leibowitz is saved from self-willed oblivion by a new biography.

nehama leibowitz book 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nehama leibowitz book 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar By Yael Unterman Urim Publications 607 pages; $39.95 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.