Rabbi Lamm, zt”l, throughout his lengthy career as pulpit rabbi and president and rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, projected a vision of Orthodoxy fully committed to Torah and prepared to confront the outside world. He never withdrew from the broader world but was unafraid of criticizing its superficialities and moral failures. In his eloquent sermons and public lectures and books, he responded to the issues facing society from the perspective of Torah.
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Rabbi Lamm was a uniquely American Jewish thinker who was simultaneously committed to the State of Israel and Religious Zionism. He was honorary president of Religious Zionists of America – Mizrachi, led the religious Zionist slate for the World Zionist Congress and spoke on several occasions at the Congress itself.
Balancing two perspectives was a feature of Rabbi Lamm’s thought. He was heavily influenced by the rabbinic teachings of his grandfather Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol, an exemplar of Galician scholarship, who encouraged him to study the Brisker Lithuanian method of learning personified by Rabbi Lamm’s rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
As the leading proponent of “Torah U-Madda,” Rabbi Lamm had a number of models to explain the approach of what he defined as Centrist Orthodoxy. As illustrated in his major books, he saw Judaism from both chassidic and misnagdic perspectives. This openness to more than one way of learning was helpful as the Yeshiva faced the loss of the dominant figure of Rabbi Soloveitchik; through Rabbi Lamm’s leadership the Yeshiva maintained its position as a major center of Torah scholarship and teaching.
In his rabbinate, the sermon was Rabbi Lamm’s primary vehicle for communicating how the Torah gives insight into the issues facing the world. By typing out each sermon and making it available to the congregation on Saturday night, he showed that he was fully committed to what he said. The Lamm Heritage has made these derashot available online and they remain remarkably relevant today.
Based on Torah sources, Rabbi Lamm analyzed current events in a nuanced and sophisticated way. He did not take the easy path of avoiding any controversial topic or promoting only safe and popular stances. Rabbi Lamm was always rational and reasonable, but he had to be aware that some congregants would disagree with his positions.
When Rabbi Lamm became president of Yeshiva University he took on new and more demanding responsibilities, including a burdensome debt with a threat of bankruptcy. Discovering a talent for fundraising, he saved the institution. His balancing skills were needed to maintain a vibrant beit medrash and a secular medical school simultaneously. He successfully promoted Orthodox Judaism in the medical school and an openness to the world in the beit medrash.
Despite the burden of the presidency, Rabbi Lamm continued his scholarly work and was the spokesman for Centrist Orthodoxy to the larger world. He promoted an open discussion of issues facing religious Jewry in America and Israel. The Orthodox Forum, which he originated, brought together for an annual conference leading thinkers, roshei yeshiva, pulpit rabbis, educators and academics to present and debate papers on a specific area. It was the primary opportunity for Israeli and American Orthodox intellectuals to interact. He also founded the Torah U-Madda Journal, through which his rabbinic faculty and others expressed their perspectives.
On the student level he started the Gruss Kollel in Israel for semicha students. He initiated the Y.U. Joint Israel program, which grants college credit for study in Israeli yeshivot and seminaries. It has become the norm for both male and female yeshiva high school graduates to spend a year or more in Israel before starting college at Yeshiva and Stern.
Rabbi Lamm was committed to raising the level of Torah knowledge for women. He introduced the teaching of Talmud at Stern with a shiur to Stern students by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Later Rabbi Lamm established a graduate program in advanced Torah studies for women, called GPATS.
Recognizing the need to create future rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Lamm started a post-semicha advanced kollel, which included meeting with Jewish communal leaders. His being simultaneously the rosh hayeshiva and president was a powerful statement of the unity of the disparate components of Yeshiva.
Through the years, Rabbi Lamm demonstrated that eternal Torah values are relevant in an ever-changing modern world. He was committed to the centrality of Israel while stressing the necessary partnership between American and Israeli Jewry. This was not limited to the political arena but was focused on the spiritual and religious world.
With his passing Orthodoxy and all of Jewry lost a major thinker and leader. May his memory be a blessing.