In Memoriam of Rabbi Lamm: A Personal Reflection From Richard M. Joel
I was privileged and intimidated to be the successor to Rabbi Lamm as YU’s president. He was one of the defining giants in the blossoming of Torah Umadda, Modern Orthodoxy. In so many ways, Yeshiva University defined Dr. Lamm, and Dr. Lamm came to define Yeshiva University.
For those of us growing through adolescence in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Rabbi Lamm’s voice was clear, majestic and profound at encapsulating what we aspired to as serious Jews in the modern world. He spoke and taught with elegance and eloquence. Though a modest and private man, he had a forceful presence. He and his wife Mindy modeled a Jewish couple, appearing both warm and regal. And the Lamm children, younger contemporaries of mine, were all warm, outgoing and unaffected. In the family that was YU, they sat at the head of the table.
Dr. Lamm served as president for 27 years: years of growth, change and challenge. Think of America or Israel from 1975 through 2002. Dr. Lamm shepherded YU through consequential societal changes, social and religious challenges and financial stresses. YU added a law school, many new programs, explosive growth in shana b’aretz programs (fueled by YU), and so much more. Thousands of alumni received an education and a lifelong community on his watch. I was elected president in December of 2002. He supported my candidacy, even though I was not the model he expected. During the interregnum, when I would spend three days a week on campus, he oriented me in many ways. I joined his cabinet meetings; we would have lunch once a week, and I think he was checking me out (properly). When he became chancellor, he would attend all my cabinet meetings, welcomed me in every way, and would have lunch with me in his office weekly or biweekly. He made it clear he would offer any advice I asked of him, on the condition that I felt free to not accept it.
We had delightful times together. We spoke of Torah, academic issues, Jewish life issues, hopes and fears, and family dynamics. (Mrs. Lamm reached out to my wife Esther and they built a lovely relationship.) I trusted him completely, and he let me know him. In the last several years, our contacts were fewer. We loved when the Lamms would join us for celebratory dinners at our home, at our annual Rosh Yeshiva dinners, or, preciously, just the four of us. I always wanted him to know how much he meant to me and YU, and how much of what we did during my tenure was based on his hopes. His legacy is monumental — one of the giants of Jewish thought in the last 60 years. His scholarship championed our commitment to the Maimonidean ideal. He helped fashion a principled Orthodoxy of complexity, nuance and beauty, and made the education of “synthesis” we offered into a sustainable lifestyle. Of his many teachings, I so much identify him with his work The Royal Reach. He refers to David Hamelech, who, in Tehillim 27, had as his one wish that he could “dwell in the house of the Lord.” Indeed? David was presumptuous enough to aspire to dwell with G-d? Talmudists argue the issue. David could have wished for triumph over his enemies, for honor and glory. But he dared to transcend normative aspirations, for he displayed a Royal Reach, daring for greatness, as befits a king.
President Lamm believed it was our challenge, as b’nei Torah, to reach high, to dream big dreams, to dare to dream as David dreamt. He deeply believed in the capacity of Jews to aspire to greatness. But not the greatness of fame or fortune; the true greatness of meaning and goodness, and closeness to G-d. He taught us to reach for a values-driven life, informed by Torah values. He knew that our Jewish story, our Torah, sacred wisdom, sense of history and destiny, and d’veykus to Hashem, enriched by Western knowledge, arts and science, was the Royal Reach that could help us build a better world. He will continue to inform our lives.
Tehei Zichro Baruch
Richard M. Joel is the president emeritus and Bravmann Family University Professor at Yeshiva University. He succeeded Dr. Lamm to the Yeshiva presidency in 2003 and served in that position until 2017.
Photo Caption: Richard M. Joel seated next to Rabbi Norman Lamm
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University