Leibowitz, Nechama

June 15, 2006

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).