Better late than never: Rabbi Norman Lamm's courage shames his Orthodox peers

By Samuel Heilman (Ha'aretz)
July 4, 2013

The resignation of Rabbi Norman Lamm from his positions as chancellor of Yeshiva University and its rabbinical school cannot come as a surprise to anyone. Although still vigorous and clear-minded, at the age of 85, Rabbi Lamm has earned the right to hand over the reins of leadership to someone of another generation – even though it will be very difficult to find someone who can serve both as a moral leader, Torah scholar, and Jewish public intellectual with an advanced university education who embodies modern Orthodoxy as does Rabbi Lamm.

Had Rabbi Lamm simply taken his retirement with a general letter of farewell and a kind of Mosaic charge to those whose job it will be to continue to lead the institution in which he has spent the greater part of his life, his departure would have been noteworthy - but not nearly as meaningful as it actually turned out.

That is because in his leave-taking, Rabbi Lamm chose to take responsibility publicly for his failure to take to the authorities allegations that some of the rabbis teaching at Yeshiva had sexually abused young boys in their care, an omission that could have spared more pain and suffering. In an interview published in The Forward at the end of last year, Lamm confirmed that no law enforcement officials were ever notified, despite “charges of improper sexual activity” made against staff “not only at [Y.U.’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school…If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly. It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.”

In his resignation letter, Lamm admitted: “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.” He went on to say: "I understand better today than I did then that sometimes, when you think you are doing good, your actions do not measure up." His admission may lack the full force of his well-known eloquence, but his reference to and implicit comparison of himself to the Biblical Judah - citing Judah's words, “indeed we are guilty” - makes abundantly clear that Rabbi Lamm feels similarly guilty for his moral weakness and failures in the past. To say so at a time that he might have simply taken his well-deserved bows before heading off into his sunset years makes him worthier than had he said nothing.

But Rabbi Lamm’s willingness publicly to admit his failures and responsibility for his past actions is newsworthy as well not only for the courage and moral stature that it displays but also because it stands in such stark contrast to many of his counterparts in the Orthodox world who have also been identified as having failed to make the right choices but who appear to insist on denying their responsibility for their moral failures.

Take as an example the leader of the Claims Conference, who for years was also head of the Orthodox Union. At the Claims Conference, lower-level staff perpetrated a fifty-seven million dollar fraud involving the theft of Holocaust restitution funds and were convicted at trial earlier this year. Being chair of a probe at the time of the fraud and now the organization's head, he might have been expected that he take overall responsibility; but unlike Rabbi Lamm, he has simply declared that “Somebody dropped the ball…My conscience is totally clean on the role I played.”

Or take another example, the modern Orthodox rabbi and academic who served as a judge or dayan on the Beth Din of America, who admitted to using a false identity to write and comment on essays and blogs and to join closed email discussions of rival rabbinical groups, even endorsing his own writing. Caught in his fraud, he was forced to take a leave from the Beth Din. He apologized but, as he said in an interview published in Haaretz: “I don’t understand the issue. That’s the truth,” disregarding the Jewish concept of “genevat da’at,” stealing trust or deception. His transgression, he said, was “a technical untruth, so I guess you can call it lying.”

There is also the case of a prominent rabbinical dean in Rabbi Lamm’s own Yeshiva who was reported to have warned rabbis about the dangers of reporting child sex abuse allegations because it could result in a Jew being jailed with a black inmate - or as he put it “a shvartze” - who might want to kill him; and has refused to reveal the name of another dismissed faculty member accused of abuse. Yeshiva University itself condemned the rabbi’s use of “a derogatory racial term” as “inappropriate, offensive, and do[es] not represent the values and mission of Yeshiva University,” but where is the rabbi’s own personal apology?

True, Rabbi Lamm’s admission of moral failure is overdue. Had he resigned and made his statement when first confronted in public about his initial failure to act more properly, he might have claimed the highest moral ground. But compared with his peers and others - who have not even begun to accept that they have not acted with the integrity we expect of those who claim the mantle of leadership and the high ground of religious orthodoxy - Rabbi Lamm deserves to be praised. Better late than never.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and specializes in the social ethnography of contemporary Jewish Orthodox movements.