In searching for religious inspiration, there is often a powerful pull to the highly charismatic and expressive teachers who captivate students young and old. Perhaps to the great dismay of many of my own students, this is not the model that I long for or to be.
Rabbi Moshe Kahn z”l who is being buried Thursday was my teacher for some of the most formidable and formative years of my Torah study. Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, then nestled on the ninth floor of the Jewish Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was a Torah playground for women. With its commitment to open inquiry, serious text study, and religion seeking, Drisha created an animated environment. The elevator opened to a narrow hallway delivering women of all ages and backgrounds into a unique world of Torah study — a floor of our own.
For nearly four years, this beit midrash was my home, when I studied in the Drisha Scholars Circle, a full-time advanced program for women to study Talmud and Halakha (Jewish law). Rabbi Kahn taught us halakha, presenting lengthy sources to work through for hours in the study hall that would culminate in his class with a rigorous review and analysis. While Rabbi Kahn’s demeanor was sensitive and humble, he held himself and his students to the highest of standards. He was fully convinced that there were no shortcuts. It wasn’t sufficient to get the gist of a text. Rabbi Kahn’s students had to understand every word, every reference, and every turn of thought.
This week, nearly 23 years after I sat before Rabbi Kahn in class, upon finishing teaching my own Talmud class, a student approached me frustrated in her challenge to read a source on her own and understand each word, twist, and idea. I quickly revealed that while I had presented the source in 15 minutes, before class I had sat for hours pouring over it and working through it to understand what it was saying. I found myself echoing Rabbi Kahn: there are no shortcuts. This model of sitting, reading, thinking, reviewing, questioning… is a dedication to Torah and truth that Rabbi Kahn not only modeled, but instilled in his students.
During my time in the Scholars Circle, I was often asked what I was going to do upon completion of the program. What was I hoping to “become”? I remember among the most practical answers I offered that “a previous graduate had managed to present her graduation certificate and it was recognized by the IRS to bestow tax benefits for parsonage.” The path for women who studied Torah in this manner was not clear — not to society and not even to many of us in the beit midrash at the time. With my academic undergraduate major in English Literature and my graduate studies in medieval history, with a focus on the development of halakha, the questions of practical application of my studies was not overwhelmingly troublesome to me; but it was raised early and often by others.
From the very first summer I stepped into the beit midrash at Drisha during college, it was clear to me that while the valuation of my study in the world was up for discussion, the nature of the study was not. The Scholars Circle was unmistakably rigorous and demanding, but also so incredibly compelling as a superb choice of how to spend our time.
Rabbi Moshe Kahn dedicated his life to teaching women Talmud and halakha in the most advanced programs as they developed in real time. In addition to teaching in the Scholars Circle at Drisha, he taught in the undergraduate program at Stern College and then, as Stern developed a post-graduate certificate program of its own, Rabbi Kahn taught there as well.
The Jewish community has experienced a revolution in the last generation with an ever-increasing number of women studying Torah through first-hand pouring over texts. Many of us have been led on this journey by a teacher who, given his humility, integrity, patience, scrupulous demands for clarity and honest understanding, was our model of Divine service.
While this model of greatness may sound surprising, I am reminded of Eliyahu Hanavi’s moment in search of Divine Revelation. Eliyahu is met by a powerful and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, an earthquake and fire; but he is instructed God’s Presence was not in any of those dramatic exhibitions, but in the soft consistent voice. Rav Sheshet in the Talmud (BT, Brachot 57a) echoes this sentiment in his appreciation of mortal leadership. Rav Sheshet explains, “Royalty on earth is like the royalty of the heavens. It is not the powerful and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, earthquake or fire; but in the soft consistent voice.”
I feel blessed to have encountered Rabbi Moshe Kahn’s royalty and religious inspiration.
יהי זכרו ברוך