Monday, December 21, 2020

Nehama Leibowitz- a Rashi for our day


Nechama Liebowitz- a Rashi for our day 


Follow this link for a video recording of my discussion 12/19/20

I had the pleasure of sitting in Nechama Leibowitz’s class at the Hebrew University in a special course she gave for American students on Rashi and his methods back in 1969. Years later, when I lived in Israel and ran a program, for Jewish studies at Bet Berl for the HIstadrut, I hosted her as one of my guest lecturers ( as I also did for her equally famous brother, Yeshayahu Leibovitz).

She was a classic “ yekke” ( although the family hailed from Latvia) in her intellectual perspective and style.  Decorum was always important; we Americans were all chewing gum innclass, so she would say, in classical Biblical Hebrew, “ Lo le’ha’aolt gera” ( don’t regurgitate the cud), which we all realized is based on  the definition of a kosher animal, like a cow, “ maaleh gera”, that regurgitates its stomach contents to chew it again!.

Like other German- Jewish intellectuals of that period, she had her hallmark “beret”.

Young teacher

The older teacher


Other examples-

 Heschel in his beret on the Selma march


 My father in his beret as State Rabbi in Frankfurt, because he refused to wear the " bishop's hat" of the German clergy.



Background:From multiple sources, [ Wikipdeia.]

Nehama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, Latvia, exposed to Jewish and general ( which meant German) culture.  In 1919 the family moved to Berlin, where Leibowitz taught, wrote articles and studied for her doctorate at  University of Marburg on, Techniques in the Translations of German-Jewish Biblical Translations. Zionsit family- moved to Israel (c. 1930).

She traveled around the country on buses, in taxis and on airplanes teaching Bible and commentaries to teachers, new immigrants, soldiers, kibbutzniks and thousands of ordinary people. Taught at Religious Zionist Teacher’s Seminary, then , 1957, taught at TAU, earned professorship at Tel-Aviv University in 1968.

[ Note – Israeli universities, like Europe, do not give the title “Professor” easily, unlike US universities, where full professor rank is achieved much sooner . Israel, you had to wait until one of the older faculty has gone on to the next world, or at least so it was back in the day]

Taught at Hebrew University and was awarded several prizes in the course of her life, including the prestigious Israel Prize in the Field of Education (1956).

Her teaching

In 1942, Leibowitz began mailing out stencils of questions on the weekly Torah reading to anyone who requested them. These worksheets, which she called gilyonot (pages) would be sent back to her, and she would personally review them and return them with corrections and comments. They became very popular and in demand by people from all sectors of Israeli society. In 1954, Leibowitz began publishing her "Studies", which included many of the questions that appeared on her study sheets, along with selected traditional commentaries and her own notes on them. Over time, these studies were collected into five books, one for each book of the Torah. The five books were subsequently translated into English by Rabbi Dr. Aryeh (Laibel/Leonard) Newman [.I have several volumes myself and they have always served as valuable food for thought for preparing commentary on the weekly portion]


She was a deeply religious person, but of the sort that emphasized halakhah and Torah study, moral responsibility, ethics and humanistic focus, rather than ecstatic and mystical dimensions, which she feared might prove shallow or transient. Thus she had little to do with Hasidism or Kabbalah.

When asked to describe her methods she replied, "I have no derech... I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” [6] 

[Note: That is what made Rashi famous—it was not so much his original statements, as his decision what sources he would choose, and thereby shaped the classic Jewish understanding of the Chumash.]


“ a new conception of Torah study. The Yeshiva world focused almost exclusively on Talmud, and the secular world interest lay in Biblical Criticism, archeology and history. She—and her students after her—revolutionized the world of Torah study; and today, Leibowitz’s question, “What’s Rashi’s difficulty?” is commonplace, as is her method encouraging comparison and evaluation of commentaries.”

 Leibowitz adopted and expanded upon various new techniques for literary analysis. She felt that these were very close to the Midrashic method and that of the Sages and commentaries, with their close reading of the text …, indeed, one of the pioneers in the literary-aesthetic approach to Biblical interpretation. Some of her work also bears an affinity to postmodernist theories.

She was noted for her modest demeanor coupled with wry wit, and always preferred the title of "teacher" over the more prestigious "professor." In accordance with her request, "מורה" (morah, "teacher") is the only word inscribed on her tombstone, other than her name and dates. 

[Regarding today’s squabble about the use of “ Dr”. title for a non -MD.

 My father had a doctorate in Poli Sci. He came to Berlin to study Rabbinics. He knocked on the door of one of his professors and when asked” Who is it “ replied “ Weinberg.” To which the answer was,” You may not say “ Weinberg”- you must say “Dr. Weinberg”. You can use the name, without title, only when you are famous.  In European society, tiles are much more important than in American society. My father was Rabbiner Dr, and my mother was Frau Rabbiner D. Here, in the heydays of hippiedom and New Left, we, as young Rabbis , were going out as ‘ Norb”]

She was strict on marking mistakes in Hebrew test papers, and hated the code-switching "Heblish" of some anglophone immigrants. [To this charge, I admit guilty as a young graduate student a Hebrew U]


As a feminist-she wasn’t.

Leibowitz also opposed the ideas of feminism and the feminist movement. . . While she upheld equal pay and rights for women, Leibowitz did not consciously desire to change the balance of designated gender roles within traditional Jewish society. Leibowitz refused to acknowledge that she was a revolutionary in any way; but ultimately her unique achievements changed Orthodox society’s perception of a woman’s capabilities and undoubtedly opened doors for the female Torah scholars who followed; this itself is proof of the power of gradual, evolutionary change.(


Here is the text of her work on this weeks Torah reading, Miketz ( Genesis 44:1 ff) on Joseph and Pharaoh’s dream. In my discussion, I show how she is eclectic in her sources, including traditional as well as non-Orthodox commentators, and, in truly Talmudic dialectic style, pits one against the other to lead the reader to her conclusion. I have added short notes on her sources as well .

Monday, December 7, 2020

Love's Spur to Greatness- A triangle of two great Jewish Women and One Great Jewish Man


Love's Spur to Greatness- A triangle of two great Jewish Women and One Great Jewish Man

Follow this link for the Shabbat Service and discussion:

We are starting a series on great Jewish thinkers and when I announced it, I was asked- what about some of the great Jewish women thinkers! 

To be honest- while I don’t deny that there were great Jewish women thinkers in all ages, in practical fact, women had no access to

 a) huge gatherings of admirers to record their words

 b) they would have had trouble accessing the scribes needed to copy and spread their teachings

c) they were rarely given the opportunity for higher education.

There were always exceptions: Deborah-war and poetry; Huldah- prophecy; Bruriah- halakhah; the Maid of Lublin-Chasidic rule. So too for the world at large-- for hundreds of Greek poets & philosophers, one Sappho of Lesbos. Here and there, a Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who had a beard in all her images, a Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, or a Golda Meir, the “ only man in the government.”

Most powerful women, we know, preferred to be the power behind the throne, like Esther, something we all know from the game of Chess, where the king is merely the Queen’s ultimate pawn.

This changed, universally, as medicine over took biology, women lived past childbirth and were worth more outside the house than inside, a development of the past two or three centuries. So, only now, are we seeing women dominate Jewish positions of leadership in Rabbinics and Jewish academics, as in the larger world. ( For students of Jewish intellectual trends, in the words of Heine, Wie Es Christelt Sich, so Juedelt Es Sich – As go the Christians, so go the Jews).

With that, I will take a look at some intriguing figures, who broke with the mold of the past while still being very traditionally Jewish.

My first look will be very unconventional.

II. The odd triangle

I.                     Last year in Rabbinical school, we each gave student sermon on Shabbat to service with faculty and fellow students. I had just come back from a year in Israel-spoke on how we should be cultivating the equivalent of Conservative Judaism there. Nice, sort of lecture-like, but I was honored to have Adelle Ginzburg,” Mama G” at that time, of a ripe old age, in my crowd, and she seemed to like my talk. So, who was Adelle Ginzberg? The answer requires first answering who was Prof. Louis Ginzburg? What does all this have to do with Hadassah Hospital in Israel?



II.                   When I was a young student, I enjoyed a book in my father’s library called, Legends of the Jews. It was a recasting of the most popular of Midrashic lore and legends as if it were a narrative, a kind of historical novel, in one volume. Now, when you here someone say, the “midrash says”, keep in mind that it is almost always a simplification of a highly arcane literary exercise, weaving word games into stories, connecting seeming contradictions into one whole. This book had taken out the intricacies and created a moving narrative of ancient Judaism from creation into the future. I then discovered the original version of the Legends, Four volumes of narrative, and two volumes of very tiny print footnotes, citing sources and comparative literature from antiquity. early and late Midrashim, Philo, Josephus, the Apocrypha, and the Church Fathers. It was considered the go-to source on Jewish lore, that Clarence Darrow cited form it in the Scopes Monkey Trial! So who was it that created this great work?


Professor Louis Ginzberg, the husband of the Adelle Ginzberg that I just mentioned.

What was so important about him?


GINZBERG, LOUIS (1873–1953), one of the outstanding Talmud scholars of the first half of the 20th century; leader and the major halakhic authority of the Conservative movement in North America. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Ginzberg received a typical East European Jewish education:Study at the Telz and Slobodka yeshivot, and doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1898 for his study of the midrashim quoted by the Church Fathers.He remained an observant Jew but followed the path of Wissenschaft des Judentums, academically critical study .

Ginzberg was a brilliant polymath, "a walking encyclopedia." He knew most of the Bible by heart at age seven and had mastered much of rabbinic literature by age 14. His magnum opus, The Legends of the Jews, contains 36,000 references which Ginzberg kept in his head. In addition to rabbinics, Ginzberg was an expert in philosophy, Kabbalah, and mathematics and he knew at least 12 languages.

This is what was expected of a “ scholar and gentleman” in Jewish circles.

Brought to US to teach at Reform HUC, 1899, but was soon dropped-  too radical, too observant! The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1900 to 1902, writing 400 articles!, classics until today. In 1902,  professor of Talmud at the newly re-organized *Jewish Theological Seminary (jts), my alma mater. Taught for the next 51 years.

Ginzberg devoted most of his academic scholarship to three fields: Aggadah, the Jerusalem Talmud, and Geonica.

Ginzberg was a leading proponent of the "Positive-Historical School," …the authority of Jewish law does not derive from a one-time event of revelation at Mt. Sinai but from the fact that Kelal Yisrael, the collective Jewish people, observed Jewish law for thousands of years.

Ginzberg was a lifelong Zionist. Jewish nationalism without religion is like a tree without fruit, and Jewish religion without nationalism is like a tree without roots.


IV.          He had only one problem- he was trained in academic German, but English was, in his early years, still a new language for him. He needed a trained academician to help him translate his German writing into clear , refined English.

This brings us to not to Adelle, but to Henrietta Szold, best known for her founding of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, and Hadassah Hospital!





Excerpted from Michael Brown

Henrietta Szold was a woman of many contradictions. She was a family person who lived largely in the public arena. Possessed of only a high school diploma, she edited and published some of the monuments of modern Jewish scholarship and later helped to shape the educational system in Palestine. American to the core, she devoted herself to Zionism and lived the last quarter century of her life in Palestine. Her work in rescuing children from the Holocaust and rehabilitating them earned her the sobriquet “mother of the Yishuv” (the Jewish community in Palestine before 1948).

Born in Baltimore, Maryland,  oldest child of liberal-minded Rabbi Benjamin Szold and his wife Sophie. At home that she learned German and Hebrew, as well as Jewish sacred texts. In her teens, she served her father as translator, and editor.  1880s, she assisted the immigrants in establishing a night school in which to learn English and civics.

Went to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Szold assumed an unusual pedagogical assignment: teaching English to her instructors, most of whom were recent immigrants from Europe.

In 1888, one of nine members—and the only female—of the publications committee of the new Jewish Publication Society (JPS). Her reputation as an editor and translator brought her to the attention of Prof. Ginzberg, for whom she translated, edited, and indexed much of the monumental Legends of the Jews . Please keep this in mind.

Szold was drawn to Jewish nationalism in its earliest days. She gave a major speech on Zionism a month before the publication of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat in 1896. 1898 she became the only woman in the Executive committee of the Federation of American Zionist.

Of her American activities, that which had the greatest and most lasting influence was the creation of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization.

In 1912, she and some friends formed the Daughters of Zion-Hadassah Chapter, which had enlisted 122 members by the fall of that year. Szold envisioned an independent social service organization modeled along the lines of the women’s agencies, guided by the principles of American progressivism: project orientation; “trained and willing forces; [and a] ... tested organization.” (Predominantly male Zionist societies, such as the FAZ were romantic and amateurish, not scientific and businesslike.) Hadassah became the largest and most powerful Zionist group in the United States.

The first major project undertaken by Hadassah was the establishment of an American-style visiting nurse system in Jerusalem in 1913.Five years later, Hadassah organized and helped to fund the American Zionist Medical Unit; began the reformation of medical care in the Holy Land with the establishment of a nursing school, dental, medical, and X-ray clinics, hospitals, a hygiene department, infant welfare stations, and the medical sanitary expedition. It exemplified American efficiency and showcased American technology. In the 1930s, at Szold’s behest, Hadassah assumed the support of Youth Aliyah programs for refugee and problem children in Palestine.

In 1920, Szold herself arrived in Palestine to take charge of the Medical Unit, soon to be renamed the Hadassah Medical Organization (HMO.In 1927, Szold was appointed by the World Zionist Congress to its three-member Palestine executive, with responsibility for the health and education portfolios.

In fewer than three years she had made a major impact on the Yishuv educational system .

Social work was the third area of Yishuv life :the need to improve the lot of Palestine’s women. She proposed that American “settlement workers” teach the women pioneers “modern housework and other domestic industries.”

1931 to1939 she held the social welfare portfolio of the Knesset Yisrael, the semiautonomous legislative body of the Yishuv.

1934 ,established modern social service agencies in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Petah Tikva, as well as the Social Service Department of the Knesset Yisrael. The next year she opened the country’s first school of social work, which later became the School of Social Work of the Hebrew University.

Yishuv would face an unprecedented wave of immigration in the 1930s. Youth Aliyah--She understood the administrative complications and how to cut through them, and the social and emotional problems the children would have and how to solve them. Because of her “cabinet” position in the Yishuv administration, she was able to ensure that the children would be properly looked after, and she had the connections with Hadassah, which provided most of the funds.

She died in Jerusalem, at the modern medical center that Hadassah had erected, on February 13, 1945. . She was honored on the Five Lira note issued by the Bank of Israel between 1976 and 1984. In 2007, Szold was inducted into the American National Women's Hall of Fame


So, where is my story about the Professor?

NY Times-A Scholar And a Mystic-By Elinor Langer-Oct. 14, 1979



Like Yentl, Henrietta Szold (18601945) was inducted into Jewish scholarship by her father, a Hungarian born rabbi. When he died, her mother gave her the responsibility of editing his papers, a task that required further study. In 1903 mother and daughter moved to New York, where “Miss Szold,” as her biographer, Joan Dash, calls her, became the first woman to be enrolled at the new Jewish Theological Seminary.

She took classes with Prof Ginzberg and they became friends. For years they studied together, talked together, walked together after synagogue along the windy pathways of Riverside Drive: . . .For the first and only time in her life, she fell in love. (she was 13 years his senior)  

But Ginzberg did not, for he wanted his socks darned as much as anyone. When he returned from Europe in 1908 with the news that he had chosen another bride, Szold collapsed, and for three years she went around New York thundering about her rejection like a prophet.


It was only when she was in her 50's and living a kind of second life, mainly in Palestine, that she recovered and began to undertake the worldly work for which she is beloved by the Jewish community today — the founding of Hadassah, the women's arm of the American Zionist movement; the gradual building up in Palestine of a network of social services that remain the foundation of some Israeli institutions today; and, above all, the almost prescient initiation of the children's settlement program later known as  Youth Aliyah ( in time for the refugees form the Shoah)

So, this unrequited love-became a springboard to building a nation by Henrietta Szold in as much a way as Ben Gurion built the political and military structure .


IV Now, this brings us to the third party of the love story.Who was this “ Mama G” that was in the front row of my first formal sermon?

 These Girl Scouts benefitted from this pioneering Jewish woman


ADELEGINZBERG 1886 – 1980 excerpted from:

by Shuly Rubin Schwartz and NYTimes


Known as “Mama G.” by generations of admirers, Adele Ginzberg was an influential figure in the Conservative Movement as wife of the famed Louis Ginzberg, professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was an active member of National Women’s League. Ginzberg was a role model and inspiration to rabbinical students and women leaders and an early supporter of equal rights for women in synagogue rituals.

Born on May 11, 1886, in Frankfurt-am-Main,( my town of birth) Germany, Adelle Katzenstein. Ginzberg moved to Berlin at age eight after her mother’s sudden death. She received basic schooling and then, unable to study nursing as she wanted, she instead worked briefly in her father’s real estate office.

But in 1908 Louis Ginzberg visited Berlin. Looking up at the synagogue gallery, he spied an exceptionally attractive young woman. “I, of course, always had good eyesight,” he noted later.

He met Adele Katzenstein that day, saw her the next, then went away for two weeks. He proposed by mail.

Why had he finally succumbed? “It was very likely gland trouble,” he suggested.

When he returned from Europe, he called on Miss Szold to break the news. As Columbia University's Prof. Eli Ginzberg, first child of the Ginzberg marriage, put it: “Once she had absorbed her disappointment, she was able to function at a new and higher level of service to her people.” In other words, she founded* Hadassah. The Ginzbergs and many others who revere Henrietta Szold as mother of Hadassah, have long considered Louis Ginzberg its father.

The seminary was agog over the painful news—an exceptional woman jilted by an exceptional man. When Mrs. Ginzburg turned up, it was easy to confirm the pristine vision of the scholar. Ever afterward, Professor Ginzberg used to tell his students how to stay out of trouble: “Don't look up.”


Now- the next turn- Adelle did not stay a home-body for long!

Ginzberg first became involved in community affairs with the Liberty Bond Campaign during World War I. From 1920 on, she was closely associated with National Women’s League, the parent organization of Sisterhood.Its representative on several national and international organizations, she also wrote a monthly column in its magazine, Outlook. She was instrumental in initiating the Girl Scout project in 1946, which led to the establishment of the Menorah Award for Jewish Girl Scouts. Ginzberg was also devoted to aiding the blind through the Jewish Braille Institute.

Ginzberg, together with her husband… “Mr. and Mrs. Seminary.” A fearless woman with an irreverent personality and colossal energy, Ginzberg brought great vitality to the seminary community…. Finally, Ginzberg was one of the few of her generation to join the struggle for equal rights for women in synagogue ritual life.

In recognition of her varied talents and influence, Ginzberg was honored as New York State Mother of the Year in 1966, was inducted in the seminary’s Honorary Society of Fellows in 1976, and was awarded the Mathilde Schechter Award posthumously in 1980. Ginzberg died in New York City on May 10, 1980.

Ginzberg exemplified those women whose status and influence derive initially from their illustrious husbands, but who used their position to educate and enrich Jewish life on their own terms. She conveyed the vitality of Jewish life to generations of Conservative Jews and inspired many to adopt a forward-thinking stance.


Two women, perhaps in ways as similar as different, whose lives took very different paths because of one man, yet each made a great impact on her own, as a result!


Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving Hakarat Ha Tov-Acknowledge when good has been received


Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving


Hakarat Ha Tov- Acknowledge when good has been received


You can follow our Shabbat Thanksgiving Service, 2020, on You Tube, on thislink:

 Our Thanksgiving Shabbat Service

Discussion Notes:

Thanksgiving was never intended as a day to spout platitudes of our greatness, but about us, as a nation, giving thanks for the great benefits we have in life. It is part & parcel of the religious sensibility of American society, not to be confused with any establishment of a religion by government, but a common shared national piety. While this is pooh-poohed in intellectual circles, especially by our Jews, it is a concept that is very very Jewish.


            Two weeks ago, a dear friend of ours , Hannah Elter,passed away , and as I was looking for a thought to give the family, I came across notes from the wedding I did for her son. She was always proud of the fact that her family was descended from from one of the great teachers of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz. It was the movement of Hasidism which led our people from gloom and despair to a worship of God through the heart, through and upbeat spirit and soul.


When people asked Rabbi Pinhas himself "What do I get as a reward for all my labors and efforts to be a good Jew, he responded, “What better reward can on get from God than the reward of being alive, of beholding the sun shine, and to have the joy of light and life?"


This idea, that we should be thankful for the reward of life, at a time when so many of us are feeling as if a sword were hanging over our heads, is very central to keeping our mental and spiritual selves in balance.  In Hebrew, there is the phrase “hakarat hatov.” Recognizing the good that is given us. We well know the word “ Todah”, thank you, with its grammatical variations, “Modeh”, I thank,” “Hodayah”-Thanksgiving,as in Chag Hahodayah-Thanksgiving Day.


So, I have a few quotes to prompt us in our thinking this day:


1)    What is it to be a Jew?

Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: From the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him, as it is stated: [“And she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she said,] ‘This time I will give thanks to God,’ [and thus he was called Yehuda”] (Genesis 29:35).Berakhot 7b

2)    What does a Jew say upon waking up?

“Modeh Ani Lefanecha Melech Chay Vekayam she-chechezarti bi nishmati, bechemlah rabbah emunatecha.- I give thanks to you, living- everlasting King, that you have returned my soul to me with great kindness is your faithfulness to us.”


3)    Appreciate what you have :


Rabbi ben Zoma said,

“Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!
Who is mighty? The one who rules over themselves!
Who is rich? The one who is happy with what they’ve got!
Who is honored? The one who shows honor to others!” -Pirke Avot 4:1


4)    The prayer said upon recovering from illness, or an accident, or a long trip ( even across town in traffic) Ha Gomel:

Transliteration: Boruch A-toh Ado-noi E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ho-olom Ha-go-mel Le-cha-ya-vim To-vos She-ge-ma-la-ni Tov.

Translations: Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, Who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for He has bestowed goodness to me.

 "Mi She-ga-mal-cha Tov, Hu Yig-mal-cha Kol Tuv Se-lah" (May He who has bestowed beneficence upon you always bestow every beneficence upon you)." 

Chayavim=Even the Guilty, not deserving, are protected.

5)    The Prayer of Thanks – 3 times a day in the Amidah:

For all who struggling with feeling grateful at a time of stress like this, I found this a wonderful resource:

Blue Dove Foundation on Gratitude