Contextualizing a Master: Nehama Leibowitz, History and Exegesis

Jan. 21, 2011

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 77, Issue 1 , pages 42 - 65


Levenson presents Nehama Leibowitz (1903-1997) as a principal figure in making the Bible a centerpiece of modern Jewish intellectual life. Complementing the already impressive literature on Leibowitz's pedagogical techniques, Levenson emphasizes the interdependence of Leibowitz's historical context, biography, and exegetical stance. Leibowitz's encounter with German intellectual life 1919-1930 gave her a means of synthesizing her early traditional upbringing with her later encounter with modernized culture in Israel. Leibowitz's inclusion of German commentators such as Hirsch, Buber-Rosenzweig, and Jacob mark her as a conscious modernist. The New Literary Criticism's focus on the received text allowed her to deploy heterodox and non-Zionist commentators with whom she was ideologically at odds.


Conclusion: Leibowitz's Double Validation of the Bible

"My point, in case some readers should think otherwise, is not to offer Leibowitz condescending praise for being an open-minded Orthodox scholar. Rather, I wish to note that Leibowitz served as one critical link between the German-Jewish tradition and the study of the Bible in Israel. This historical role, it seems to me, is rarely conveyed by Nehama's students, many of them master teachers themselves. She treated the German-Jewish commentators, from Mendelssohn to Buber-Rosenzweig, by the same standard she treated all prior commentators: how could they shed light on the Torah? Her dissents from Hirsch, Jacob, and Buber-Rosenzweig were no different from her dissents from Rashi or Nachmanides, or any commentators in between. Jewish Bible translation and commentary, it is generally conceded, reveal a great deal about the general environment in which they were produced. Leibowitz's works bristle with the issues facing the newly created State of Israel: relations with the outside world; establishing Jewish values in social and economic life; understanding the message of God in an era when that message seems difficult to discern. Leibowitz found Torah sufficient to answer these questions: in this respect, she, like David Ben Gurion, probably glamorized “the Bible” unduly, as did the German Jewish commentators who shared a view of the Bible as an indispensible guide for modern Jewry. Unlike Ben Gurion, of course, Leibowitz held that the Bible spoke most precisely through the Jewish exegetical tradition; in her view, the Bible did not illuminate itself. Leibowitz also recognized the role of the Bible as a “secondary canon,” enthroning commentary at the apex of all Jewish thought…


By treating the Jewish exegetical tradition as rigorous and textually acute rather than merely homiletical or merely speculative, Leibowitz elevated Midrash, medieval commentary and more recent commentators to the level of scholarship in general, and the New Criticism in particular. .. Leibowitz made it mandatory, for Jewish writers at least, to take our indigenous tradition seriously. In her own person, as well as in her work, she demonstrated the “chain of tradition” at play in Hebrew Bible commentary. .. The idea that the Hebrew Bible, the Written Torah, could be approached with the same seriousness as the Oral Torah, Leibowitz demonstrated in her teaching."

Updated: Mar. 31, 2011