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Remembering Rabbi Norman Lamm

How one man expanded what was possible in Orthodox life

Michael A. Helfand
June 04, 2020
AP Photo/David Karp
AP Photo/David Karp
AP Photo/David Karp
AP Photo/David Karp

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name Rabbi Norman Lamm. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, only a block from the Jewish Center, where he had served for almost two decades. By the time I was born, Rabbi Lamm had already left the Jewish Center and become president of Yeshiva University. But in the years immediately after his departure, my father delivered monthly sermons in the shul under Rabbi Lamm’s watchful eye. That experience profoundly influenced my father—who ultimately chose academia over the rabbinate—and, as a result, Rabbi Lamm’s name was constantly invoked at home. Sometimes it was in the context of a classic Rabbi Lamm zinger—like telling my father that he was a 70-year-old trapped in a 35-year-old’s body. Other times it was in an exchange. My unrivaled favorite is when Rabbi Lamm, after hearing my father deliver a eulogy, remarked that it was at moments like those he regretted that my father hadn’t remained in the rabbinate. A compliment from Rabbi Lamm was like a compliment from nobody else. But my father, knowing how much Rabbi Lamm enjoyed a good retort, couldn’t help himself: “Rabbi Lamm,” he said, “had I remained in the rabbinate, it would be me there now in the coffin.” Rabbi Lamm simply laughed.

During my childhood, I didn’t understand much of Rabbi Lamm’s philosophy or theology. But I knew that he was the example we were all meant to emulate. The way Rabbi Lamm carried himself, expressed himself and even the way he typed up his sermons so they would be available to his congregation on Saturday night—all of these elements were part of what it meant to be Rabbi Lamm. He personified dignity and professionalism, wit and wisdom; and even if I didn’t understand the ins and outs of his ideas, I knew from a very early age that to be Rabbi Lamm was to embody the very best traits we were all meant to aspire to.

That relationship with Rabbi Lamm—or, more accurately, the idea of Rabbi Lamm—changed as I entered college. I had spent two years in yeshiva in Israel, during which I had dedicated nearly all my time to Torah study. As a result, returning to Yeshiva University as an undergraduate student was not the smoothest of transitions. I continued to spend much of my day studying Torah, but I now did so alongside a complete academic schedule as well. The days were fulfilling and enriching, but also long and exhausting.I found myself wondering whether full dedication to a dual curriculum was really possible.

Those years coincided with Rabbi Lamm’s announcing that he was stepping down as president of Yeshiva University. During that time—a time before a robust internet with cataloged sermons—I happened upon published pamphlets of Rabbi Lamm’s recent speeches, strewn about in the Yeshiva University Beit Midrash. The speeches were unlike anything I had ever read before. They brimmed with confidence in an Orthodox project that did not compromise in its pursuit of either Torah or secular knowledge. I remember hanging on to every word of each speech and craving more. And so, like many others, I began making my way through Rabbi Lamm’s works. With each passing book and each passing page, I found Rabbi Lamm responding to a growing pessimism within me that my dual-curricular aspiration was doomed to failure. This brought me back to a conversation with my father.

It must have been 2002 as I was wrapping up my time at Yeshiva College. I was apprehensive about the graduate program I was scheduled to start the next fall and, as had become my habit by then, found myself searching for more of Rabbi Lamm’s wisdom. I mentioned to my father that I wished I could read some of Rabbi Lamm’s old sermons—those mythic sermons that made up Helfand family lore. I knew there was one collection—a book called The Royal Reach—but it was out of print. My father made it his business to track down a copy of the book and gave it to me as a present. I still remember opening it for the first time. The collection read nothing like the sermons with which I was familiar; each had an unmistakable feel. They didn’t follow the typical question-and-answer format of a rabbi’s speech, but instead charged unflinchingly and unapologetically ahead, bringing the full force of the Jewish tradition to bear on the most pressing questions of the day; indeed, in the section of the book titled “The Contemporary World,” Rabbi Lamm’s sermons addressed race relations, student protests, law and order, the “new subjectivism,” and any number of highly charged issues—issues so critical that they still very much remain with us. In both substance and form, the collection had an undeniably modern feel.

And yet the more I read, the more it became clear to me that Rabbi Lamm sought to resist this impulse—this desire to carve out a “modern” version of Torah—with every fiber of his being. In what remains, to my mind, the most memorable sermon in the book, “The Arrogance of Modernism,” Rabbi Lamm recounted his great displeasure—I might even say disdain—for the privileging of what is modern over what is ancient. One sentence has long stood out; it’s a sentence I can repeat by heart: “nettling is the remark ‘he is religious, but modern,’ spoken in almost exactly the same condescending tone as one would say, ‘he is slightly insane, but sincere’—as if modernity can save the benighted religious soul from the damnation to which the unsophisticated are foredoomed.” Rabbi Lamm would not brook for even a moment the possibility that modernity, by definition, maintained some sort of advantage over the Jewish tradition.

For the reader, the inexorable conclusion couldn’t have been clearer. The very modernity of Rabbi Lamm’s sermons—and their ability to readily respond to “modern” challenges—were intended to prove the Jewish tradition’s timelessness. Torah wisdom would forever sit comfortably alongside modern intellectual trends—as it had for generations of the Jewish people—embracing, engaging, or, if need be, rejecting the ideas of the day.

But I took something else from the book. To me, the entire body of work—the ease with which Rabbi Lamm traversed spheres of knowledge—meant that living a Jewish life of integrated wisdom, where curiosity might pull you in any number of different directions, could be an Orthodox reality. And it could be a reality because there existed this giant of a man who had not only done it, but encouraged others to follow his lead. It is precisely because Rabbi Lamm wasn’t some mythic character from another era that he could be a symbol for the modern Jew, showing the true range of what was possible.

In more recent years, both my father and Rabbi Lamm would daven together at the Jewish Center. My father would often walk Rabbi Lamm home and they would talk. They would reminisce about times past, continue with some of their favorite forms of sermonic word play, and wonder aloud about what the future held for American Orthodoxy. In many ways, I was one of the prime beneficiaries of those talks, getting almost daily updates from my father about what Rabbi Lamm had recounted on their most recent stroll. The insights were as good as ever; but more than that, I drew confidence from the fact that the world still had a Rabbi Lamm. It meant that living the life he exhorted us all to pursue—one that brought all forms of life and wisdom under the banner of the Jewish tradition’s wisdom—still remained possible. It’s also why his death is so devastating.

And so when the news of Rabbi Lamm’s death broke on Sunday morning, I found myself rifling through my bookshelves. I needed to find the old pamphlets, to flip through my old tattered copy of The Royal Reach. I readily admit, it was an odd reaction—and even more odd that I’ve kept those pamphlets and books throughout multiple moves around the country. After all, the sermons and speeches are now online, accessible with the press of a button. But touching them that morning, knowing that they were still there, somehow ensured that the world of possibility that Rabbi Lamm opened hadn’t now closed. There will never be another Rabbi Lamm. But his timeless words, in all their beauty and wisdom, still remind us that a truly integrated life is not beyond our reach.

Michael A. Helfand is professor of law and associate dean at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, visiting professor at Yale Law School, and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.