Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nechama Leibowitz, Rav Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

In discussing the new 600-page biography by Yael Unterman, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar, a friend remarked that he didn't like it at all because it is just a collection of ma'aselakh, stories. I told him that this is exactly why I find it so interesting. I'm not too far into the book, and the second half is where the discussions of methodology take place, but so far I'm greatly enjoying it.

Here is what the book has to say about her interaction (or lack thereof) with R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Menachem Schneerson in their Berlin years (pp. 28-29):
Click here to read more

On her way to study or teach, Nehama might well have passed on the street such figures as R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the future Lubavitcher Rebbe; or R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, scion of a brilliant talmudic family and future leader of American modern Orthodox Jewry. R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, R. Isaac Hutner, and R. Abraham Joshua Heschel all spent time there. Had all these Jewish luminaries gathered in one location, that would have been a sight to see; no doubt there would have been fierce debate, especially with the Leibowitz siblings present. Perhaps precisely because this notion is so appealing, rumors persist to this day that Nehama spoke with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and R. Soloveitchik and studied with them at university. This is not true. Once, hearing that in an American apartment three large pictures were displayed on the wall -- of the Rebbe, R. Soloveitchik and herself -- Nehama laughed, and said: "Look what company I'm in!" But this was the only time the three "met." Habad Hasidim, desirous of knowing more about the Rebbe's early life in Berlin, would call Nehama every so often. One insisted, "Everyone knows that you sat drinking coffee with the Rebbe and R. Soloveitchik in the cafes in Berlin!" "It could be that we sat at the same table for lunch," Nehama replied, "but if we did, I didn't know it." Reportedly, the Rebbe later recognized Nehama's greatness and sent her groups of Hasidim, who were highly disgruntled at being ordered to study with a woman.

Nehama also never personally interacted with R. Soloveitchik. The story goes that Nehama was told of the brilliant young Jewish scholar who sat in the library "behind the tallest stack of books." With a description like that, she located him easily, but never introduced herself. (It is a tribute to her erudition that in another version, it was he who was told to look out for here, but could not locate her because she was hidden behind her tower of books!) In later years, Nehama evinced a great respect for R. Soloveitchik, employing adjectives such as "important" and "profound" about his thinking, and enjoying tapes of his lectures in Yiddish...
You can buy the book here: link.

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