Queen of Questions: Nechama Leibowitz 

Nechama Leibowitz. Photo from Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Jerusalem 2009) by Yael Unterman, with permission from the publisher.

Editor’s Note: Nechama Leibowitz’s name has been spelled as both Nechama and Nehama.

On a torrid Jerusalem summer day in 1994, a package wrapped in brown paper was handed to Dr. Nechama Leibowitz while she was sitting shivah for her brother, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. It had been sent to her via airmail from the US. The variegated crowd that had come to pay condolence calls strained to see what was in it. The package contained several hundred condolence letters from the campers and staff at Camp Morasha, a Modern Orthodox sleepaway camp. Rabbi Saul Berman, the camp rabbi (who had attended Nechama’s shiurim some time earlier while on Sabbatical in Jerusalem) had told them about Nechama and had incorporated her methodology into the camp learning program. When he suggested that the campers and counselors write short condolence letters, there was an outpouring of sentiments, variations on the theme: “My mother went to your shiurim when she spent a year in university in Israel, and she says they inspired her to become a Hebrew school teacher;” “My husband, a rabbi, uses your books and Gilyonot questions in almost all the shiurim he gives.”

What was it about Nechama’s approach to Bible study that enabled her to impact thousands in the Diaspora and tens of thousands in Israel, be they laypeople, teachers, rabbinic scholars, academics, soldiers or kibbutznikim? Her students came from across the Jewish spectrum—secular, traditional and Orthodox, even including some Chareidim.

In the following article, we will respect her preference to be addressed sans any honorifics, although she was professor of education in Tel Aviv University and laureate of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest form of recognition.

Nechama’s main preoccupation was the development of an active approach to study in general, and to Torah study in particular. In an essay she wrote in 1943, she lamented the passivity that sometimes characterizes those who study a text without a mentor.

The problem is not that people misunderstand what is written, but rather that students think they understand, when actually they don’t. If a person does not understand a word or expression, the person will immediately realize it. But if the words do not ostensibly present any problems, and the sentences are clear, everything will seem simple and the student will think, “there is nothing here that I do not understand.” That is exactly the misunderstanding. The student does not realize the innovation, or what the verse is telling us, or what idea the verse is opposing. The student does not realize that there are questions embedded here.

Passivity during lectures worried her. One young woman would regularly doze off during shiurim. But it turned out that she was a laundress who worked the night shift. That was understandable. Nechama considered it laudable that the laundress made the attempt to attend shiurim during the day. What irked Nechama greatly were those who slept in class with their eyes wide open. “This passivity that characterizes listening to lectures, as well as text study, leads people to think they can learn effortlessly, without exertion, without a spiritual struggle with the text.”

But if you were going to check your analytical skills at the door, don’t come into Nechama’s beit midrash.

The most salient aspects of Nechama’s methodology centered on four stages or steps:

1. The kushya. Nechama is most famous for encouraging her students to ask, “What is bothering Rashi?” That is, what is the difficulty, the kushya, that Rashi or any commentator is addressing? A kushya is different from a question. A kushya has the form: Why does the verse say A whereas you might have thought B? An example of a question is: “What do we eat during Pesach?” But a kushya, as in the Four Kushiyot, is: “Why do we eat only matzah on Pesach whereas during the year we eat either matzah or bread?”
2. Once a student has pinpointed the difficulty in the Biblical passage, the second stage is to identify the essential differences between one parshan and another.
3. In the third stage Nechama might ask, “What are the pluses and minuses of this particular solution?” Nechama was often criticized for daring to ask, “What is the problem with the solution offered by Rashi?” But she was not swayed by the critics and insisted that this approach is necessary for active engagement with Torah and its commentators. Her rejoinder was that Rashi knew full well what the deficiencies were in his explanations but he realized that this was the best possible solution. She had the utmost emunat chachamim, belief in the Sages, rabbis and parshanim, past and present. But if you were going to check your analytical skills at the door, don’t come into Nechama’s beit midrash.
4. Lastly, Nechama would ask, “What meaning does this Biblical verse and commentary have for us? What insight do we gain for our lives?”

I’d like to illustrate how Nechama applied these four stages by drawing upon an example from the Gilayon of Vayakhel 1953.

In Shemot 38:8, a seemingly simple verse describes the copper washbasin that the priests used to consecrate their hands and feet before going to serve in the Mishkan.

The verse states: “And he made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors1 of the crowding women who had crowded at the door of the Tent of Meeting” (Shemot 38:8).

Rashi comments on four Hebrew words in this verse: “b’marot hatzovot asher tzavu—from the mirrors of the crowding women who had crowded . . . . ” (Note that the terms hatzovot and tzavu come from the same root as the word tzava, an army, host or crowd, as in the acronym for the IDF, Tzva Haganah LYisrael [Tzahal].)

To resolve the kushya, which we will soon identify, Rashi (b. 1040) cites about a third of a long Midrash Tanchuma:

Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these mirrors they did not withhold from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moshe rejected them because they were made to satisfy the evil inclination. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Accept the mirrors, for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women raised crowds of children in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more attractive than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands’ desire and would be with them, conceiving and giving birth. This is the meaning of b’marot hatzovot [mirrors of those who raised crowds of children].

What is bothering Rashi?
The difficulty, or kushya, that is troubling Rashi in this verse is in the seeming redundancy—“the mirrors of the crowding women who had crowded.” It would have sufficed to say “the mirrors of the women who had crowded.”

Using the text of the Midrash, Rashi resolves this apparent redundancy by giving two different meanings to the words deriving from the root word tzava. He proposes that the meaning of the verse is: “. . . the mirrors of the women—who raised crowds [of children]—who had crowded at the door of the Tent of Meeting.” The virtue of this explanation is that the extra “tzavu” is not superfluous at all.

One disadvantage is that Rashi seems to be diverging from the simple meaning, the peshat, of the term hatzovot, which is normally an intransitive verb that cannot take an object, but is used here in a transitive capacity: “the women who raised crowds.”

What’s the difference between Rashi and the Midrash?
When grammatical, syntactical, contextual or other solutions do not solve a kushya satisfactorily, Rashi will cite a midrash, or a part thereof, as he does in this verse. Here Nechama draws our attention to the original Midrash Tanchuma2 on Parashat Pekudei and poses the question: How and why did Rashi abridge the Midrash Tanchuma?

The Tanchuma reads:

What did the daughters of Israel do? They would go down to draw water from the river. Whereupon the Holy One blessed be He prepared small fishes for them inside their jars. They would cook some, sell some, and buy wine with the proceeds and go out into the fields and give their husbands to eat there. After they had eaten, they took their mirrors and looked into them together with their husbands. She said: “I am more attractive than you.” He said: “I am more attractive than you.” In the course of this tete-a-tete, their desire was aroused and they became fruitful and multiplied . . . (9:1)

Rashi abridged this into three sentences:

The women would go and bring their husbands food and drink and give them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more attractive than you.” And in this way they aroused their husband’s desire and would be with them, conceiving and giving birth.

The Tanchuma continues:

When Moshe saw the mirrors, he was furious with the women. He said to the men, “Take sticks and break the legs of those who brought them. What use are such mirrors?” Said the Holy One blessed be He to Moshe, “Moshe! You look down on them! It was these mirrors which raised up all these crowds of children in Egypt. Accept them!” (9:4)

Rashi, however, is concise:

. . . but Moshe rejected them because they were made to satisfy the evil inclination. Whereupon the Holy One blessed be He said to him, “Accept them.”

The Tanchuma has many more details than Rashi—the women are making fish and chips, getting their husbands tipsy, and taking selfies in their bronze mirrors. There is the dialogue between Moshe and the men and Moshe and Hashem.

Midrash is often action-packed, dramatic and literary, with lots of dialogue. Midrash is a homily or sermon and does much more than solve a textual kushya. Rashi, on the other hand, is highly economical and excerpts from the Midrash just enough to solve the kushya.

Photograph and design concept by Judah S. Harris, with inset photo of Nechama courtesy of her family (text has been blurred for purposes of printed publication).

What’s the difference between Rashi and Ibn Ezra?
Avraham Ibn Ezra, born in Spain a half-century after Rashi was born in France, takes a different tack in explaining why the women contributed their mirrors:

It is customary for every woman to make up her face every morning and look in a bronze or glass mirror in order to adjust her hairstyle and ornaments. The Israelite women behaved exactly as the Ishmaelite women today. But there were pious women in Israel who overcame this worldly temptation and freely gave away their mirrors, because they found no more need to beautify themselves but came instead daily to the door of the Tent of Meeting to pray and hear religious discourses for their edification. The text says: “ . . . who crowded at the door of the Tent of Meeting” because there were many of them.

Now come with me into Nechama’s classroom, or into her living room-cum-office or to an army base where Nechama is asking what the difference is between the two parshanim. She gives out small pieces of two-inch-square papers, the size of post-it notes, and instructs you to jot down the difference between Rashi and Ibn Ezra with respect to the mirrors. She then walks around among the students, who are busy scribbling, and looks at the answers. Typically, someone new to Nechama’s approach will write: “Rashi says that the women used their mirrors to attract their husbands and Hashem praised them for that. Ibn Ezra says that the women gave their mirrors away because they did not need them.” Nechama whispers a gentle rebuke. “You summarized what each commentator said. I did not ask for a summary. I asked for the difference in as few words as possible. Try again.”

The great pedagogical advantage in having students write answers rather than answer orally is that it gives the less experienced students a chance to think. If all the answers to a teacher’s questions are presented aloud by the students, the better students will answer and rob the others of a chance to work their way to an answer.

What irked Nechama greatly were those who slept in class with their eyes wide open.

While there is usually no absolutely correct or incorrect response, there is a range of appropriate answers, the more succinct the better. A veteran student put down on his scrap of paper: “For Rashi, mirrors serve a survivalist, life-giving purpose; for Ibn Ezra, mirrors evoke the triviality and vanity of their conventional use.” That answer can be further reduced to a mini-table with the heading: Mirrors: Rashi–positive. Ibn Ezra–negative.

We learned from this pasuk that the assertiveness of the Israelite women was absolutely pivotal to the survival of the Jewish people. The positive role of marital life and the raising of “crowds of children” is clear from the commentaries and Midrash.

It is interesting to note that the Gilayon of 1953 we presented here was one of the earlier ones. Nechama first sent out the Gilyonot, a one-woman correspondence course, in 1942. In that first decade she would write: “Look up Rashi on this verse,” “Find Ibn Ezra on this passage,” “Refer to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this verse,” “What does the Midrash say on this?” and she would intentionally send students to the bookshelves to look up the relevant commentators. This was part of her emphasis on active learning. However, when she received complaints from soldiers in the IDF on isolated outposts who wanted to answer the Gilyonot but had no access to a library, she changed her policy for their sake. Today, in the retyped Gilyonot on the web site www.nechama.org.il, the actual words of the commentators are included.

Nechama often expressed sadness that she and her husband were not graced with children. But actually, she was. The “crowds of children” who sent letters of condolences to Nechama in 1994 are now parents themselves. They, their teachers, and the thousands of teachers and laypeople in Israel who were taught by the Queen of Questions to ask questions—and above all, to love Torah—are her spiritual children.

1. Mirrors in Biblical times were made from highly polished bronze.
2. It is worthwhile to look at the original Tanchuma (Pekudei 9); it can be found in English and in Hebrew in editions of the Tanchuma or in Nechama’s Studies in Shemot (Pekudei, “Basin-and-Stand”). In addition, all the Gilyonot that Nechama produced weekly for thirty years—1,500 Gilyonot!—are in Hebrew on the posthumously established web site: www.nechama.org.il (see Vayakhel, 1953, B’marot Hatzovot).

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt co-authored Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition with Nobel Prize laureate Roald Hoffmann. Nechama Leibowitz was the aunt of Shira’s late husband Elhanan. Shira tries to incorporate Nechama’s methods not only in Tanach, but in all of the subjects she studies and teaches.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2018.