In a letter announcing he is stepping down as Yeshiva University’s chancellor and rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Norman Lamm acknowledged his failure to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse against the university’s rabbis in the 1980s.
Lamm, now 85, became the school’s third president and head of its rabbinic school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in 1976. He stepped down as president in 2003, becoming chancellor, but stayed on as RIETS’s head.
His resignation Monday from his two posts at the school were attributed to an agreement reached three years ago and come several months after a report in the Forward newspaper that detailed allegations of abuse dating back to the 1970s and ‘80s against two rabbis at Y.U.’s high school for boys, principal George Finkelstein and Talmud teacher Macy Gordon.
“Rabbi Lamm’s decision to retire is based on an agreement that was reached three years ago,” the university said in a statement. “His contract expired June 30.”
Last December, Lamm acknowledged to the Forward that he knew about some of the allegations but chose to deal with them privately; law enforcement authorities were never informed.
“My question was not whether to report to police but to ask the person to leave the job,” Lamm said.
On Monday, Lamm issued a mea culpa for failing to pursue the allegations.
“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill-conceived,” Lamm wrote in a letter emailed to faculty, students and alumni in which he discussed his retirement. “And when that happens — one must do tshuvah. So, I too must do tshuvah [repentance].
“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,” he wrote. “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.
“True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong,” Lamm wrote. “This is what I am modeh [acknowledge] as I reflect on my tenure.”
Finkelstein was forced out of the school in 1995 after being accused of inappropriate contact with students by wrestling with them. He then went to work as a dean at the Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Fla.
Gordon was placed on a leave of absence in 1984, according to the Forward. Both of the rabbis now live in Israel.
Lamm’s comments about the sexual abuse allegations represented four paragraphs of a six-page resignation letter that otherwise was a reflection on his tenure at Y.U. Lamm also made an oblique reference to his failing health, noting, “Conditions have caused me to rely on help from my family in writing this letter.”
Richard Joel, the president of Y.U., declined to discuss Lamm’s remarks on the sexual allegations or be interviewed for this story. He released a statement to JTA through a spokesman.
“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,” Joel said in the statement. “Dr. Lamm’s contributions to the Jewish world as a distinguished rabbi, philosopher and scholar are unparalleled.”
In its report last fall, the Forward cited three former students who said Finkelstein invited students into his home or office to wrestle with them, that they could feel his erect penis against them during the tussling, and that Finkelstein told the students he loved them and tried to kiss some of them. Everybody at the school knew of Finkelstein’s penchant for wrestling with boys, the former students said.
Finkelstein denied to the Forward that there was anything sexual about his contact with students, though he said the wrestling, in retrospect, was wrong.
Gordon was accused of sodomizing a former student with a toothbrush when the student was 16. The former student and his father both told the Forward that they reported the incident to Y.U.’s leadership but did not report it to the police because they did not want to damage the school’s reputation or further harm the boy.