It was a brave speech at the 1969 Ideological Seminary in Kiljava, Finland. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, then a prominent rabbi, theologian, professor and writer, in the Modern Orthodox world, was dissecting Neturei Karta, perhaps one of the 20th century’s most divisive Jewish movements in the Jewish world.
“Clearly, we are dealing here with a fringe group,” he said, “that, in its extremism, its hyperbolic language, its extravagance and simplifies, reveals a psychological pattern of defensiveness.”
Despite this, he said that there is much to learn from them, “yet its fierce independence of thought, its refusal to be outvoted on matters of principle, the courage of its convictions, and the coherency of its ideology, cannot but elicit admiration. Courage, especially idealistic courage, expressed at great personal sacrifice, is so rare that even if we disagree with its thesis, it deserves respect.”
In Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, where the talk was published, one reader called that admiration “disturbing.” He asked, “Since when does sheer hooliganism with complete disregard for one’s fellow man go under the heading of ‘courage?’ ”
After a long illness, Lamm died on May 31 at the age of 92. His wife, Mindella (“Mindy”) Lamm, died six weeks earlier on April 16, at 88, from COVID-19. They are survived by their children: Shalom Lamm, Joshua Lamm and Chaye Warburg, in addition to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their daughter, Sara Dratch, predeceased them in 2013.
‘A thick skin and a big heart’
Throughout his career, Lamm could be seen as someone who wanted to unify, to compromise between two different entities. If it was back when he was a rabbi in Springfield, Mass., when he wanted to unify the local Orthodox day school with the Lubavitch day school in 1958. Or when he encouraged the uniting of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and National Council of Young Israel, when he publicly said, in 1983, “If you do not feel inspired by the vision of all the good that can come out … consider the damage that can come from disunity.”
This also came to the forefront when he was asked by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to resolve the “Who is a Jew?” issue that flared up again in the early 1990s. During his efforts, he united the various Jewish denominations to agree on a resolution to the question. While ultimately he was not successful, he continued to encourage a resolution in the matter, once saying, “Communal peace is also a principle of Judaism.”
And it did again when Lamm was voted to the position of president of Yeshiva University in 1976.
Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, to the left on the Orthodox spectrum, was his chief opposition. Rackman, a provost at YU, was waging a battle with YU dean Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the issue of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands don’t want to give a religious divorce, or get. It was at Soloveitchik’s urging that the board chose Lamm over Rackman for the position.
Despite their differences, including the tone of many of the exchanges, Lamm found a place for Rackman. In Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Lamm, its founding editor-in-chief, wrote kind words about him, even in regards to the issue debated in the 1970s with his mentor, Soloveitchik. “His moral sense was outraged by the abuse of halakha [Jewish law] by husbands who refuse to grant a get [divorce] to their wives because of greed or sheer intransigence. … Rabbi Rackman evinced genuine empathy for these ‘living widows’ and was impatient with the slow grinding of the mills of halakha, and he demanded that something more effective and concrete be done to alleviate their misery.”
Lamm stood his ground on many issues of the day and keenly understood that there will always be varying opinions in Judaism. It was the approach to the other that he derided. While he was not once to mince his words, he always found a place for the other and their virtues.
In a 1997 speech, Lamm said that when community leaders “too often an unhealthy degree of turf rivalry and back-biting and empire building. We have too many Lone Rangers who may do much good, but far less than if we all worked together as befits a community of leaders.”
He said that in every system of thought, people and ideology, one can find redeeming merits. When one cannot do that, it “is not only dishonest, it is also counterproductive. Overstatement and overkill usually bring one’s credibility into disrepute.”
While many in the Jewish orbit, and beyond, came to appreciate Lamm, “not everything that he said or did was universally accepted,” says his son-in-law, Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. This was especially true with the haredi community. Over the years, some of those issues became well-known, and he was publicly attacked by several members of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Dratch recalled one time when Lamm was vehemently criticized, and yet he took it with ease. When he asked why he did not respond, he quoted the Talmud, which praised those “who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond,” that the “sun is going forth in its might.”
He says that he had a thick skin and a big heart. “The large criticisms did not bother him, as the flattery did not either,” make a difference to him.
‘Times of great building and hope’
Born in 1927 to Pearl and Samuel, Lamm grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where he attended the local Torah Vodaath day school. “It was a good neighborhood to grow up in,” he said, “if you couldn’t afford to go to a better place.”
After the Holocaust, he was shaken by the title of a newspaper he saw returning back from “Six Million Jews Killed,” on its front page. In a 2008 interview, he recalled thinking, “What if a Nazi came here?” He says that while he does not talk about it much, “It was a profound feeling, something that accounted for a great deal in my life.”
Also at a young age, when he first saw a film on the Kineret in northern Israel, he said, “I was completely taken by it; it was my first exposure to modern Israel, and it was overwhelming.”
He later went to Yeshiva University, where he studied chemistry. In 1948, during the Israel Independence War, he assisted with disguising rifles in blankets that were shipped to Israel. However, it was said, he felt that as a student of science, he could do more.
He soon found himself in the Catskills with Ernst David Bergmann, a nuclear scientist and chemist, who would later be the first chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. At that time, he said, his relationship to Zionism was singing and dancing “Hava Nagilah.” For the first time, he met people who were, “connected to Zionism, but never talked about it, but just did good work [for Israel].”
There he was tasked, together with several other students he had organized to accompany him, with coming up with a solution of how to make ammunition from the natural resources in Israel. They were successful in creating a formula that was used to manufacture ammunition for the Davidka, a homemade Israeli weapon that fired mortars. “It was a great opportunity to express our ahavat Yisroel [‘love of your fellow Jew’] and Zionism in a very practical way. No ‘Hora,’ no ‘Haveinu Shalom Aleichem,’ [just] real serious stuff,” he had said.
It was at the request of Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, at the time president of YU, that he pursued a rabbinic career. In 1951, he was ordained, with his first rabbinic position in Springfield, Mass. In 1954, he married Mindella (“Mindy”) Mehler. Her father passed away at a young age, and she told The YU Observer, “I was raised in an environment of very strong women who overcame tragedy and raised a wonderful family.”
While she was a public-school teacher, from that time she married, she focused her energies on YU—at first, assisting underprivileged students with their basic necessities.
Once Lamm became president, she helped in any way she could. “She was in many ways a partner to my father-in-law,” says Dratch. “He valued her advice and critique. She was very loyal and devoted to all of his activities, including travel, and hosting [guests] in the house, and befriending them.”
She has been reported to have said, “Those were both very tough times, but also times of great building and hope.”
‘Spokesman for a whole movement’
Part of being president was to keep the institution afloat, which Lamm did through very difficult financial times. “I had no business accepting the job of president,” Lamm once told Dratch, “because I had no background in fundraising.”
Yet he excelled in that position, leaving a very large fund to support the institution for many years after he left. “Donors were attracted to his brilliance, his integrity, and he became very successful. He used the various parts in his personality and background to the advantage of his fundraising and the university,” says Dratch.
A few years after he began his tenor, Lamm was faced with the school being forced into bankruptcy.
“It was real danger of foreclosure,” says Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, which brought him to raise tens of millions of dollars—a sum unheard of at the time in the Orthodox Jewish community. “I believe that Norman would say that saving the school financially is his legacy.”
Unique to YU, Lamm was in many ways expected to spiritual leadership, says Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, while he was expected to also fill administrative duties. “Looking back it is really quite remarkable,” he says, noting that “YU was very fortunate to have someone who really widely respected,” by all segments of the community, including scholars and rabbinic leadership, thus becoming the “spokesman for a whole movement [and] earned respect for traditional Judaism.”
And while his communal work took away from his intellectual pursuits, he was “tremendously productive,” says Dratch, who never wasted a second. Despite this, he always made time for his family and personal interactions that he had with many people, and always making “sure there was time for his Torah study and general knowledge.”
YU today is more diverse than it ever was, says Zev Eleff, author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History, and that the fact that the many stakeholders have been able to create a space of equilibrium is thanks to Lamm.
He became a leader at a time of real uncertainty about the direction of so many different worlds, he says—religiously, socially, educationally, professionally and politically. “Rabbi Lamm was able to make sure that all those voices were heard,” said Eleff.
For Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, professor of Rabbinic Literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, Lamm steered YU to a new modern era that will be his legacy. “Orthodox Jews have a tendency to fight new battles with old weapons,” Lamm wrote in his 1986 book Seventy Faces, “and to confront novel predicaments with antiquated strategies.”
This willingness to catch up with the times, says Rakeffet-Rothkoff, who is based in Israel but comes to New York to teach as well, made Lamm uniquely capable of his long tenor at YU. Being American born, Lamm, he says, brought in deans who spoke English, and recognizing the thirst for Israel among the Modern Orthodox community, brought at least one dean from Israel.
“He knew how to channel the winds that were blowing; he adjusted the yeshivah to an American reality and built the bridges to the State of Israel,” adds the educator.
As a visionary leader, sophisticated scholar, master orator and prolific writer, Lamm—wrote Rabbi Ari Berman, current president of Yeshiva University, in a statement to JNS—left an indelible mark on Jewish history and was a central architect of the modern Jewish experience.
“He was a unifying voice who approached all people with a kind smile and an open mind. His vision charged generations of students to bring their positive Jewish values into the world. Our community has lost a legend, and we mourn the passing of our teacher and guide.”