When Rabbi Norman Lamm retired as chancellor of Yeshiva University in July, many people rued the fact that his distinguished career had been tarnished by his own admission, last December, that he mishandled allegations of physical and sexual abuse while he was president of Y.U.
Now, Lamm’s mental health is being dragged into the limelight as lawyers on both sides of a $380 million lawsuit argue publicly about whether, at 85, he is competent to testify. The arguments come at a time of conflicting accounts of Lamm’s mental health.
His friends and family say his mind has been deteriorating for months, if not years. Others point out that Lamm stepped down as Y.U. chancellor — where his total compensation was about $500,000 a year — only this past July and that his retirement letter was eloquent and lucid.
The arguments also raise medical and ethical issues. How easy is it to establish a person’s mental acuity? And if a person is suffering from dementia, at what stage does his or her testimony become unreliable?
The judge in this case has to balance many competing issues in making this decision.
Asher Aladjem, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, said that a diagnosis of dementia does not preclude someone from performing certain tasks, such as looking after children, consenting to complicated surgery or testifying at a trial.
“People with severe dementia are able to remember what happened 50 years ago but not what they had for breakfast, or if they had breakfast at all,” Aladjem said.
But Lamm’s lawyer, Joel Cohen, said that Lamm was unfit to testify during a pretrial hearing in U.S. District Court, in Manhattan, on September 9.
The hearing was an early stage in a lawsuit filed by 34 former students of Yeshiva University’s Manhattan High School for Boys who say they were physically and sexually abused during the 1970s and ’80s, when Lamm was in charge.