What would Nechama Lebowitz say about the new approach to learning Tanach?

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Ekev 5772 – translated by R. Blumberg]

As is well-known, Professor Nechama Lebowitz left her stamp on the study of Tanach, not just amongst adults, but also, through her methodological approach, amongst students of Israeli schools. She worked hard to make this study meaningful and to engrave it deeply in the students’ memories.

So what would she say about the new approaches to the study of Tanach being advanced? Actually, there’s no need to guess, because the issue came up when she was yet alive. It is recounted in Chevata Deutch’s book “Nechama”. There, in Chapter 15, Chevata tells the story of how some twenty years ago, a Rabbi, one of her own teachers, presented himself for the position of national superintendent of Tanach Studies, in order to foment a revolution in the way it was taught. What he had in mind was an interdisciplinary approach. He thought a new –Land-of-Israel-school-of-thought should be created that would not fear the new Tanach research, but would use it to expand the field of study. He argued against Nechama Lebowitz, whose whole aim was simply to transmit knowledge and understanding. In his method, the Rabbi argued, everything begins with love.  Availing ourselves of Biblical realism answers this “love” by connecting the student to the Torah,  and saying to him, “The Torah is relevant in the here and now.”

Obviously, Nechama Lebowitz also sought to endear Torah learning to the student, but the question was how to do it. She made light of using Biblical realism, and viewed it as cheap exhibitionism. To her, it seemed foreign and petty.

She greatly loved, for example, to teach Tehilim Chapter 23, “Hashem is my shepherd, I shall not want.” To the argument that you can not understand the chapter without understanding shepherding concepts, she responded with ridicule, explaining that the Torah transcends time and is universal, and it should not be lowered down to the earth.

Multi-disciplinary study includes geography, archaeology, grammar and history, and not just commentaries as a “crutch”,  in that Rabbi’s words. Lebowitz, by contrast, sought to distance herself from all this. She was quite familiar with those approaches - after all, she had studied in Germany at the Universities of Heidelberg, Marburg and Berlin, and at the Advanced Beit Midrash for Jewish Studies at Berlin, which greatly appreciated these fields. And she was awarded a PhD from the University of Marburg. She was an expert in the school of Biblical Criticism! Yet in contrast to those who believe that one must be familiar with Biblical Criticism in order to confront it, she determined that the best approach is to ignore it by staying close to the traditional commentaries. She held that one must learn “the opus itself, not the stages of its coming into being, not the factors that influence its creation and not the story and the content out of which it sprouted, but the object itself. Likewise, it mustn’t be studied as a document attesting to things outside of itself, regarding the moment of its creation in the religious, political or economic sphere. In short, Bible mustn’t be studied as an entity that reflects a period, but as one speaking on its own behalf.”

She writes, for example, about the beginning of Parashat Masa’ei: “Before us we have about forty verses consisting of nothing but the names of places.  This dry list is certainly of great interest to scholars of antiquities and geographers who toil to identify names, but what does it have to do with the Torah, which, as the Divine poet wrote in Tehilim (19:8-9) is “enlightening”, “brings one joy”, and “restore’s one’s sanity”? After all, it was that way, and not as grist for archaeological, historical and geographical stories that its true students of every generation viewed it, always searching for what was promised to us in its regard, ‘For I give you good instruction” (Mishlei 4:2). And what is the good instruction hidden in this list of names? And as though the Torah already wished to warn us that we mustn’t make light of such a list of names, which for the person seeing with human eyes seems devoid of content, it therefore, precisely here, prefaced the list with the words: ‘Moshe recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by Hashem’ (Bemidbar 33:2).”

The rule to be learned is this: The Torah constitutes good instruction. It restores one’s sanity. It is enlightening. It sets out to teach us moral lessons!

Therefore, the program that was being presented to the schools, and that was set to replace, partially, the previous approach, made Nechama Lebowitz shudder. Whoever tried to convince her otherwise could not persuade her in the slightest degree.

Obviously, we mustn’t accuse her of arrogance because she steadfastly held on to her approach. Everyone knows that besides her having been a professor, she also lectured to the masses, was full of humility, and was known for her simple way of life. Her students called her “Nechama”, and she preferred the title of “teacher” to that of “professor”. “Teacher” is what appears on her tombstone.

Here is an example of her work: There is a well-known question: After Yosef rose to greatness, why didn’t he send off in search of his father? To this a new interpretation was offered: Yosef thought that his father had accepted the brothers’ argument and had rejected him the way Avraham had rejected Yishmael and Yitzchak had rejected Esav.

Yet Nechama Lebowitz responded to this interpretation, saying: It could not be that Yosef would suspect his father of such! It could not be that Yaakov would stop loving Yosef!

Another example: A theory arose according to which the sin for which King Shaul lost his kingdom was not his taking spoils from Amalek and sparing Agag – the reasons mentioned by the Prophet Shmuel in his rebuke of Shaul to explain his severe punishment – but rather his wiping out of only part of Amalek rather than all of it.

Nechama Lebowitz asked: If so, why didn’t Shmuel point this out to him? The response offered was that Shmuel did not know…

For Lebowitz, reading the Tanach without the commentaries constituted conceit, even arrogance.

Indeed, above all else, Nechama Lebowitz was a great educator. She therefore “ascribed little importance to the question of whether the student knows the source of the educational truth he has absorbed from the sources – Scripture itself or our Sages’ commentaries. She had a wealth of stories, at the center of each of which stood a simple, unlearned person, who had absorbed a moral/educational idea from our Rabbinical commentaries and had accidentally ascribed that idea to Scripture itself. For example, a mother castigated her son for mistreating a cat, and she quoted to him what was ‘written in the Torah’ about Moshe saving the young goat. In another case, a soldier who had fought in Sinai related how he and his comrades fell under heavy fire. Suddenly one of them was wounded, and the medic endangered himself and crawled, under fire, to administer first-aid.  ‘Surely he got this from Avraham, whom the Torah says jumped into a fiery furnace,’ explained the soldier. Nechama quoted him excitedly, saying, ‘What does it matter where he learned his self-sacrifice from? So what if people get confused, as long as they take away values and models to apply throughout their lives.”

Simply put, she did not teach in an academic manner. Her approach, rather, was based on faith, education, Rabbinic commentaries and tradition.