Lessons Learned From Rabbi Lamm’s Last Letter

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann
President, Hebrew College
July 3, 2013

LammI was an undergraduate and rabbinical student at Yeshiva University in the early to mid-1980s. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was the university’s president. YU was beginning to emerge from a crippling financial crisis, and Rabbi Lamm was leading the revitalization of modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution. As a student, I did not always agree with his policies or positions on a variety of issues, but his dignified demeanor, his embodiment of the integration of Torah and secular knowledge (mada) and his ability to balance the complex and often competing needs of the yeshiva and university commanded my respect.

In many ways, Rabbi Lamm was a role model for me. He took a Jewish institution of higher learning from the brink of financial collapse and resuscitated it, ushering in a new era of institutional growth and prosperity. He was a rabbi and intellectual who mastered the art of administration in a complex, contentious environment. He valiantly held the center from devolving into the extremes that pulled from each side.

It was, therefore, sad to read that Rabbi Lamm, Yeshiva University’s chancellor, rosh hayeshiva and former president, recently resigned. It was certainly not surprising that at the age of 85 he would step down from his official, mostly honorary, post. The sadness comes from the fact that he leaves Yeshiva in the aftermath of a sexual-abuse scandal that he admittedly mishandled decades ago when I was a student there. I know the rabbis who were accused of sexual misconduct with students, and I was shocked to learn of their unconscionable conduct and the way the YU administration, including Rabbi Lamm, inappropriately responded to the abusive behavior and swept the atrocious actions under the rug.

In his lengthy letter of resignation, Rabbi Lamm acknowledged his mistakes and publicly declared his need to repent, to confront his sins.

“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 . . . True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong . . . We must never be so committed to justifying our past that we thereby threaten to destroy our future. It is not an easy task. On the contrary, it is one of the greatest trials of all, for it means sacrificing our very egos, our reputations, even our identities. But we can and must do it. I must do it, and having done so, contribute to the creation of a future that is safer for innocents, and more ethically and halakhically correct.”

This letter, though honest, self-critical and compelling, cannot heal the wounds caused by the lack of moral leadership. Perhaps his love of Yeshiva, which is so powerfully presented in his letter, blinded him to the human tragedy that demanded moral courage even at the cost of institutional vulnerability. As my friend and colleague, the Rev. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton Theological School, has articulated, we need theologies of institutions that seek to preserve and enhance the image of God that is inherent in every human being. We need to preserve the ethical standards at the core of religious commitments, and we need to place the love of God’s innocent children above our institutional loyalties. This is a lesson all of us who lead religious institutions need to learn.

Rabbi Lamm accomplished much in his illustrious career. He taught me a great deal about leadership through his achievements and mistakes. And even in his final farewell to his beloved Yeshiva, he reminds us of the tragic flaws of human leadership and the awesome responsibility that we must shoulder.