Wednesday, January 04, 2006

For Nehama Leibowitz, zts"l

In the Orthodox day school that I attended from first through eighth grade, Torah study consisted of plodding through the text, verse by verse, in an attempt to derive valuable lessons for life. Occasionally, we would read Rashi's commentary, particularly when he introduced an aggadah, or legend. There was no discussion of Rashi's sources, or of why particular verses elicited the comments they did. All in all, we were led to believe that the Torah was fundamentally different from any other book and could not be read or understood by ordinary means; that only the divinely inspired could interpret it correctly; and that our task as ordinary people was simply to learn what they had written.

Theologically, I accepted that the Torah had "seventy facets," that many legitimate meanings could be derived from any given verse. At the same time, as a fan of literature, I instinctively felt that biblical texts had a certain "plain meaning" that could be discerned with attention to context, wording, and literary structure.

When I became Bat Mitsvah, my father bought me an expensive set of books: Nechama Leibowitz's Studies in the Torah. Leibowitz's approach to Torah was traditional in that she accepted it as the unadulterated word of God and relied heavily on medieval Jewish commentators to understand the text. Yet she used the commentaries critically, accepting or rejecting their conclusions on the basis of their agreement with the wording, context, and structure of the biblical text. When she derived lessons from the Torah, they were rooted in the text as a whole, not hung precariously from a single word or phrase. This new approach enthralled me, and I spent many a Shabbat afternoon engrossed in her writing, especially the "questions for further study" at the close of each chapter. For the first time, Judaic studies were as interesting and challenging as my secular studies. For a child who was both deeply religious and intellectually curious (not to mention bored), this was a true gift.

Looking back, I can honestly say that Nehama Leibowitz was one of the major impetuses behind my ultimate decision to enter the field of biblical studies. She probably would not approve of the direction in which I have taken this interest. Nonetheless, I can say this truthfully: My admiration for her is unlimited.

Nehama Leibowitz would be 100 years old today. May her memory be a blessing.
(Hat tip to OOSJ.)


Mr. Frumteens said...

Torah may have sveventy faces, but if they're not approoved by the Satmer Rebba, they're invalid Zionist gobbledigook.

Chana said...

My father just bought me her set; I've been going through it and finding her ideas very interesting. May her memory be for a blessing, indeed.

elf's DH said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
elf's DH said...

mr. frumteens,


1. There was Torah before the first Satmar Rebbe.
2. All Torah not approved by the Satmar rebbe is invalid Zionist gobbledigook.
3. Before the first Satmar Rebbe, all Torah was not approved by the Satmar Rebbe.
4. The Torah predates the Satmar Rebbe.
5. The Torah is invalid Zionist gobbledigook (QED).

Mr. Frumteens said...

Wait a minute-- your argument actually makes sense.

And I-- I--

>>disappears in a puff of logic<<

Mr. Frumteens said...

Actually, I found a flaw in your reasoning.

Why do you assume that your statment #4 (the Torah predates the Satmar Rebbe) is correct? The first Satmar Rebbe was alive and at work many years before you were born. Did you ever see the Torah, or any piece of it, before you were born? And even if you accept the medresh that the embryo lerns Torah in utero, the Satmar Rebbe was at work years before you were even conceived. So there!

elf's DH said...

Gee, you're right.

Hail Rebbe!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

In highschool i had a Hhumash teacher who would teach pretty much straight out of Morah Nehhama's ‘Iyunim.

elf said...

I don't much like the "one source" method of teaching, but one could certainly do worse.

dbs said...

On Tuesday evenings in the late 70’s, Moreh Lieberman gave a lecture to any yeshiva guys who were brave enough to attend. I made the trip a few times from Gush to hear her and it was, indeed, a memorable experience. She would pick a simple an item from the parsha and ask some unfortunate boy to explain it – demonstrating that none of us could really deal with all of the difficulties presented. (I once failed miserably trying to defend that there were (only) 10 dibrote.) She would then offer several approaches – usually with a novel interpretation of a commonly known midrash. She was a brilliant, warm and consummate teacher.

elf said...

Thank you for your comment. It's nice to hear from someone who knew her personally.

Anonymous said...

Given that your admiration for Necahma Leibowitz is unlimited, how do you feel about having adopted an approach that she would not approve of?

I was wondering how you reconcile this with your great admiration for her.