The following is a transcript of Episode 86 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Elana: Hello, and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Elana Stein Hain, the director of faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute. And I’m filling in for Yehuda Kurtzer this week.
A highly visible and important community in the tapestry of American Jewry is modern orthodoxy. Today we’re going to talk about modern orthodoxy, how it’s positioned itself between more right wing orthodoxy and liberal denominations in America, through the lens of a very important figure, who shaped the ideology of modern orthodoxy in the twentieth century. And that is Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, of blessed memory, Zichron L’Vracha, who passed away in May 2020, at the age of 92. He was the president and chancellor of yeshiva university, modern orthodoxy’s flagship university and rabbinical school, for nearly 40 years. He shaped the movement in really significant ways, not only as an institution builder and as a rabbi as well, by the way, a pulpit rabbi of the jewish center in New York City, but as a theologian and philosopher, writing over 15 books on theories of religious life. Today we’re gonna talk about him with 3 people who all have varying relationships with him or the institutions that he shaped.
I’m pleased to be joined today by Tova Warburg Sinensky. Tova is an advisor on Jewish law pertaining to the laws of family purity, known in Hebrew as Yoeztet Halakhah. Avi Helfand is the vice dean for faculty and research as well as a professor of law at Pepperdine Caruso school of law. He is also a Hartman fellow. Shlomo Zuckier, my third guest, is a research fellow at Notre Dame center for philosophy of religion and contemporary American life. And he is a David Hartman center fellow this year at Hartman North America. All three of them wrote beautiful essays in the tribute volume of Tradition, a modern orthodox journal, in september of 2021, and we are pleased to have them talk about Rabbi Lamm and his legacy and the shape of modern orthodoxy in North America today.
I want to start by talking to you, Tova, who in addition to your bio and your career, you are also a granddaughter of Rabbi Lamm. I want to ask you about his personality, as someone who is both an intellectual, visionary, and thinker, but also an institution builder and what insight you can give us into who he was as a person.
Tova: Growing up I was very much shielded from the fact that my grandfather was a big deal, and the real deal. And my siblings and I knew that he was on the public stage and all that, but it was never presented to us as “wow, Zaidy is really famous and big, etc.” So for example, was it typical to be picked up by your grandfather’s chauffeur to go shopping for Yom Tov clothing. Not really so typical, but to be thinking twice about it, not really, or was it typical to be at my grandparents for dinner and be told, oh, the chief rabbi of Bnei Brak is coming for dinner.
Not typical, but was it presented as if it was anything out of the ordinary by my grandfather and my grandmother? Definitely not. And I never heard my grandfather talk about himself as if he was on a different plane than any other person. And perhaps we can talk about that. I know his, his version of Torah U’Madda has been challenged on the grounds that perhaps it only applies to certain scholars and intellectuals. And I think that’s perhaps because my grandfather was humble and believed that we’re all capable of being scholars and intellectuals. Despite all of these experiences, that, I had this disconnect in my life. And when people would say to me, oh, your Rabbi Lamm’s granddaughter. I never really understood what they were saying because the person that I knew was a grandfather and not somebody who was full of himself and, and presented himself as if he was the very important person that he was. So I think that’s really one of the salient features of his personality.
Elana: Avi you grew up in his shul, you grew up in his synagogue. What was he like as your pulpit rabbi? You know, the Rabbi Lamm, capital T capital R capital L.
Avi: it’s, it’s kind of crazy listening to Tova describe Rabbi Lamm that way. I, you know, when he, in his final years at the Jewish center, he, I wasn’t born yet. I’m feeling old these days, but not like quite that old. But he’s still kind of was around a little bit giving periodic sermons until they found somebody who would replace them.
And during those times the periodic sermons, actually my father would give sermons on a monthly rotation. And so, so many of the stories in my household from Rabbi Lamm came from that time period. I just remember, like in subsequent years I have this vivid memory of Rabbi Lamm at camp Morasha, when I was a counselor there, having come up when I was a counselor there having come up for, I think it was Tisha B’Av
Elana: So just for everyone, let’s just make sure this is clea.r ninth of Av. Major day of mourning, fasting on the Jewish calendar, ripe for informal Jewish education. Let’s put it that way. Camp is definitely a good place to be on that day.
Avi: and I just have this vivid memory of like, wanting to go up to talk to him, but being way too scared. And I was with a friend of mine, not going to mention, I’m tempted to mention his name, but let’s leave it aside. And. I remember the person I was working for, like commenting how we were like these like like little Cubs, like scared to go up and talk to the lion.
Like that was the metaphor. Because of just like in my mind’s eye, like that, he was such a towering figure that like even coming into physical proximity was something that was hard to get over.
Tova: So interesting because during the Shivah we received, our family received like hundreds of visits and letters from numerous correspondences that my grandfather had with people of all ages all over the world and they’re in his files as well. And it’s just amazing because.
You know, you’re saying you’re scared to go up to him, but he was so approachable and he actually spent time reaching out to all of these people every week. And we only found out about this you know, after he passed away.
Elana: Tova, you must remember that when I was in my first year at Columbia as an undergrad, I was so overwhelmed by being in a new secular atmosphere.
Tova: I do remember.
Elana: And you said, you know, well, you should go talk to my grandfather and I had thought of him as like, Tova’s grandfather, you know.
That’s just what it is. And I walk into that office and I see it’s like you know, the many doors leading up to the holy of Holies, you know, it’s like first you get on the temple Mount and then you move a little bit forward. And the secretary is like, sit here, Dr. Lamm will be here shortly. And I was like, oh, I think I’m supposed to be very intimidated.
Now I did not realize what a big deal this person was. Cause he never acted that way when I was talking to him as your friend, but Shlomo, you have probably different interactions with him. Right? Cause you’re really through the university. And I don’t know when, I don’t know where he was when you started there, like where he was in his career.
Shlomo: So I started at MTA. YU’s high school, I caught the last two years of Rabbi Lamm’s presidency, and actually caught Shir Klali, a public lecture he gave to the whole yeshiva, they had some high school students join as well. I heard him speak publicly a few times and met with him, I think once.
But my perspective on Rabbi Lamm is more based on the institution that he built. And I think you really can see his influence on all the different levels, you know, the high school, the college, the yeshiva, the graduate school of Jewish studies, each in its own way really had his imprint on it.
And the institution that he built with with the values and the educational goals, it really trickled down to all the levels, even the high school rabbis who weren’t really bought into his ideology of Torah U’Madda, that that was, that’s what they would talk about.
Elana: well, so let’s, let’s pause for a second because this is the second time we’re mentioning this term Torah U’Madda, which is really a stand in term for torah and secular knowledge. Because Rabbi Lamm did an incredible service by articulating what the theory, what the religious contribution is of studying secular knowledge and mind us, I mean, he went to Polytechnic Institute after he finished college. I mean, he was a scientist in addition to all of his other abilities, his PhD, I mean, he really believed in secular knowledge as a pursuit that could be a religious pursuit, but I’m curious Shlomo, you know, can you talk a little bit about what you saw as the challenges with regards to this idea of secular knowledge and Jewish knowledge and balancing them in a modern Orthodox environment?
What, what did you see Rabbi Lamm responding to? And you’re saying it trickled down, but let’s talk about the degree to which it succeeded and where are some places it still needs to go.
Shlomo: Yeah. So I think you could say Rabbi Lamm’s entire project as a leader, starting from when he was a pulpit rabbi in the fifties, sixties into the seventies and through his period running YU really was about, about having Orthodox Judaism, traditional religion respond to contemporary American life following the second world war, which was a time of a lot of change for the Jewish community and especially generally culturally on the American scene, a lot of changes. So I think at every stage you can point to, to the different phenomena he’s responding to in terms of YU, I think the question was, can we build a community of people who are very well-educated in the secular sense and still deeply committed to their religion, which, which I think is, is what the ideology, or at least the educational approach of Torah U’Madda, Torah and general studies, as you said, what that responds to, to make a religious virtue out of studying both that secular studies is not just a means to an end. It’s not just a way to become a doctor or a lawyer, which of course that’s, you know, that’s what one does. And to really value the education in itself that hat see that as, as a religious value and the volume, the book Torah U’Madda, that, that Rabbi Lamm wrote, looked at multiple different models of, of this idea of this interaction between Torah Jewish learning and secular wisdom without going into all the details that the approach that he settled on was interestingly enough, the, the Hasidic approach. Rabbi Lamm himself descended from Hasidic stock and wrote an award-winning book on the topic. The Hasidic idea of sanctifying the profane of taking secular things and making them holy, infusing them with holiness, incorporating them into one’s religious life. That at the end of the day was the model that he preferred as opposed to a Maimondian model, you know, the more classical models, but this idea of sanctifying, the profane, and that really was the project overall.
How could you know, orthodoxy modern orthodoxy in the United States, many of them you know, were children of, of or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors coming to the United States. How could they build a life that was both traditional and deeply engaged with the world? And, and his solution was to present it as this religious ideal of intellectual engagements, which trickled down and, you know, most many, many people coming out of YU became professionals rather than intellectuals as their day job, but that ideology really permeated the institution and informed modern, Orthodox life.
Elana:So let’s talk Avi, Tova. How do you think we’re doing on Torah U’Madda in modern orthodoxy? You’re in different communities. You see things through different lenses. You have kids who you’re bringing up. I mean, all four of us identify, I think I’m not making this up because I I’ve known all of you for a while.
I think we all identify as Orthodox and likely modern Orthodox. How are we doing on this? I mean, I understand trickles down in the institution. What are some of the challenges? What are some of the privileges of it? How’s it going?
Tova: I think that it’s hard to do. To live in the modern world. And at the same time as embracing Torah values, it’s hard to make certain choices and to even at the most basic level to decide what are things that are just not able to be sanctified at all, like that are just not things that we do with Halakhic Jews.
I think that’s the biggest challenge before we even get to the question of how do we sanctify. You know, the, the secular, the secular world.
Elana: Yeah, it’s interesting. When reading Rabbi Lamm’s a book on the topic Torah U’Madda’madah. You see him saying over and over again, look, you’re going to confront ideas that are deeply antithetical to Torah. And the way that it’s classically been understood. And he, it seemed like he knew what those boundaries were, but I think we all know that those boundaries change over time in interesting ways.
Tova: Right. So I think at the most basic level, educating our students and our kids, that there are going to be boundaries is like number one, before we even get to the question of how do we sanctify the things that are sanctifiable, so to speak, in our world.
Elana: Yeah, that’s interesting. Avi. What do you think.
Avi: There are two things I want to resist in like in the description. I’m sure this comes as a shock to everybody here. The first one is the kind of the modern orthodoxy bit. So, you know, you read Rabbi Lamm’s, sermons. I don’t think he liked, let me rephrase. He said he’s uncomfortable with the term modern orthodoxy.
He didn’t like it. I mean, it’s my, one of my favorite quotes from like a, like a late sixties sermon. How he disliked it when people say the person is religious, but modern, spoken in the exact, same condescending time as someone would say he’s slightly insane but sincere.
Elana: Yes. Yes.
Avi: And he says, sermon, I think it’s called, it’s like the arrogance of modernism, like that he’s uncomfortable with the term modern orthodoxy, like that there’s something better because you’re, you’re you’re now. And I think that’s a very consistent theme, certainly in his. Certainly in his sermons. This idea of like privileging the, now this concerned with like fads, intellectual fads and his view that the content of Jewish learning is, is timeless. And as a result to like privilege modernity, especially in terminology was a deep mistake, you know, on the other piece of it I think Shmuel has described Torah U’Madda the way in which it is typically digested and maybe, maybe the way in which Rabbi Lamm described it in the book, but you know, some days I think to myself, it’s less of like a theology than an attempt to describe a character.
Like we’re, we’re just supposed to be constantly curious. And like, when we learn, when we see new stuff, we want to learn about it and, you know, life is a life of learning and it doesn’t matter what you’re learning about. Like, not like you’re synthesizing two things that aren’t alike. We take this you know, general studies and Judaic studies in the classroom. We try to bring them together. Like almost as if, if you’re doing that, you’ve already lost. Yeah, the point is there’s just supposed to be a constant curiosity. And if that’s kind of at the core of it, then, you know, the Lamm legacy in some way could be evaluated, as you know, is that, is his community curious.
Elana: Right, right. It’s also interesting because, you know, he was such an intellectual. I remember when he came to speak to us in 10th grade, I was in Frisch at the time and he was teaching us about maimonidean thought, and he was talking about how the center of service of God is the intellect and trying to intellectualize and cognize, faith, and belief.
And I remember back in. Wondering to myself, like, you know, I’m looking around and excuse me for saying, I’m looking around at 10th graders who are picking their noses. You know, not everybody in there is sort of the most intellectually curious person. And it’s interesting to think about how a model like this works when people really do have different characters, right?
Some are going to be more intellectual than others and some are going to be less, but I like the way you’re putting this Avi, of is there a curiosity that permeates, a curiosity about human conversation, about issues, about questions that’s permeating the Jewish community and, you know, Tova I identify with your point of how do you stay rooted in a teaching that we’re saying is timeless, even as you express curiosity and interest.
In what’s out there and whatever’s out there and draw some boundaries. But as far as I understand, Rabbi Lamm was very good at setting boundaries and saying what he thinks. And I, I’m curious what we think about that right now in modern Orthodox communities. You know, how easy is it for someone to get up and say, here’s the truth of what I think this is what I want you to know.
I am a religious leader. You know, I there’s a program here. I’m curious how, how well that’s doing in the 21st century, because I think that’s quite a challenge.
Tova: I think that I was really privileged to actually see that in real time, which is perhaps more in fact impactful than, than learning, you know, about the philosophy of Torah U’Maddamadah, but really to see it in action.
Like I saw my grandparents go to Broadway and go to the theater and read books and talk about ideas. And I think that learning through example, of course is very powerful and we know that, but I think that that’s, that’s something that perhaps is of value to today’s students and to our children to think about like, how can we really model this for our kids in a way that is a meaningful and real, as opposed to thinking about how can we approach this from an intellectual perse textual perspective?
Like, I think it’s more powerful if we can think about what is the best way for us to, to really show our kids what this looks like in real time.
Shlomo: I think in terms of sort of the post Rabbi Lamm shift in the community known as modern orthodoxy, whatever one calls it. I think part of the issues that Tova and Elana you both raised before of people having different natures and different interests. This super intellectual approach, not necessarily working for everyone.
So I think the model of, I think both how education works at YU and the community more broadly has moved away from this core principle of the idea of thinking about Torah and and secular studies and how they might interact and much more focused now on building the social aspects of the community and a modern orthodoxy as a good comfortable, enjoyable place to live. With, you know, peers, you grow up with, you go to camp with them, you go to college with them, you move into communities with them. That seems to be much more central to the modern Orthodox experience in a bunch of different ways which on the one end means it’s more relatable. You don’t need to be an intellectual to, to relate to that. And you know, back in the, in the olden days, either you did Torah U’Madda, or you talked about it, or you talked about people who talked about it, that was sort of the dominant culture.
Elana: Or you had them over for Shabbat dinner and listened to them talk about it.
Shlomo: Right. Right. If but you know, the it’s moved away from that a bit.
I think one way of illustrating this is to think about Chasidut, Hasidism and its, and its relationship to, YU. Rabbi Lamm, as we mentioned was was a scholar of Chasidut. published a book on it, brought in different professors to teach about it. And he was very intellectual in the way you did that.
You know, it’s a book about there, the different theologies that focuses on the earlier Hasidic masters and deals with really academic questions. And that’s one way of engaging with, with Chasidut. And if you look at YU today, it’s actually much more engaged Chasidut, but completely on a social level in a Neo-Chasidut, that you sing the songs, maybe you maybe you can take some Hasidic practices but it’s, it’s a good way of building group identity, over Neo Chasidut. If you read Hasidic books, they’re the more contemporary self-help type of of books a than the Nesivos Shalom and the like, rather than the more intellectual works. I think that that really reflects the, the shift in YU. And I wonder how much, you know, these neo-Hasidic read or even know about, or by Rabbi Lamm’s intellectual work, but it’s really just two very different pictures of, of that institution and, and the modern Orthodox community yet.
Elana: You know, it’s such a great point that you’re making, because we talk so often about Jewish identity here at Hartman. And what you’re describing is actually a thick, Orthodox identity that’s created through social engagement, affective, emotional experiences. And I know, you know, with my own kids, I’m always trying to give them effective experiences.
Right. I think that’s key to developing who they are and, you know, for us, sometimes that’s intellectual and sometimes that’s, you know what we would call like pre discursive, you know, like you don’t, you don’t have to talk about it and it just is you have to be in it. Right. So it’s a really interesting shift that you’re modeling.
Avi I think you wanted to say something.
Avi: Well, first I was going to ask Shlomo if he had any ideas, if there’s a book out there, if we want it to be more about Neo Hasidut, do it, that he wanted to recommend. Oh, Shlomo, you’re not going to take the bait here.
Elana: I think that’s what we’re going to call a troll, everyone.
Shlomo: No, no, that’s, this is a, I think an attempted assist.
Elana: It is. It is, but he’s, you know, the smile on his face. You can’t see it, the people listening, but the smile is he’s doing Shlomo a big favor
Shlomo: That’s right. Yeah. So there’s a volume edited volume actually coming out of YU and the Orthodox forum series that, the orthodox forum series started by Rabbi Lamm. One of the institutions he built at YU.
Elana: Well, this is what I’m saying. If people haven’t heard of it before they’re missing a linch-pin of modern Orthodox thought, literally the Orthodox forum, for people who don’t know it is a forum that happens annually to bring Orthodox thinkers. Does it not happen annually anymore?
Shlomo: The last meeting was in 2015.
Elana: Last meeting was in 2015. Okay. But I can say having experienced it, it was an amazing place for people to come and think through theological, ethical, political, you name it, questions of the day, right? So you were saying Orthodox forum, go on.
Shlomo: So this volume is coming out on, on contemporary uses and forms of , including some sociological studies at YU, elsewhere in the Orthodox community, new ways of engaging with Chasidut, some pieces, some some more sociologically oriented pieces. So, thanks, Avi.
Avi: Edited by Shlomo. I think we forgot the most important part.
Elana: but I just want to point out that the four of us on this call are actually, I think people who follow in the intellectual pattern of Torah and secular knowledge, we’re also all very socially engaged.
But one of the things that I think is quite interesting about the four of us is, we kind of represent a group that drank that Kool-Aid in a big way. Right? Am I wrong about that? Like, we could have taken a totally different sample of people to talk about Rabbi Lamm’s legacy and they might not have been as excited about the fact that yeah, he wrote plenty on Hasidism, but did you know that his doctoral dissertation was on the opposite of hasidism? On Mitnagdic, Lithuanian thought the people who were literally against them, and like we’re jazzed by that because that’s a person who’s like thirsting for knowledge, wherever it comes from. But it is interesting to think about where today’s young, modern, Orthodox intellectuals fit in a move to a more social version, right. Like, I think it’s a fair question to ask. I want to move to a different aspect of Rabbi Lamm’s thought because we’ve alluded a little bit to the American context, right. And how Rabbi Lamm didn’t want the now to be privileged. And yet he had a real sense of his context, both in the sense tha Tova said, you know, post-war what does post-war orthodoxy look like in America, but also even when you read his Torah U’Madda, when you read that book where he was setting out what’s my ideology says the only reason I can do this is because we’re living in relative comfort in America. So I can think about opening up to general knowledge.
And what does that even mean? And I’m curious. You know, and, and Avi I’m gonna turn to you for this because of the work that you do on first amendment and religion and church and state, really in America, I’m curious how you see his legacy on the way he thought Jews and Orthodox Jews fit into the broader American tapestry, right?
Like what are we contributing? Not just, what are we taking and what are we saying is not for us, but like what’s our public voice. Who are we on the American skyline?
Avi: I’ve been reading Rabbi Lamm’s sermons for as long as I can remember, like my father would buy me birthday presents before the archive existed online. Like my birthday present was the Royal Reach. Which you couldn’t even find when I was interested in it and my dad like tracked it down somewhere.
Tova: Yeah, I stole my parents’ copy, honestly.
Avi: Yeah Royal Reach, it’s like one of the original, original, I want to say.
Tova: It’s the first.
Avi: That’s right. It’s the first collection of Rabbi Lamm’s sermons. also like a crazy thing.
He wrote up his sermons and then like circulated them, like and think about that. Like he was doing that in the sixties, and what technologies weren’t, weren’t available to him and that he successfully like used his voice to permeate a community through his sermons, writing them, making them available, like to the point birth, you know, you can go online to the archive, now, like his little notes sometimes on, on
Elana: we’ll put the archive link in the show notes, because I think it’s interesting for people
Avi: it’s just in and of itself. And so like, you know, I found like towards the end of my undergraduate years at Yeshiva university, I just found like great comfort reading those sermons before graduate school. That was like a big thing for me. And like, that’s why I was getting these strange birthday presents from my father.
And you know, you start noticing certain recurring themes and like, I, you know, my professional life, my academic life, I do a lot of studying of church state issues. Like, like you said, Alana, and it was weird like how frequently those issues came up in his sermons.
So I, like, I started running searches on the archive. Cause it’s coolest thing in the world. You can just search for words. And there’s just a ton in there, like Supreme interest in the separation of church and state. And that was weird to me like initially, and you know, you start like pulling the pieces together.
And you, you begin to realize kind of, you know, historically what some of the issues were. I mean the 1960s when he’s giving them so many of these sermons, I mean, this is when orthodoxy is starting to be a thing. I mean, it wasn’t, it wasn’t so much of a thing in the fifties. It really started in the fifties.
You know, most people assumed orthodoxy was just going to die.
Elana: well, I, I, I’m trying to remember when Barton’s chocolate got their Orthodox union kosher symbol. I think it was in the late fifties. I could be wrong, but I think it’s.
Tova: Wow. That’s the beginning.
Shlomo: That was the turning point.
Elana: But I’m saying that it’s the commodif. No, but it tells you something. The arrival of American Jewish orthodoxy in America, that you can get Barton’s chocolate.
Tova: Yes. And my grandparents always had Barton’s chocolate by the way, the lollycones on Pesach in their hotel room.
Elana: There you go.
Avi: Somebody will write a book about from Barton’s to like the Oreo and like, you clearly see the way in which over time, he’s trying to give voice to really a new movement in many ways, this some brand of American orthodoxy and at least.
When it comes to things like church state separation. So you start to see, like, as I think of it, two real concerns about what’s going to happen to American orthodoxy. And the first one is this great concern. He had that there was going to be this pressure to stop privileging Jewish interests in the way we spoke in our values and in our advocacy that somehow like universal interests would trump Jewish interests.
At times that he thought were like deeply misguided and dangerous to Jewish continuity. And he talks about this a lot repeatedly.
Elana: Are there particular issues that he mentions?
Avi: I mean, the one, he hammers that again and again, and he called, this is like the courageousness of the sermons is just off the charts. You know, when your rabbi typically delivers a sermon has a particular target, they don’t mention them by name. And Rabbi Lamm would just go. He would just say, this institution did the following thing. It is bad and evil and he would just bear it is, and then he print it and then he’d share it. And, you know, he thought it was right. And that’s what he did. And the issue in particular about government funding for Jewish day schools was so front and center on his mind about the dangerous if schools didn’t get funding and the idea that he had people sitting in his pews very clearly who were advocating for church state separation and advocating that government funding shouldn’t go to Jewish institutions. He could not wrap his head around it. And you could see he would be fuming at the idea that, you know, these, what he would thought as faddish American interests would somehow trump Jewish interests.
Now he always had this really interesting caveat. Like he also thought they were like a little bit wrong. Constitutionally. I’ve always wondered. Like if he thought they were right, you know, what would he have done? So there was like a deep integrity behind the argument that like, not, not just like pure, instrumental, but like also, like this is an extreme argument and I don’t think you have this right.
It’s also crazy that he had a view on the first amendment. Like, it’s just, the levels of knowledge are pretty astonishing. That was like the big one. And, you know, this is obviously like a deep, super contemporary issue, you know, to what extent do we privilege Jewish interests? And he was pretty unequivocal about it.
He has these lines about just because you love your family more, it doesn’t mean that you hate your friends.
Elana: he’s balancing the particular interests with belonging.
Avi:And he had a view on how to balance, and the other big one. He really was worried that like liberal, this is how he described it, liberal left of center advocacy was going to become its own theology that replaced Jewish theology.
He, he has these metaphors all the time. The first amendment is replacing the first commandment. The wall of separation is replacing the Western wall. You know, these very, you know, vocative metaphors that it wasn’t just that the advocacy was wrong, but what it was doing to like our internal theology.
What was American orthodoxy? What was his theology going to be? And could American orthodoxy develop like its own unique brand of advocacy, a way to speak to America that wasn’t just American.
Elana: So it’s so interesting because what you’re saying makes me think of sort of presaging the fact that today politics has become religion for just about everybody in the Jewish community. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. It doesn’t matter if you’re left. Politics is you’re holding as close and, and, and you’re angry at the person in shul next to you who disagrees with you almost like, can we be praying together?
Right. It’s a really, that’s a really interesting thing. And at the same time, there’s also a question of, it sounds like, just concerns about universalism and the comfort of American Jewish life leading to a dilution of the relationship between Orthodox Jews and their theology and observance and all of that.
And I’m curious, Tova like the messaging that you got as a grandchild of someone who clearly cares about this was that a front and center kind of message, and you mentioned that the difficulty of boundary making, how do you see that through this lens?
Tova: Growing up. I don’t think this was necessarily a theme that we spoke about kind of one-on-one. One of the things that I was thinking about as Avi was speaking is for example, in the work that I do as a Yoetzet Halakha, right? So my grandfather wrote A Hedge of Roses, a lecture series to the young marrieds club at the Jewish center or something, some title of that sort. And it became a book which was republished many times in many languages and it basically makes the case for the observance of Taarat Hamishpacha, which I will term the laws of family purity.
And he basically tries to make the case for the observance of mikvah and nidah.
Elana: So ritual immersion for menstruation.
Tova: So and, and it was basically, you know, at the point where this observance might be off the table. And it’s interesting to see, you know, how far we have come in terms of this particular area of observance, like from the 1960s until, you know, 2022, when people are not just observing these laws, but talking about them more and there’s more conversation.
So I think as a, just as a, like a metric or in terms of how much progress we’ve made, I think that there’s definitely been a lot of growth in terms of not abandoning certain practices in the face of, of you know, secular culture and living in this country, et cetera. But one of the things also that I was that I was thinking about was that in the sermons, which I know Avi has read through all of, and I have not read through every single one, but I hope to,
Elana: Avi may be the real grandchild.
Tova: He might be.
But one thing that was so uplifting about them was that as much as he was brutally honest as Avi mentioned, which is something that we don’t really hear so much all the time, we hear a lot of feel good sermons. We hear a lot of Torah only sermons, which are amazing and important, but we don’t hear like Mussar, this is what you should do. This is what needs to be done. Call to action all the time. Cause that’s hard to hear.
Elana: Well, you wanted, the rabbi wants to keep their job.
Tova: Exactly. And, you know, he, wasn’t living in a cancel culture like we are. So it’s much scarier nowadays. And I, I can understand that, but as much as he was really honest with what the areas of growth were for us, number one, it was laced with warmth and with a belief that we were actually capable of rising to greatness.
And Elana you had referenced when you heard my grandfather speak in 10th grade, I believe he spoke about Tzelem Elokim, which was a big theme.
Tova: He really believed that everyone was capable of rising to greatness.
So despite the challenges he laid out for us of like, wow, this is where we are. This is where we need to get to his sermons were uplifting because they made us feel like even though we have so many things to work on, we can actually achieve them.
Elana: That’s beautiful.
Shlomo: Just to contextualize a bit. Avi spoke about how the deep engagement that, that Rabbi Lamm had with the first amendment and Tova spoke about Rabbi Lamm’s discussion of, of sexual ethics. So those are both there, but I think there’s really multiple other areas where, Rabbi Lamm was engaging with the issue of the day.
So, you know, there’s the first amendment, but then he also wrote articles on the fourth amendment on privacy, on the fifth amendment about self-incrimination, comparing American law and Halakhic and Jewish law perspectives. His article on environmentalism, as that was trending in the sixties, seventies. He had an important sermon about civil rights and the opposition to racism when that was you know, again at that time.
And he wrote about on all things of all things, extraterrestrial.
Elana: Yes. That stopped me in my tracks.
Shlomo: After landing on the moon, how do we, how do we think about humanity? Maybe we’re not unique in the world. Maybe there are other life forms and really at every turn, engaging with the issue of the day.
So getting back to I think the point Avi said before you know, the idea of you don’t need to integrate in every case, you don’t need to, you know, moderate, isn’t always better, but what Rabbi Lamm did believe is that you always need to engage with the contemporary issue. He didn’t shy away from tricky issues.
I think he actually wrote one of the first issues on homosexuality and Jewish law in the it’s encyclopedia Judaica yearbook.
Shlomo: I think in the seventies and the late seventies, he didn’t shy away from difficult issues and always engaged with them, bringing tradition to bear whether his conclusion would be you know, more traditionalist or more progressive. So that intellectual honesty and willingness to engage is a very important part of his legacy. And in each case he really engaged with great depth.
Elana: Let’s talk about Rabbi Lamm in the American jewish tapestry. Because that is a little complicated for a man who says what he thinks, he definitely was not a pluralist, and at the same time he also did some really interesting things, like convene in interdenominational groups to talk about conversion and Israel and who is a jew in the late eighties. He had good relationships with leaders of other denominations. So I’m curious how you see that in his legacy.
Shlomo: One thing that Rabbi Lamm in terms of his relations with jews of different denominations or sub denominations was on the one hand, he was honest and he was very clear when or how he diverged from non orthodox groups and from haredi or ultra orthodox groups. And there are some real controversies and sharp statements that he said over the years, and at the same time, he took an approach, certainly for the non orthodox, even if he wouldn’t legitimate them, he said you know, one should be orthodox, that was his view, he did recognize leadership of the non orthodox denominations. And he found a way to work together, both on the american scene and, elana as you mentioned, on the israeli scene. And with the ultra orthodox community as well in his Torah U’Madda he said there is legitimacy to an approach that rejects any secual studies. So I think he had some degree of pluralism, I think he liked to quote, one of his books titled Seventy Faces, based on the Talmudic saying there’s seventy faces, so Rabbi Lamm used to say there are seventy faces to the torah but that seventy first facet, that that there;s something that’s beyond the pale, so I think he balanced that idea of including on the one hand and also being clear about what he thought was outside.
Avi: I mean you can imagine for someone who has great courage and confidence in his understanding of the jewish tradition, and is also very curious, is always looking to understand more, the way in which these kinds of issues become fraught. Like your two impulses are fighting against each other. I always wanna know more about you know what this person is saying, how they do it, and at the same time, having very strong views about what’s right and wrong, and um when you think about where he got criticism, over time, you know, I have always found criticism from the right, the right wing orthodoxy, haredi orthodoxy, so to speak. He used to get pit all the time, certainly when I was at yeshiva university, like Rabbi Lamm is this centrist orthodoxy, or modern orthodoxy, all the terms he didn’t like, and as opposed to haredi orthodoxy, and it rang hollow to me, because as Shlomo just mentioned, like he saw that as completely legitimate. And not just that, he saw it like you’re dealing with two communities, who are learning communities, you know, curious, engaged in study, like to me when you read kind of his legacy, the antithesis of the Lamm legacy isn’t like right wing orthodoxy or left wing orthodoxy, its people who like don’t care. It’s apathy. Its people who aren’t curious. Its materialism. And this kind of longstanding feud that would be fomented from time to time, seems to like completely ˆmissing the boat. The antithesis of Rabbi Lamm isn’t being haredi, the anthesis is materialism and apathy. And your curiosity takes you where it takes you, whichever community you’re in.
Elana:I thank you all for being on the show today. I actually want to end with just a quote of Rabbi Lamm’s from an interview that he did. From 1990, actually, it’s an interview for the Jewish review on Torah and secular knowledge, because I think it really does sum up some of what we’ve been talking about.
Not only as Rabbi Lamm’s legacy, but also as some of the challenges posed to modern Orthodox identity today, he says, “I should point out that all Torah U’Madda, or Torah and general wisdom is based upon the belief that the world of culture outside of Torah is not necessarily a friend or an enemy, and you must neither dismiss it with contempt and fight it nor embrace it without reservation.
But on the contrary, you have to be both critical and respectful of it. And it is this sort of engagement, which is what we stand for.” And that is, that is not an easy position to hold. And it is not an easy position to articulate for, for the masses, for people who want to have as much passion in their Jewish observance and their total learning as he did.
And yet I think the four of us are people who find that incredibly inspiring and appealing. And whether that’s trickled down to be somewhat different. And some of the face of that has changed. There is no question that that is still a balance that is desirable at the heart of modern orthodoxy.
So thank you so much for being with us to discuss Rabbi Lamm’s legacy and the structures and vision that he left behind.
Thank you everyone for listening to our show. Special thanks to my guests, Tova Warburg Sinensky, Avi Helfand, and Shlomo Zuckier.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, and music provided by Socalled. Transcripts of our shows are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us [email protected].
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