As the Jewish world mourned the passing of Rabbi Lamm, zt”l, I thought it might be appropriate to share a few vignettes that I experienced over the course of our connection. I had the privilege of serving as assistant rabbi at The Jewish Center from 2007-2011, and while I did not have an opportunity to develop as close a relationship as I would have liked, I had several meaningful encounters with him, even before I began my tenure there.
The first time I encountered Rabbi Lamm outside of YU functions was on Shabbos morning, January 1, 2000. I was spending Shabbos at friends who lived in Morningside Heights, and my friend told me that the entire Jewish Center experience – the top hats and morning suits, the formality of the service and the powerful sermons of Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter – were all worth the walk.
Indeed, I was enthralled, but I was especially in awe when Rabbi Lamm entered. I didn’t realize he still davened there (I’m not sure if I knew at the time that he’d ever been the rabbi there). I would later learn that the awe I felt about him instinctively was universally felt by The Jewish Center membership. Despite the renowned formality of The Jewish Center davening, the rabbis don’t stand on ceremony, and form the kind of deep friendships with congregants in which they are known to many members – particularly those who are the same age or older than they are – by their first names. Rabbis Drs. Jacob J. Schacter, Ari Berman and Yosie Levine are routinely described with great affection and respect by JC members as JJ, Ari and Yosie. Indeed, many members have these kinds of relationships with other prominent rabbis, so for example, I would often hear Jewish Center members, especially older ones, describe conversations they had with Haskel. However, I never heard any Jewish Center member refer to Rabbi Lamm as anything other than Rabbi Lamm or Dr. Lamm.
On that Shabbos morning, I never heard Rabbi Schacter speak; it was the weekend of his daughter’s Shabbos Sheva Brachos, and word was that he had developed laryngitis. The rabbinic intern spoke instead, and delivered an excellent sermon. Many years later, I shared with that rabbinic intern, now a colleague, that I remembered him delivering the sermon that weekend. With a smile, he told me what happened afterward. He went over to Rabbi Lamm and asked him for feedback, and Rabbi Lamm offered some comments on style and content; then Rabbi Lamm looked at him and said, “But you’ll be fine regardless; you’re tall…”
Some years later, at my college graduation, Rabbi Lamm stood on the stage as students walked past him when our names were announced. As I shook his hand, he said, “Rackovsky? From where?” It turns out that he was in school with several of my cousins. Even at that moment, he knew how to make people feel even more special, a trait I would encounter in subsequent years.
Rabbi Lamm was eminently approachable and made himself available to anyone who needed him.
Rabbi and Mrs. Lamm lived relatively far from The Jewish Center and by the time I became assistant rabbi, they only came on rare Shabbasos and Yamim Tovim, typically times when I wasn’t scheduled to speak in the main sanctuary. As such, Rabbi Lamm never (or hardly ever) heard me speak. Still, he extended me an offer to meet with him to review some sermons and, if I was interested, to get some pointers as well. Of course, I readily took him up on his offer. Rabbi Lamm asked me to send him the texts of a few of my sermons in advance, and invited me to their home to review them. I selected what I considered to be the best sermons I had delivered to date, and, with some trepidation, arrived at 101 Central PW. I remember several aspects of that meeting extremely well:
- The little things: Rabbi Lamm proudly showed me the collection of whimsical lamb figurines and dolls he and Mrs. Lamm (or maybe just Mrs. Lamm) amassed over the years, displayed in the entryway of their apartment.
- Rabbi Lamm famously wrote about the three Josephs that influenced him as a darshan: Rabbi Joseph Baumol, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein and the Rav. But in our meeting, he regaled me with stories and impressions of another darshan whose art he esteemed highly, and whom he loved as a person – his immediate successor at The Jewish Center, Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, z”l. He was very much taken with what he described as Rabbi Bernstein’s “typically Irish” personality, his passionate and fiery oratory with highly original ideas, who loved to sing in a melodious baritone and who enjoyed (and could tolerate) fine whiskey.
- While this is self-aggrandizing, he handed back one of my sermons to me and it had one word on it: “excellent.” Or it might have been “outstanding.” It doesn’t matter, because I was elated. Of course, I had submitted several, and the others did not escape without comment…
- One sermon began with the sentence “There we were, three Modern Orthodox guys standing in a cul-de-sac in Kiryas Yoel.” He crossed out the word “guys” and changed it to “fellows.” For Rabbi Lamm, language mattered and speeches were meant to elevate discourse, not employ colloquialisms.
I next encountered Rabbi Lamm in a more intimate setting because an “exit interview” with him was a prerequisite for ordination at RIETS. Rabbi Lamm asked me the following question (reconstructed to the best of my recollection):
“A young newlywed couple moves to your community and has some halachic questions regarding which dishes they must tovel, and which ones require a beracha. Some are aluminum, some metal, some glass, some plastic. What would you tell them?”
I began to launch into the various opinions in the poskim about which materials require tevillah, which ones with a beracha and so on. Rabbi Lamm pressed me further. “So what would you answer them?” I thought that perhaps he wanted to know how I would approach it from a pastoral perspective, and I told him what I thought he meant – that I would offer to meet the couple at the keilim mikvah to be on hand in case any questions arise.
He replied, “The answer is that you tell them to tovel all the keilim that require a beracha first, and then the ones that are in doubt afterwards, and have the latter in mind when you say the beracha on the former in case they do require a beracha.”
Initially, I thought this was a “gotcha” question, but I realized later that he was trying to teach us several important lessons:
- In formulating a halachic decision, it is important for the rabbi to know all the opinions, but congregants often need a clear, concise and unequivocal answer.
- Halachic knowledge and pastoral skills must go hand in hand. Often, the former is taken for granted in a rabbi and the latter is prized, but good people skills must be accompanied by solid learning.
- Often times, halachic questions can (and must) be resolved not with fancy halachic footwork, but with common sense and practical solutions that don’t require unnecessary compromise.
This last point – of a rabbi not compromising his halachic integrity – is one he stressed many times in addresses to semicha students that I heard, and I’m sure over the years as well. As I recall, he once told us that “a rabbi is not a dancing bear. If you are not halachically comfortable performing a certain wedding, let them find someone else.”
My wife Jessica and I got married during my tenure as assistant rabbi at The Jewish Center, and while I saw Rabbi and Mrs. Lamm regularly, he was still a busy man and the Lamms were both physically slowing down. He was always warm and gracious but I wouldn’t say that our relationship was incredibly close, at least not at the time this incident took place.
On the day of the wedding, I was on the way to the chassan’s tisch and my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize and I was about to put the phone away, but I decided to pick it up in case it was important.
“Rabbi Rackovsky, this is Norman Lamm. I hope I’m not calling too late… Mindy and I are sorry we couldn’t be there with you to celebrate, but we are overjoyed for you, and wish you every mazal, happiness and success.”
I don’t think I said very much in return, as I was overcome with emotion. I was floored that he took the time to locate my number and to call, and while it would have been a joyous day regardless, this was one of the most touching and unforgettable expressions of misameach chassan v’kallah I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing.
I later found out that, unbeknownst to me, Rabbi Lamm served as a reference for me in an important career stepping stone. I am forever grateful to him for enriching my life, and that of so many others, in so many ways.