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YU Professor Michelle Levine Spreads the Truth and Beauty of Torah

Dr. Michelle Levine, Associate Professor of Bible at YU’s Stern College for Women, is a leading scholar on the biblical commentary of Nachmanides, the foremost thirteenth century Spanish exegete. Levine’s scholarship focuses on Nachmanides’ interpretation of biblical narrative and song. She has recently presented a number of papers at academic conferences in the US, and in Israel at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, and she is completing her second book on Nachmanides’ biblical commentary. 

What particularly impresses Levine about Nachmanides is his perceptive understanding of the integral relationship between the literary dimension of the Torah and its relevant messages and meaning. In her research on his commentary, Levine has explored Nachmanides’ analysis of the Torah’s portrayal of the biblical personalities; the structure and development of a biblical story from beginning to end; and the thematic cohesiveness of a biblical song. 

Dr. Michelle Levine, Associate Professor of Bible at YU’s Stern College for Women
Dr. Michelle Levine, Associate Professor of Bible at YU’s Stern College for Women

Inspired by the profundity and insightfulness of Nachmanides’ close readings, Levine strives to convey her passion and excitement for the study of his commentary to her undergraduate students at Stern College and to her graduate students of the GPATS Tanach Track Master’s program. Levine also teaches a weekly Torah class to women in her local Queens community, spreading her knowledge of Tanach to a broader audience. Her greatest joy in teaching Torah is seeing her students apply the deep meaning of the biblical texts to their own lives. “By better understanding Torah, we better understand who we are and what our task is on Earth. We have a mission, a Divine mission; we are the nation that acknowledges Hashem. When I teach Torah to my students at Stern and in my Queens community, and they not only apply their learning to their own lives, but also teach others, that is my greatest pride.” 

Illustrating one of the hallmark features of Nachmanides’ interpretation, Levine highlights that Nachmanides is astute in reading biblical text from an integrative, broad view through which he seeks out its overriding motifs and ideas. “Take, for example, Nachmanides’ study of the Song of the Sea,” said Dr. Levine. “In that poem, Nachmanides observes that the wind is mentioned in different contexts, both as the agent that splits the sea to save the Israelites and the agent that brings the waters of the sea back together again to drown the Egyptians. This imagery of opposites demonstrates, as Nachmanides explains, Hashem’s omnipotence and exaltedness, whereby Hashem performs miracles by manipulating the same natural entity to do the thing and its opposite.” 

Noting parallels in later narratives, Nachmanides observes that Hashem acts similarly when the Israelites are in the wilderness. While Hashem made the waters of the Nile River undrinkable, Hashem now makes the bitter waters sweet and makes water flow from the rock. By correlating different narratives, Nachmanides demonstrates their common thematic paradigm in the ways Hashem providentially acts in the world. 

Furthermore, in her study of Nachmanides’ commentary on the wilderness narratives, which is the subject of her forthcoming book, Levine illustrates how this commentator draws the reader’s attention to the defining features of the biblical personalities. For example, Nachmanides highlights how Moshe Rabbenu’s greatest attribute is his humility. When Hashem commands Moshe at the scene of the burning bush to redeem the Israelites from Egypt, Moshe refuses numerous times because of his humility. 

“Moshe was the humblest of all people,” said Levine. “He didn’t feel he could be that leader. He even said to Hashem, ‘Send anyone else but me.’  While Hashem appointed Aharon as Moshe’s spokesman, ultimately it is Moshe whom the people relied on greatly. It was his connection with Hashem through humility that was most important and allowed him to constantly plead with Hashem on behalf of the people.”

Through her scholarship and teaching, Levine hopes to continue to inspire her students to study Torah on an advanced level and seek out its profound messages that will resonate with them in their daily lives.