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The True Character of Great Leaders

"Yeshiva University is not only an institution. It is a faith, a vision, a dream, a destiny. It has been my faith, my vision, my dream, and my destiny."

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm

If anyone ever had any doubt about the character of this great man, this should completely erase any trace of it. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm has resigned his post as Chancelor and Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva University in one of the most poignant resignation statements I have ever read.

What was exceptional about this is his admission that – although he thought he had acted correctly at the time – he now realizes that he had made some grave mistakes in handling accusations of sex abuse by a teacher and principal in Yeshiva University’s high school, MTA.  The following is the pertinent part of his statement:

I recognize now that when we make decisions we risk, however inadvertently, the tragedy of receiving that calamitous report: tarof toraf Yosef, “Joseph is devoured,” all our work is in vain, all we have put into our children has the risk of being undone because of a few well intentioned, but incorrect moves. And when that happens—one must do teshuvah. So, I too must do teshuvah.

True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong. I am not perfect; none of us is perfect. Each of us has failed, in one way or another, in greater or lesser measure, to live by the highest standards and ideals of our tradition — ethically, morally, halakhically. We must never be so committed to justifying our past that we thereby threaten to destroy our future. It is not an easy task. On the contrary, it is one of the greatest trials of all, for it means sacrificing our very egos, our reputations, even our identities. But we can and must do it. I must do it, and having done so, contribute to the creation of a future that is safer for innocents, and more ethically and halakhically correct.

This is the kind of leadership that is needed in Klal Yisroel… the ability to recognize error, to realize just how serious and possibly even damaging that error is, and to learn from it. How different is this response to the way Satmar, and Lakewood have reacted to their own errors on this same matter. In Satmar’s case convicted sex abusers are nonetheless glorified as innocent people that evil people with nefarious motives lied about and put in jail. In Lakewood’s case the prominent Rabbonim, Poskim and Dayanim signed a vicious attack against one of their own Talmidei Chachamim because he did what he was supposed to do by reporting a sex abuser to the police. As Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn points out:

(T)hese expert rabbis apparently also didn’t bothering checking out the fact that the father had in fact received a letter from Rav Sternbuch telling him that he was required to report the abuse.

They were apparently ignorant of the elementary fact that even without receiving a psak from Rav Sternbuch and other gedolim the father not only had the right to report a child abuser but was obligated according to the views of the gedolei hador including Rav Eliashiv, Rav Wosner, the Tzitz Eliezer and Rav Moshe Halberstam.  Their ignorance of the halachos dealing with child abuse – as clearly described in Yeshurun volume 15 -  is truly shameful and embarrassing.

Dr. Lamm is a Gibor… a mighty man who has the courage to do what lesser men cannot or will not do. It does not matter how much Torah they know, or how brilliant their erudition of it is to their students. It doesn’t even matter how many Seforim they have published. The matter at hand is their character. They have willfully destroyed another man’s character using their Torah knowledge as a spear to skewer him.

The man they skewered had the courage to do what’s right. It superseded his own sense of self preservation. A man whose character runs circles around those who are supposed to be Torah leaders and are probably still seen that way by most of their constituents in Lakewood and Satmar.

Those men could learn a thing or two from one of their own, R’ Dovid Epstein, who upon realizing the truth – made a public and heartfelt apology, begging for forgiveness for his part in hurting an innocent human being.

Asking them to look at Dr. Lamm as well would be what is called in the Charedi vernacular, a Bracha L’Vatalah. Which is a euphemism meaning waste of breath. They have no doubt vilified Dr. Lamm in the past every bit as much as they have that Talmid Chacham (if not more).

But who represents Torah more Dr. Lamm or these respected men of Lakewood and Satmar? For me it is an easy answer. The Torah of Chesed is on Dr. Lamm’s lips.

Anyone who reads my mini bio on the right margin of this blog will note just how much of an influence Dr. Lamm has been on me. It was his classic work, Torah U’Mada (along with the other influences I mentioned) that formed the basis of my own Hashkafos.

His contributions to Yeshiva University both materially Hashakficly will be hard to match.  As will his Hashhkafic contributions to the entire Jewish world as was so ably described by Alan Nadler in a Forward article.

Dr. Lamm is a Talmid Chacham, a scholar, and a brilliant thinker – who recognized both the primacy of Torah and the high value of Mada as indispensible in our search for Emes. His efforts in saving the financially sinking ship of YU when he took over (eventually turning its financial condition to one of solvency and surplus) is unique in the annals of Yeshiva fundraising. It was due much to his hard work and diligence that YU’s crowning glory is now a ‘thriving bet midrash’ – ‘a top-ranked university’  with even higher ranking professional schools – like Einstein.

Yeshiva University was not just a job for him. Here is how he puts it:

Yeshiva University is not only an institution. It is a faith, a vision, a dream, a destiny. It has been my faith, my vision, my dream, and my destiny.

Dr. Lamm’s did not have an easy time of it. He was harshly criticized for some of his decisions. Not only by the right who vilified him (as did Rav Elya Svei in misunderstanding a speech he gave) but was even strongly criticized by Rav Soloveitchik who strongly disagreed with some of his decisions.

One can agree or disagree with him on any of his decisions. But one would be foolish to dismiss or downplay his contributions to Judaism because of such disagreement.  History will be the final judge. But in my view, his place in history as one of the greatest architects of Jewish education in the modern era is assured. I will just end with the words of YU President Richard Joel whose sentiments I echo:

I would like to express my appreciation to Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm for his half-century of service to Yeshiva University. During his tenure he helped guide the University with steadfastness and vision. Dr. Lamm’s contributions to the Jewish world as a distinguished rabbi, philosopher and scholar are unparalleled. We wish Dr. and Mrs. Lamm health and fulfillment into the future.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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6 Responses to “The True Character of Great Leaders”

  1. Bernhard Rosenberg

    It is time for healing. Wish this statement would have been made earlier. Sexual abuse of any kind must not be allowed and we can not blame the victim. I TOO had to learn this truth and apologize for not understanding earlier. It was the victims who taught me. Apologies should be made and mechila asked. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

  2. I believe Rabbi Lamm is the kapurah hin, THE SACRIFICIAL CHICKEN OF YOM Kippur. He is sacrificing everything for the sake of YESHIVA UNIVERSITY. THAT WAS MY INITIAL REACTION WHEN I DEFENDED Y.U. I was wrong. Those molested deserve there day in court. However there are many who need to be punished and dismissed from the board. Rabbi lamm is a brilliant scholar and leader and has sacrificed for the Y.U. He is frail and just lost his daughter. The family should be left alone. To me Rabbi Lamm will also remain Y.u's savior. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  3. I believe Rabbi Lamm is the kapurah hin, THE SACRIFICIAL CHICKEN OF YOM Kippur. He is sacrificing everything for the sake of YESHIVA UNIVERSITY. THAT WAS MY INITIAL REACTION WHEN I DEFENDED Y.U. I was wrong. Those molested deserve there day in court. However there are many who need to be punished and dismissed from the board. Rabbi lamm is a brilliant scholar and leader and has sacrificed for the Y.U. He is frail and just lost his daughter. The family should be left alone. To me Rabbi Lamm will also remain Y.u's savior. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  4. I think if you are truly apologizing there's no need to mention several times that all of us make mistakes; we all know that, but it would just suffice to mention yourself only.

  5. It's true that great leaders accept to resign their positions if the public is questionable about his/her deeds.

  6. Leaving our young people vulnerable to pedophiles is not a "mistake". It's moral turpitude. You haven't just made a "mistake" by hurting someone's feelings. Calling it a "mistake" trivializes this egregious wrong doing. It shames all Jews before the world (like we don't have enough trouble).
    When a teacher or principle in a secular school is charged with this same crime nobody is referring to them as a Presbyterian, Unitarian or whatever but being connected to a religious organization.This is true especially of Jews , when a Jew is caught in wrongdoing , look at Madoff. When Enron stole billions nobody said "Well, what can you expect from those Presbyterians?"

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