Kedoshim: On teaching entire community together


Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Amos 9:7-15

Nehama Leibowitz, the pre-eminent teacher of Torah and rabbinic commentary, died this past month at the age of 92. Leibowitz taught Hebrew Bible to tens of thousands of students throughout the world, in person, by radio and by correspondence. Though she held a professorship at Tel Aviv University, she did not restrict her teaching to academic students. Though she taught at Orthodox institutions, she had students of every description.

She used every method available to reach as wide an audience as possible with her demanding approach to Bible study. In her famous study sheets, she sent out a short essay on an issue of biblical studies, condensed to fit onto the four sides of one folded page. She challenged students each week to appreciate subtleties of the text and to comprehend multiple analyses. Each of these sheets ends with a few questions.

For 20 years, she sent out these sheets each week, writing back to every student who tried to answer her questions. And all over the world, people took a few minutes off from taking care of babies or teaching in universities to face her challenges.

Typically, Leibowitz would construct a study about a detail of the biblical text, demonstrating how different scholars made sense of that detail. Like the early rabbis, she developed the ability to condense research and creative thinking into short, deceptively simple notes.

For example, this week's reading begins with a frequently recurring formula for introducing commandments: "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying" (Lev. 19:1). The usual continuation of this formula reads "speak to the children of Israel" (as in Exodus 14:2, Lev. 1:2, 12:1 and elsewhere). Here, the text continues somewhat differently: "speak to the whole community of the children of Israel," in introducing a series of orders: the directive to be holy, the prohibitions against hating one's neighbor, against bearing a grudge and against taking revenge, the obligation to confront someone with whom one has a quarrel and to love one's neighbor.

Do we learn anything from the extra words "the whole community?" In her typical way, Leibowitz found great significance in this slight alteration. These extra words indicate a difference in teaching methodology.

Moses taught the rest of the Torah to "the children of Israel." According to Rashi (based on the Talmud, Eiruvin 54a), when Moses received a revelation from on high, first he taught his brother Aaron; then invited Aaron's sons in, and taught them in the presence of their father; then he invited in the elders, and taught them in the presence of the previous students the Kohanim. Finally, he invited the entire community in, and taught them their lesson in the presence of the elders and the Kohanim. In this way Moses presented most commandments separately to different segments of the children of Israel.

But Moses had to teach the commandments of Leviticus 19 to "the whole community of the children of Israel," to all of us, all at once, as Rashi says, "in assembly." Why? Rashi answers, somewhat cryptically, because "the fundamentals of the Torah depend on them."

Even so, why teach fundamental commandments to everyone at once? Leibowitz searches through commentaries to provide her students with different answers.

According to Alshikh, the commandments of Leviticus 19 are "the highest and noblest principles of Judaism," and we must guard against the tendency to see these as "laws for the select few," for people "of exemplary piety…The whole community of the children of Israel" must become holy.

According to Korban Aharon, wise students can work at achieving profound understanding of most of the commandments, while ordinary people must put their effort into grasping the simple, practical applications. Moses taught these commandments differently according to the capacity of his audience. But the fundamental laws of striving for holiness, avoiding hatred and learning to love demand basic commitment to practice from each and every Jew.

Like Moses our teacher, teaching the fundamental laws, Leibowitz taught the whole community together, young and old, scholar and beginner.