Memories of a Giant: Personal Recollections of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm tz”l

As I sat with my family and listened to the memorial service for Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm tz”l, I was overcome with emotion. I must have cried at least three or four times throughout the two-hour service. The rush of feelings came, not only because of my deep admiration for this giant of a scholar, but because I was reminded of the moments and personal experiences with which I was privileged to share with Rabbi Lamm. Forgive me, if the stories do not connect neatly but each one profoundly influenced who I am today.

For those you unfamiliar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was the only one to ever receive both ordination and a Ph.d from his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. For almost 25 years Rabbi Lamm served as a pulpit rabbi including 17 years as the rabbi of The Jewish Center on the upper-West Side, where MJE is based. He was appointed the third President of Yeshiva University (YU), saving it from bankruptcy and raising the institution’s stature in both the academic and rabbinic realms. He was a brilliant author and orator and was consulted by world leaders on a myriad of topics and issues. Rabbi Lamm’s many extraordinary books, articles and lectures made him the intellectual spokesperson for modern orthodoxy. As such, I consider the following personal stories nothing less than a rare privilege.

In the first years of MJE, when our High Holiday numbers were more modest, we would join The Jewish Center for the concluding Neilah service every Yom Kippur. It was a nice way of expressing unity on the holiest day of year and also exposing our participants to the modern orthodox community. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, my mentor and the rabbi of The Jewish Center, asked the congregation to sit closer together in order to accommodate the 150 or so MJE participants who would be filling the pews. After a few minutes of shifting seats, everyone managed to find a seat and we were ready to start the service. There was, however, one young man from MJE still walking through the aisles searching for a seat. He was easy to notice because he was about 6 foot 4, had long hair and a ponytail and tattoos up and down his arms. Rabbi Lamm, who was sitting in one of the pews, walked over to the young man and invited him to sit next to him. The young man’s face lit up as he settled into his seat. He had no idea who Rabbi Lamm was, but I watched as the rabbi warmly welcomed the newcomer, showed him the page in the machzor (prayer book) and helped him follow along throughout the entire Neilah service. The sight of the two standing and praying together remains with me until this day.

I remember a comment Rabbi Lamm made to me after I delivered a talk at The Jewish Center on the topic of “Halacha and Extradition”. During the lecture, I shared my research on Israel’s current policy of Extradition and how it pertained to the Jewish prohibition of turning a fellow Jew over to a foreign sovereign. After my presentation, Rabbi Lamm came over to me to give me a yasher koach and strongly encouraged me to keep speaking on topics other than Jewish outreach. “It is important”, he said, “for you to remain versatile and that others not only see you as a Kiruv rabbi”. I have tried to follow that suggestion ever since.
On another occasion, my father and I came to visit Rabbi Lamm in his home to see if he would consider accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award at our Annual Dinner. When I asked him if he would be open to accepting the award, he smiled and said: “I must tell you Mark, I am so relieved. When you called to say you’d like to come over with your father to discuss something important, I thought you were having a family problem, a shalom bayis issue with each other, and that I would have to mediate and help reconcile. I’m very happy not to have to do that”. “Me too!” I responded, “but what about accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award?”. I’ll never forget his answer: “Mark, I’m not sure how honoring me can be of any help but I will do whatever you think is necessary to be of assistance since MJE’s work is absolutely vital”.

I had the honor of having Rabbi Lamm’s grandson, Ari Lamm, as my student in the outreach class I teach at RIETS (Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic School). When I mentioned to Rabbi Lamm how brilliant I thought his grandson was, he smiled and said: “More importantly he’s a mensch, a really good boy”. That mensch, I’m proud to say is one of the rising rabbinic stars in the Jewish community today.

Much has been said about Rabbi’s Lamm’s oratory skill and in particular, his extraordinary vocabulary. I used to listen to his lectures and sometimes hear words I had no idea existed in the English vocabulary. My favorite YU Purim shpiel was a skit in which terrorists (played by a few YU students) captured Rabbi Lamm (also played by a student). The terrorists had Rabbi Lamm tied up in ropes and a bright light shining on his face as they pretended to beat him for information. However, every time Rabbi Lamm divulged something none of the terrorists could understand his elaborate and complicated vocabulary. Frustrated, the terrorists had to keep leafing through dictionary’s but to no avail. Rabbi Lamm’s vocabulary was impenetrable!

My favorite experience though was visiting Rabbi Lamm each year after the MJE Fellowship brochure was published. We named our most important learning program in honor of the rabbi and so I would visit him at his home (usually with one of my children), to show him the MJE Lamm Fellowship brochure and describe the new recruits accepted into the program for that year. I would point to a picture of a student in the brochure and tell him about their life and their interest in learning more about their Jewish heritage. I so enjoyed those visits because I loved watching Rabbi Lamm kvell – he took much joy in hearing stories of young people returning to their roots and devoting hours each week to learning Torah, many for the first time. Rabbi Lamm’s life was all Torah, completely devoted to elucidating and explaining the ideas and ideals of Torah Judaism on the highest level and in the most sophisticated manner. I can’t think of anyone more deserving to bear the name of a program that facilitates and cultivates serious Torah study for young and previously unaffiliated Jews.

May we and all future Lamm Fellows follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, tz”l and in doing so, bring great honor to his memory.

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