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Vigorous and Vivacious

A chance to meet the woman who revitalized Bible study.

Nehama Leibowitz (1905–1997) — known, despite her renown and academic distinctions, simply as Nehama — was still actively teaching Torah for a number of years after I arrived in Jerusalem, yet I never met or studied with her. For those with similar regrets, and for those who did know and learn from the woman who taught generations of Jewish educators how to study the Bible, the beautifully produced new book by Yael Unterman, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim, $33) is a celebration. Nehama Leibowitz’s feisty personality, and the staunch principles and methods that guided her, emerge vividly from the pages, largely in the words of those who knew her best.

“What’s troubling Rashi?” Nehama would demand of her students. To be identified with a question rather than an answer was emblematic of her long career, which lasted from her arrival in Jerusalem in 1930, newly married (to her much older uncle, Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz) and with a fresh Ph.D., right up to her death in 1997. Though she quickly gained prominence as a teacher, her early fame arose from her legendary gilyonot, worksheets on the weekly Torah readings. Not only did she mail these stenciled sheets, free of charge, to anyone who requested them; she also personally corrected the responses and mailed them back to hundreds of eager students from all walks of life (she harbored a particularly tender spot for soldiers who wrote to her from their outposts). Convinced that intellectual challenge leads to lifelong engagement with the text, only much later in life was she persuaded to publish some answers. Her Studies, in which she probed the responses of Bible commentators, ancient and modern, to issues posed by the Torah text, were soon translated into English and other languages, and these, along with her many students from abroad, spread her fame to the Diaspora — despite her refusal ever to leave Israel.

Unterman’s book is not a conventional biography, and although the first part is devoted to Nehama’s life, very little is said of its events. As a feminist reader, I felt somewhat shortchanged. For example, we are not told of how Nehama’s experience of higher education compared with that of her Jewish female contemporaries. And her mother is killed off on the second page (“she died relatively early on”) — though it later appears that she was still alive at the time of Nehama’s marriage and aliyah.

Instead, Unterman devotes each chapter to a facet of Nehama’s personality, ideology, scholarship and educational methods, which she analyzes using direct quotes from interviews with former students, plus learned references to Nehama’s writings and works written about her. This gives rise to much overlap and repetition, and to a somewhat hagiographic view of Nehama’s life, emphasizing its latter years. Nevertheless, readers who plow through the book’s 600 pages will be rewarded with nuggets like Unterman’s discussion of whether or not Nehama was a feminist (Nehama herself maintained that she wasn’t, but her influence upon Jewish feminists has been inestimable), and her chapter on Nehama’s relationship with her brilliant, iconoclastic brother, the scientist and religious philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. In an erudite study of Nehama’s scholarly approach and the scholars who influenced her, Unterman finally shows what she can do when she breaks away from the interviews. Her Nehama is vigorous and vivacious, and, as Unterman concludes, maintains her influence upon how most of us study Torah.

Deborah Greniman, Managing Editor of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, lives, writes, edits, translates, and mothers in Jerusalem.