Mindy Schwartz Zolty
Editors’ note: A version of this essay was delivered as a derashah on January 21 at Lincoln Square Synagogue. It has been edited for clarity and accuracy.
Today, I would like to speak about my teacher, Rav Moshe Kahn zt”l. My words will not be a “typical” devar Torah that I would usually share for the derashah, and I won’t reference the parshah either. Instead, I will speak about my teacher whose whole being, life, and legacy are, in a different way, Torah. For those of you who knew him, I hope this will offer some comfort, and for those who did not have the zekhut to know him, I hope I can share even some small part of his story, his greatness, and his impact as a teacher on the Jewish people.
I was privileged to be a student of Rav Kahn for three years at Stern College, and to spend another one and half years sharing a beit midrash with him in YU’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Study (GPATS), sadly cut short due to covid. I know many other students were closer with Rav Kahn than I, and many many others are far more accomplished Torah scholars than I, so I feel somewhat anxious about doing justice to Rav Kahn and his legacy. Still, I find myself blessed with a platform to share some of the Torah that he was, and I only pray that Hashem sefatai tiftah, that Hashem opens my lips and grants me the ability to adequately honor my Rebbe.
First, some background on Rav Kahn’s life, as I know most people here do not know anything about him. Rav Kahn was born in 1951. He received semikhah from Yeshiva University’s semikhah program, RIETS, in 1975. He went on to study in the RIETS kollel and received Yadin Yadin semikhah as well. He was a student in Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur at RIETS. He began his teaching career at the JSS program at YU, teaching highly motivated men who lacked previous experience with rigorous Gemara study.
Rav Soloveitchik taught the first Gemara shiur to women at Stern College in 1977. But after that first class, the Rav returned to his work uptown at RIETS, and Rabbi Willig, now a respected Rosh Yeshiva at YU, continued teaching that class. Eventually, Rabbi Willig wanted to return to his studies and students uptown. In search of a teacher for the women at Stern, Rabbi Saul Berman, then the head of the Judaic Studies department, asked Rav Kahn to teach Gemara at Stern. Encouraged by Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kahn accepted the position in 1983. He continued to teach Gemara at Stern for the next forty years, both as an undergraduate rebbe and, later, as a rebbe for graduate students in GPATS as well.
Rav Kahn remained steadfast to his students throughout those decades, through various campus controversies, waxing and waning class enrollments, and even through his own battle with cancer these past two years, teaching until he was no longer physically able to this past semester. He was also a beloved teacher at the Drisha Scholars Circle, another program created to advance women’s advanced Torah learning, and, as I just discovered this morning on the way to shul, a much beloved teacher at Lincoln Square Synagogue as well.
In these and many other teaching roles, Rav Kahn leaves a truly unique legacy and impact on the Jewish people as a teacher of women. If you know of a learned woman, and certainly a female Gemara teacher in America today, she was likely taught by Rav Kahn, or a student of Rav Kahn. He taught Gemara to hundreds of women and inspired many to follow in his footsteps and teach Torah as well. I cannot think of any other person who had such an immense impact on the landscape of the Modern Orthodox community, creating and uplifting a cadre of learned women and teachers who could pass on their wisdom to their students and community.
Despite this immeasurable impact, Rav Kahn never became famous, never became a “household name” in our community. As I will share, I suspect Rav Kahn would have wanted it this way, but I also believe it is the responsibility of his students like myself to share his legacy, both as a form of hakarat hatov for our dear Rebbe and also so that we may all access it as a guiding light for the kinds of Torah-centered communities we want to build for ourselves.
I would like to introduce Rav Kahn’s legacy by sharing a bit about his derekh ha-limmud, his way of approaching the Gemara and Rishonim, and, connectedly, his derekh as a melamed, his way of approaching his students as a teacher.
First, his derekh ha-limmud. Rav Kahn’s approach flowed ground-up from the text. All understanding had to be rooted in the words on the page in front of you. It sounds deceptively simple, but, as a student, I can attest: it was hard work! You needed to understand every single word, the exact meaning of every phrase, what every conjunction and prefix and suffix was doing in a sentence. There was no getting by with a “general” sense of what the Gemara or a Rishon said – you had to know it inside, following the meaning of each word. And he would cold-call on you to make sure you knew it that way – and if you didn’t get it right he would tell you: “not quite” or “no, that’s not it,” and push you and the rest of the class to get it right.
Which brings me to his derekh as a melamed, as a teacher of Torah, and specifically as a teacher of Torah to women. Rav Kahn truly believed in us – in all of our abilities to learn Gemara and follow his exacting method. His standards were high and he truly believed we could meet them. More than anything, this belief was the greatest gift Rav Kahn gave to me, perhaps one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. And he gave this gift to hundreds of women.
Many of his students had never had anyone, let alone a teacher, truly and fully believe in their ability to learn Gemara rigorously. And yet, Rav Kahn totally believed in us – and so we believed in ourselves. Seder was long, and sometimes it was frustrating. We could spend two hours trying to decode a single Rashi, and yet we persevered because we knew Rav Kahn believed we could do it, and that we could do it ourselves.
This too was a part of Rav Kahn’s derekh ha-limmud. Many of his students have reflected on the way Rav Kahn, as a student of the Rav, served as our chain in the link of the mesorah. For many, he gave us what no one had ever offered us before – a connection to the halls of Torah study throughout Jewish history that went back to the very sages whose words we studied.
But, at least for me, what was even more significant than this was that he gave us the ability and the confidence to think of ourselves as links in the mesorah for others – permitting us to connect our students to those ancient halls of study the way Rav Kahn connected us. By teaching us how to understand the texts of our sages on our own, and to believe that we could do that no matter how hard it seemed, Rav Kahn showed us how we could follow him. He did not want to be our gatekeeper to the palace of Torah. His methodology and his approach were the exact opposite: he offered us the keys so we could enter the palace on our own.
His commitment to empowering us, his students, was unshakeable. He taught women Gemara for four decades, at times when it was derided and highly controversial, at other times when it was merely discouraged or ignored. He didn’t care about any of that. He believed in teaching anyone who wanted to learn, and so he taught through it all. And while he always validated his students’ frustrations with disparities in women’s Torah education, he also always encouraged us to follow his lead and remain steadfast to our learning the way he remained steadfast to us. After a class spent venting about our experiences of sexism in Torah learning, Rav Kahn would always pull us back. We need to learn, he would remind us. With a gentle and caring hand, he would bring us back to the Gemara, reminding us that we too belonged there.
While there is so much wisdom in Rav Kahn’s legacy to share, the final thing I would like to focus on is his humility. As many of his loved ones and students have reflected, “Ve-ha’ish Moshe anav me’od mi-kol ha-adam,” “Now the man Moshe was very humble, above all human beings.” Rav Kahn never concerned himself with his reputation or with developing a name for himself. He forged a career which would not gain him one, and he did not care. Surely, if he had stayed at YU and taught uptown, or if he had left YU and found a place for himself as a teacher in a more liberal institution, he would have achieved much greater fame. But such reputational calculations would not have occurred to Rav Kahn. He wanted to teach Torah, and at Stern there were students who wanted to learn Torah – and so he taught them, and he continued to teach them for forty years.
He never quit because of waning attendance. I myself was in his shiur with just four or five other students; the classes could sometimes be even smaller. But Rav Kahn never said, “Well, it seems women are not really interested in learning Gemara, so I will take my talents elsewhere,” or “Let me go somewhere where I will have a bigger audience worthy of my skills.” It was never about the ego of having the biggest or most popular course. He would have taught one student with the same commitment and investment as he would teach fifty. He was there for anyone who wanted to learn.
Rav Kahn’s impact on the Jewish people is immeasurable, and yet, he is not very well known. There are many reasons for this, partly communal and systematic, but I think part of it is unquestionably his own personal humility. Because of this humility Rav Kahn never made the story about him; it was always about his students.
We live in a new age, and thank God there are rabbis and leaders who have taken a stand for women and other marginalized groups who have not been given a place in the traditional structures of our community. They have opened up shuls and batei midrash to countless women, making them more welcoming to our voices. And, at least in certain circles, these leaders are rightly given the honor and credit they deserve for risking their own careers and reputations to take these stands.
And yet, as right and good as all that is, we often see the story become one that is then focused on the leader, the insider who granted access to the outsiders, rather than a story about the outsiders who fought for their own access which had been denied to them. The leader is celebrated as a hero, but the women who, in their love of Torah and Judaism, clamored for more of it, receive less attention and certainly less honor and acclaim. We lose the plot, and the main characters of the story are flipped.
But Rav Kahn, in his profound and genuine humility, never made the story about him. He never presented himself as a main character in the story of women’s advanced talmud Torah, even though he undoubtedly was one, if not the, main character in America. He never presented himself as a savior or a hero, even though he undoubtedly was one to the countless women seeking a pathway to the world of the beit midrash and to the Jewish community that has benefited from his students’ scholarship.
Rav Kahn never made the story about him. It was always about his students, many of whom went on to make great names for themselves as leaders in the Jewish community and become even more well-known than he. In his true humility and deep love and respect for his students, I think Rav Kahn was sincerely happy that it turned out this way.
Rav Kahn never saw himself as the powerful hero rescuing powerless women from their own illiteracy. He was simply someone who saw fellow humans thirsting for the waters of Torah, and he offered to teach how to access that water on our own. This was what his derekh ha-limmud offered us: the tools to drink from the waters of Torah and the belief that we could quench our own thirst.
His whole self was so entirely devoted to his students. His derekh ha-limmud ensured that we would not need him as a gatekeeper, and his whole way of being ensured that we were always the main characters in our journey through the palace of Torah. Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu – how privileged were we, his students, to learn from such a man. And how privileged are we as a Jewish community that we can continue to learn from his Torah through the teachings of his hundreds of students.
I will conclude with a reflection that my father offered me when I first spoke with him about Rav Kahn’s passing. The Gemara in Mo’eid Katan (17a) discusses traits that one should look for in a Torah teacher. R. Yohanan cites a verse from Malakhi: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah at his mouth; for he is a messenger [malakh] of the Lord of hosts” (2:7). In a play on the word “messenger” [malakh], R. Yohanan asserts: “If the teacher is similar to an angel [malakh] of the Lord, then seek Torah from his mouth, but if he is not similar to an angel of the Lord, do not seek Torah from his mouth.”
R. Yohanan’s insistence that a teacher of Torah be like an angel is puzzling. No human being is a perfect angel, and, of course, the same is true of teachers. In fact, we should not put our teachers on pedestals and act like they are untouchable, perfect creatures. They are human, with their own challenges and struggles, just like all of us.
My father suggested a possible way to understand R. Yohanan’s insistence that a teacher be like an angel. He cited a verse from Zekhariah in which God tells the prophet that, if “you walk in My paths,” then God will “permit you to move about [mahlekhim] among these attendants [omedim],” meaning among God’s angels. The word used for angels in the verse is “omedim,” literally the standing ones.
The verse creates a clear dichotomy between humans and angels: humans are mahlekhim, going back and forth, while angels are omedim, standing in place. Human life goes back and forth; we make progress and move forward, and sometimes we regress and move backwards. We are on a constant journey of movement throughout our lives. Angels, on the other hand, are static – they stay exactly where they are. They don’t make mistakes and regress, but they also don’t grow and move forward.
R. Yohanan insists that a teacher should be omeid. A teacher’s only concern should be in moving their students ahead. There should be no effort or time wasted on professional progress, no thoughts spared for growing one’s reputation or name as a teacher. The teacher should think of himself as omeid – standing in place as a steady and reliable launching pad from which his students can launch themselves forward.
This was the essence of Rav Kahn as a teacher. He was a complete omeid, staying in place for forty years for his students, without any concern for his own reputation or self-aggrandizement, only concerned that his students should be mahlekhim, moving us forward on our journey of Torah learning and gently drawing us back to that journey if we ever lost our way.
Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu. May we continue to share Rav Kahn’s legacy and, both individually and as a community, learn from his legacy as well.