Rabbi Maurice Lamm, z”l
We note with great sadness the petirah of one of the deans of the American rabbinate, Rabbi Maurice Lamm.
My most vivid recollection of Rabbi Lamm is of the person who firmly put a smug young man – me! – in his place. It was during one of my earlier years in Los Angeles, when I still saw things as sharply divided between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness. The latter, of course, included Modern Orthodoxy, something that I had turned off to growing up in Kew Gardens Hills and watching what happened to my friends. So when I was invited to a community event at Cong. Beth Jacob, the flagship Modern Orthodox shul in Beverly Hills, I had no problem accepting the honor. It essentially meant debating Rabbi Lamm on the merits of large synagogues (we used to call them synagogues with Edifice Complexes) versus the increasingly popular (and much “frummer”) shteibels.
I made my case, and didn’t think I had done so badly. I had walked into a trap, however. Rabbi Lamm rose up to cream me. He made a number of good points that I had not considered, and he was entirely correct. I don’t think he touched my arguments for why people enjoyed the smaller shuls where each person meant more, but his counter-argument was impressive. If you splinter a community into small devotional cells, entire aspects of community life disappeared. Some important activities required a critical mass of people to sustain them. Only larger shuls could deliver them.
Why were those considerations more important than the ones that drove people to the shteiblach? To Rabbi Lamm, this was not a question. He understood what fewer and fewer of us today understand: HKBH expects us to give up parts of our individual comfort for the good of the tzibbur.
His challenge to me resonated, and changed me for life. We subsequently became friends. When he published a book introducing Judaism to non-religious teenagers (writing for a vastly different audience showed his great agility as a writer), he asked me to review it for Jewish Action. Years later, his brother Rabbi Norman Lamm יב”ל, then President of Yeshiva University, turned to him to figure out who this Adlerstein guy was. Was he so black as to hate YU and everyone in it? Rabbi Maurice assured his brother that Adlerstein’s bark was worse than his bite.
The commitment to tzibbur was something that he lived. He was the consummate old-school shul rov. Anything that was important to his flock was important to him – and he did not delegate. He did it all himself.
His sefer on aveilus became and remains a classic. While in circles further to the right halachic detail became the only concern, Rabbi Lamm understood the need for many people to engage the whys and wherefores of what they were living through in their times of tragedy. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning is still the book you want to give to people who want the comfort of context and explanation.
יהי זכרו ברוך
I met Rabbi Lamm Z’L on a number of occasions in the last 12 years of his life when lived in North Woodmere where my children moved. I hardly knew him but three anecdotes leave an impression. First, years ago, around 1970, he published a very thoughtful article in the journal, Judaism. The cover (yellow, I seem to recall) incorrectly identifies the author as his brother, but his name is correctly given inside. The article is a classic on how Jewish halakhic/ethical values can be applied creatively in the modern world. Years ago, I was already impressed. Second, I visited him in is home when he was too ill to come to shul Shabbos, and he had to remove his breathing tube in on order to converse. (I was accompanying children/grandchildren who did so regularly.) He did so to the point of discomfort, in order to make his guests feel welcome. Needless to say, it made me uncomfortably aware of the situation I unwittingly created. Third, on the rare occasions we were both in Shul, I invariably heard him giving the Rabbi, a half century his junior, complements on the drasha as well as an incisive point or two on how to deliver the message more sharply. I wish I could give constructive criticism and heartfelt praise as naturally. Yehi Zichro Baruch.
I appreciated your appreciation of Rabbi Lamm z”l.
I once took a 6 week course of his at YU and he was fantastic.
What’s amazed me about his book on aveilus is that it helps both those yeshiva educated and those with zero background.
Rabbi Lamm’s The Power of Hope: The One Essential of Life and Love is one of the books I currently keep for bedside reading. It’s a small-sized book, published by Simon and Schuster/Scribner that sold 50,000 copies in its first printing. He draws on stories from his chaplaincy career and from his own experience to encourage hope among people of all backgrounds. Yehi zichro baruch.
Unfortunately for me, I only knew Rabbi Maurice Lamm rather indirectly. His son David was and continues to be in a professional musical band with my oldest brother. They play their music at Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other such religious Jewish events. I have to admit feeling intimidated by the elder Lamms, being that all of them seemed or actually were very prominent Rabbis. They seemed like untouchable celebrities to me. I suppose in a way, I felt toward them, as secular Americans feel toward the Kennedy family. Despite this sense of awe I had about them, feeling inadequate to get to ever actually know them as flesh-and-blood human beings, I did find myself feeling a deep sadness upon hearing of the death of Rabbi Lamm. It is as if it spelled the end of a very special era in Jewish life, perhaps one that no longer exists, now that the religious world has become more and more chareidi over the recent decades. I will forever consider myself to be part of that world, and not what the religious Jewish world has become. Baruch Dayan Emet.
RYA—- i i am eminently repeatedly impressed by your ability to present a nuanced moerate yet forceful haredi approach to life. if all haredi authorities /functionaries , even all contributors to your website could project the same attitude, there might be a chance of peace at least amongst many of so-called O jews, at least…..
I could not agree with you more.