Photo Credit: YUTorah.org

My relationship with Rabbi Lamm, zt”l, goes back to 1978, when I started semicha. Of course, as was the case with my entire generation, I was greatly influenced by his proud affirmation of a vision of Torah that was open to critical engagement with the world, while steadfast in maintaining the independence and integrity of the Torah in (as Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, would put it) “the widest sense of the term.”

I only really came to know him well, though, toward the end of my time at YU, after my exit interview and my valedictory at the Chag HaSemikhah in 1983. We kept in touch, and he kindly took a personal interest in my career. Periodically, I would receive a call from his legendary secretary, Gladys, inviting me to sit and talk with him. The memory of those sessions remains very dear to me. In fact, in retrospect, the very fact they happened is remarkable. He was one of the busiest men imaginable, combining the administration and financing of an enormous, exquisitely complex institution with teaching and writing (and family). Yet, not only did he respond to those who reached out to him, he proactively reached out to others in order to help, advise, cajole and simply share his rich experience with a tyro.

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Interestingly, those sessions were not generally devoted to philosophy and lamdanut, but largely were dedicated to offering practical advice as to how one should maintain one’s priorities in the rabbinate, academia and/or in public life. Among other invaluable pieces of advice, I vividly recall his warning against getting caught up in the labyrinth of rabbinical and Jewish organizational politics. It was far more important to study and learn, to teach, to write and to act. (Though, I must note, that he mentioned learning and writing with a wistful air.)

It’s hard to choose representative vignettes from forty-two years of a master/disciple relationship. Still, two stand out in my memory.

1) While I was living in Riverdale during the 1980’s, I used to give shiurim loosely based on Pirkei Avot between Mincha and Maariv during the summer. One Shabbat, Rabbi and Mrs. Lamm came to town to visit their daughter and son-in-law who lived in the community. In the course of my shiur that Shabbat, I happened to quote a passage from the Zohar and mentioned, in passing, that I was quoting from a citation of the original, as I didn’t own a copy of the Zohar. A few days later, much to my surprise and delight, a package arrived for me with a copy of the Zohar and a lovely note from Rabbi Lamm that said that no one should be without a copy of the Zohar. I cannot describe how deeply touched I was, and how typically thoughtful was his gesture.

2) In 1991, Rabbi Lamm quietly convened an organization called the Orthodox Caucus. Its job was to bring together lay, rabbinic, academic and organizational professionals from the Orthodox community to address pressing communal issues. Chaired by Fred Ehrmann, and the late (and much lamented) Marcel Lindenbaum, the first issue that the Caucus tackled was the creation of a pre-nuptial agreement to prevent and resolve the tragedy of recalcitrance in the giving of gittin. It was my great honor, and unforgettable privilege, when Rabbi Lamm asked me to be the founding executive chairman of the Caucus, a position I held until I made aliyah two years later. I regard the modest contribution I made to the creation and promulgation of the RCA Pre-Nuptial Agreement to be one of the highlights of my life, which I owe to Rabbi Dr. Lamm.

Not only may his memory be a blessing. His memory and example are an ongoing blessing.

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Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf teaches in the Talmud department of Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. He received semicha from RIETS and his PhD in Jewish History from Harvard.