In Memoriam of Rabbi Lamm: A Personal Reflection From Rabbi Shalom Carmy
“Tell me, Shalom, how long have we known each other?” So began my last serious conversation with Rabbi Lamm. And I told him that long before we met, he had sent me a note about something I had written in a student newspaper, ending with an expression of interest in my future as a thinker and writer. At the time he served at a prominent synagogue and taught in what today is IBC on Monday mornings. I was a teenager without any YU connections. Although he then had no official position at YU, he took on the responsibility of identifying and encouraging young talent.
Rabbi Lamm excelled in many different areas. Had he done nothing else, he would still have been a leading Orthodox intellectual force. He once defined the educational ideal as a person at home in traditional Jewish learning, academic Jewish research, humanistic study and the natural sciences. He was thinking of the Rav but could have been describing his own enormous breadth of interest and curiosity. Thanks to his range of reading and mastery of spoken and written language, he succeeded more than almost anyone else, in communicating serious ideas to varied audiences, from the beit midrash and intellectual circles to lay people and individuals somewhat at a distance from intense religious life. Add to this a pleasing personality, an elegant, civilized manner of speech and the ability to inspire like-minded individuals to seek and follow his leadership.
A skeptic like me may wonder whether this was too good to be true. I suspect that those of us who interacted with Rabbi Lamm only intellectually, or rabbinically, or administratively, will have difficulty grasping the multiple talents and accomplishments of the man. And in that division of eulogistic responsibility, I see myself consigned to the intellectual-philosophical box. It may take a great deal of research and review to properly assess and to celebrate this extraordinary combination of talent and hard work over a long and adventurous lifetime. All the same, the obligation of eulogy cannot be deferred and we who benefited from his works and labors must shoulder the responsibility.
B’nei Torah, and especially those who study and teach at our Yeshiva, are grateful for Rabbi Lamm’s willingness to bear the burden of the YU Presidency and leadership of the Yeshiva. At best this work is back-breaking, often heart-breaking and, for a person who knows the pleasures and fulfillment of learning Torah or even the enjoyment of other studies, it can be deadly dull. In the good years, Rabbi Lamm once told me, over 60% of his time was consumed in fundraising; when I repeated this comment to someone in the know, I was told that 60% was an underestimate and the president was probably sparing my feelings. From occasions when he assigned me to converse with potential non-Orthodox donors I could infer how much patience, charm and sheer expenditure of time it took to gain support from people who had their own ideas about education, religion and life, or those who didn’t have such ideas. Can you imagine a major talmid hakham, a creative mind, eager to leave his imprint on the institution he loved, to found journals like Tradition, organize the Orthodox Forum, build a religious-intellectual edifice, discovering that school on the brink of bankruptcy? Can you imagine the five years of unrelenting pressure during which vision and initiative were subordinated to stubborn perseverance and endless solicitation?
There will, I hope, be other opportunities to discuss Rabbi Lamm’s legacy as a thinker and lamdan and shaper of opinion. In speaking to you, to the talmidim, most of whom did not experience him during his 27 years as President, who did not enjoy his shiur kelali and are not aware of the subtle skills that enabled him, together with Rabbi Charlop, to navigate the Yeshiva in the 1980s when it became clear that the Rav’s days were numbered, I want to go back to the beginning. Despite, or perhaps because, Rabbi Lamm had a healthy estimation of his gifts and his mission, he was a team player. Though he could easily and honestly have blamed others for bad decisions and outcomes, he chose not to do so. For a man saddled with the burdens of running a large, complicated school, with unrelenting demands on his time, he was remarkably accessible to students. He continued to keep his eye open for young talent. We are his beneficiaries beyond what many of us can imagine.
Yehi Zichro Baruch
Rabbi Carmy is an assistant professor of Jewish philosophy and Bible at Yeshiva University. He was the editor of Tradition, a journal founded by Rabbi Lamm.
Photo Caption: Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University