Yeshiva University Must Prioritize and Expand Women’s Talmud Study
The recent passing of our husband and father, Rabbi Moshe Kahn, beloved Talmud teacher at YU’s Stern College and GPATS for 40 years, elicited an outpouring of support and tributes. Social media exploded with descriptions of Rabbi Kahn’s impact, describing how he provided hundreds of women with the skills to learn Talmud and Jewish law on an advanced level — something that most Orthodox educational institutions have abjured. Local Jewish newspapers and podcasts discussed his major contributions to Talmud Torah for women. Most notably, Rabbi Kahn’s synagogue, Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, New Jersey, buried a pasul (invalid) Sefer Torah with him, a most fitting honor for a man who dedicated his life to teaching Torah.
However, in recent days, it appeared that YU was ready to spurn Rabbi Kahn’s legacy: The school canceled several Talmud courses in the women’s undergraduate and graduate programs. Additionally, the administration had no plans to hire a full-time replacement for Rabbi Kahn.
This news pained us immensely. Rabbi Kahn strongly believed that intensive Talmud study is a transformative process that shapes the mind and the soul, bringing people to a deeper understanding of the wisdom and values of Torah Judaism. He deeply felt that it was wrong to deprive Jewish women of this experience. He would have been heartbroken if he were alive to witness YU’s effort to dilute the Talmud programs that he helped create and strengthen.
For years, Rabbi Kahn persistently and doggedly ignored critics and naysayers both within and outside YU. Instead, he simply taught Torah, allowing his actions and the dedication of his students to speak for themselves. When criticisms of his beliefs and calls to rethink offering serious Talmud study to women at YU began to surface, he viewed them as a badge of honor — and a positive sign that Talmud study for women was indeed becoming more popular and visible. When he learned in recent years that his shiur was no longer blacklisted at certain women’s seminaries in Israel, he jokingly acted disappointed.
Women’s Talmud study has made enormous strides since Rabbi Kahn began teaching in the 1980s, and YU has done a great deal to help advance it. However, readily canceling Talmud classes soon after Rabbi Kahn’s passing generates the impression that YU lacks true commitment to advancing women’s Torah study. Does YU merely tolerate Talmud study for women, or does the institution believe in its importance and protect and prioritize it? Will YU only preserve women’s Talmud study in response to pressure, or will it proactively lead the Jewish community as a trailblazer in advancing Jewish education for women? While YU may have been able to straddle the fence in the past, its students and alumni deserve and demand more.
We are grateful that the YU administration reinstated the Talmud classes. But we cannot overlook that it took a public petition signed by more than 1,400 people and open letters to effect such change. In truth, the work of honoring Rabbi Kahn’s legacy by elevating the level of women’s Torah study at YU has only just begun. The controversy surrounding the cancellation of classes has exposed a systemic lack of institutional support in the landscape of women’s Talmud study that has persisted even as the number of women studying Talmud in modern Orthodox communities has steadily increased.
Though there are now cohorts of learned women who can teach Talmud competently, only a relatively small number of American yeshiva day schools and gap-year seminaries in Israel offer Talmud to women. At a communal level, Talmud study is still generally perceived as an exclusively male endeavor. A woman walking into a shul or beit midrash with a Gemara in hand knows she will draw askance looks or comments. This needs to change.
Such change can begin with more robust leadership and vision from YU’s administration. Rabbi Yosef Blau recently issued an important statement in The Commentator in support of high-level shiurim and Talmud study at Stern College, arguing that at a minimum, mornings at Stern College should be devoted to Torah studies, as it is on the men’s campus. In addition to properly placing limmudei kodesh in a special category of its own, apart from general undergraduate studies, doing so would allow women wishing to master the skills to learn Talmud and its commentaries the requisite time to dedicate themselves to doing so.
Stern College students, particularly those who yearn to study Torah at the highest levels, shouldn’t have to choose between Torah and their secular coursework. The fact that so many women at Stern College have had to choose was a source of ongoing distress for Rabbi Kahn. We ask that any fundraising tied to the establishment of an endowed chair in his memory be contingent upon YU making a good faith effort to remedy this.
We know that meaningful change will not happen overnight. But Rabbi Kahn’s passing, and the recent controversy over canceling shiurim, marks an inflection point in YU’s history that should prompt a serious reevaluation of how it values and prioritizes opportunities for women’s Torah study. Will YU honor Rabbi Kahn’s legacy and sustain and expand upon his life’s work? The answer remains to be seen.
Chana Kahn is a graduate of Wurzweiler School of Social Work (‘88).
Eliezer Kahn is a graduate of Yeshiva College (‘00).
Chavi Kahn is a graduate of Stern College for Women (‘02), Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud/Tanach Studies (‘02-’03) and Albert Einstein College of Medicine (‘08).
Tzvi Kahn is a former editor in chief of The Commentator and a graduate of Yeshiva College (‘07).
Photo Caption: The beit midrash on Beren Campus
Photo Credit: The Commentator