I never met Rav Moshe Kahn, but I feel a tremendous sense of loss by his passing. My daughter, Elisheva, had the fortune of being in his shiur every semester that she was in Stern College. His shiur was the landing spot for all the young women who studied Gemara at Migdal Oz and wanted to continue learning Gemara on a high level at Stern College. Elisheva shared with me her experience in Rav Kahn’s shiur and it is clear to me why he was such a beloved rebbe and why he singlehandedly made such an impact on women’s Talmud Torah. I will share three aspects of his greatness.
First, he inspired excellence. Some rabbis do not encourage women to study Gemara or high-level Torah she’ba’al peh. Some rabbis begrudgingly accept that some women enjoy studying Gemara and will teach them Gemara to keep them in the fold. Some rabbis celebrate the study of Gemara and high-level Torah she’ba’al peh for women. But Rav Kahn did more. He inspired excellence. Understanding the Gemara in a general way was insufficient for him. He expected his students to understand every word and every phrase in the Gemara and every commentary that they studied. He wouldn’t move on to a different source until his students fully understood the source they were studying. But like a master educator, Rav Kahn geared his shiurim towards the level of his students and he was able to push his students to excel at whatever level they were on.
Secondly, Rav Kahn led the movement to significantly raise the level of women’s learning in the Orthodox community without seeing himself as a leader of a movement. He saw himself as a teacher of Torah. He saw his job as ensuring that his students understand the Gemara, Rashi, Tosafot, Ritva, Ramban and Rambam. Rav Kahn’s shiur was not a platform for anything other than high-level talmud Torah. And yet, his shiur created a movement. All or nearly all of the amazing Stern College graduates who currently teach Gemara or Torah She’Ba’al Peh studied in his shiur. He was a simple, humble, master educator without any ego who had a passion for talmud Torah and he shared that passion with his students. And that passion created a movement.
Finally, Rav Kahn was Elisheva’s rebbe. When we talk about rebbeim, we generally refer to rebbeim of boys because, for a variety of reasons, boys typically have rebbeim, whereas girls typically have Judaic studies teachers or rabbis. One reason is quantitative, namely the time that girls and boys spend with one particular teacher. A boy’s Judaic Studies education is typically heavily invested in Gemara study with one primary rebbe during every year in high school and yeshiva. Since most of his learning is being taught by one teacher, he develops a strong relationship with that teacher who becomes his rebbe. Girls and young women typically have many different Judaic Studies classes with a variety of teachers and rabbis. There is no central figure who teaches them the majority of their Judaic Studies in any given day. Therefore, it is more difficult for girls or young women to have one rebbe.
However, I think that there’s a more profound difference between a rebbe and a regular teacher. Rav Aaron Soloveichik explained that a moreh, or a teacher, transmits information to his students, but a rebbe infuses his own personality into his students. Rav Kahn was a rebbe to his students. He transmitted the mesorah that he received from his Rebbe, the Rav, to his students in his shiur without any watering-down of that mesorah. Elisheva told me that she and the other students in her shiur truly felt that they were a link in the chain starting at Har Sinai. They felt like insiders to the mesorah because they didn’t just learn a subject. They learned the development of Torah she’ba’al peh, the process of our mesorah, to the point when the process became intimately familiar to them.
He was also a rebbe in another way. Elisheva told me that he cared about his students and his students sensed that care and concern. When Elisheva was going through a difficult time, he noticed that she wasn’t as focused in shiur, so he asked her if everything was okay. He was the most fundamental part of her college experience. She loved his shiur so much and she loved starting off her day with his shiur. He was her rebbe and the rosh yeshiva of her beit midrash and he made her feel so confident about her commitment to Gemara learning. He was a true rebbe, infusing his religious personality on his students, inspiring them towards excellence and caring about each one of them.
I am blessed with three daughters who are committed to Torah she’ba’al peh. I learn Gemara with one of them on a weekly basis. A second daughter studied Gemara for a year at Migdal Oz Seminary, was in Rav Kahn’s shiur every semester at Stern College and studied Gemara at GPATS for one year after graduating Stern College. A third daughter studied Gemara for a year and a half at Migdal Oz Seminary, studies Daf Yomi and hopes to teach Gemara as a career.
As such, Rav Kahn’s death is very personal to my entire family. We all feel the loss of a trailblazer in women’s advanced talmud Torah who was a trailblazer without fanfare or an ego. He was a trailblazer though love: love of Torah and love of his students. My hope and prayer are that communities that celebrate advanced Torah study for women will perpetuate his legacy by embracing his values which made such a difference to the lives of so many in our community.