This Day in Jewish History

1997: A Modest Torah Teacher Who Invented Interactive Study Dies

Nehama Leibowitz, quintessential morah, taught through personal interaction, by snail-mail.

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On April 12, 1997, Israeli Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz died, at the age of 92.

Known for her modesty (she identified herself to all as “Nehama” and, despite impressive academic credentials, asked to be referred to on her tombstone simply as “morah” – teacher), warmth and generosity, Leibowitz developed a method of popular textual study that was “interactive” before people had heard of an Internet.

Each week, she would mail out copies of questions she had prepared on the Torah portion being read that Shabbat in the synagogue to pupils who requested it. Then she would personally go over each of the sets of responses sent into her and send them back with comments to the students.

Nehama Leibowitz was born on September 3, 1905, in Riga, Latvia, into a family that embraced both Jewish and secular studies, as well as Zionism. (Her older brother, Yeshayahu, was a scientist and philosopher of renown in Israel, who spoke out frequently – and often quite provocatively -- on ethical and political issues.) In 1930, on the same day she received her doctorate on the subject of comparative Bible translations from the University of Marburg, Leibowitz and her husband, Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz, moved to Mandatory Palestine. Yedidyah was also her uncle, the younger brother of her father. The couple never had children.

Leibowitz taught for 25 years at the Mizrachi Women Teachers Seminary before beginning to teach at Tel Aviv University, in 1957. But also from her arrival in Palestine, she began teaching in less formal venues, as she traveled around the country to kibbutzim and schools, meeting with new immigrants, soldiers and other non-scholars. Later, she also appeared regularly on Israel Radio.

It was in 1942 that, in response to the requests of students who wanted to continue the conversation begun by Nehama’s lessons, she began sending out her “gilyonot” – worksheets – which included commentaries that she had compiled, but which were largely otherwise unknown, as well as questions written by her. These she mailed out to anyone who requested, both in Israel and abroad, asking only that students include additional postage when they returned their answers to her. By 1986, she had personally marked more than 40,000 individual worksheets.

Leibowitz’s method focused on the pshat – the literal text of the Scriptures. For understanding, she turned to the medieval commentators, with a special emphasis on Rashi, the most central of these, and also to the Midrashic works of interpretation.

Her analysis was literary. She wasn’t interested in archaeological or historical findings.

As her biographer Yael Unterman has written, “Leibowitz believed that the teacher should focus on the narrative’s important ethical and theological lessons while not wasting time with ‘trivial’ information.”

Leibowitz taught only in Hebrew, although she allowed her collected Torah teachings to be translated into a number of languages – and she refused all invitations to leave Israel to teach in communities abroad. She was in favor of women studying Talmud, hardly a given in the Orthodox world, but in no way did she support efforts to extend to women the commandments incumbent upon men in traditional Judaism. She eschewed housework and cooking for herself, but in no way disparaged women who chose the traditional life, saying, “Do you think I’d be writing these gilyonot if I had children?”

And accessible as she was to her public of pupils, she was not interested in being a celebrity herself, turning down requests for journalistic interviews or even to allow people to attend her lessons for the sake of meeting her, declaring, writes Unterman, “I am not a museum!” (In these respects she differed from her brother, Yeshayahu, who would speak to anyone on any topic, and frequently invited people into his home for conversation.)

Leibowitz’s “Iyyunimm” her collected studies on the Five Books of Moses, are all available in English, and many of the gilyonot in translation are also available online.