Was Bible Scholar Nechama Leibowitz A Feminist?

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

The main question discussed is Nehama’s relationship with feminism. On the one hand, she was a female Torah teacher long before they became common, as they now are in some communities. And she was such a unique educator with only one agenda — to teach Torah — that she broke through most barriers. In that sense, she was a feminist.

But her agenda was solely in regard to teaching Torah. She believed that she had something to teach and she was going to teach it. Other than that, though, she was entirely traditional. She was dead set against any type of religious innovation and often debated her students about this, some of whom devoted their lives to feminism — like Blu Greenberg and Prof. Tamar Ross. Students like Greenberg and Prof. Chana Safrai tried to convince Nehama, but Nehama consistently rebutted their advances. One time, R. Avi Weiss (not a student) visited her and gave her a copy of his book advocating women’s prayer groups. Nehama responded with a letter opposing the innovation (anyone have a copy of the letter?).

Unterman writes (p. 296):

In keeping only those mitzvot customary for women, Nehama did not feel deprived in any way. She viewed the desire to take on more mitzvot as a mdoern innovation resulting not from authentic religious emotion but from the influence of secular feminism. She was very outspoken on this issue. Had women fulfilled all their present obligations that they needed to go pursue some more? Had they run the gamut of charitable deeds? If God did not want women to lay tefillin then they should not — what need had they for a black box on their heads? Whoever wanted more devotion every morning should get up early and visit the sick.

She also repeatedly expressed the idea that raising children is more important than anything else and that she would have given up all of her accomplishments for a child of her own: "Nehama said explicitly she would have given it all up for a child. In response to a disparaging comment regarding women who choose children over career, she retorted, ‘Do you think I’d be writing these gilyonot if I had children?!’" (pp. 284-285)

I think in some respects Nehama was a feminist, but in the sense that nowadays almost everyone is. Some feminist attitudes have become so mainstream that they are almost not noticed. Concepts like "equal pay for equal work" are also feminist ideas, and Nehama embraced them just like almost all of us embrace them. However, the ideas that are currently associated with feminism are those that she rejected.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: I know one of my rebbeim, also a dean of a YU school at the time, described her as one of (actually, he may well have said "the") greatest talmid chacham alive, and stood when she entered a room.

DF POSTS: I dont think NL was a torah scholar. Rather, she was a product of the soft bigotry of low expectations. That is, because she was a woman, and because she was championed by some against her will as though she was a feminist, her actual product was elevated far beyond what it deserved intrinsically. I have read through a fair amount of her work, and have never been impressed. Had the same work been written by Norman Leibowitz, it never would have sold anything.

Now, she may have been a great TEACHER. And, curiously, her status as a woman, and her non judgmentral nature, made her able to teach Torah to many people who might otherwise never have been exposed to it. So she was undeniably a great woman, worthy of a biography. But that is not the same as being a great torah scholar.

GIL WRITES: I was very underwhelmed by her books as well. From what I’ve been told, they don’t include her best material. The biography explains the genesis of the books — she wasn’t generally happy about writing up insights because that stops people from thinking on their own and she had to be pressured to write these, which were intended for lazy, stupid people.


Hello Gil and everyone,

Yasher Kokacha to Gil for posting this and I’m glad that it is creating discussion around NL’s feminism and about her work in general. One of my hopes for the book was to generate further discussion on topics of great importance that arise when looking at her life and works.

I’m not sure it’s my place to get involved here, and I also don’t believe that my research makes me necessarily more authoritative when it comes to matters of opinion, but I do have some grasp of facts; and as such was asked to respond to DF’s comment about NL deserving of less credit than given her, and being a great teacher and not a "Torah scholar."

I do not believe for a moment that she was "a product of the soft bigotry of low expectations." I do not recall hearing of any case where she was hired *because* she was a woman, or given any breaks due to her gender. On the contrary, testimony by various people bears out that they were initially prejudiced *against* her for being a woman; and that she was hired *despite* her being a woman. Some brilliant and critical men whom I interviewed, were completely won over by Nehama’s work once they could get past the fact of her being a woman. I refer DF to the chapter in my book for more details.

DF writes: "her actual product was elevated far beyond what it deserved intrinsically." Not everyone will love the books, depending on what one is looking for. Yet many people, even today, open these books and are wowed by them (a very intelligent Jewish educator friend opened them almost against her will, assuming they would be boring, and found many precious gems in there); and certainly when they first appeared, there was nothing like them in existence.

We have to remember that what she did in her work was revolutionary for the time; today we might shrug when we see them and say "what’s the big chiddush", and that itself testifies to their importance, because NL’s effect on how we see commentaries has been so great upon all of us that we are entirely used to that way of thinking now and it seems banal. But before her, who was analysing the commentaries in this way? Several people have compared what she did to the Brisker derech in Talmud, in its clarity, structure and fine analysis. This is not even to speak of the literary and psychological insights she achieved, way before this was being done by scholars both in academia and in the Torah world.

Many of her words are still fresh and pertinent, decades after she wrote them. It is true that many people today are looking for more than NL can provide. That is only natural, the world moves on and revolutions become mainstream. This does not take away from the value of her work. Would we turn to Freud and say dismissively, "oh well, neuroses, yes everyone knows about that, tell me something new"?

DF is however raising an important point, which was that Nehama saw herself primarily as a teacher, not a scholar. So did her academic peers, which was why she was appointed Professor of Bible Education at Tel Aviv University, not of Bible (though this was also to do with her avoidance of Biblical Criticism, I believe). Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves what a scholar is. I believe that if we define a scholar as someone who intelligently researches a topic, analyses it, exhibits expertise in it and contributes original insights, NL certainly qualifies. And what is a "Torah scholar"? Only someone who has written chiddushim on Talmud? Or someone who has devoted her life to study of Torah, and taught and written brilliant insights on it that have changed the lives of thousands?

While I am posting here, I’d like to note that I did not in fact originally write twice as much as was eventually published. I included all the material I wished to, after much re-reading to try to skim off repetitions. Perhaps this error originated in the history of the book by Hayuta Deutsch; I heard that she had to cut out a third of her material. I’d like to take the opportunity to add that Hayuta’s book is certainly interesting and valuable. She covers some biographical aspects that I omitted (e.g. family background, Israeli social circles), while I cover methodological and philosophical aspects she does not deal with. These are two different books, with different purposes. Anyone wanting to get a rounded picture of Nehama Leibowitz is recommended to read both.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Feminism, Orthodoxy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.