Rabbi Maurice Lamm, a prominent modern Orthodox authority who served as the senior rabbi of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, has authored over 10 books, including the bestsellers The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (both Jonathan David Publishers), and Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief (The Jewish Publication Society).
What traditions of English-language books on halachah and Judaism were you working in or breaking from when you started writing your first work, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning?
I wanted to write something aside from sermons. That was an important motivating facet for me. At the time, contemporary and popular English language books on Judaism were being written by Rabbi Hayim Donin [author of To Be a Jew and To Pray As a Jew, among others] but by no one else of prominence. Books were expected to be in Hebrew on Hebrew subjects, and English books were considered a shanda and second rate. But the audience could never swallow that; a few of us realized that they had to be in English to be effective.
In popular Judaica today, solutions to our thorny problems are written primarily in superficial newspaper prose. Fortunately, my teacher in those days was Herman Wouk, who started the idea of this class with Dr. Belkin – to teach creative form for rabbinic writing. The widespread and nearly illiterate writing of graduate students, preaching and writing with apparent simplicity, horrified him.
He was a teacher who instilled in me the drive to write on the subject I was already writing on with literary care. And surely such as the writings of the contemporary expounders of popular halachah, my early years molded my current ever-changing style in conformity with his strictures.
Creativity without clarity is not sufficient for writing. I am eternally thankful to Hashem for his gift to me.
Thanks for asking.
Your books are well researched and widely sourced, but still elegantly written, even poetic at times. Is it important to you that the messages and Torah you are trying to convey be written well?
Thank you. That makes me feel very good. That’s what I strove for in all of my writing.
Your most recent book Consolation seemed a departure from your previous books – more poetic, more meditative. Was that deliberate? What did you hope to achieve?
Yes it was deliberate. Most of my writing is instructive and not chiddushim [novel ideas]. However, when writing Consolation, I was less interested in gratifying the reader’s concerns than in providing him with warmth and softly spoken writing that can absolutely “console” him and his family.
The finished product in Consolation may have been more effective for my purposes than any other book I wrote.
Can you describe your writing habits?
Writing habits differ so widely from one author to another that it is hard to present something unique. My formula is that I used the day for reading and evening for writing. I was a working rabbi, you know. I couldn’t manipulate the hours like I had no job.
Do you have a favorite English language book on halachah?
Anything by Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik is eo ipso good reading and excellent writing.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
None. Simple as all that. I didn’t read.
When did you start?
When I was a senior in high school.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
[Rabbi Dr. Ezekiel] Isidore Epstein’s complete works.