February 26, 2024
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February 26, 2024
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Nehama Leibowitz: The Early Years

I just came across a very interesting book, “Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar.” The author, Yael Unterman, worked on this book for 10 years and it spans 600 pages! It was published by Urim in 2009. It warrants many columns! Here I will limit myself to the story of her early years.

As Unterman points out, Nehama Leibowitz preferred to be called “Nehama.” Using only her first name evokes her humility and warmth. That is how Unterman refers to her and how I will as well.

Nehama hated publicity. She would say: “I’m not worth writing about; go learn Torah instead.” But after her death, much has been written about her. There is a motto that people follow in these situations, “acharei mot kedoshim emor” (= after saintly people pass away, speak). So even those who kept silent during her life (pursuant to her request) were willing to speak her praise after her death!

Nehama requested that there be no eulogy at her funeral and her request was honored. The author continues: “Nevertheless, Nehama’s biography belongs not to her alone, but also to the Jewish people whom she loved so much, and to history, and it is under this premise that the book was written.” The author continues: “The only apology owed her is in writing this work in English, for she believed that the Hebrew language is the only proper medium for all Jewish life.”

Nehama was born in Latvia in 1905. She was born two years after her brother Yeshayahu. (On this famous individual, see below.)

Her family was religious and broadly educated. The children spoke Hebrew with their father, and German or Yiddish with their mother. Her parents’ social circles included many non-Observant Jews. Her father created weekly Tanach quizzes for his children. Her mother died early on.

Nehama did not go to the schools in Latvia. She and her brother were taught by hired teachers.

In 1919, due to the creation of the independent republic of Latvia, the family was forced to move to Berlin. Berlin of the 1920s included many Jewish giants. For example, on the street, Nehama may have passed R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson and R. Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik. One Chabad chasid insisted to her: “Everyone knows that you sat drinking coffee with the Rebbe and R. Soloveitchik in the cafés in Berlin!” Nehama replied: “It could be that we sat at the same table for lunch, but if we did, I didn’t know it.”

Another story (slightly contradictory to the above) is that Nehama was told of the brilliant young Jewish scholar, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who sat in the library “behind the tallest stack of books.” With a description like that, she located him easily, but never introduced herself. (But in another version of this story, it was he who was told to look for her, but he could not locate her because she was hidden behind her tower of books!)

Reportedly, her mother never allowed her into the kitchen! She was treated as the intellectual equal of her brother.

She spent the years 1925-30 in the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg and Marburg, studying English and German philology and literature, and Bible studies.

At the same time, she advanced her Jewish studies at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. This was the only institution where she did any formal learning of Jewish studies. The college’s doors were open to all, including women and non-Jews, and it was the closest thing to a yeshiva that a woman could attend at the time. Here, as nowhere else at the time, Nehama could interact on an equal footing with Jewish scholars, rabbis and rabbinical students. One of her classmates was Leo Strauss. Strauss taught Nehama philosophy, reading Plato with her in the original Greek, while she taught him Hebrew, studying Saadiah Gaon’s Emunot Ve-deot and other Hebrew works with him.

This is the era when Nehama began to teach high school students. She used the Ivrit be-Ivrit method so that Hebrew might be experienced as a living language. This technique was first used by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in 1883, but it was unheard of in German schools at that time.

She married her father’s brother Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz in Berlin in 1930. (She did not have to change her name!) He was 31 years older than her! He died in 1970. Decades later she said to a friend about marrying her much older uncle: “This was the wisest decision I ever made, and I have been extremely happy my entire life!” The only thing she regretted was never having children. (Of course, her thousands of students are her “children”!)

The couple left Germany at the end of 1930. After they arrived in Israel, her first position was teaching at the Mizrachi Teachers Seminary of Jerusalem. She did this for over 20 years. From 1957, she taught Bible at Tel Aviv University. After she came to Israel in 1930, she only left one time, when she went to meet her parents in Europe and accompany them to settle in Israel.

A future column will be about her weekly “gilyonot” (questions about the parsha), which she mailed out to thousands over the years and graded their responses!


Regarding her brother Yeshayahu, Wikipedia describes him as follows: He was “an Israeli Orthodox Jewish public intellectual and polymath. He was professor of biochemistry, organic chemistry, and neurophysiology at the Hebrew University… as well as a prolific writer on Jewish thought and western philosophy. He was known for his outspoken views on ethics, religion and politics.”

It is of interest that in the original Encyclopaedia Judaica (1972), he has his own entry with a photo, while Nehama’s entry is a very small one subsumed within his. (Unterman suggests that the original Encyclopaedia Judaica was guilty in general of neglecting women.) The updated Encyclopaedia Judaica (2006) grants Nehama her own entry.

P.S. There is a story of two brothers, one a philosophy professor and the other a history professor. They used to argue which was more important, history or philosophy. Eventually, it was the Encyclopaedia Judaica that decided the issue. They both had entries, but only the history professor had his entry with a photo! See the entries for Irving and Jacob Agus! (I thank Richie Schiffmiller for sharing this story with me.)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Like Nehama, he avoids the kitchen. He is hoping to get into a future edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. For more of his articles, see his website www.rootsandrituals.org

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