Rabbi Maurice Lamm, a major presence in the American Orthodox rabbinate in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as a teacher to hundreds of thousands through his immensely popular Jewish books, died last week. He was 86.
Rabbi Lamm authored The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, on the laws and practices of burial, shiva and mourning, which has sold over 750,000 copies since its first printing in 1969.
Additionally, he wrote The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage, The Power of Hope, Becoming a Jew, and Consolation. Each of these was also a best-seller in the Jewish world.
From 1972 to 1985 Rabbi Lamm served as head rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Calif., one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in America. He also connected with and influenced the Orthodox community at large through his affiliation with the Rabbinical Council of America, the journal Tradition and several other boards and organizations. He was also recognized as a first-class orator, lecturing abroad and overseas, from Israel to Australia to several countries in Europe.
Maurice Lamm was born in 1930, the second of four children to Sam and Peppy Lamm in Brooklyn. Lamm studied for many years at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, and then at Yeshiva University under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, from whom he received semicha in 1954. Later in life he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University, from which he held bachelors and masters degrees.
Rabbi Lamm was very close with Rabbi Soloveitchik, of whom he frequently asked many halachic questions. Rabbi Lamm used to recall that when he would ask Rabbi Soloveitchik a particularly strange question, the latter would reply, “They do things in an interesting way in California.”
Rabbi Lamm married Shirley Friedman, the daughter of Rabbi and Mrs. M. Friedman of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1955.
After receiving semicha, Rabbi Lamm served as a chaplain first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After his discharge he served as rabbi in Puerto Rico and then Floral Park, New York. It was there that Rabbi Lamm started his writing career by publishing And I Shall Glorify Him, an 89-page companion work to Herman Wouk’s This Is My God.
In 1966 Rabbi Lamm assumed the pulpit at the Hebrew Institute of the Bronx. It was around this time that scores of Orthodox Jews were moving out of the South Bronx, to Riverdale and elsewhere. The Lamms moved out as well, to Yonkers, but Rabbi Lamm continued to walk to the Hebrew Institute every Shabbos.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Welfare Board asked Rabbi Lamm to became its field director of military chaplains with the civilian equivalent of major general. He started traveling to meet, bring aid, and comfort and teach U.S. chaplains in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
In 1972, Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills came calling, and the family – Shirley and Maurice and their three children, David, Judith, and Dodi – moved to Los Angeles. The Lamms bought a home in Beverly Hills and fixed it up. Shirley felt they should purchase their own home rather than have the shul buy it for them. She decorated it herself. One of their first guests was Elie Wiesel, who came to lecture at a shul event.
After 13 years at Beth Jacob, during which time the synagogue’s membership rose from 400 to more than 1,000, Rabbi Lamm established The Desert Synagogue in Palm Springs, Calif., where he served as the rabbi for several years. He then retired from the rabbinate to the East Coast. But his career continued to thrive; for many years he held the chair in professional rabbinics at YU’s rabbinical school, RIETS, as well as serving on the faculty at Stern College for Women. He also continued to write and publish books. His last one, Consolation – in some ways a sequel to The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning – has been one of his most critically acclaimed and popular volumes.