June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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Remembering Rav Moshe Kahn, zt”l

I lost my rebbe today.

Rav Soloveitchik gave the first Gemara shiur to women in Stern College in 1977. But, what happened on day two?

Rav Willig completed the rest of the year’s Gemara teaching. But, when he wanted to spend more time at Yeshiva University uptown, the Rav asked Rav Moshe Kahn if he could take over the shiur.

At the time, Rav Kahn was teaching at Yeshiva University’s men’s campus. Rav Kahn thought, and I’m paraphrasing, “My rebbe asked me to teach here, and I should honor my rebbe’s wish.”

When Rav Kahn prepared his first shiur to women, he had an important pedagogical choice: How should he do it? After all, presumably, these students hadn’t opened a daf Gemara—let alone know how to distinguish a Mishna from a baraita.

The simplest approach would have been to teach to the lowest common denominator, thus opening the class to the most students possible. After all, making the material more accessible would serve many—giving them a basic foundation which could be built upon throughout their lives, as they would continue to grow in their learning.

But Rav Kahn made a daring choice: he taught only the strongest, most motivated students. He figured, and I’m paraphrasing, “If they learn the hardest sugyot with me, by the time they graduate, they’ll be able to handle learning any other sugya on their own, or in another Gemara shiur.”

It meant that his shiurim were usually small—around 10 to 15 students, each semester, in the intermediate and advanced tracks. To my recollection, he never won the faculty award; there weren’t enough students in his classes who could vote for him.

Rav Kahn’s shiur was hard, yet his questions were deceptively simple: “What does the Gemara say?” And when we would say something inaccurate, Rav Kahn would say, “No, try again. What does the Gemara say?” Or, “Be careful now; try again!”

We were never allowed to cut corners. Actually, you needed to translate each prefix and suffix too. And if we came to shiur and didn’t know a word, in his gentle voice, he would ask, “Why did you continue in the Gemara, if you didn’t know what this word meant?” His standards were firm. He expected the world of us, and in turn, allowed us to expect the world of ourselves.

His bechinas usually took me six hours to take. Not because I was inefficient, but rather, because they were so challenging and thorough. They were closed Gemara and you truly had to know the information backwards and forwards.

We lovingly called him “Killer Kahn” because you would work hard and—somehow—wind up with an 85. It didn’t matter though—we still came back semester after semester to his shiur.

Through his rigorous training, we blossomed into the Torah learners and teachers that we are today. Most women went on to create lives and professions in their desired fields. And for those who went on to teach—it’s humbling to realize how nearly all of the major-league players in women’s talmud Torah in America today, were students or the students of students of Rav Kahn.

Right before Purim in 2021, we got the news that Rav Kahn had stage 4 lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time he had left. We wondered, “How can we show our gratitude for everything he’d given us?”

Some of his students asked if I could help put together a book of divrei Torah in his honor. I didn’t even have to blink. I automatically and intuitively said yes.

Like many projects, it required many more hours than anticipated. Between the writing, editing, more editing … At times, it felt endless. During those late nights, I’d motivate myself, “This is for my rebbe.”

We titled it: משה אמת ותורתו אמת—“Moshe is true and his Torah is true,” with the subsections bearing sweet puns like משה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה for the section on Torah shebaal peh, or והאיש משה עניו מכל אדם for the section about values and character in Judaism. And each dvar Torah was written with the careful thought and rigor, Rav Kahn always expected from us.

Right before Shavuot that year, Stern College made a Zoom event to honor his contribution to Yeshiva University—for nearly 50 years of teaching at Yeshiva University and his contribution to women’s talmud Torah.

It began with President Rabbi Ari Berman and Nechama Price thanking Rav Kahn. They emphasized how he lit our candles, until we were able to carry the flame on our own מדליק עד שתהא השלהבת עולה מאליה.

Rav Kahn then taught a beautiful shiur analyzing how the Torah shebichtav and Torah shebaal peh came into being, with a fascinating Beis HaLevi and analysis of several midrashim. He then encouraged us to internalize all the Torah we learn, so that we can cause our yetzer hatov to become even stronger.

Rav Kahn began the shiur noticeably weak. He said that he was getting over a case of laryngitis and sounded hoarse. He even asked one of the talmidot to read the mekorot. But as he taught, he became noticeably stronger. Torah is perfect because it restores the soul: תורת ה’ תמימה משיבת נפש.

When he finished, I figured we’d all say thank you and leave, as was the etiquette in a Zoom shiur. But, what happened next blew me away.

One by one, each talmida shared her gratitude. Speaking for maybe only 30 seconds or a minute, each one thanked him for how he believed in us, how he challenged us, how he would never let us settle for a shallow understanding of the Gemara and how he taught us the skills we needed, so we could become lifelong learners.

Hearing student after student, from decade after decade, share their hakarat hatov—it rendered me speechless. I couldn’t stop crying.

Before signing off the Zoom, Rav Kahn said in his humility, “I had no idea I made such a difference.”

When I heard the news of his passing today, my hands were shaking; I was sobbing uncontrollably. It is appropriate to tear kriya for the passing of a talmid chacham.

נָפְלָה עֲטֶרֶת רֹאשֵׁנוּ “The crown has fallen from our head.”

Rebbe, I already miss you.

Shalhevet Cahana teaches Gemara and Halacha at Manhattan Day School and teaches adult education in Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, California. She lives with her husband Dvir Cahana in Washington Heights. 

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