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


For several years a couple dozen widows of supporters of Yeshiva University and other members of the school’s community who were living alone 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.

“They were part of his relationships,” a longtime contributor to YU told The Jewish Week. “They came from a good place.”

The calls — part fundraising, part pastoral — were unpublicized facets of the life of Rabbi Lamm, who died on May 31 at 92 of natural causes at the home of his daughter in Englewood, N.J.

Rabbi Lamm, who served as the third president of the school, from 1976 to 2003, 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.

“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 The Jewish Week.

Rabbi 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 Rabbi 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 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,” Rabbi 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.”

“He was always growing, always learning, always writing,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union.

After stepping down from the YU presidency in 2003, Rabbi 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 of abuse leveled against staff members during his tenure.

Primacy of Torah

A Brooklyn native, Rabbi 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 PhD 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 the Orthodox scholarly journal, Tradition, which dealt with contemporary matters of Jewish law and reflected his position between the Orthodox and secular worlds. He was also the author of 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.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., said in a Facebook posting this week that he had attended the rabbi’s “dorm talks” while studying at the school, and found them “provocative and often light years apart from the roshei yeshiva of the school.”

Rabbi Herzfeld remembered when his father took his sister, then 2, to The Jewish Center, the Upper West Side congregation where Lamm served as assistant rabbi and senior rabbi from 1958 to 1976. “My sister made noise during the services and an announcement was made that people had to control their kids better during services or better not to come. Since my sister was the only child there my father was especially embarrassed,” Rabbi Herzfeld wrote. “On the way out, Rabbi Lamm, who was at that time assistant rabbi, stopped my father and told him not to listen to that announcement and to still bring my sister to shul.”

Rabbi Heshie Billet, longtime spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Woodmere, said Rabbi Lamm was motivated by “idealism … a belief in the YU mission, the primacy of Torah confronting and living in the modern world. He transcribed the skill of the European Orthodox rabbinic orator into the American Orthodox synagogue culture.”

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a former YU vice president who serves as president of the Ohr Torah Stone educational institution in Israel, praised Rabbi Lamm for his endorsement of a kollel, a learning and community service program for married yeshiva students, begun in Boca Raton, Fla., when Brander was a pulpit rabbi there. Rabbi Lamm “supported the concept out of his desire to promote young people’s capacity to learn Torah and engage with the larger Jewish world and society through Torah values,” he said.

Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University who served for a time as Rabbi 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’

Rabbi Lamm’s career was stained at the end by his acknowledgement that he had failed to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse lodged against faculty members at YU’s affiliated high school for boys in the 1970s and ’80s.

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,” Rabbi 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, Rabbi 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,” Rabbi Dratch said. He added that the controversy will “cloud” but not “define” Rabbi Lamm’s career.

“It’s not his legacy,” Rabbi 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,” Rabbi Dratch told JTA.

Although a spokesman for the Modern Orthodox movement, Rabbi 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. Rabbi 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 Rabbi 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,” Rabbi 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.”

Rabbi 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, Dr. Lamm testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the right to privacy from the perspective of Jewish law.

His wife, Mindella, died April 16 of Covid-19 at 88. 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.”

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; and a daughter, Chaye Warburg, an occupational therapist in Teaneck, N.J. His daughter Sara Lamm Dratch died in 2013.

Lamm also is survived by 17 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.

JTA contributed to this story.