Was Nehama Leibowitz Too Traditional?

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The final chapter in Yaul Unterman’s Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar discusses the next generation(s) of scholarship after Nehama. It lists approaches and techniques that Nehama did not use but many of her students developed and adopted. This theme also comes up in some other chapters. It seems to me that the author was too sympathetic with these new approaches and failed to adequately defend Nehama. However, a few weeks ago I had a pleasant conversation with a prominent educator who is a Nehama traditionalist, and he gave me a spirited defense of Nehama’s approach.

The main competition for Nehama’s approach is that of R. Yoel Bin-Nun. R. Bin-Nun’s approach is described by R. Hayyim Angel in an article in Tradition (link). R. Bin-Nun and those who loosely follow his approach (and that of R. Mordechai Breuer) read the Bible with fresh eyes and, using a number of innovative methods, arrive at fascinating interpretations of familiar passages.

Click here to read moreNehama, on the other hand, generally surveyed the commentaries and evaluated their various interpretations. On rare occasions she offered her own interpretations, but mainly she dealt with the merits of previous commentaries and how they relate to the biblical text.

In other words, Nehama dealt with commentaries while R. Bin-Nun deals with the Bible itself. That is how someone partial to R. Bin-Nun’s approach would put it. A defender of Nehama would say that she believed that part of studying the text and exploring interpretive possibilities is to find out what earlier commentators said. Confident in their wisdom and insight, although reading them criticially, she first looked at the great commentaries of the past before offering her own innovation. In fact, ignoring those commentaries can be seen as a sign of arrogance. You think you are smarter than them and will be able to figure out everything that they have? If you understand them properly and still don’t find them convincing, then offer your own explanation. But first study what those greater than you had to say.

I’m no expert in R. Bin-Nun’s approach but from what I’ve heard, he does, in fact, look at other commentaries. However, and this is the real critique, he doesn’t teach them. Therefore, his students receive mainly his own insights and not primarily those of earlier great commentators.

Personally, I always look at the commentators first. But I consider R. Bin-Nun and those with similar approaches to be new commentators, whose ideas I include in my collection of commentaries. I’m not sure why Nehama did not do this as well, unless it is simply a matter of age and timing.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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