An Interview with Rabbi Moshe Kahn

BY: Ilana Gadish.

How would you describe your approach towards teaching Talmud? What are your goals when you tackle a sugya?

The first thing that I would want to emphasize is that the goal of teaching Talmud, or teaching anything, is to teach students how to learn. I think sometimes that gets lost, in that teachers or rabbe’im want to tell their students their chiddushim or their sevaros or how they understand a particular sugya – which is all very nice and wonderful, but it has to be done in a way that allows the students to learn how to learn, and, therefore, it has to be developed from the ground up. Students have to learn how to read a particular Gemara, how to go through a Rishon carefully and properly, and whatever sevara is going to emerge has got to emerge from the text. Therefore, the job of a rebbe is to teach students how to approach a text and how to learn. That is what I do when I learn a sugya; I identify which Rishonim I want to work with and I assign these Rishonim, and the purpose is for students to be able to go through the Rishon carefully, line by line, knowing exactly what they are reading. Whatever conceptual ideas one would want to attribute to this Rishon have to emerge from the text, and if they do not, then I do not think that it is pedagogically correct to offer a sevara, because it is not helpful to the students.

What should the balance be between Rishonim and Aharonim in the study of a sugya?

All the rabbe’im that I had in yeshivah just worked with Rishonim. The Rishonim are the ones who really tackle how to work through peshat in the Gemara, how to understand the sugya. The Acharonim tend to build on what the Rishonim said, and there is a value to that, but in terms of training students how to learn, I feel that the best way to do that is to work with the Rishonim who are working really closely with the text, in explaining the text of the Gemara and raising all the relevant issues. Acharonim will do that at times as well, but I think on a consistent basis the Rishonim, in terms of pedagogy, offer a better way to do it.

So if students master reading the text and reading the Rishonim accurately, how do you think Aharonim help? Once students reach a certain level, what should be the balance between Aharonim and Rishonim, when learning a new sugya, for example?

I feel that that could be something that students can decide on their own; if they know how to go through a sugya with Rishonim, they can learn through Acharonim as well. How many Acharonim they decide to do, I do not think is critical. In terms of pedagogy, I think what is critical is if you can go through a Ramban, Rashba, Ritva, and Tosfos on a sugya and understand what each one is saying, and what the differences are between them – and you understand it based on the text. I am very much opposed to offering an interpretation of a Rishon if it is not really coming out of the text of the Rishon; it has got to be compelling, and if it is not, then I think it is best not to say it.

You mentioned your teachers, and how most of them taught mostly Rishonim. Who was your most formative Talmud teacher, and what was the most important skill that you learned from him?

The most formative teacher I had was the Rav. I was in his shi’ur for about seven years. I learned a lot of Torah from the Rav, which goes without saying, but in terms of skills that I really picked up, I think two stand out the most in my mind. One of them is that he taught us how to think things through on our own. That might sound dangerous in today’s time, to be a thinker and to think independently, but that is absolutely necessary in order to be able to learn Gemara. You have to be able to come in with your own mind, in terms of going through the sugya, and try to understand it on your own; you have to rely on your own ability to be able to do that. One of the things that the Rav taught was that learning is not just repeating what other people say; it is using our own minds to understand something very well, very carefully, and, where necessary, to come up with a sevara and try to develop it by ourselves. This is something that the Rav did all the time, and I think he certainly instilled this in his students.

The other thing was that the Rav used to read Rishonim; he would take out a Ramban and read it, telling us that while we know how to say a sevara, we do not know how to read a Rishon correctly. That is really something that I find, at times, lacking in many students who learn Gemara; they might know a lot but they do not read through the Rishon carefully, properly, and fluently. I think if one is not able to do so, that is a big chissaron in one’s learning. I really was impressed by the Rav emphasizing the importance of reading every word of the Rishon, so that every word should fit in and nothing should be extra, and so that whatever you say about the Rishon should come out of his words. We should not be putting things in that are not really emerging in a compelling way. The other point which I said was that we have to use our own brains to think things through, to ask questions, not to rely on what somebody else said – we have to make it our own Torah, and we have to use our own brains to do so.

How do you think your own learning experiences when you were a student were formative in developing your own derekh ha-limmud?

One of the things I really did on my own, even before I got into the Rav’s shi’ur, was developing reading skills – just simply knowing how to translate something. This was something that my rabbe’im never did with us. We were expected simply to know it, but the truth is if you do not work on it, you are never going to know it. I found myself really working on knowing exactly what words mean, simply being able to read something and translate it correctly. I did that on my own, and eventually I felt that, in terms of being a teacher, that was critical in teaching students how to learn. If you do not know the language, then you cannot progress, you cannot develop.

Do you feel that there are shortcomings to the standard methodology of the Brisker Aharonim? If so, how can one overcome those deficiencies?

The truth is, people say they are learning using the Brisker method and I might debate if what they are doing is really the Brisker method or not. It is hard to answer that question because when people say “the Brisker method,” I am not sure I know what they mean by that. I think people mean different things. One of the things that I alluded to before was that people think that the Brisker method is simply to suggest sevaros, even when they are not compelling. For me, that is not the Brisker method. The Brisker method is where something comes out of the Rishon’s words themselves; I do not feel that Rav Chayyim just formulated ideas without being able to root them in a particular Rishon in a compelling way. If it is not compelling, then I really feel it should not be said, and certainly not in a classroom. Our primary job is to teach students how to learn and it has got to be done with a very clear and distinct methodology and in a very controlled way. I feel that if sevaros are said without them being rooted in a text, it is more like wild speculation than true learning of Torah.

When learning Halakhah, how would you recommend that students focus on understanding sources in depth while also emerging with practical halakhic knowledge?

If the goal of teaching Halachah is simply to tell students and to let them know what to do – what do you do for this, what do you do for that – just a practical guide to how to conduct yourself – if that is the whole purpose of the Halachah class, then we do not need a Halachah class in the first place. There are so many things now that are written in plain English and Hebrew that if you want to just know what to do, you could find out without entering a classroom. If you want to have a Halachah class, the goal should be to see the development of the halachah from its original source: you go back to the Chummash, Mishnah, and Gemara, etc., leading up to the Shulchan Aruch and posekim post-Shulchan Aruch. But just to get the bottom line without the entire background of what led to it – to me, that is not a meaningful study of Halachah. Of course, at the end of the day you want to know what to do, but the goal in a Halachah class should not be simply to teach students what to do; the goal should be to show how the halachah got from A to B to C to D and so on. Therefore, there has to be a balance between the development of the halachah, and, of course, the final pesak.

You have been teaching Talmud at Stern College for Women since the mid-1980s. How have you seen the field of Talmud for women progress since then?

I think it has progressed – I remember the very beginning. The Advanced Talmud class only met twice a week. I think in the very first class there were four students who came, and for a number of years that is how it was – a very small group of students. I remember there was one year when I only had two students. For quite a while, the class met twice a week. But now – and I do not remember when it started, probably sometime in the ‘90s – it has been increased to four times a week, and there is an Intermediate Talmud class as well. I feel that more people are studying, although I still feel that in terms of numbers, it is a very, very small percentage of the student body that studies Talmud.

Why are other students not taking advantage of this opportunity? If they just do not feel that they have the ability, because Gemara is very hard to learn, that is one thing. But – and this is getting involved in another problem – if there is a Haskhafah issue about women studying Gemara, that because of this haskhafah students at Stern choose not to learn it [Gemara] – not because they lack the desire or the ability, but simply they feel the hashkafah that they have been taught is against it – I think that issue needs to be addressed. I think that is one major issue that holds back more students from taking Gemara.

I do feel that the level of women’s learning, from its inception to now, has increased dramatically. There is the GPATS program (Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies for Women), which was unthinkable back in the ‘80s – there was barely a Gemara class then in the College. The very fact that we have a graduate program in Gemara is a tremendous achievement, and it really shows significant progress, but I feel there is still quite a ways to go. The Hashkafah issue is a real one, and I wish there were a way to address it more directly here at Stern College, so that students who would really gain from a Gemara class would not feel that it is wrong for them to study Gemara.

What do you think is the most important thing that must be improved for women’s learning?  How do you think we, as a community, should go about that?

The Hashkafah has got to change. I think within the Modern Orthodox community there are still educators and rabbanim who are not really happy with women learning Gemara. Maybe they do not oppose it openly, but they do not support it openly either. And then there are those who actually oppose it openly. So within the Modern Orthodox camp, number one, there has to be a change in attitude, and number two, the learning of Gemara for young women has to start, at the latest, in high school. When students come to college and they want to take Gemara and are then exposed to it for the first time, they are at a disadvantage because they are coming in at the age of 18, 19, etc. They are only at Stern for a few years, and they are taking a full secular studies program, so there is only so much time that they can devote to Gemara. And it is a shame – had they come in with 4 or 5 years of having learned Gemara intensively, they would be much more progressed. But this goes back to Hashkafah, too. Learning Gemara for women has to become normative. All girls’ schools have to start introducing Gemara – not as a bedieved, but as a lechatchilah, with the feeling that there is nothing wrong with it.  And it should be done intensively, no differently than you would do with a boy.

Do you believe that there is a general difference between male and female learning styles? Do you believe that there should be, or that there always will be?

No, I do not think that in terms of learning style that gender is an issue or should be an issue – I think it really depends on one’s intellectual ability.  Obviously, I am now teaching women and I have taught men, and I still teach men, but I have found that those who are intellectually capable of learning Gemara do well regardless of gender and those who are weaker in terms of having or developing Gemara skills find it harder to learn Gemara, again regardless of gender.  So I do not think there should be a difference.  To me, it is no different than Math or any other discipline; you teach it on the same level regardless of the gender of your students. You do not teach it to men differently than you teach it to women. I do not think we would do it for Chummash, so I do not feel that Gemara is any different in that regard.

Institutions for advanced women’s Talmud are generally not under the direct auspices of a traditional yeshivah with a set derekh ha-limmud. Do you think that in this respect, women are at an advantage, in that their learning is not limited by one mode of learning, or is the lack of a unitary derekh ha-limmud detrimental in some way?

If you take the yeshivah uptown, the rabbe’im have different styles of learning; the learning is all based on conceptual analysis, but even so there are differences in style and in how to analyze something. Whichever style appeals to the student would be perfectly fine to accept. However, in a broad sense, there is a process everyone should follow.  Whichever method you use, you have to get there in the same way.  In other words, if you are going to be using a Brisker method, whatever you think that is, you have to get to the issues by analyzing the text that you are studying and you have to be able to be true to the text.  So whatever method you take, I feel that you have to be on the conservative side and make sure that what you are saying is actually what the Gemara or the Rishon is saying.  Everyone needs to approach it in the same way, to be faithful to the text. Once you feel you know, textually, the facts that the Rishon presented, you can try to explain them in different ways, and that should be a personal choice. If a particular method appeals to you and it fits into your style of thinking, that is fine. But for me, the major concern should be with being sure that the reading of the text is accurate and that what you are saying is really in the Gemara or the Rishon. This should be the mehallech and derech ha-limmud that everyone adheres to.

So you are saying that in that respect, it depends on the teacher and his or her own style, and that even within an institution different rabbe’im have different darkhei ha-limmud for either men or women?

Yes. And to me, again, it should not be based on gender; it has got to be based on the level of the students. If you are giving a shi’ur to people who are advanced, then you should be giving an advanced shi’ur regardless of gender. And if you are giving a more intermediate or beginner’s shi’ur, then, again, it should have nothing to do with gender – it has got to do with intellectual ability.

And with regard to learning style, while we tend to be more conceptual and people do relate to that a lot: sometimes people work on the sevara very much – they try to work out the sevara of what the machlokes is about; if someone wants to do that, that is fine, but the thing that we should all have in common is that we have to make sure that we are true to the text. I keep repeating that same point because I think that that is where there are differences – people are suggesting ideas and sevaros that are really not compelling in the text.  And I feel very strongly that as a teacher, it is not good pedagogy to interpret Gemaros or Rishonim in a way that is not compelling.  Even if it is a nice idea and a wonderful sevara, if it is not compelling, then I think it would be wrong to offer that peshat.

Rabbi Moshe Kahn is an instructor of Talmud and Halakhah at SCW and GPATS.