Torah Con­ver­sa­tions with Nechama Leibowitz

Ben­jamin S. Yasgur

  • Review
By – March 6, 2013

Nechama Lei­bowitz was an intense­ly pri­vate indi­vid­ual. In the thou­sands — if not tens of thou­sands — of class­es she taught and lec­tures she gave in a career that spanned over six­ty years, she nev­er allowed her­self to be filmed or videoed, and very rarely per­mit­ted her­self to be record­ed on tape. (Rab­bi Yas­gur reports this idio­syn­crasy in detail.) I was present on occa­sion when Nechama expelled some­one from her lec­ture hall for con­ceal­ing a tape recorder. It is due pri­mar­i­ly to her stu­dents and cor­re­spon­dents, like Rab­bi Ben­jamin Yas­gur, that we are able to glimpse the per­son behind the pub­lic aura.

Nechama’s pub­lic reserve shel­tered an unaf­fect­ed pri­vate ret­i­cence. Nechama was always Nechama: not Dr. Lei­bowitz (PhD from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mar­burg, Ger­many), not Pro­fes­sor Lei­bowitz (of Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty); just Nechama. Per­haps the great­est trib­ute to her lies not so much in the pub­li­ca­tion of pre­vi­ous­ly undis­closed insights and inter­pre­ta­tions, as in the self-evi­dent fact that Rab­bi Yas­gur is as fine­ly attuned to the Torah text as Nechama encour­aged her stu­dents to be, and that he is car­ry­ing her work for­ward through his exem­plary ser­vice with his pul­pits and pupils.

Rab­bi Yasgur’s book pro­vides insights into a score of Torah texts, punc­tu­at­ed by the records of exchanges he had with Nechama over those inter­pre­ta­tions — in per­son or via cor­re­spon­dence. The Torah lessons, per se, need no fur­ther appro­ba­tion. Instead, I would like to elab­o­rate an insight the book offers into the mas­ter teacher her­self. In expound­ing on the moral of the sto­ry of God’s vis­it to Abra­ham short­ly after his cir­cum­ci­sion, Rab­bi Yas­gur quotes Nechama as stat­ing that, it is more impor­tant to offer help… than Divine revelation.”

Noth­ing was of greater impor­tance to Nechama than giv­ing — par­tic­u­lar­ly of her­self. This is what impelled her to vis­it near­ly every locale in Israel to offer Torah lessons in kib­butz­im, army bases, uni­ver­si­ties, and syn­a­gogues alike. It also accounts for one of her favorite apho­risms about her­self — one that I heard per­son­al­ly many times but have not yet seen report­ed in any of the annals of Nechama — and I offer it here in grat­i­tude to Rab­bi Yas­gur for shar­ing his con­ver­sa­tions with her. In explain­ing her com­pul­sion to teach, Nechama would say: More than the calf wants to suck­le, the cow wants to nurse.”

This gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it also char­ac­ter­izes Rab­bi Yasgur’s book.

Moshe Sokolow, Ph.D., is the Fanya Gottes­feld-Heller Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion at the Azrieli Grad­u­ate School, Yeshi­va University.

Discussion Questions