Review of Unterman, Y., Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Unterman, Yael, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2009). Pp. 607, Hardcover. US$39.95. 978-965-524-019-1.

This book is a new extensive and updated biography of Prof. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), well-respected and much loved teacher and Bible scholar. This enormous project was undertaken by Yael Unterman, an Israeli scholar currently lecturing and writing in the area of contemporary Jewish Studies. A brief biography of Leibowitz's academic career is as follows: In 1925-1930, Leibowitz pursued higher education in the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg and Marburg, studying English, Germanics and biblical studies. At the same time, she continued her Jewish studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, a rabbinical seminary established in Berlin in 1872 and destroyed by the Nazi government in 1942. In 1931, she completed her doctoral thesis, “Techniques of Judeo-German Bible Translations in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century, as Exemplified by Translations of the Book of Psalms” at the University of Marburg. The thesis explored the Yiddish translations of the Hebrew Bible, based on manuscripts in the Parma and Berlin libraries. Her scholarly interests ran the gamut from Jewish classical commentaries, Hebrew philology, and pedagogy to Germanics and literature. Well-versed in Jewish sources, Leibowitz became a distinguished Bible teacher, enthusiastically educating generations of students and teachers.

Unterman notes in her opening that “The book is based on the reading of numerous primary and secondary sources, as well as close to two hundred interviews and conversations.” (Notes for the Reader, 10) The “Notes to the Reader,” “Key to Abbreviations,” and “Acknowledgments,” are followed by an introduction dedicated to this female Jewish Bible scholar who embarked on a career of teaching Hebrew Scripture in Israel and abroad.

The book is designed to unfold the life story of Nehama in chapters 1-12, with an eye towards her pedagogical methods (cleverly collected in Part I under the title “Meet Nehama Leibowitz”). The following issues are addressed here: early years, the Gilyonot, and teaching career are thoroughly discussed in Part I. Chapters 13-24 focus on some of the topics elaborated in Parts II, III, IV, and V. Leibowitz's Zionism, feminism, religious values, methodology, her brother's influence and their relationships, are followed by a look to the future of Leibowitz's legacy. By immigrating to Israel with her husband, Leibowitz has offered an example of religious-Zionist spirit, stating that Israel and Hebrew represent the Torah's natural environment. Addressing Diaspora Bible teachers, she said: “May you also succeed in inducing your students to come up to Zion so that they may study our holy Torah in the holy language in which it was given, on holy soil” (252). There is an unmistakable coincidence between her admiration of Zionism and the cultural environment in which she was brought up, as noticed by Unterman: “The city [Berlin] was boasted Jewish clubs and societies, schools and synagogues, as well as significant Zionist activity. Nehama's family integrated all of these elements. It was strongly religious, including some Rabbis on the Leibowitz side; and also broadly educated. They were also Zionists, and the children spoke in Hebrew with their father...” (25) The author, however, makes it clear that Leibowitz was different, to a certain extent, from secular Zionists who read the Bible merely “as a guidebook to human nature, and also to the flora, fauna and topography of Israel” (368). By contrast, the main driving force behind her Zionistic spirit was a traditional Jewish reading of the Bible. Interestingly, Unterman points out that she did not draw attention to herself as a female Bible scholar (chapter 14, Part II).

In “Part III: Methodology” (368-514), Unterman unfolds Leibowitz's negative approach to biblical criticism, extensive use of midrashim and medieval classical commentators, and her belief that knowledge of the Hebrew language in its entirety is a must for every earnest student of scripture. She was involved in adult Jewish education, mainly in teaching Bible per se, and rarely referring to ancient Near Eastern traditions and texts. Though Nehama worked to counter David Ben-Gurion's statement that “the Bible shines with its own light,” Unterman observes: “The commentaries were not intended to be studied on their own, but alongside the Tanach, so as illuminate, she believed” (369). Leibowitz imparted biblical interpretation to her students by utilizing drama, storytelling, and Hebrew poetry. In Unterman's words, “‘All of life is parshanut.’ Certainly, all of her was parshanut and parshanim. This was the arena in which her work made the most impact.” (368; italics original) Jewish scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, were also highly regarded and utilized by Leibowitz throughout her teaching career (chapter 19, 413-436). Though trained in scholarly circles, Leibowitz strongly disregarded their hermeneutical methods as inappropriate to biblical exegesis. The author notes that Leibowitz was rather critical towards, what she claimed to be, their poor knowledge of the classical Hebrew and anti-Semitic attitudes (415-19).

The volume concludes with an epilogue, bibliography, and a general index. Unterman's book would have been enhanced if she had included an index of scripture. Furthermore, a significant biographical query is lacking and probably needs to be addressed: what was Leibowitz's position on inter-faith dialogue (especially in light of her Jewish legacy)? Though it is quite understandable that an one-volume biography cannot be all-encompassing, I suppose that recovering her approach to other religions would enlighten other aspects of her life and career (e.g., some aspects of biblical interpretation).

In sum, Unterman's book is generally clear, well-written and well-documented. This book achieves its purpose of presenting Leibowitz's life along with some interesting photographs and stories (a number of them peppered with anecdotes and are quite funny), and investigation into her contributions to the field of HB/OT studies. It is filled out with many quotes from students and scholars deeply influenced by her scholarship. I would recommend it as a guide to all interested in the history of biblical interpretation, feminist scholarship, Jewish education, and contemporary Israeli Bible scholarship outside that of the “usual” scholarly, academic world. Indeed, Unterman's Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar is an enduring resource for scholars engaged in recovery of female Bible interpreters in the past and present.

Igal German, University of Toronto (Wycliffe College)