Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher

An educator who changed the face of Bible study.

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Instead of using traditional methods of biblical criticism, Leibowitz chose a literary approach to the biblical text. Influenced by Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Ludwig Aryeh Strauss, she implemented various techniques for literary analysis of the Bible, paying attention to keywords, flashbacks, parallelisms, and other literary devices.

She was especially known for comparing repeated narratives. For example, she highlighted subtle differences between how Potiphar's wife tells the fabricated story of Joseph's attempted rape, first to her servants and subsequently to her husband. The differences between these two reports, Leibowitz explained, gives the reader insight into this character's state of mind.

Despite her insistence to the contrary, original literary analysis is present in her work. Consequently, she may be said to have been not "only a teacher," as she often claimed, but also a pioneering Bible scholar. Many of her literary methods were later popularized in the work of such scholars as Jan Fokkelman and Robert Alter.

Leibowitz's approach though was not limited solely to the modern literary approach. It also anticipated some postmodern trends in textual analysis, namely the legitimacy of multiple interpretations and looking for hidden psychological or moral dimensions. This introduced a subjective aspect to interpretation, a concept central to postmodernist thought.

She also refocused attention on classic Bible commentaries, such as those of Rashi and Nahmanides. These had been somewhat disregarded by both the Yeshiva world--whose focus lay almost exclusively on Talmud study--and the secular world--whose interest lay in biblical criticism and history. Today, her question, "What is Rashi's difficulty?" is commonplace.

In her teaching and writing, Leibowitz rejected the approach of biblical criticism that she had studied at German universities in her youth. She dismissed archeological, geographical, and historical dimensions as irrelevant to the text's true message. Instead, Leibowitz believed that the teacher should focus on the narrative’s important ethical and theological lessons while not wasting time with "trivial" information.

Personality, Values, and Beliefs

Leibowitz insisted everyone call her "Nehama" and refused to let newspapers interview her or allow people to come to her lessons simply in order to meet her. She liked to declare, "I am not a museum!" Her lifestyle was simple, and those entering her apartment were often struck by how little physical comfort she allowed herself.

A passionate Zionist, Leibowitz refused to leave Israel even when offered large sums of money to lecture abroad. She taught her Bible classes in Hebrew, the language that she believed ought to be spoken by all Jews.

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Yael Unterman is a teacher, writer and life coach living in Jerusalem. She is the author of an extensive biography of Nehama Leibowitz's life and work, "Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar."