One Friday night in April 1997 I was about to light the Shabbat candles. The telephone rang. I shouted at my son not to pick it up but it was too late. I had to take the call.

It was Jacob, a former student of mine of some four years previous in an adult education program. The Jewish News had reported on the sad passing of Nehama Leibowitz and he knew how upset I would be. He wanted to offer me consolation and to let me know that he, too, was saddened by our loss.

Until that time I hadn’t realised how often I deferred to Nehama in my classes. For Jacob to remember the name and to know what she meant to me indicates how often I used her name and how clear it was that Nechama was the source of my inspiration as a teacher and as a student of Torah.

Nehama Leibowitz, who died in Jerusalem on April 12, 1997 at the age of 92, was a phenomenon in the world of Torah study and education. A Russian born graduate of the University of Berlin who immigrated to Israel in 1931, Nehama became the instructor of three generations of teachers and acquired an extensive and profound influence on Torah pedagogy worldwide-no mean feat for anyone, let alone for a woman. She taught thousands of others inside and outside Israel, including leading public figures. From 1942 to 1971 Nehama issued her renowned ‘circulars’ on the weekly Torah portions, for which undertaking she was later awarded the prestigious Israel Prize.

Nehama would prepare a sheet of questions about the Torah text and selected commentaries, and students from all parts of the world and all walks of life would respond. No correspondence course ever had so many diligent participants over so long a period of time; no other teacher could have sustained such interest for so long. Nearly twenty years after the ‘circulars’ ceased to be formally circulated, her ‘students’ would send in their replies to her questions, and Nehama, red pen in hand, would read them, assess them, and return them. Over 40,000 sheets were counted before the researchers gave up counting!

Nehama was without affectation and without artifice. She lived in a simple apartment, furnished mostly with books. One of her students described it as one of the most important sites in Jerusalem but one which was not found on a tourist’s map. Fortunately for me, I was introduced to Nehama within a week of arriving in Israel in 1989 and had the privilege of learning with her twice a week for two years.

Her students were from diverse backgrounds and levels of commitment to Jewish life. She had two requirements: all her lessons were conducted in Hebrew and all students were expected to be active participants.

All Nehama’s lessons demanded the active participation of everyone in attendance. Students arrived at her apartment as early as possible without being rude – for we were all constantly conscious of impinging on Nehama’s extremely limited personal time. The first ones in had better seats around the large table set in the centre of the main room. More people arriving would have to bring in wooden benches or uncomfortable folding chairs from the balcony.

Everyone, from rabbis to Supreme Court judges, from university students to business-people or homemakers, was equal in Nehama’s lessons. Typically, she would enquire about the families or lives of one or two of the students and then begin teaching by asking participants to answer a particular question about the text at hand. Her method was simple: each student would write down what they considered the answer she was seeking and hand their response to her. She would, usually, put a red line through the first several attempts before accepting an answer as “good”/ “tov”. She had infinite patience – she expected most people to have worked out the answer for themselves before she allowed a class member to share the ‘correct’ response aloud.

This process was often followed by an anecdote of how Nehama herself came to know this particular lesson. Often her acknowledged source of wisdom was a taxi driver. One such story is about the cabbie who, upon noticing his passenger was grading papers, and discovering that she was a professor of Tanach, took advantage of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem ride to unburden himself of a question that had bothered him for some time: “What does Jeremiah (9:22) mean when he says: ‘Let not a wise man glory in his wisdom; and let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not a rich man glory in his wealth. But let him that glories, glory in this: that he understands and knows Me?”‘

“Well,” explained Nehama to her driver, “that means that human wisdom and human strength and riches are not really important values; the prophet is telling us that what really counts is knowing Hashem.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said the cabbie, with a trace of irritation, “but what does he mean when he says ‘Let not a wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his strength, let not a rich man glory in his wealth … ”

Nehama tried again, in her patient pedagogical manner. “The prophet is teaching us a very important lesson in life. Those things that most men strive for riches, wealth and strength are…

“Of course, of course. Understood!” interrupted the cabbie with undisguised impatience. “But what does Jeremiah mean when he says “A rich man, a wise man; but when he speaks of strength, he says the strong man?”

At this point in her story, Nehama looks up with wide-eyed wonderment and a smile of admiration. “You know,” she confides, I never noticed that! That’s a very interesting point!”

Nehama was teacher par excellence. Her energies, and such resources as she had, were devoted to her studies and to her students, and they remain her legacy. The quintessence of her pedagogic philosophy can be summed up in her own words:

“The most important thing is that the students should study Torah from all angles; search it out, and choose or reject interpretations. All providing that they engage in Torah out of love.”
This is in stark contrast to the traditional Yeshivah world, where boys were, and still are, taught the Torah text without any critical understanding of the diverse approaches of the commentators and the drive to uncover layers of meaning that impelled them.

Not so with Nehama. She was asked to prepare a paper How to read a Chapter of Tanakh. Her introduction gives a great deal of insight on how she related to the sacred texts and to her students. The first instruction read:

“This article should be read with the original Hebrew open in front of the reader”

Then she commenced :

“Let me begin with two introductory notes:
The topic, which I formulated in the title, seems to me, now that I see it printed on the proof sheets, to be unparalleled frivolity. This is not only because it is not up to me to teach people how to read a chapter in the Tanakh, as I have not been entrusted with the keys to that book, but also because it is doubtful, in general, whether an individual can establish a reading process for the many. Should not each individual attempt to establish his own reading, a reading suitable to his spirit and soul? Just as his spirit and soul comprise a unique and one-time phenomenon in this world, so his reading of Tanakh, his understanding of the text, should be a one-time phenomenon – uniquely his – and not an imitation of something else which once was.”

In other words, Nehama humbly justified teaching us to read Torah – giving us the tools – only because she was convinced that it would empower us as readers and not because it would allow her interpretation to overshadow our own.

Besides Taxi-drivers, Nehama drew on a world of literature and philosophy to illustrate and explain the text. The classical commentators would be have to stand the scrutiny of modern psychology and the genius of Shakespeare would not be ignored if his issue was relevant. I would suggest that this seemingly “heretical” approach was possible only from a woman.

There are several reasons why a woman’s approach to the Torah text will differ from that of men.

Historical: There has been a tradition of Torah teaching and learning by and for men. They have come to accept and even value the limitations of that style and type of learning and come to view alternative methods as suspect. Women, having largely been deprived of such learning, are freer to develop their own approaches to the text.

Psychological: Women are different from men in their reading of texts. They are more likely to analyse the motives of characters, to seek levels of meaning pertinent to the human experience and to want to draw personal relevance – as opposed to legal rulings – from the text.

Literary: Women in the Orthodox world are generally better educated secularly than their male counterparts. They are more likely to have read extensively in the literature of the secular culture and are more likely to draw comparisons between the Torah and other literature. They are also more likely to appreciate the inherent poetic qualities of the text when they are not required to read it in an unchanging chant.

Legal: I would describe the lack of legal authority of women in the religious world as liberating in terms of Torah scholarship. Men have been constrained in their interpretations by fear that they could be leading to unintended halachic implications. Ironically, women who have no such illusions or constraints, have been freer to revisit the text and to delve into new or dormant interpretations.

It is difficult to know if Nehama herself was the catalyst, but we can say with certainty that more Jewish women today are engaged in Torah study than at any point in our history. (That also happens to be true for men!)

We can also observe that there has been a flourishing of Jewish writing for and by women. Many books offer serious analysis of the Biblical text from a feminine perspective. There are numerous institutions for women’s Jewish learning and the women who teach Torah are also academics, in the Western sense of the highest calibre; their students are imbued with the dual tradition of learning.

The leading living female Torah scholar today is Avivah Zornberg. In the introduction to her important work on the Book of Bereishit, The Beginning of Desire, she writes the following:

“Essentially my way of reading sources is highly untheoretical .. the work of interpretation is done “in the field”, in close attention to themes and motifs I sense within the words on the page. It is a kind of listening for the meta-messages of the text. My assumption is that the narrative block that constitutes a Parsha (weekly Torah reading) has thematic integrity…”

Until the 20th Century, scholars did not think of the text in that way at all. Nehama was among the first to encourage students to read the text as poetry, seeking its layers of meaning, and to make sense of and find relevance in the narrative. The new wave of scholars who are grappling with the integrity of the weekly Parsha, are drawn primarily from former students of Nehama!

For Avivah and for Nehama, the integrity of the text is beyond criticism. Commentaries are tools to assist us in discovering our own meaning. No commentary can possibly cover all the possibilities and all the richness of the Torah. The task of the reader is to bring as many resources as she can to bear on the text so that it is a living source of Jewish life, values and joy.