By: Rabbi Saul Berman  | 

In Memoriam of Rabbi Lamm: A Personal Reflection From Rabbi Saul Berman

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Z”L, was the most successful leader of integrated American Orthodoxy in the second half of the 20th century. In that period, most Orthodox Jewish leaders were devoted to the successful transplantation of European Orthodoxy to the United States, sustaining the generally separatist character and authoritarian Jewish communal characteristics of their Orthodox forbearers in Europe.

Rabbi Lamm set out to form an Orthodoxy for American Jewry which would have a distinctive set of values, more consistent with the character of American democratic society, in which this new Jewish Orthodox community could flourish with total integrity to halakha.

There were four fundamental values, which I believe Rabbi Lamm viewed as essential Jewish values, which he consciously and systematically attempted to implant in The Jewish Center, as its rabbi, and in Yeshiva University, as its third president, and in the Modern Orthodox community, as its leading spokesman.

1. Tolerance: Rabbi Lamm viewed tolerance of all Jews, including the varied denominations, as an essential manifestation of the Torah mandate to love all Jews. He therefore viewed individual and institutional collaboration with all other Jews as spiritually vital and practically essential endeavors.

2.  Persuasion: In contrast to the authoritarian orientation of some rabbinic leaders in the Orthodox community, Rabbi Lamm believed that Torah was persuasive when presented appropriately and that therefore, the approach to all Jews in matters of belief and halakha and public policy, was to explain how and why the position of Torah was the best that could be adopted. He never expected everyone to be persuaded, but he knew that people would respect the position that was argued intelligently and respectfully.

3.  Meaning: From the time that Rabbi Lamm wrote “Hedge of Roses,” through his later writings, his engagement with the ideas of Torah Umaddah was based on his belief that Torah provided a level of spiritual and ethical meaning to the life of the individual and to the character of a society, in the spirit of Maimonides and of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the long tradition of study and teaching of Ta’amei Hamitzvot (the reasons of the commandments).

4.  Moderation: Rabbi Lamm’s insistence on the use of the term “Centrist” rather than “Modern” as the best adjective to describe his kind of Orthodoxy, was not just a public relations step. It was a manifestation of his deep conviction that the Jewish philosophical teaching of the Golden Mean, truly meant the need to avoid extremes of left and right in thought as in action. He held that even extremes in spirituality and observance were suspect as divisive, and therefore destructive to Klal Yisrael.

I believe that Rabbi Lamm impacted deeply on the integrated Orthodox community of the United States. Through his mastery of Jewish thought, his depth of halakhic knowledge and his elegance of written and oral expression, he succeeded to a substantial degree in embedding these values in his beloved synagogue and university, and in the broad Modern Orthodox community.

Rabbi Saul Berman is an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Stern College for Women.

Photo Caption: Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University