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.)