(JTA) – Norman Lamm, the prolific author and Modern Orthodox rabbi who headed Yeshiva University for nearly three decades, died May 31st. He was 92.
As president and chancellor of Y.U., Lamm helped rescue the institution from the financial brink in the late 1970s and rebuild it in the decades that followed into the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. As a pulpit rabbi at Manhattan’s Jewish Center, in his writings on philosophy and Jewish law and as leader of Y.U.’s rabbinical school, Lamm also helped articulate an unabashed ideological basis for a movement that has often struggled to define itself.
“He was both an architect of and a spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy, and using his position at Y.U. as a perch he helped buttress that ideology in a substantial way,” said Rabbi J.J. Schachter, a professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at Y.U. “He was uncomfortable with the word ‘modern,’ so he invented the word ‘centrist’ to describe his brand of Orthodoxy – between the extremes of totally favoring contemporary culture on the one hand and totally rejecting contemporary culture on the other.”
His wife, Mindella, died April 16 of COVID-19 at 88.
In addition to being steeped in Jewish law and literature, Lamm was well-versed in history, philosophy and science. He earned his undergraduate degree from Yeshiva College in chemistry — he was the valedictorian of the Class of ’49 — and did some graduate work in chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. He also worked on a munitions research project during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence under the direction of Ernst Bergmann, who later became head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.
Ultimately Lamm was destined for a different kind of scholarship. One of his points of pride was that he was the only student to obtain both rabbinic ordination (1951) and a doctorate in Jewish philosophy (1966) under the tutelage of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the 20th-century luminary of Modern Orthodoxy, according to Lamm’s son-in-law, Rabbi Mark Dratch.
Lamm’s messages weren’t just particularistic – about how Orthodox Jews should relate to God or each other – but also outward-facing. He talked about how Jews should relate to the world, whether a famine in Bangladesh or moral codes governing other societies.
“The purpose of Torah is neither some kind of arbitrary spiritual exercise, nor the beating of man into submission in order to aggrandize the divine ego. Rather, Torah is the divine instrument for man’s spiritual welfare and fulfillment,” Lamm said in a 1971 sermon. “The Torah is God’s formula for man’s moral development. The prescriptions may be difficult, they may entail discipline and renunciation, but the purpose of Torah and commandments is the good of mankind.”
A history of The Jewish Center credits Lamm with showing that “traditional Judaism had something relevant, thoughtful and inspiring to say about the issues of the day.”
In 1959, Lamm became the senior rabbi at The Jewish Center and a professor in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, where he helped make the case for Modern Orthodoxy at a time when it wasn’t at all clear that the embrace of both Orthodox observance and the modern world was possible. Lamm was the rare Orthodox rabbi who was well-versed in both secular and Jewish scholarship — and inordinately articulate when it came to both.
Lamm became Y.U.’s third president – and its first American-born one — in 1976, succeeding Samuel Belkin, who had led the institution for 33 years. At the time, Yeshiva was teetering financially, and Lamm proved adept at appealing to donors and bolstering the school’s academics. Y.U. gradually rose to become a top 100 school in university rankings.
Lamm wrote 10 books and edited or co-edited more than 20 volumes. His 1999 book “The Religious Thought of Hasidism” won the National Jewish Book Award in
Lamm is survived by two sons, Shalom, a real estate developer involved in a controversial Hasidic development in the upstate New York village of Bloomingburg, and Joshua Lamm, a psychiatrist; and a daughter, Chaye Warburg, an occupational therapist in Teaneck, New Jersey. His daughter Sara Lamm Dratch died in 2013.
Lamm also is survived by 17 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.