The mood at the national convention of Modern Orthodox rabbis was somber on the day that Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm announced his retirement.
Lamm, 85, attended the convention, walking with a cane and looking frail. On July 1, the day his retirement letter was made public, the revered elder statesman of Y.U. sat in the audience as rabbi after rabbi acknowledged his leadership.
“It’s a dramatic and tough moment for him and for us,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which hosted the conference. “Everyone who has gotten up to speak today has spoken about the impact he had on their lives.”
The day was bittersweet for Lamm’s former students and colleagues, coming amid rising furor over Y.U.’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse against students at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys in the 1970s, ’80s and early ‘90s. In his letter announcing his retirement, Lamm apologized for failing to alert police of sex abuse allegations brought before him when he was president of the university.
While news of Lamm’s apology dominated the media coverage of his retirement, Lamm’s admirers preferred to focus on his decades as Y.U.’s guide and protector. Goldin said of the alleged sex abuse cover-up that he “would hate to see this as the defining feature of his legacy. Here is a man who has contributed tremendously to the Modern Orthodox community and the Jewish world at large…. That should be the overwhelming aspect of what we think about as he departs.”
Lamm was a pulpit rabbi in New York City when he was selected to replace Rabbi Samuel Belkin as president of Yeshiva University in 1976. Like most Modern Orthodox rabbis of his generation, Lamm had received his ordination at Y.U.’s rabbinical school under the tutelage of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, the key intellectual figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism.
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.
“He was one of the first people to write about social and political issues from the perspective of Torah, and it opened the field,” Berman said. “It enabled people to see that it was really possible for the ideals of Modern Orthodoxy to live in the real world and not just in academia.”
Lamm also reached out to Jewish religious leaders from outside the Orthodox sphere. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, remembers Lamm speaking to his class at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary, in the 1970s. “It was an extraordinary session,” Yoffie recalled.
“He articulated the views of what we then called Modern Orthodoxy, and he was emphatic about his own convictions; yet at the same time, he spoke with great respect.”
Lamm was replaced as president of Y.U. in 2003 by Richard Joel, who had previously led the Jewish student outreach group Hillel. Lamm stayed on as chancellor of the university and the titular head of the rabbinical school. He continued to live in Y.U.-owned housing, a gracious duplex on the Upper West Side. The school moved him to another, slightly smaller apartment in 2011.
Lamm’s total compensation from Y.U. in 2010, the most recent year for which records are publicly available, amounted to $485,000, including deferred compensation and other benefits.
In December 2012, Lamm told the Forward that staff credibly accused of improper sexual activity “not only at [Y.U.’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school” were “quietly let go” and that the police were not alerted.
Roughly 20 former students of Yeshiva University High School for Boys have told the Forward that they were emotionally, physically or sexually abused while attending the school.
“If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly,” Lamm said. “It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.”
The Forward later reported that George Finkelstein, an administrator pushed out of Y.U. amid allegations of sexual improprieties with students, had gone on to teach students at a Jewish day school in Florida, and later to hold a prestigious post at a synagogue in Jerusalem. Finkelstein allegedly behaved inappropriately with young men in both Florida and Jerusalem, the Forward reported, leading one man to file a police report against him in Jerusalem.
In his letter announcing his retirement, Lamm apologized for failing to go to police with the sex abuse allegations.
“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived,” Lamm wrote. “I understand better today than I did then that sometimes, when you think you are doing good, your actions do not measure up. You think you are helping, but you are not. You submit to momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what is before you, and in the process you lose the Promised Land.”
Some praised Lamm’s show of contrition. Goldin said that attendees at the RCA convention thought his retirement letter was brave. “People are very proud of him for his honesty, his courage, as well as his accomplishments over the past decades,” Goldin said.
Others argued that Lamm’s apology was beside the point. “It’s not about Rabbi Lamm,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of The National Synagogue, in Washington, and a graduate of Y.U.’s high school, college and rabbinical school.
“Rabbi Lamm served the institution for decades, and I’m so grateful for what he did. But he said stuff in his resignation letter that should invigorate his successors and his students to follow his lead, and should invigorate them to do a real investigation with transparency and accountability. I fear that’s not what’s going on.”
The Forward reported in May that Y.U.’s board had not promised to make the results of an ongoing investigation into sex abuse at Y.U. public, and that the firm hired to conduct the investigation had not requested interviews with a number of victims named publicly in Forward stories.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.