Studying Nechama Leibowitz: Her Educational Approach and Personal Life

Sep. 04, 2016

Source: Lookjed Digest XVIII:79


In honor of the birthday of Professor Nechama Leibowitz (3 Elul, 5665), Lookjed is reprinting Judah Harris' essay that is based on his attendance at a Drisha sponsored program that took place several years ago.

If you weren’t fortunate enough a number of decades ago to sit at the “learning” table in Nechama Leibowitz’s modest Jerusalem apartment where, over many years, she taught her regular Torah classes, or grab yourself a place in one of the outer rows where students yet found room to sit, you still could have secured a comfortable empty chair on a Wednesday and Thursday late-December, in one of the larger classrooms on the fifth floor of Manhattan’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.

Nechama Leibowitz: Her Life & Work, was the theme for this year’s Winter Week of Learning at Drisha, a center for advanced Jewish Studies (but all levels are welcome) which offers ample learning opportunities throughout the year, but attempts special programs during popular vacation seasons to bring teachers and students together in a common pursuit. December 23rd and 24th, 2009 was the most recent “community learning event,” as Drisha calls it, with presentations by Nati Helfgot, Walter Hertzberg, Moshe Sokolow, and Chayuta Deutsch from Israel, who wrote one of the special biographies of Nechama Leibowitz that has been published in recent years.

The seven different sessions during the two days focused on both Nechama Leibowitz’s methodology for studying the written text, and the chapters, not of the book, but of her own life, the intricacies of a public and private person. She taught thousands of students in schools, seminaries, yeshivot, and two Israeli universities, and tens of thousands more through her widely circulated “gilyonot” – stenciled pamphlets of teachings, with insights and questions on the Parsha, that she prepared from 1942 to 1971, and which she distributed broadly. Even after her health dictated that she no longer would labor to produce new material, she continued to receive responses, and offered, for the mere price of postage, and presumably the rewards of extreme satisfaction, to reply, in her own handwriting, to the many who corresponded with her….

Yael Unterman, who spent 10 years researching and writing her 607-page biography of Nechama, looks back and feels that a lot yet remains elusive. “I think the question of how exactly she came to be who she was, what influences shaped and formed her, and how she became this legend, was not fully covered by either myself or Chayuta Deutch, though we both made brave attempts at it from various angles. I also believe neither of us really got into who she was in her most private moments, though again, we make some suggestions.”

Unterman is grateful that the publication of her book, together with other recent books, including a number of collections of teachings, has led to a renewed interest in the work of one of the greatest contemporary teachers of Jewish Studies. Unterman measures the overall impact of this one woman who taught Torah, in the broadest possible terms, and believes that the “The Jewish intellectual discourse” can benefit immensely by looking to Nechama Leibowitz when discussing “Torah study, feminism, pedagogy and other major issues of concern.”

Those who research and write about Nechama and those who studied with her personally, offer us a more complete appreciation of her legacy. Their opinions or conclusions may differ at times, both in style and information conveyed, but with the help of these “commentators,” so to speak, a cohesive impression is formulated nonetheless, one that can be transmitted further to all those who choose to study Nechama Leibowitz.

Read the entire article on Lookjed Digest.

Updated: Sep. 11, 2016