Norman Lamm Leaves Outsized Legacy in Modern Orthodoxy — And a Cloud

Retiring Giant of Faith Mishandled Yeshiva Sex Abuse Scandal

yeshiva university

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published July 03, 2013.
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Soloveitchik is to the Modern Orthodox movement something like what Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is to the Lubavitch, albeit without the messianic overtones: a charismatic, inspirational leader who defined the movement with his thought and his teaching. Soloveitchik embodied Modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States.

Today, only Lamm, his student, is as closely identified with Y.U. as is Soloveitchik. But there is a difference in their respective legacies: While Soloveitchik’s is the generation of rabbis he trained and the ideas he propagated, colleagues say that Lamm’s legacy is the institution he saved.

“It really looked as if the university might not even survive,” recalled Rabbi Saul Berman, a professor at Y.U. and at Columbia Law School, of the financial predicament at Y.U. when Lamm arrived as president.

The school had been growing swiftly since its founding. By 1976 it encompassed a handful of graduate and undergraduate programs, including Cardozo Law School and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Yet the recession of the 1970s and a general failure to cultivate wealthy donors had left Y.U. near bankruptcy. Berman, who began teaching at Y.U. in 1971 and was a member of the committee that hired Lamm, said that it was Lamm who raised the money to bail out the floundering institution.

“The first thing that he was able to do was rescue the university from imminent financial collapse,” Berman said. “Rabbi Lamm was able to… marshal the lay leadership of the university to do what it needed to do in order to ensure the survival of the university.”

Later, with the institution on a firmer financial footing, Lamm focused on increasing the academic standards of the undergraduate schools, Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. Berman, who served as chairman of Judaic studies at Stern, said that Lamm pushed for Stern’s curriculum to include the study of Talmud, opening a Talmud study hall at Stern in 1976, the first organized program for the study of Talmud by Jewish women.

Lamm also promoted the adaptation of the rabbinical program at Y.U. to expand it beyond the study of religious texts to incorporate more training in pastoral skills.

Beyond his administrative roles, Lamm was also a scholar, with a doctorate from Y.U. Unlike Soloveitchik, who wrote little for publication during his lifetime, Lamm was prolific.


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