From the Women’s Section of the Siyum

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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6 Responses

  1. Joe Schick says:

    I don’t agree with the political extremism of a small number of those who are dati-leumi, but the contrasting notions regarding mesiras nefesh is unnecessarily offensive while adding little to the post.

    A better contrast regarding mesiras nefesh would be the tens of thousands of dati-leumi boys who volunteer for IDF combat units while their charedi counterparts use permanent “deferments” from the army.

  2. Saul Mashbaum says:

    Instead of lauding the nesiras nefesh of another group, Shira Schmidt found it very important to denigrate it. This “my type of mesiras nefesh is better than your type” argument is very close to the childish “my Rebbe is better than your Rebbe” arguments that go on forever, to the detriment of all who engage in them. Shira Schmidt’s unnecessay contrast between groups within Orthodoxy, irrelevant to the rest of her article, greatly detracted from it.

  3. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt says:

    Of my 6 children, 5 have served in the IDF (three of them in hesder combat units), and the sixth and youngest is still in yeshiva high school. So I know of where I speak. My husband also served in Zahal.

    I wonder if any of the respondents bothered to look at the Haaretz article on mesirus nefesh that I referred to, which appeared on the day of the siyum. On the way to the siyum I happened to read its discussion of the problems that mesirus nefesh can lead to when the philosophy of some in the Rav Kook school take it to an extreme (e.g. mesirus nefesh, sacrificing one’s life for Gush Katif). When I arrived at the Daf Yomi in Jerusalem, and I heard the same phrase used in connection with Torah study, I pondered the implications of the invocation of the same concept (sacrifice) for different purposes. I used this (perhaps unsuccessfully) as a rhetorical means to say the following. Both sectors – the yeshivavelt (aka haredi) and the national religious – value Torah study and love of Eretz Yisrael. But generalizing on the macro level, the haredi sector puts Torah study at the pinnacle (mesirus nefesh), while the national religious put the Land at the pinnacle (mersirus nefesh). What are the positive aspects of both approaches, and what are the negative concomitants that ensue when either approach is taken to an extreme?

    My other comparison was a veiled discussion of haredi women and girls versus Orthodox feminism, where the latter in some cases make study such a high priority that the message about marriage and family sometimes gets short shrift. I have many close relatives in that sector (and I myself am an ex-feminist) so I am familiar with what is going on there now, both on the positive side, and the downside. And I can explain that in “Rachel bitkha haketana” (in details).

  4. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    The critics that saw in Ms. Schmidt’s article disparagement by comparison are fighting phantoms of their own creation. A more careful reading will show that she nowhere denigrates the use of the term mesiras nefesh in the context of limud hatorah. She simply noted that one group applies the concept to limud hatorah, and the other to kibbush eretz yisroel, and leaves it to the reader to decide which activity is more essential to the survival and vitality of Klal Yisroel, or, indeed, if they are both of equal significance. See e.g., a similar point made by Rav Hirsch in Vayikra 2:11 on the din of “kol s’or v’chol dvash.”

  5. Saul Mashbaum says:

    I regret my use of the term ‘denigrate’ in describing Shira Schmidt’s attitude towards the mesiras nefesh of some in the national religious camp. She in fact ‘contrasted’ the two types, but did not explicitly offer a value judgement. This is after in the previous section she ‘contrasted’ the wives of daf yomi learners with women who learn daf yomi, in which it is perfectly clear with which group her sympathies lie. If she is offering no judgement as to which type of mesiras nefesh is more significant and valuable, wherein lies the contrast?
    Although the structure of her article did not help the reader discern her non-critical attitude towards the other type of mesiras nefesh, her response has shown much of my criticism to be inaccurate. My apologies.

  6. Joe Schick says:

    “I wonder if any of the respondents bothered to look at the Haaretz article on mesirus nefesh that I referred to, which appeared on the day of the siyum.”

    I read the same Haaretz piece. It was clear that a small number of zealots are using a 1974 statement from R. Kook to advance an extremist position. It’s perfectly fine to criticize these extremists, or to criticize the dati-leumi for placing the Land of Israel far above all other values.

    However, to criticize the dati leumi generally on the mesiras nefesh issue adds nothing to the post and is unnecessarily divisive and offensive.

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