An Appreciation of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l

With the passing of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l, the Jewish world has lost a giant. A towering intellect, profound thinker, exceptional talmid chacham, prolific author, consummate teacher, and inspiring rabbinic presence, he had an enduring impact on the Jewish community.

Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Rabbi Lamm received his primary and high school education at Yeshiva Torah Vadaath. In 1945, he entered Yeshiva College, where he majored in chemistry and graduated as class valedictorian. While at Yeshiva College, Rabbi Lamm used his knowledge of chemistry to help in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence by working on munitions research. After Yeshiva College, Rabbi Lamm pursued advanced studies in chemistry at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, but he decided to devote his life to the rabbinate and received his semicha from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1951.

Rabbi Lamm’s achievements as a congregation rabbi are legendary. After his initial position in Springfield, Massachusetts, Rabbi Lamm assumed the pulpit of The Jewish Center in New York City in 1959, where he mesmerized his congregants with weekly sermons unrivaled in their eloquence, erudition, and fidelity to Orthodoxy. His hallmark rhetorical flourishes were always woven seamlessly into his prose, memorably enhancing its message.

Rabbi Lamm was elected president of Yeshiva University in 1976 and served as president as well as Rosh HaYeshiva of RIETS until 2003. He then continued as chancellor of the University and Rosh HaYeshiva of RIETS until 2013. Rabbi Lamm took the helm of Yeshiva University at a time of severe economic challenges. With bankruptcy looming, Rabbi Lamm used all his skill as an administrator and fundraiser, and all his stature as a scholar, to marshal support for the beleaguered institution. He successfully put the Yeshiva on firm financial footing, enabling it to continue its mission of providing an integrated Torah and university education to countless students.

A prolific author, Rabbi Lamm authored ten books and numerous articles on Jewish thought and law. He edited or co-edited over 20 volumes. He was the founder of Tradition, the journal of Orthodox Jewish thought, which was a pioneering achievement. The success of Tradition demonstrated that significant subjects in the world of Jewish studies could be analyzed and discussed in a sophisticated intellectual manner similar to that used in the contemporary study of other disciplines.

Rabbi Lamm had a close relationship with the Orthodox Union. He was a frequent speaker at OU conventions, and several of his books based on his sermons were published by OU Press. The timeless messages conveyed in Rabbi Lamm’s books are remarkably relevant to the modern Jewish experience. Although delivered decades ago, the sermons are just as vibrant and meaningful today, attesting to Rabbi Lamm’s uncanny insight into the human condition, especially the often tenuous position of the observant Jew in contemporary society.

In reminiscing about Rabbi Lamm, a recurring theme is his ability, perhaps even striving, to live within a dialectic, to bridge the gap between disparate and contradictory elements, but always within the rubric of Torah. Rabbi Lamm himself focused on this theme in the Introduction to his Haggadah, published by OU Press, The Royal Table. Rabbi Lamm notes that on the Seder night, we all sit at the Seder table as royalty. In effect we sit at a shulchan melakhim, a Royal Table, a phrase used in the Talmud to describe the height of aristocratic elegance. On the other hand, RabbI Lamm observes, the shulchan melakhim is also traditionally “looked down upon as a sign of grubby snobbishness and the unsupportable arrogance of the self-anointed gourmet.”  Rabbi Lamm continues, “If indeed the Royal Table implies two opposites, then it fits right in with the dialectical experience of Passover and especially its major symbol, the matzah.” From the dialectic of the Royal Table, Rabbi Lamm proceeds to the dialectic of the matzah, “defining the two poles of the Seder experience: slavery and freedom.”

The dialectic inherent in royalty personified Rabbi Lamm himself. Not, chas v’shalom, aristocratic elegance tainted by “grubby snobbishness and . . . arrogance,” but a regal quality combined with an abiding concern for the individual and an unstinting desire to help others. Indeed, Rabbi Lamm had an aristocratic air, a regal quality about him. This was never an expression of arrogance or haughtiness, but an inner grandeur and elegance that all who interacted with him intuitively sensed. His stunning intellect, his depth of Torah learning, his magical way with language, all set him apart as someone unique. Yet, despite these regal qualities, he had a generosity of spirit, always tinged with good humor, that led him to be a true friend and mentor to so many. Always unassuming and without airs in his personal interactions, he delighted in helping others and sharing with them the benefit of his wisdom and experience. One anecdote related by a friend of Rabbi Lamm’s granddaughter during the shiva is a perfect illustration of his concern for the individual. Years ago, Rabbi Lamm visited Jewish communities around the world and was traveling in India where he met a young man who was a Bnei Akiva madrikh. The young man lived in India with his family, who, at the time were not particularly close to religion. Rabbi Lamm was so impressed with him, that he offered to bring him to New York, all expenses paid, to attend Yeshiva University on a full scholarship. The madrikh’s father, however, declared that if his son was to go anyplace outside of India to study, it must be to Israel. Rabbi Lamm arranged for this young man to attend yeshiva in Israel, and this led to his parents and siblings eventually leaving India and to the entire family becoming observant. How typical of Rabbi Lamm, the important, highly-regarded Jewish leader, taking the time and effort to go out of his way and secure a Jewish education for a total stranger, a young Indian Jew, and thereby bringing an entire family within the embrace of Yiddishkeit.

Rabbi Lamm’s penchant for the dialectic is apparent, as well, in his writings and thought which reflect his inclination to encompass what seem to be irreconcilable opposites. His doctoral thesis on Rav Chaim Volozhin, which was the basis for his book, Torah Lishmah, is an in-depth study of what could be considered the quintessence of the “misnagged” approach to Judaism. One of Rabbi Lamm’s other major works, however, is The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary, winner of the 1999 National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought. Rabbi Lamm had no trouble in focusing his formidable intellect and erudition on Chassidus as well as Rav Chaim Volozhin, the prototypic misnagged.  Similarly, Rabbi Lamm dwelt in the dialectic of Torah and madda, Jewish knowledge and the secular worldview. His writings express how highly he valued secular knowledge, while at the same time he staunchly defended Orthodoxy and warned of the corrosive effects of contemporary culture. Rabbi Lamm sought to span disparate counterpoints of knowledge, but always within the framework of Halacha.

One aspect of the duality of Jewish experience was, for Rabbi Lamm, embodied in his grandfather, Rav Yehoshua Baumol, a distinguished gadol of Chassidic background and one of the most prominent Galician talmidei chachamimof the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Recalling the family Pesach gatherings of his childhood, Rabbi Lamm writes lovingly of his grandfather’s presence at the Seder table, how he beamed with enjoyment in the company of his American-born grandchildren. Rabbi Lamm also noticed how his grandfather’s mood changed abruptly, with tears streaming down his cheeks, when the Haggadah turned to the description of the suffering of the Jews in Egypt. He was weeping for his mother, his siblings and their families, and his teachers and their students, all victims of the Holocaust. As Rabbi Lamm writes, “Zeyde’s change of mood was his illustration of the dual mode of the historic Jewish experience as represented in the Haggadah. Sadness and singing are both part of the Seder of life.”

Rabbi Lamm had a profound sense of the importance of mesora, tradition. Admiration for his grandfather, reverence for the Rav, in-depth study of Rav Chaim Volozhin are all indicia of how an appreciation for mesora and its transmission from one generation to the next was so tightly woven into the fabric of Rabbi Lamm’s thoughts and feelings. Rav Ovadiah Bartenura, in his commentary on the Mishna, asks why it is that Pirkei Avot begins with the history of the passing down of the mesora. Would not this recitation of the development of the Jewish legal system have been more appropriate in some other tractate, such as Berachot, for example, which deals with the specifics of Halachic observance, rather than Pirkei Avot, which is primarily concerned with ethics?  The answer is that ethics require a firm grounding in tradition. Genuine morality can be achieved only when ethical norms are channeled and guided by tradition. Rabbi Lamm represented tradition, and it is no coincidence that the journal of Jewish thought that he founded was named Tradition.

Rabbi Lamm cherished Torah, and his sermons are replete with declarations of the love of, and the importance of unqualified devotion to, Torah.  This passion was one of the factors that animated his great dedication to Yeshiva University. If not for Rabbi Lamm’s love of Torah and and Yeshiva University and for his consummate leadership skills, the University would have gone bankrupt in the 1970s. One vignette demonstrates his creative approach to solving YU’s daunting financial problems. A critical Board of Trustees meeting was scheduled at which all the major benefactors of the University would be present. They all knew of YU’s dire financial condition and were expecting to be solicited for funds at the meeting. Unbeknownst to anyone, Rabbi Lamm arranged with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Rav, to join at the meeting unannounced. The dramatic appearance of the Rav and his inspiring plea on behalf of the Yeshiva’s survival took everyone by surprise and produced exactly the effect hoped for by Rabbi Lamm, as the Trustees responded much more generously than they otherwise would have. The Rav touched their hearts, and the Trustees opened their wallets, all due to Rabbi Lamm’s brilliant orchestration of the event.

An unwavering supporter of Israel, Rabbi Lamm was an ardent proponent of Religious Zionism. In his sermons he never missed an opportunity to praise and promote the State of Israel and to exhort his congregants to generously provide financial assistance. Israel Bonds, UJA, Yom Haatzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim, and numerous other Zionist motifs were recurring themes in his sermons.  Legend has it that when Rabbi Lamm was a student in Yeshiva College during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, he went to the docks in New York City and helped load weapons for the Haganah on boats headed to Israel.

Rabbi Lamm had a close relationship with the Rav and was fiercely loyal to him. The Rav was Rabbi Lamm’s PhD advisor when he was writing his doctoral dissertation on Rav Chaim Volozhin, and throughout his career Rabbi Lamm maintained this special closeness with the Rav.

Devotion to family was another defining characteristic of Rabbi Lamm’s. He and his late wife Mindy were inseparable, and Mindy always served as a tremendous source of strength for her illustrious husband. Rabbi Lamm’s grandfather, Rav Yehoshua Baumol was the author of She’elot u’Teshuvot Emek Halacha, and Rabbi Lamm was instrumental in having a new edition of the sefer published in 2009. Demonstrating his love of family and generosity of spirit, Rabbi Lamm gave the original versions of several of his grandfather’s responsa to one of his nephews who was a collector of rabbinic autographs.

Renowned for his dazzling command of language, Rabbi Lamm always came up with, seemingly effortlessly, the perfect clever phrase to convey his intent. Whether it was referring to one of his books as “a labor of love enhanced by my love of labor” or making the quip in describing Halacha’s concern for details, that “trifles make perfection – and perfection is no trifle,” the elegant turn of phrase, often with a hint of impish humor, never failed to bring the point home in unforgettable fashion. Some years ago, all of Rabbi Lamm’s works were in the process of being custom bound in leather (this was a gift to Rabbi Lamm upon his retirement), and Rabbi Lamm was communicating with the agent for the bookbinder about the color of the binding. Rabbi Lamm was partial to a particular shade of reddish-brown leather, but wanted a bit more red, and the bookbinder was struggling to provide a sample that would satisfy him. Rabbi Lamm sent a letter, with his typical generosity of spirit and good humor, to the effect that the sample was close enough, and in the final analysis, “better the books should be read than red.”

Rabbi Lamm was a true Jewish hero. Respected by all, his true goal was never his own kavod, but respect for Torah and Judaism, a goal he so nobly achieved.  An uncompromising champion of Orthodoxy, he was also a vigorous advocate of Orthodoxy’s coexistence with the modern world, a perspective that Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union and so many others share. His wise, firm leadership will be sorely missed. We are not likely to be blessed soon again with the unique combination of talents, qualities and virtues personified by Rabbi Lamm, whose radiance lit the way for so many and in whose glow may we continue to bask. Yehi zichro Baruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.