Nechama Leibowitz’s Methodology: An Overview


It is not by chance that an observer of a shiur given by Nechama Liebowitz would have found all of the participants actively involved in the learning. For one thing, Nechama required everyone present to record his/her answers to the questions that she posed. She would personally check many of the answers and give immediate oral or written feedback. But, in reality, the involvement in Nechama’s classes related more to other aspects of her teaching methodology. Nechama believed that true learning takes place only when students are engaged in a thought provoking process of analysis. She opposed the rote learning that is manifested in much of the instructional material on the teaching of Torah. It was Nechama’s selection of texts and commentaries, her presentation of the material, and the types of questions that she asked which most engaged her students. Thus, Nechama’s students, many themselves teachers of Torah, absorbed not only the content of her lessons, but her unique methodology as well. This work is dedicated to the presentation and preservation of that methodology.

The Goals of Torah Instruction

Nechama identified four goals of Torah learning in ascending order:

1) the accumulation of factual knowledge

2) the development of independent learning skills

3) the development of a love of Torah learning

4) the observance of mitzvot

The third goal was, in Nechama’s mind, primary with regard to Torah instruction. She stressed that although the observance of the mitzvot is the most important goal of Torah learning, the teacher of Torah is limited in this area. Rather, success in instilling a love of Torah learning will in itself lead to the fulfillment of mitzvot. The accomplishment of all of the goals is dependent on the pedagogical methods employed by the teacher.

Active Learning

Nechama believed that in order to fulfill these goals, the teacher must involve the student in active learning. In active learning, the teacher serves as a facilitator of learning rather than as a repository and transmitter of knowledge. Nechama posited that activities which are designed to have students absorb information from an external source ultimately have a minimal impact on learning. But, how does one engage students actively in the study of Torah? While active learning is easy to achieve in the science laboratory, it is much more difficult to create in a Torah lesson. Nechama suggested several “trickim” (as she called them), strategies designed to achieve that goal.

“The Prohibitions”

Accordingly, Nechama listed five common practices from which teachers should refrain:

1) Do not lecture: The lecture format is the classical model of frontal teaching in which the teacher transmits information to the students. In Nechama’s opinion, very little learning takes place using that format. Rather, students must be actively involved in alternative learning activities.

2) Do not allow students to write while you are speaking: The fact that students are writing does not indicate that they are learning. On the contrary, taking notes while the teacher is talking can in fact prevent analytical thinking and learning from taking place. If the student has effectively absorbed the information discussed, he/she will be able to transcribe it afterwards if necessary.

3) Do not give an introduction to the material that is to be studied: Teachers often introduce a unit by providing background information and/or summarizing the material to be studied. Nechama opposed introductions of this nature not only because they are frontal, but also because they may reduce opportunities for discovery. When it is valuable for students to get an overview of the entire section before delving into particulars, she favored the use of alternative activities that would force the students to independently preview the section.

4) Do not ask students to answer factual questions or to paraphrase: Nechama believed that it is not worthwhile to ask any question where the answer is obvious from the context. Rather, questions should be thought provoking, requiring the student to demonstrate an understanding of the material.

For example, on the verse that states: “And Yaacov went out of Beer Sheva and he went toward Haran” (Bereshit 28:10), Nechama would consider it ineffective to ask students questions like “From where did Yaacov leave?” or “To where did Yaacov travel?” These are questions that the students could answer correctly without really understanding what has happened in the story. Rather, she might have given students a map and asked them if Yaacov traveled east or west. Or, she might have asked them to compare this verse to Bereshit 12:4-5 in which Avraham travels from Haran to Canaan. By tracing the routes of Avraham and Yaacov on the map, the students would see that they have taken opposite routes. This comparison raises the possibility of other thought provoking questions that are appropriate even for young students.

5) Do not use a repetitive lesson structure: Nechama believed that even effective learning activities and questions should not be used in a repetitive fashion. A repetitive style tends to generate rote learning, reducing the need for active learning on the part of the student. For this reason, Nechama was critical of most Chumash workbooks, which tend to be repetitive and do not place the student in a position of responsibility for learning. The teacher must draw on a repertoire of effective questions and learning activities as they are appropriate to the particular text being studied.

Selecting Texts

Nechama taught that lessons should be varied both in terms of content and style. As such, she advocated a relatively rapid pace in covering Biblical texts. This in itself presents a challenge to the teacher. One could spend weeks, or even months, studying particular sections. Nechama, however, warned against spending too much time on a specific section, particularly in the elementary or high school setting. In an article on the teaching of “Akedat Yitzchak”, Nechama indicated that it might be studied for several weeks with adults, but should be covered in the course of a few days with younger students. This requires the teacher to select a particular focus in terms of topics covered and supplementary texts and commentaries utilized.

“The teacher has to decide what to leave out and what topics should
not be touched, because it is pointless to tackle a number of different
topics and problems superficially or incidentally in a chapter. It is
preferable to concentrate on just a few topics, but in depth.” [1]

The types of texts, Midrashim, and commentaries that Nechama selected for instruction generally fall into several categories:

1) Texts that allow for comparison with other Biblical sections: These texts provide the opportunity for students to engage in an internal textual analysis.

2) Sections which contain textual difficulties (קושיות): Textual difficulty is the starting point for much of Biblical commentary.

3) Sections which exhibit unique Biblical literary style: The literary style of the Torah reflects unique formats that can contain additional layers of meaning.

4) Midrashim and commentaries that help to better understand the text:

5) Texts that contain a significant educational message: This criterion was of primary importance to Nechama. She believed that lessons must be built around educational messages that would resonate with the students and find application and relevance in their lives.

This article is an excerpt from the introduction of To Study and To Teach: The Methodology of Nechama Leibowitz by Shmuel Peerless (Lookstein Center / Urim Publications, Ramat Gan, 2003). Many of these issues are examined in that work. For information on purchasing this book, go here.

[1] Torah Insights, Eliner Library, Jerusalem, 1995, p.22

The above image originally appeared on the jacket of the Nehama Leibowitz printed series © WZO/JAFI and is reproduced here with permission from the online series © The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, JAFI.