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‘Architect of Modern Orthodoxy,’ Norman Lamm succumbs at 92

‘Architect of Modern Orthodoxy,’ Norman Lamm succumbs at 92

The rabbi, author, and administrator saved Yeshiva University while seeking a synthesis of Torah and contemporary culture

Rabbi Norman Lamm, 92, former president of Yeshiva University, died May 31 of natural causes.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, 92, former president of Yeshiva University, died May 31 of natural causes.

For several years a couple dozen widows of supporters of Yeshiva University (YU) and other isolated members of the school’s community would receive a phone call on Friday afternoon. The caller would ask about the people’s health, their family, discuss university events, and wish the people a Shabbat shalom.

The caller was Rabbi Norman Lamm, the university’s president.

The calls, partly pastoral, partly a way to keep in touch with contributors to the university, were an unpublicized facet of Lamm, who died May 31, 2020, at 92 of natural causes.

Lamm, who served as the third president of the school, from 1976 to 2003, succeeding Dr. Samuel Belkin, was remembered this week as a combination of Torah scholar, administrator, and fundraiser, who both saved the Modern Orthodox movement’s flagship institution from the brink of bankruptcy, and improved the movement’s standing in the wider Jewish and non-Jewish world.

During his tenure at the school, he bolstered its academic standards, with YU now ranked among the country’s top university’s in many national listings.

“It could not have been done without Rabbi Lamm,” Richard Parkoff, a real estate investor who has been a financial supporter of the school for several decades, told NJJN.

Lamm was “both an architect of and a spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy, and using his position at YU as a perch he helped buttress that ideology in a substantial way,” said Rabbi J.J. Schacter, a professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at the school. “He was uncomfortable with the word ‘modern,’ so he invented the word ‘centrist’ to describe his brand of Orthodoxy — between the extremes of totally favoring contemporary culture on the one hand and totally rejecting contemporary culture on the other.”

Friends and colleagues praised Lamm as a serious man with a vibrant sense of humor, a skilled orator who excelled in one-on-one conversations, and a master teacher who could translate advanced Talmudic concepts into terms that someone with a minimal Jewish educational background could understand. He was also a devoted family man who would spend seder night with the family of a friend whose husband and father had died suddenly in Israel, and as a committed Orthodox Jew who maintained respectful relations with members of other branches of Judaism.

“In a world always lurching with centrifugal force more and more to the extremes, he commanded the center as an ideal life, mandated by G-d,” Richard Joel, the rabbi’s successor as YU president, said in an email interview. “And he modeled that as if the world was at stake, because it was. As a scholar he was nonpareil, thorough and exacting while poetically philosophical.”

“The purpose of Torah is neither some kind of arbitrary spiritual exercise, nor the beating of man into submission in order to aggrandize the divine ego,” Lamm said in a 1971 sermon.

“Rather, Torah is the divine instrument for man’s spiritual welfare and fulfillment. The Torah is God’s formula for man’s moral development. The prescriptions may be difficult, they may entail discipline and renunciation, but the purpose of Torah and commandments is the good of mankind.”

After stepping down from the YU presidency in 2003, Lamm continued to serve as chancellor of the university and rosh yeshiva of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He retired in 2013 amid accusations that the university had taken an insufficiently forceful stand against accusations leveled against staff members at YU’s boys’ high school during his tenure.

Rabbi Norman Lamm welcomes New York City Mayor Ed Koch to an event in 1986. Courtesy Yeshiva University Photo Dept

Primacy of Torah

A Brooklyn native, Lamm studied at the Mesivta Torah Vodaath yeshiva before entering Yeshiva College, where he majored in chemistry and graduated summa cum laude in 1949, as class valedictorian. Upon graduation, he pursued advanced scientific studies at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. He was ordained at YU in 1951; he earned a doctorate in Jewish philosophy from the university’s Bernard Revel Graduate School in 1966.

During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, he worked on a munitions research project under the direction of Dr. Ernst D. Bergmann, who later became the head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

The rabbi’s first pulpit job was in Springfield, Mass., where he founded an Orthodox scholarly journal, “Tradition,” which dealt with contemporary matters of Jewish law and reflected his position between the Orthodox and secular worlds. He was a prolific author, writing more than a dozen books.

He served for 17 years on the YU faculty, culminating in his appointment as the Erna and Jakob Michael Professor of Jewish Philosophy in 1966.

Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American-Jewish history at Yeshiva University who served for a time as Lamm’s academic assistant, said the rabbi prepared extensively for speeches and sermons and never spoke in public without notes — “even two or three lines” of key words and concepts. Lack of preparation, the rabbi would say, “showed disrespect for his audience.”

‘I was wrong’

Lamm’s career was stained at the end by his acknowledgement that he had failed to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse against YU rabbis in the 1980s.

When he retired, in failing health, from the mostly ceremonial post of chancellor, the rabbi surprised many people by writing a resignation letter that included an apology for mishandling the allegations. He said he was aware of concerns about two staffers, one an administrator who allegedly groped students and rubbed himself against them during wrestling bouts, and the other a teacher who allegedly sexually abused and sodomized students. Lamm wrote that he regretted handling them the way many such incidents were treated at the time: quietly and internally.

“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived. I understand better today than I did then that sometimes, when you think you are doing good, your actions do not measure up,” Lamm wrote in his letter. “True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Lamm’s son-in-law and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, has said that his father-in-law was plagued by guilt over his role in failing to halt the abuse. “That people suffered was tremendously bothersome to him, and he regretted that,” Dratch said. He added that the controversy will “cloud” but not “define” Lamm’s career.

“It’s not his legacy,” Billet said.

“The greatest asset of his leadership was leadership through ideas — through speaking and through writing. He wasn’t afraid to take a stand,” Dratch told JTA.

Although a spokesman for the Modern Orthodox movement, Lamm urged Orthodox synagogue groups to cooperate with bodies of Reform and Conservative Judaism regarding problems confronting the American-Jewish community. “A withdrawal,” he said, “is a symbol of the splitting of Orthodoxy from the rest of the American Jewish community.”

In 1989 and 1990 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked the rabbi to help defuse the crisis related to the “Who is a Jew?” issue, which had erupted when a Reform convert wanted to make aliyah. Lamm devised a solution for the denominational crisis that required delicate diplomacy as well as good will on all sides.

Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor emeritus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, called Lamm “a person of great integrity and great scholarship.

“His devotion to Torah, the Jewish people, and Yeshiva University was absolute, and people felt that when they were in his presence. I think that was a key to his great success while in office,” Ellenson said in an email interview. “He was always personally gracious to me and he invited me several times to speak with his students at both YU and RIETS. This surely testifies to his expansive spirit. The Jewish people have lost a great leader.”

Lamm’s writings and teachings on Jewish law have been cited in two landmark decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court: the 1966 “Miranda decision” regarding police interrogation of suspects held in custody and a 1967 case involving guarantees against self-incrimination. Also in 1967, Lamm testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the right of privacy from the perspective of Jewish law.

His wife, Mindella, 88, died April 16, 2020, of Covid-19. In his later years, Lamm faded from public life as he suffered from an illness that affected his memory, a family member said.

Lamm was hardly the only famous member of his family. His brother Rabbi Maurice Lamm, who died in June 2016, was the author of a classic how-to book, “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,” among other works. His sister’s son, Shalom Auslander, wrote a popular 2007 memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” about rejecting Orthodoxy, and also wrote and created Showtime’s “Happyish.”

Predeceased in 2013 by his daughter Sara Lamm Dratch, Lamm is survived by two sons, Shalom, a real estate developer who at one point was involved in a controversial chasidic development in the upstate New York village of Bloomingburg, and Joshua Lamm, a psychiatrist; a daughter, Chaye Warburg, an occupational therapist in Teaneck; 17 grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. JTA contributed reporting.

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