Moshe Emet Ve’Torato Emet: Reflections on the Loss of my Rebbe, Rav Moshe Kahn zt”l
In Pirkei Avot, R. Elazar ben Shamua teaches, “Morah rabcha ke-morah shamayim” — the reverence for one’s teacher should be like the reverence of Heaven. I always had a hard time understanding this Mishna. How can we possibly compare the reverence we feel for a teacher, a mere human being, with the concept of Yirat Shamayim [fear of Heaven]?
I could not understand this Mishna until my first day of Rav Kahn’s Gemara shiur, which was also my first day of my undergraduate studies at Stern. I don’t think I let out a single breath in that first shiur. When Rav Kahn cold-called me, as many had warned me he would, I couldn’t utter a word; I simply shook my head and he got the message that I was a terrified first-time student.
I grew slightly more comfortable with speaking up in class as the semester progressed, but by the end of the semester I felt ready to leave. While I thankfully did well on the exams, as a result of endless nights pacing the beit midrash and memorizing the Gemaras and Rishonim, I did not feel cut out for the class. I scheduled a meeting with Rav Kahn to speak about the possibility of switching from his Advanced Talmud class, which meets four times a week and includes a seder component, to Intermediate Talmud, which only meets twice a week and moves at a more moderate pace.
I’d never had a one-on-one meeting with Rav Kahn before, and as always prior to an interaction with him, my stomach was full of knots and I was nervous. I simultaneously had so much respect for and fear of my rebbe. I logged onto the Zoom meeting, preparing myself to inform Rav Kahn of my decision to switch classes. I had made up my mind — I was not cut out for Rav Kahn’s class.
Rav Kahn logged on, peered at me closely and asked, “How are you, Rivka? How is the shiur going for you?” I began to tell him that while I had learned a lot in the shiur and worked hard, I did not feel like I was at the level of the class. I explained that half of the time I was struggling to comprehend the basic understanding of the material, while the girls around me were debating each others’ sevaras [complex interpretations of the material]. I told him I felt I should switch to Intermediate for a semester and see how that went instead. Rav Kahn patiently waited for me to finish speaking, then looked at me plainly and said: “Rivka, you’re just shy. You just need to ask more questions. I know you have questions during class; ask them! That’s why I’m here.”
I was a little shocked. I had expected him to advise me on how to go about switching classes, on what my options were and what I could do to ensure I continued learning next semester even if I did not stay in his class. Instead he looked at me and saw me right to my core. I thought I had slipped his notice the whole semester, that he assumed I was quiet in class because I understood shiur and was simply a quieter student. But he knew, the entire time, that I was just too shy to ask questions. It felt like he had been waiting the whole semester for me to approach him.
Educators and those aspiring to join the field often speak of the dream to have an impact on their students. I believe one of the most effective and direct ways to accomplish this is by making a student feel seen. You might spend an entire semester, or an entire year, or many years, teaching a student. But if you made them feel like someone saw them, like someone peered at them and understood them, you know with certainty you have left an imprint.
This was exactly how I felt following this interaction with Rav Kahn. Perhaps it was the result of forty years of pedagogical practice, or of twelve years of training to become a psychotherapist or a combination of the two, that enabled Rav Kahn to truly see his students. Regardless, my story with Rav Kahn is one of thousands. Over the past few days, women from all corners of the Jewish community have been writing stunning tributes about the impact their rebbe had on them. If this is the first Rav Kahn story you are reading, I highly recommend finding the countless beautiful posts online. A mere editorial does not do justice to our beloved rebbe.
Many have written extensively about Rav Kahn’s remarkable anava; how he revolutionized Gemara study for women in the United States, and made it accessible when others brushed it aside as unimportant and secondary; how he taught and inspired thousands of women and made them feel like a direct link in our mesorah, instead of as if they were peering into the world of Talmud Torah from the outside; how he demanded excellence from his students, and did not go easy on them just because they were women; and how, as a direct result of years of pedagogy, mentorship and a demonstration of pure ahavat ha’Torah [love of Torah], hundreds of women joined the world of chinuch and took the skills Rav Kahn provided them with into their classroom as his proud talmidot [students]. Yet he somehow accomplished all this with the utmost humility.
Rav Kahn never made a fuss of his work. He loved to tell the story of the time he drove his rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, to the airport. He said that the Rav was someone who did not speak if he didn’t need to; the car ride was mostly silent. Rav Kahn timidly asked the Rav if it was permissible to teach women Gemara, to which the Rav responded, “Why not?” From then on, there was no question of what Rav Kahn was going to do. Thus began his life’s mission, and he never made a big deal out of it. He went about his work quietly and humbly, doing what he felt was important and his contribution to Klal Yisrael.
Occasionally he was challenged by others. He sometimes told us stories about people who would approach him in bewilderment and ask why he chose to teach women Gemara. He would always respond that he did not understand the question. Rav Kahn had no agenda; he wanted to teach Torah, and he wanted to enable women to have a kinyan over Torah, a connection with Torah. External values were not a factor; it did not matter what others thought.
I had the privilege of learning with Rav Kahn for a little over a year before his declining health forced him to stop teaching. There are so many precious stories to share from that year and change. For example, there was the time he wasn’t feeling well but was determined to give shiur, and when a girl explained the Tosafot correctly he smiled widely and said, “Ah! You’re already making me feel better.” Or the first week of classes, when he baked us bread with his breadmaker after telling us about his new hobby he had taken up during COVID. Or the last time I ever saw him when my friend Gaby and I visited him in his home a few weeks before he passed away. I told him we had gotten up to the Rif on the sugya of Edei Chatima Kartei and Edei Mesira Kartei [the witnesses to the signing/giving over of the document create the transaction], and his eyes widened and he responded, “Wow, it’s really amazing, isn’t it?”
I gained a treasure trove of skills from Rav Kahn’s class. I am now able to learn confidently on my own and understand what I am learning, which was not previously true. But beyond the skills that Rav Kahn taught us, it was the tremendous sense of dedication, Ahavat Torah and Yirat Shamayim that was conveyed most strongly to me.
This brings me back to the question I originally posed in the beginning of this article. How can we compare the awe of a teacher with the awe of Heaven? Rabbenu Yonah answers that the awe we feel for our rebbeim is the foundation of our Yirat Shamayim, because a good rebbe instills this value in his students, and teaches them how to love Hashem and His Torah. For me, and for thousands of others, no one embodied this more than Rav Kahn.
There is so much more I could say. So many women older and wiser than me have written profoundly on Rav Kahn and his legacy, and I encourage you to find their writings online and learn more about this special teacher and mentor. I will end by simply stating that I miss my rebbe; the world feels a bit emptier and a bit dimmer without him. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the time I had with him, and I feel honored to be surrounded by his talmidot, some my friends and some my teachers. Together, we will God willing carry forward his light and the light of Torah for the future generations of women. It is the least we can do to honor his memory.
Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be a blessing.