by Moshe Sokolow
* appeared in The Jerusalem Report May 15, 1997
Nehama Leibowitz, who died in Jerusalem on Shabbat, 5 Nisan, 5757 (April 12, 1997) at the age of 92, was a phenomenon in the world of Torah study and education. A Russian born graduate of the University of Berlin who immigrated to Israel in 1931, Nehama (that is the unassuming way in which she even answered her phone) became the instructor of three generations of teachers and acquired an extensive and profound influence on Torah pedagogy worldwideno mean feat for anyone, let alone for a woman.
From 1942 through 1971 Nehama issued her renowned "gilyonot" (circulars) on the weekly Torah portions, for which undertaking she was later awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. Nehama would pose questions about the Torah text and selected commentaries, and students from all parts of the world and all walks of life would respond. No correspondence course ever had so many diligent participants over so long a period of time; no other teacher could have sustained such interest for so long. Nearly twenty years after the "gilyonot" ceased to be formally circulated, her "students" would send in their replies to her questions, and Nehama, red pen in hand, would read them, assess them, and return them.
For three generations of Torah students in Israel and the Diaspora, Nehama was "morateinu," our teacher, par excellence. To this daunting task she brought a vast erudition in Jewish and secular classics--which she honed through regular forays into the "stacks" of the Hebrew University libraryand a talent for pedagogy, which she refined through repeated expeditions into every corner of the country to which she was invited. (Her stories about conversations with taxi drivers were legion.) A study of her "gilyonot" (later adapted into the popular "Iyyunim" in the weekly portiontranslated into English as "Studies in the Weekly Sidrah") reveals citations from Mishnah, Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, Midrash, Maimonides, the exegetes of France, Spain, Provence, and Italy, Mendelssohn, Luzzato, Hirsch, Cassuto, Buber, and Kook, and also included Shakespeare, Gandhi, Steinbeck and Chaim Nahman Bialik.
Erudition has existed before and since, but the panoply of pedagogical devices which she invented or refined was uniquely, and characteristically, hers. If Torah teachers, worldwide, have trained their students to ask, rhetorically, "mah kasheh leRashi?" (what troubles Rashi), it is due to her fastidious attention to that exegetes methodology. If a tried and true tactic of Torah teaching (Nehama playfully called them "trick-im") is to have students divide a Torah chapter into its component parts, or to compare versions of the same verse or event, it is because she pioneered these "tricks" as stimulants to what, today, we call "active learning."
Nehama was without affectation and without artifice. She lived in a simple apartment ("modest" would be an exaggeration), furnished mostly with books, slept in an alcove, and prepared her simple meals in what only real estate agents would dare call a "kitchenette." Her energies, and such resources as she had, were devoted to her studies and to her students, and they remain her legacy. The quintessence of her pedagogic philosophy can be summed up in her own words:
The most important thing is that the students should study Torah from all angles; search it out, and choose or reject interpretations. All providing that they engage in Torah out of love.