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Nehama Leibowitz and Tanakh Study: Yesterday and Today – Academic Write-Up

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Nehama Leibowitz Teaching

Celebrating one of the most influential teachers of Tanakh in recent decades, over 200 Revel students, alumni, and faculty—joined by YU undergraduates and members of the Jewish community at large—gathered for the first of Revel’s special lecture events  this year: “Nehama Leibowitz and Tanakh Study: Yesterday and Today.” The event, made possible by the Dr. Monique and Mordecai D. Katz Endowed Lecture Fund, was hosted by Revel on October 22, 2013 at YU’s Wilf Campus. Presentations included personal and academic perspectives on the life and legacy of Nehama, as the master pedagogue humbly preferred to be called.

The evening program began with a video that reflected upon Nehama’s early career from the point-of-view of Mrs. Esther Manischewitz (née Ostrovsky), her neighbor, family friend, and student from the 1930s. The video brought viewers back to the Jerusalem of that era through images and stories, including Nehama’s nightly strolls with her husband, Lipman, Shabbat visits to her parents, daily bus rides—and her demanding signature teaching style.

Jerusalem 1930s

Jerusalem 1930s

Mrs. Manischewitz’s father and uncle were prominent rabbinic figures in Jerusalem at the time, and were among the founders of the Qiryat Moshe neighborhood, where Mrs. Manischewitz was born in 1922.  Nehama and Lipman Leibowitz moved into the neighborhood in 1930 as newlyweds, and Nehama’s parents joined them from Berlin in 1936, moving into a house two doors down from the Ostrovsky family. As a young girl, Esther used to take the bus into town (as Qiryat Moshe was considered “out of town” then) to go to school together with Nehama, then a young teacher.

 

Their relationship deepened when Esther became Nehama’s student in the Mizrahi Women’s Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem, which had been founded by Rabbi Moshe Ostrovsky, Esther’s uncle. After graduating the seminary in 1942, Esther secured a teaching job as a first grade-teacher at the Tahkemoni elementary school in Tel Aviv. Until that point, the boys-only Tahkemoni school had an all-male teaching staff. But during World War II it became difficult to find qualified men to teach, and so for the first time the administration decided to hire a female teacher—Esther Ostrovsky, the only woman in the school of 1000 men.

Esther Ostrovsky's First Grade Class

Esther Ostrovsky’s First Grade Class

On a trip to the US in 1950, Esther met her husband, Bill Manischewitz, and the couple would be among the founding members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Teaneck, New Jersey. Even after moving to America, the lessons and values Esther learned from Nehama remained vividly with her and her family. It is well known that Nehama was an ardent Zionist and passionately believed that Jews should live in Israel. Mrs. Manischewitz shared this belief and felt pangs of guilt for leaving Israel. (The family did move back to Israel with their three daughters from 1964 to 1967, at which point they had to return to the US.) Recognizing that her mission and contributions would be based in America, Mrs. Manischewitz dedicated herself for decades to strengthening the Jewish community in this country, and was among the five founding members of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.

 

Many among the audience could relate to Mrs. Manischewitz’s experiences, whether teaching from a young age, studying under challenging professors, yearning for Eretz Yisrael, being involved in community work, or taking out her well-worn Nehama Leibowitz volumes for study on Shabbat.  The audience was especially fortunate to have Mrs. Manischewitz physically present at the program in addition to seeing and hearing her on camera.

 

Esther Manischewitz and Mordechai Cohen

Esther Manischewitz and Mordechai Cohen

The evening continued with an academic lecture by Mordechai Cohen, Associate Dean and Professor of Bible at Revel. Cohen focused on identifying the unique niche Nehama filled in the realm of Bible study.  She bridged two worlds of scholarship, faithfully contending with the traditional Jewish commentaries while employing the methodologies and standards of modern academic Bible study.

 

Representing a special integration of Torah and Madda, Nehama brought forth a new appreciation of the Jewish exegetical tradition in light of the methods of literary analysis and close reading associated with the twentieth-century school of “New Criticism.” Educated in Berlin in the 1920’s, Nehama was deeply influenced by Franz Rosensweig, Martin Buber, and the latter’s student, Ludwig Strauss (with whom Nehama would become very close in Israel), who applied methods of close reading to the Bible—as one would apply to literature. As described by Robert Alter in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, this approach requires paying “discriminating attention” to the Bible’s careful uses of diction, tone, syntax, and word arrangement in order to fully understand both its explicit messages and subtle overtones.

 

Nehama pointed out that the classical Jewish Bible commentators, such as Rashi, Radak, and Ramban, intuitively applied these techniques when interpreting Tanakh. Their tradition and training, predicated on the belief in the divine authorship of Scripture, required that they be sensitive to nuances in phrasing, syntax, and language. The Rabbis of the midrash and later traditional commentators took into account not only what the Bible says, but also how it says it. Sara Reinitz, a Revel doctoral student who attended the lecture, remarked that she founded it illuminating to learn of “Nehama Leibowitz’s insistence that the comments of the parshanim (commentators) are directly motivated by the nuances of the pesuqim (verses).” Reinitz found it helpful that Cohen brought specific “examples in which Nehama Leibowitz showed that a seemingly extraneous midrashic comment by Rashi actually reflects astute attention to the wording of the pesuqim.”

 

Nehama showed how even the theoretical underpinnings of the new critical literary approach can be identified in traditional Jewish sources. Citing a reference to the Torah as poetry (shirah) in Deut 31:19, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 1816-1893), in the introduction to his Torah commentary, explains that this equation has hermeneutical ramifications. It is well known, he says, that poetry calls for reading “between the lines,” as opposed to prose, which aims to make its meaning obvious. For the Netziv, scrutinizing every nuance of the text is a necessary component of Torah interpretation as well. In his opinion, such extrapolations must be deemed part of the peshat (the sense of the text itself) and not merely midrashic homiletics.

 

The method of New Criticism was first applied to European (German, French, and English) literature and was designed as an alternative to the historical-critical method that reigned in earlier literary scholarship. Nehama Leibowitz likewise regarded the New Criticism as a viable scholarly response to the historical-critical methods that had been applied to the Bible, and which yielded the Documentary Hypothesis that viewed the Torah as a patchwork of contradictory sources. The aim of historical-critical scholarship was to untangle those sources and use them to trace the development of the history of the Israelite religion. The New Criticism, on the other hand, argued that a literary work must be analyzed as an integrated artistic work without consideration of its earlier sources or stages of development.

 

Cohen explained the distinction between these two literary methods with a helpful metaphor: one grasps the meaning of a painting by looking carefully at the total picture in one’s view. Though the artist may have had various sources of inspiration, and even may have created the painting in stages, those are not visible to the viewer, nor are they relevant to the painting’s interpretation. The New Critical method that Nehama applied to Tanakh, likewise, views it as a work of literary art to be analyzed based on the totality of the biblical text that we encounter.

 

These tenets inspired every aspect of Nehama’s study of Tanakh.  Her trademark question, Mah qasheh le-Rashi? (What is the difficulty that Rashi comes to resolve by citing his midrashic source?), in fact, is based on the assumption that Rashi engaged in close reading and that he used midrashic interpretations to reveal the hidden overtones and connotations conveyed by the biblical text—which Nehama considered to be peshat.

 

To illustrate, Cohen cited Rashi’s comment on Job 2:10, “in all this Job did not sin with his lips,” which describes how the righteous man defied Satan’s attempts to bring him to curse God by causing his terrible suffering. Rashi, drawing upon the Talmud, remarks, “In his heart he sinned.” What can justify this negative inference from what would appear to be a praise of Job’s steadfast faith? Indeed, Rashbam, in his commentary on this verse, specifically rejects the Talmudic inference and insists that according to the peshat Job sinned neither in his heart nor with his lips. The reasoning behind Rashi’s interpretation, in the spirit of Nehama’s approach, emerges by comparing this verse with an earlier one that describes how Job overcame the initial round of calamities that befell him—the loss of his wealth and children—after which the narrator reports, “In all this Job did not sin” (Job 1:23). As a sensitive reader, Rashi noticed the subtle difference made by the extra words: in the first account, the characterization of Job’s faith is absolute, which implies that the added qualifier “with his lips” in the second account connotes that something has changed in his heart. According to Nehama, this sort of interpretation is not homiletical, despite being based on a talmudic statement. Through his close reading, Rashi here remains true to his goal of interpreting peshuto shel miqra, which requires sensitivity to the nuances of the biblical narrative— as advocated both by the Netziv and the theory of New Criticism.

 

To further understand how Nehama drew upon literary theory in her study of Tanakh, Cohen presented her adaptation of Ludwig Strauss’s characterization of reading literature as a “reproduction of the text.” Drawing upon the New Criticism, Strauss argued that the sensitive reader ultimately is responsible for shaping the text by filling in gaps and providing a framework for its understanding. Nehama used with an architectural analogy to illustrate this: the text is like the architect’s blueprint, and the reader builds the structure with materials provided by his or her understanding. Nehama found this understanding to be an effective way of conceptualizing the relationship between the text of the Tanakh and the interpretations offered by the traditional Jewish commentators. By her account, they are active interpreters of the biblical text, shaping its meaning. Cohen illustrated this notion through an analysis of Nahmanides’ description of the book of Exodus as “the book of exile and redemption.” Though this way of viewing the biblical book in its totality can be cogently defended, Cohen observed that ultimately it is founded on a number of assumptions made by Nahmanides, and as such is his subjective interpretation. Rather than viewing this as a fault, we may regard this as Nahmanides’ active “reproduction of the text.”

 

Audience

Audience

As Cohen observed, Strauss’ theoretical perspective yields a profound understanding of the talmudic adage, “These and those are the words of the living God,” i.e., two conflicting interpretations of the Torah can be correct even though they would seem to be mutually exclusive. This, of course, is a necessary foundation for Orthodox study of the Tanakh, for virtually every verse is given multiple interpretations by the traditional commentators, yielding quite different readings. If Torah interpretation is simply a matter of ascertaining the “objective” meaning, “what the text itself really says” (as commentators like Abraham Ibn Ezra believed), then there can be only one correct interpretation. But in light of the insight of the New Criticism that the interpreter applies his or her imagination to the text we can better understand how multiple interpretations can be valid, as both are legitimate active readings of the text. Cohen offered a number of illustrations of this principle, including the above-mentioned debate between Rashi and Rashbam on Job 2:10. For Rashbam, Job remains absolutely steadfast in his faith, with no change even after a second round of tribulations brought upon him by Satan. Rashi, however, adopts a more nuanced approach. Job is still a righteous man, holding on to his faith and refusing to curse God openly; but he cannot help having doubts in his heart. As Cohen observed, the text of Job is open to multiple interpretations, which are actualized by our great commentators.

 

Cohen concluded by noting trends in Jewish Bible scholarship in the second half of the 20th century that Nehama Leibowitz resisted, including the increasingly popular method of interpreting Tanakh based on newly found archaeological evidence. This approach, which typically aims to reconstruct the historical realities underlying the biblical text, has many adherents in the modern State of Israel, where it is possible to retrace the steps of the forefathers and pinpoint precise locations of events described in the Bible. For Nehama, however, Tanakh cannot be reduced to mere history. It is, rather, the word of God expressed in a literary form that is necessarily subject to multiple interpretations,as embodied in the classical tradition of Jewish commentary.

By the end of the evening, attendees felt as though they had been granted a personal connection with Nehama Leibowitz as well as an intellectually stimulating analysis of her scholarship. , “The two parts of the program combined to offer a holistic view of Nehama Leibowitz,” remarked Mrs. Yael Goldfischer, a Revel alumna and Chair of the Humash department at the Frisch School. “I enjoyed hearing the personal anecdotes that both Mrs. Manischewitz and Dr. Cohen shared about their teacher, and feel that I now have a greater understanding of her impact on the way we look at Tanakh.”

This essay was written by Ahuva Gold, currently a Revel MA Bible student and alumni liaison. For a more general overview of this event, see the earlier post by Yaelle Frohlich, Revel Alumni Coordinator. Photos courtesy of Sam Ulrich.

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