Great Leaders of our People
Nechama Leibowitz was born in Riga in
1905, was educated in Berlin and made Aliyah in 1930. In the summer of
1968, while on the YU Tour, I had the privilege of sitting in on one of
her classes. I remember a sprightly, somewhat elderly woman (at that time,
she was only 63), wearing a blue beret, discussing a particular text, and
analyzing the interpretations of various commentators. I took away the
impression of someone with extraordinary love of and insight into the
Tanach, as well as a master teacher.
She taught at the Mizrachi Women’s Teachers Seminary, at Tel Aviv
University, at yeshivot hesder, and at many other institutions. In 1942,
she began the distribution of stenciled pages, “gilyonot” containing her
instructive questions that led those who tried to answer them to a greater
understanding of the material. She was a frequent radio commentator, and
won the Israel Prize for Education in 1956.
Nechama, as she liked to be called, received many invitations to teach
abroad. But she turned them all down. She felt that “the air of the Land
of Israel gives one wisdom,” and the Holy Language, Hebrew, was most
appropriate for studying the words of G-d and the Prophets. But she
conducted a world-wide “correspondence course” in Tanach and hundreds of
students would answer questions and send them to Nechama to be corrected
and commented upon.
Her approach to the understanding of Tanach was an active one, and through
thought-provoking questions, she expected her students to think hard,
understand “what was bothering the commentators,” and come up with their
own insights. In a typical classroom session, she would get a sense of the
intellectual level of her students, assign appropriate textual and
analytical tasks, and ask them to write their answers. She would then walk
around the room, look at the students’ work and comment on it. A “nachon
me’od” (very good!) from Nechama was a very satisfying reward.
She lived in a tiny apartment behind Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. Her
walls were lined with classic sefarim as well as with folders of her “gilyonot.”
Sometimes it appears, especially in Yerushalayim, that the greatness of an
individual is inversely proportional to the size of their home.
At a time when much of the Jewish world struggles with the proper role of
women, Nechama has bypassed all that and become one of the top teachers of
Torah, and a role model for both men and women.
She was niftar in Jerusalem in 1997. She had requested that no
inscriptions be made on her tombstone other than “Nechama Leibowitz Morah”
(where “Morah” means teacher).
The above graphic includes photographs that were provided by VERAfilm archives.