Hunched over a mountain of papers piled high on her desk, some still sealed in postmarked envelopes, Nechama Leibowitz took her a scarlet pen in hand and delivered a verdict: “Correct,” “Very good,” or “Incorrect.” For the next five decades, she would hand review some forty thousand of these papers or gilyonot, her trademark worksheets on the weekly Torah portions, which she mailed out to anyone who requested them. In these worksheets, she combined biblical texts and Jewish commentaries and called for her students to reply with their analysis and interpretation. Throughout her life, Nechama corresponded with tens of thousands of students who connected to her methodology and ideas. Students of all ages and backgrounds mailed their answers back to Nechama and patiently awaited her feedback.
Nechama was raised in a devoted Jewish home in Riga, Latvia in the early 1900s. Education and competition were instilled in her from an early age by her father, and Nechama and her brother often competed in battles of wits on their father’s biblical quizzes. These quizzes likely laid the foundation for Nechama’s teaching methods, and ultimately her reputation as one of the most influential Torah scholars of the 20th century. In a time when the same standards of Jewish education weren’t upheld for girls as for boys, Nechama paved the way for women’s inclusivity in Jewish textual study and went on to transform Torah study for Israeli society.
Nechama refused to be confined to the classroom. Her passion for teaching led her on buses, taxis, and planes, from the Negev desert to the Golan Heights, traversing all of Israel to host thousands of lectures to eager teachers, kibbutzniks, taxi drivers, and laypeople alike. Nechama’s legacy is so influential, partly due to her dedication to making Torah study accessible to everyone. She always made herself available to inquisitive students who wanted to chat in person or over the phone, maintaining personal correspondence with all of her pupils. She told anecdotes of the waitresses and farmers she taught, rather than of the renowned rabbis and educators on her roster. Nechama was a teacher of the masses, encouraging her students to share their insights and opinions.
She pushed learners to think critically, introspectively, and morally—much like her father encouraged her to do in her youth—and to draw their own conclusions, supporting many voices of interpretation rather than one. Nechama taught her disciples to care about what they were reading, to find relevancy and meaning within the text rather than shallow interpretation. She also focused on biblical as well as secular commentaries and comparisons, which was a unique approach at the time. Nechama’s method of analysis led to critical thinking, asking students to find the practical insight that the verses illuminated. Her methodology of textual interpretation is still used today.
Nechama lived a notoriously private life, choosing to focus attention on the teachings rather than the teacher. She had a singular agenda—to teach Torah—to which she committed her life despite gender barriers. Her motives were not explicitly “feminist” and she preferred to think of herself as “a scholar who happened to be female” and not a female scholar. Nechama would stop at nothing to teach Torah, even if it meant forcing a shift in traditional gender roles. Her work inevitably progressed society’s notion of women’s roles and opened the door for future female scholars.
Other than the honorifics and accolades that she preferred to ignore, she lived an unembellished life,. Even as a full-time lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a doctorate degree holder, she always preferred the title of morah, or “teacher” and never “Professor” or “Dr.” She was modest and reserved: The apartment she taught classes in prior to her death was sparsely furnished. Even her gravestone is unadorned, reading only, “Nechama Leibowitz: Teacher,” at her request.
Nechama reminds us that if we read a bit more closely, we all might find some inspiration in Jewish texts. Her interpretive approach to studying and teaching Torah was revolutionary, transforming Torah study for Jews from diverse backgrounds within Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. “For our joint studies involved no certificates, examinations, grades, prizes; no credits, scholarships, income-tax rebates but simply the joy so deep of the one who studies Torah,” she said. Nechama and her husband never had children, yet through her work she continues to mother generations of Jewish individuals alike, nurturing their curiosity and imagination, sharpening their mindset, and instilling in them a deep love of learning.