Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l
The tributes to Rabbi Lamm are pouring in from the many within his extensive orbit who speak lovingly of how he and his thought touched them. I write from outside that orbit. In fact, my relationship with Rabbi Lamm was created not despite our differences, but entirely because of them.
Even the outsider from a distance had to take note of his nobility. For decades, he had no peer as a speaker who combined content and elegant expression. Coupled with his role at Yeshiva University, he became de facto the most important spokesperson for Modern Orthodoxy for decades.
His role as President of Yeshiva University gave him huge influence in the general Jewish community and beyond, and he used it to promote the common good. But it was inconceivable to him to serve as President without combining it, as did his predecessors, with the role of Rosh Yeshiva. His mind and pen drew him back to the beis medrash; throughout his career, he wrote pieces of classic Torah lishma.
He was a prodigious author. Generations will owe it to him for his contribution to the resurgence of observance of taharas hamishpacha. While others made their equally important contributions by building the mikva’os and articulating halacha in the vernacular, Rabbi Lamm’s A Hedge of Roses attempted – and succeeded – at what others believed was impossible. He made a modern, inviting intellectual case for the practice of the laws that govern marital intimacy. Many at the time looked with disdain upon what they thought represented the darkest of Jewish superstitions and ignorance; he made halachic practice appealing.
In 1999, he won the National Jewish Book Award for The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary. Year later, I had enough of a relationship with him to call him and share my thoughts. I loved the book, and still do. He had gathered many important Chassidic texts, and arranged them logically and coherently according to the intellectual issues they addressed. The best was his insightful introductions to those issues, and how the texts addressed them. At the time, a cottage industry thrived, writing nonsense about kabbalah. My long relationship with Rav Aryeh Kaplan zt”l left me particularly sensitive to the bizayon ha-Torah that was going on. I told Rabbi Lamm that a reworking of his book could serve as an excellent primer in the foundations of kabbalah, which served as the underlying system that supported the intellectual streams of Chassidus. He was complimented by my observation, and saw my point. At least I think he did. My suggestion did not fare as well. He said, “Yitzchok – I give you permission to rework my commentary and write the book. I just don’t have the time.” That project still remains in my to-do list.
Our relationship, however, was not always so cordial. How it evolved will always be the real story for me. For decades, the relationship between YU and the yeshiva world was at many times hostile and adversarial. These were two camps, each vying to win the hearts and minds of the Orthodox community. Each side had its strong points and weaker ones. Each did a far better job exposing the failures of the other than coming to grips with their own shortcomings. (Not too much has changed.)
It was not surprising that when I was offered a position as a rebbi in a new post-high school institution on the West Coast tentatively called Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, Rabbi Lamm objected. He had no idea who I was, but he knew from which of those camps I hailed. Were there not enough YU grads around? Objection overruled. I was hired anyway. I was not particularly enamored of him for his attempt to block my hiring, on top of his image as the chief spokesman for the “other” camp.
But life goes on. And sometimes, a bit of nuance sets in. I developed a relationship with his brother Maurice, z”l, the rav at the time of Beth Jacob Congregation, a large Modern Orthodox shul in Beverly Hills. At some point, my name came up in a conversation he had with his brother, and Rabbi Maurice Lamm convinced him that for someone on the right, I wasn’t such a terrible fellow.
We continued to have occasional contact. It was made easier because there were no pretensions. He knew where I disagreed with him, and I was aware of what he rejected in the yeshiva world. We were both comfortable knowing that we didn’t have to posture. He even invited me to do a long presentation to the Kollel in YU meant for future stars in the community.
At one point, I received a call from Rabbi Lamm at YU. Would I agree to a confidential conversation? Of course, I agreed. He was contemplating a particular appearance someplace outside of the Orthodox community. He wanted to hear a perspective from outside his group of loyalists in the Modern Orthodox world. How would the more right-wing community view it? Did they have good reason to object?
I was shocked. I was many, many years his junior. He knew many people on the right that he could have asked. I did not have anything near the kind of status that the conversation could have offered him some sort of cover from his critics. Somehow, he trusted me to be fair and rational. And that was all he was looking for. We had the conversation. I did have objections to the plan. He did not take my suggestion. There was no question in my mind, however, that he very much wanted to hear another opinion, listened carefully, and fully digested what I told him.
My respect for him skyrocketed. I had seen so little of that kind of intellectual honesty elsewhere, and even less of the ability to maintain a relationship with people with whom you deeply disagree. I maintained the relationship, minimally calling him every year before Rosh Hashanah (until the Alzheimer’s set in) for an extended conversation. Ever the consummate pulpit rabbi, he would ask for my family members by name. (At one point, I tried to mimic his honesty by sending him a trenchant critique of the Open Orthodox attitude to halachic sources. Some months later, I received it back in the mail with the words אמת לאמיתו in the margins.)
I have tried to put that lesson into practice. It has not always been easy. (The problem for me has never been having the personal relationship with those outside of my hashkafic comfort zone, but in ducking the barbs from those in my own camp who objected.)
I will miss the living role model. Yehi zichro baruch.
While of course I did not know Rabbi Lamm with anywhere near the depth that Rabbi Adlerstein did, I did have a kind of indirect connection to Rabbi Lamm, in that his nephew, David, played in a professional musical band for many decades with my older brother. While that unfortunately did not enable me to meet Rabbi Lamm on any personal level, it did so so for his brother, Rabbi Maurice Lamm. Also, I heard Rabbi Norman Lamm speak in person on I think more than one occasion.
And that is the aspect of him that I first want to write about here. When I think of the greatest speakers that I have heard, four individuals come to my mind: Benjamin Netanyahu, Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and Rabbi Norman Lamm. Of the four, Benjamin Netanyahu is obviously the most purely political. Rabbi Kahane’s essential message for me wavers between the political and the religious. While I do think that Reverent Martin Luther King’s message was originally meant to be a spiritual one, he is largely remembered as being a political figure. And so of the four, only Rabbi Lamm is the purely spiritual one. As important as politics may be in the short run, it is really the spiritual that has any real lasting value.
Plus, unlike the other three speakers i mentioned, all of whom were firebrands in their speaking style, Rabbi Lamm was much more subtle and intellectual in his approach. And here is where I think was his greatest strength, at least as far as I am concerned, and that was his remarkable ability to seamless weave together the best of secular knowledge with Torah thought. In one sentence, he could refer to several thinkers from each of those categories, and somehow it all made perfect sense.
There are valid arguments to made on both sides of the issue of the Torah Only approach as opposed to the Modern Orthodox approach to Judaism. Just as a side note, perhaps the best back and forth that I have ever read on that issue was made by Rabbi Shimon Schwab, who himself was a follower of Rav Hirch. For me, this issue comes down to this: which is the preferred course to take in life, to know a lot about a little (depth) or a little about a lot (breadth)? Those of the Torah Only approach, would surely side with the depth approach. There is no question that central to being Jewish in any meaningful way requires knowing our Torah teachings in some depth. However, there is also something to be said for having a wider perspective on life, even if one has to sacrifice some of that depth. No man is an island, and neither are us Jews. For better or for worse, we have always been put in a position where we have to interact with the non-Jewish world. it cannot be a mere coincidence that Israel is right in the middle of Europe, Africa, and Asia. To not have at least some knowledge of the mind of the non-Jew, is to make surviving in our world a whole lot more difficult. I realize, of course, that the non-Jewish world does not exactly have a great track record in how they have treated us Jews over the centuries, but to reject the non-Jewish world in its entirety is to throw away the baby with the bathwater. Yes, there are the Hamans and adolf hitlers and Joseph Stalins of our world, but there are also the Isaac Newtons, the Abraham Lincolns, and the Winston Churchills of our world as well. Both of my parents very strongly believed in the Modern Orthodox approach to Judaism, and so that is the kind I am most comfortable with as well. And as far as I can tell, Rabbi Norman Lamm was THE world leader of the Modern Orthodox movement, ever since the passing of Rav Soloveitchik (although it can be argued that Rav Soloveitchik was really Chareidi, but I don’t want to get sidetracked here), and so for me, the death of Rabbi Lamm marks the end of one of my most important spiritual heroes.
Not being a talmid of YU, my reflection is that Rabbi Dr. Lamm had a unique track record of having excelled in multiple domains. Each would have been an accomplished career in and of itself. These include being a pulpit Rabbi, college president, a writer, an orator–both in delivering (now published, timeless) Drashot and speaking in other contexts). I own personally own a sefer of scholarly essays which he wrote in Hebrew (published by Mossad Harav Kook) called Halachot V’halichot. In aggregate, these contexts call for very different skill sets. On top of that, to have become an articulate spokesperson for a Hashkafa to which many of us identify and use as our ideological milieu, is deserving of our collective hakarat hatov. To have them in a single “kli” is really amazing and makes Rabbi Lamm a chad b’doro. Yehi zichro baruch.
Coming of age as Rabbi Lamm ztl replaced Rabbi Belkin ztl, I was bothered by the contrast between them then tangible. Rabbi Belkin received semicha from the Chofetz Chaim at age 17 and a Ph.D. 6 years after arriving in the U.S. He took on the presidency leaving behind a life of Talmudic and academic brilliance. Rather differently, over his years at the helm of YU and RIETS, Rabbi Lamm’s stature only grew. He became an uncompromising spokesman for traditional (he called it centrist) orthodoxy, with a knack for clarity that was unique. The abuse he received from the right strengthened his resolve. The advanced institutes / Kollelim he established produced measurable results whose benefits have created a vibrant orthodoxy of which he was rightly proud. He leaves the world a much better place than the world he initially inherited.
Reading his drashot now published paints a picture of an engrossing and insightful darshan, something I missed completely when those drashot were being delivered half-century ago.
yehi zichroh baruch
Excellent post, Rav Adlerstein. You accentuated all the positive without recalling all the acrimony between the yeshiva world and Rav Lamm that many of us recall. In this way you are a wonderful example of how a ben Torah must live a life of nuance instead of waving a camp banner or using blunt force instruments to prevail in ideological arguments. Well done.
A relative of mine would attend some of the shiurim R. Lamm gave in the Manhattan’s Jewish Center while learning in Torah Vodaas. One of the things which inspired him in his career of community service, and which he still quotes from, was R. Lamm’s shiur about the Nefesh Hachaim, where R. Lamm mentioned R. Yitzchok Volozhin’s introduction about how his illustrious father, Rav Chaim, would admonish him for not taking part in the suffering of others, and constantly taught him “this is what man is all about, he wasn’t created solely to focus on himself”.
My relative remembers visiting R. Lamm when he was sitting shivah for his father. They discussed R. Feivel Weiler, a YTV rebbe, who I believe was at some point a member of the Williamsburg “Malochim” sect(Einstein Hospital was later renamed after his son, Jack, a philanthropist and Einstein board member). R. Lamm then commented that R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz had consulted with his grandfather, R. Yehoshua Baumol(Emek Halacha II, 28), before evicting the Malochim from YTV for their extremist behavior(a 2017 Mishpacha article, “His Own Man”, available online, describes the Malach’s son who lived in Albany; his circle of talmidim included Prof. Reuven Sugarman of Vermont, a close friend and walking partner of Senator Bernie Sanders).
A YU Commentator article in 2004 described how as a boy R. Lamm was reading Moreh Nevuchim in his uncles home in Crown Heights, and he “kept on reading furtively, afraid that at any moment some adult would walk in, catch me in the act, and publicly reveal my shame”; this lead him to transfer to YU, where, presumably, he was able to study it in a more public fashion (“There is Only One Yeshiva College: A Memoir”, Commentator, 11/16/04).
I sometimes think that if R. Lamm knew R. Belsky, he might not have switched to YU, as one could discuss Moreh Nevuchim with him, certainly in private; Feldheim has similarly recently published a new edition of the Moreh, albeit with some parts in small font (the above-referenced, original “Malach”, was indeed described in awe by R. Baruch Ber Leibowitz as having a secret seder in Moreh Nevuchim with Rav Chaim Brisker, according to a Mishpacha article, circa 2008-2010 about the Willamsburg Malochim and comments on the Kevarim.com entry for the Malach). On the other hand, there were likely other factors why R. Lamm left YTV, and I believe the above YU Commentator article also mentions that R. Lamm’s grandfather wanted him to study under the “genius Soloveitchik”.
R. Lamm introduced Jerome Schottenstein to Artscroll(I’m trying to remember if R. Lamm is mentioned in the introduction to Stone Chumash or another Artscroll volume in connection with its sponsorship).
Yehi zichro baruch.
Below is a link to Emek Halacha, Vol 2. Responsa 13(right column, second to last paragraph) where R. Lamm is quoted; the Wikipedia page from R. Lamm also lists Vol 2. Responsa 45, and 48.
The response to R. Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz about evicting the Malochim from YTV is vol II, responsum #28, linked below:
“Each did a far better job exposing the failures of the other than coming to grips with their own shortcomings. (Not too much has changed.)”
Last May, there was a program called “Strength in Diversity: The Complementary and Conflicting Flavors of Torat Eretz Yisrael(available on YU Torah), sponsored by Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion, Mizrachi, and other Baltimore shuls. R. Moshe Hauer, now the vice president of the OU, referenced Jim Collin’s “Window and Mirror” leadership concept, and began by asking Jonathan Rosenblum and R. Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion to begin speaking about what they liked about the other community, and later about the weaknesses of their own community, an approach which I found novel and refreshing.
Jonathan Rosenblum wrote last year in Mishpacha about this symposium, “ Rabbi Taragin’s ability to acknowledge and even celebrate the virtues of a religious community other than his own reflects a mindset that the Israeli religious world should embrace” (“Strive for What Binds Us”). He concluded in a second Mishpacha article, “these praises did not cause me for a moment to question the derech I have chosen for myself, even if they did suggest ways in which I might strengthen my own avodah.”( “What is Sinas Chinam?: Expressing Mutual Admiration”).
By definition, the center is more pluralistic in accepting the right, so in general, it seems to me that the center should have an easier time with the above exercise( an interesting comparison would be the center discussing groups further to their left, where pluralism becomes increasingly difficult). R. Aharon Lichtenstein was an example of someone who saw both sides, even if he identified with one; R. Shimon Schwab’s “These and Those” essay about TIDE is another example of this thinking.
R. Yitzchak Blau wrote in a 2012 Orthodox Forum Series article (“Contemporary Challenges for Modern Orthodoxy”), “…our educators will not cover up the rabbinic authorities who disagree with our positions. We will teach the many dissenting rabbinic voices even as we affirm the religious value of worldly wisdom and the State of Israel. Secondly, we will confess the dangers inherent on our positions as well as the advantages of other approaches. The complexity of life usually means that approaches include positives and negatives. Finally, we will attempt to learn from what other communities have to offer. If the Ḥaredi world has more successfully internalized the need to avoid bittul Torah, we should admit it and go about trying to improve. In this manner, we can avoid excessive flag waving even as we argue strongly for Modern Orthodoxy.”
It is also true that with time, the relevance and intensity of the issues of the day naturally change. One RIETS rosh yeshiva said in 2009, “the past twenty years has seen a narrowing of the ideological divide between YU and the Yeshivah World. Some of the “hot-button” issues that played out in the ’60s and ’70s have since run their course, and, with it, much of the stridency in rhetoric” (“An Interview With R. Elchanon Adler”, Kol Hamevaser, June, 2009). R. David Farkas wrote similarly in a 2016 Cross Currents article (“The Agudah and YU: the Quiet Revolution and the New World Order”) in response to Prof. Marc Shapiro’s response to R. Gordimer.
on pluralism , the whole question , whether right or left , becomes whether a faction is over-the-line of what is muttar halachically or hashkafically. as hashkafa is not necessarily codified …
Rapprochement among genuinely Orthodox groups will continue because they share many interests and increasingly sense a common enemy.
increasingly sense a common enemy
What common enemy do Orthodox groups face?