Rav Moshe Kahn—leading teacher of Gemara to women—passed away early Wednesday morning, January 18.
Following many years of study at RIETS as a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, receiving semicha in 1975 and Yadin Yadin in 1979, Rav Moshe Kahn began teaching—first at JSS. Fatefully, he joined the Judaic studies faculty at Stern College for Women in 1983.
While Rabbi Soloveitchik famously gave the first Gemara shiur there in 1977, the true force on the ground in actually teaching Gemara over the past four decades has been Rav Kahn. He consistently taught Gemara at multiple levels—Intermediate and Advanced—and gave shiurim in halacha as well.
For many years, Rav Kahn was the primary Gemara teacher for every major advanced women’s Talmud program in the United States. When Drisha Institute opened its scholars circle for post-collegiate advanced learning of Gemara in the 80s, Rav Kahn was a core member of the faculty, teaching Gemara. When Yeshiva University opened the GPATS program for advanced Gemara for women in 2000, he was there, teaching Gemara.
Rav Kahn’s impact on the Torah world is—altogether—unparalleled.
As one rabbinic colleague put it, some rabbis have an impact on their students, or maybe, some small impact on the world. Rav Kahn did much more than that. He founded the field of advanced Gemara learning for women in the United States.
Just about every female teacher of Torah in the United States, and many in Israel, are students of Rav Kahn, or students of his students. His impact on them—multiplied by the effect on their students—is inestimable.
My wife, Chana, was lucky enough to be in Rav Kahn’s shiur for four years—both while in Stern and in GPATS. Although I was never zoche to be a talmid of Rav Kahn myself, I could see through her, his impact as a rebbe, his commitment to talmud Torah and to precision in formulation. No hand-waving or “that word isn’t important” was to be tolerated. Every word of Hashem’s Torah must be understood, accounted for and explained in its fullest depth.
In Chana’s words: “He truly believed in us, in his students. He pushed us, challenged us and demanded excellence from us—and we knew it was because of his total, unwavering faith in our ability to learn. And being in his shiur was hard, but no one ever doubted his faith in us for one second, and it gave us faith in ourselves.”
I would like to highlight four aspects of Rav Kahn’s personality as a teacher of Torah:
1. His overarching commitment to talmud Torah. More than anything, Rav Kahn wanted to learn Hashem’s word, and especially to share Torah—along with his infectious love for it —with others. That is what drew him to decades of teaching Torah at a high level at Stern, and—even more so—what kept him there. When some raised controversies over whether women should learn Gemara, Rav Kahn kept on teaching. On September 11th, when traumatized students were stuck in Manhattan trying to figure out what to do in those confusing first hours, he was sitting and learning and encouraged them to do the same. And in these last years—amid debilitating health challenges—he kept on teaching Torah over Zoom, until he could no longer physically do so. אשרי אדם עוז לו בך.
2. His focus on precision and details in learning. When Rav Kahn gave shiur, he didn’t skim the text to get to the main ideas. He made sure that every word had its place, and that every concept was clearly formulated. And, of course, he inculcated that approach to learning in his students, as well. Getting the general idea or skipping to the lomdus was wholly insufficient. The only way to learn Torah was to study the text carefully. By virtue of this approach—and the fact that he taught virtually all women learning Gemara seriously in the United States—Rav Kahn succeeded in implementing a methodological curriculum for so many learners.
3. His anavah: Rav Kahn’s humility made itself clear through his warm and soft-spoken manner. He never demanded kavod for himself—fully satisfied by doing the important work of teaching Torah. He delighted in his students’ achievements, and that was more than enough.
4. His valuing of and concern for each individual. Some people—even some rabbeim—care so much about Torah that they forget about other people. For Rav Kahn, the opposite was the case—he cared deeply about every single student, and did so through his love of Torah, which he shared with them. This care for others also reveals itself in his training as a psychotherapist—following his wife, Chana—over the past two decades. Significantly, it also manifested in his commitment to his students at Stern and beyond. He valued women not as facilitators of Torah study by others—but as subjects of God themselves—called to be avodim of Hashem and to learn Torah at the highest levels.
I have had the great zechus of teaching a group of Rav Kahn’s students over the past few weeks, once he could no longer continue giving shiur. Their deep concern and care for him personally—as well as their abiding commitment to talmud Torah to the greatest degree of precision possible—both illustrate his lasting impact upon them.
In the hours and days following his passing, numerous students of Rav Kahn shared their memories and appreciations of him. There is no better way of seeing the impact of the rebbe than from his talmidot.
Chana and I had a chance to visit Rav Kahn a few weeks ago, and hear him reflect back on his decades of teaching Gemara to women—including reliving some of the times that Chana was in shiur and his experiences with more recent students. It was poignant, yet beautiful, to see someone with a clarity of vision looking back on his life and all he had accomplished.
We have lost a true educator, lover of Torah and one who had such an impact on women’s learning. May the memory of Rav Kahn, רבן של כל בנות ישראל, be blessed.
Yehi zichro baruch.
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a Maggid Shiur at Stern and GPATS.