Words of Peace, Words of Truth Part One: Rabbi Lamm Takes Off His Gloves

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One of the first times that I heard Rabbi Norman Lamm speak, he held forth on two different ways that Megilas Esther could be read: as a happy set of coincidences that unseated one court favorite and replaced him with another, and as a remarkable tale of Divine Providence. In keeping with the political realities of living under the thumb of foreign rulers, the former reading had to be made part of the text, even while serving as a double entendre for faithful Jews, who could and would read it according to the latter understanding. Rabbi Lamm opined that the authors of the Megilah made this abundantly clear in their description of the royal advisory sent to the Jews of the realm (Esther 9:30): divrei shalom v’emes / words of peace and truth. The former reading was intended to keep the peace with the Persian authorities; the latter reading was the unvarnished truth.

Much of Rabbi Lamm’s career has taken the form of speaking both shalom and emes at the same time – often frustrating those who wished to see more of one than the other. In a recent interview about the future of American Jewry in the Jerusalem Post (May 11), Rabbi Lamm tilted heavily to the emes side.

“With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements…Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture.” The demographic handwriting has been on the wall for a while, but public figures have had to look the other way. Rabbi Lamm dared say what many of us have felt for a long time, but is decidedly not PC to repeat publicly in the presence of boosters of the heterodox denominations.

What should be instructive to those of us who would have had no problem making the same statement ten years ago, is Rabbi Lamm’s insistence on not making triumphal hay of his pronouncement. The words with which he began – “with a heavy heart” – should be a model to all of us who interact with Jews outside the Orthodox community. Perhaps he will get away with the severity of his pronouncement precisely because he almost always resists the opportunity to be triumphal. He repeated the need for humility a few moments later. Outreach to Reform and Conservative Jews is a good thing, “but not by watering down what we believe and not by demonizing them either.”

One can only hope that Orthodox Jews on both sides of the centrist Orthodox/ haredi divide can agree with his assessment of the upshot of the rise in importance of Orthodoxy, and can agree both in principle and concretely: “The future of American Jewry is in the hands of haredim and the modern Orthodox. We have to find ways of working together.”

Rabbi Lamm did not shy away from criticizing the Orthodox community, as well as the non-Orthodox. He decried the general that’s-not-our-job attitude too prevalent in all parts of the Orthodox world. If we won’t be involved in the issues that affect us all as a people, others will speak for us. “The people who have normally been speaking on behalf of Jewry have been secular and are not concerned with the Jewish religious point of view. It was a mistake for religious Jews to shy away. As a result, the ADL and the American Jewish Committee, who don’t always have believing Jews on their staff, have dominated.”

(Into every interview a little rain must fall. I have to take exception to one line of the interview. Reacting to a question about ordaining women, Rabbi Lamm said that he opposed it, but that his reservations were “social, not religious…Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later… I am not a prophet.” I believe that this dilutes the strong halachic and hashkafic case against ordination, in terms of the issur of serarah, issues of tzniyus, and the need to entrust halachic determination only to those who have had many, many years of near full-time immersion in Gemara and Rishonim, something that women have in fact not at all “just come in to.” The reasons they haven’t – at least one of them – will be considered in the next part of this post.)

I have not had time to confirm the story that the recent AIPAC convention was abuzz with discussion about the interview. One report had it that the interview was mentioned and at the podium, and seen by the non-Orthodox speaker as lamentable. He took comfort in the fact that not all of the Orthodox had written off the other denominations, pointing to two individuals in attendance who are prominently indentified with the Orthodox far-left. It would have been asking too much, but I wish that Rabbi Lamm would have added one more item to his list of topics to be honest about. As long as he is going to have to take flak from his detractors, he should perhaps have made a clean sweep of things, by spelling out why some institutions and individuals on the Orthodox left look at things so differently from the rest of us. He could have explained just why the Orthodox center, and even parts of the left – reject the Orthodox far- left. It would have been far more effective than coming from people who are right of religious center. Perhaps we will hear more from him in the future.

I’m not so disappointed. The entire job of addressing the emes-deficit cannot be expected to fall on his shoulders. A good start to exposing the deficiencies in halachic thinking on the far left was made by my friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Broyde in the new issue of Tradition (available online only to subscribers) that was received last week. It will be the subject of the second part of this post.

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30 Responses

  1. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    To all concerned:

    Professor Sarna gave me the following source: Sergio DellaPergola and Uzi Rebhun, “American Orthodox Jews: Demographic Trends and Scenarios,” JEWISH ACTION 59 (1998), 30-33.

    I haven’t been able to find a copy on the net. If someone finds it, please post.

  2. mycroft says:

    “To Mycroft & Mykroft:”
    Obviously both are me-I must have once misspelt my pseudonym and when I type my name after the first letter I click on choices-my obvious mistake.

    My comments have been based on the obvious great losses of Orthodox Jews from 1970-2000-with the great fertility the numbers were essentially flat during the 30 year period. Thus, losses. You make fun ofOrthodoxy before 1950-essentially none of their children intermarried-now it is not unheard ofeven for those who went to day school/Yeshiva for 12 years. The level of that intermarriage is as great as the general intermarriage rate in 1920 which was BEFORE DAY SCHOOLS.

  3. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    To Mycroft & Mykroft:

    I just read Sarna’s article; it’s not the first time he’s predicted Orthdoxy’s doom. I did, however, ask him for a source for his assertion that, ” According to demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it [orthodoxy] loses more of its members over time than any other Jewish religious movement.”

    I’d love to see what he actually said. In a previous piece, Sarna stated that Orthodoxy lost half its membership between 1950 and 1970, a time when it was supposed to be flourishing. This is a perfect example of a meaningless statistic. If he was talking about those who affiliated Orthodox, he could very well be correct. However, in 1950, the overwhelming majority of those who affiliated Orthodox were not personally observant. That non-observant portion failed to replicate itself with its children, and so they died out. However, what was left was a far more observant core, and that has been growing.

    If I get an answer and go back to the source, I’ll let you know.

  4. mykroft says:

    I believe that Prof Sarna’s critique of R Lamm is an important one to discuss. In a nutshell Prof Sarna’s points are as follows:
    Orthodox Judaism has trouble retaining its followers; We are sadly missing the great Gdolim of the mid-late 20th century; American Orthodox Judaism is losing a great amount of its best to Israel; divisions within Orthodox Judaism; and the huge “financial crisis”
    For each of Dr. Sarna’s points I will write a brief comment to each.
    Certainly, it is I think universally accepted by cross-current readers that we unfortunately don’t have gdolim of the caliber of R A Kotler , R M Feinstein, R J B Soloveitchik -but as much as we miss them- have their institutions disappeared- My impression is that BMG in Lakewood had roughly 200 talmidim when Rav Kotler was niftar-now my impression the figure is in the thousands, we certainly miss the beloved posek Rav Feinstein but how many become frum because of him-he was very important and missed but on a sociological basis as to number of frum Jews-probably not vital, my impression that Maimonides in Boston does not have fewer students since Rav Soloveitchik passed away-and are their fewer students learning in YU We miss them all-but from a Sarna perspective not a Torah perspective their loss should not be of major impact.
    The “brain drain” to Israel is probably not too crucial in gross numbers-I believe we’ve averaged between 2000-3000 thousand total olim from America the past 40 years-some have returned to the US. The numbers are just not there-and sadly with the Iranian threat etc-aliyah will probably not increase from the US.
    The faction division has been there for decades-but most by birth or geography have little to do with the other “faction”-the debates are between partisan ideologues-most are working and living in a kehilla-if they get dissatisfied they will likely leave yahadus not try other factions.
    The financial crisis is not new for Orthodox Jewry. Somt Jews are effectively forced out of Orthodox Jewry because of cost-Prof Waxman in Flipping Out see eg around page 195 discusses the cost aspect as a barrier to Jewish community-published way before the current “financial crisis” and certainly due to the nature of Jewish publishing it was certainly written before current “financial crisis”

    “Orthodox Judaism in America has had trouble retaining its members”
    It is sadly trivial obvious that we have had difficulty retaining our members-not to say others have been better but we haven’t had the success that often appears in some articles or PR pieces.
    Looking at the fertility rate of Orthodox Jewry in the past few decades and combining with the numbers of Orthodox Jews that essentially have not increased in the past few decades it is obvious that something is drastically wrong. How much of that is due to the cost factor to being eligible to be part of the Orthodox community which currently requires day school education and how much is due to an increasing elitist academic requirement to stay in Orthodox day schools-Marvin Schick is one of the few who has written about that-we sadly are not accommodating to the average-and thus many if not welcome will take the superhighway away from Orthodoxy.
    I will note in passing that sadly the intermarriage rate of those who had 12 or more years of day school education has reached the general intermarriage rate that was in the US before Torah Umesorah -1944 which coincided with the great increase in number of day schools. Of course, for those who are not welcome in day schools-because of academic ability or finances-intermarriage rate would increase greater than those who finished day schools..

    It is likely that many who read Cross Currents disagree with Prof Sarna-I wish some would come forward and answer his arguments

  5. MYCROFT says:

    For an interesting critque of Rabbi Lamm’s hyppthesis see the May 27 article by Professor Jonathan Sarna at Forward.com

  6. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    To be clear I never intended to suggest that the left wing of Orthodoxy is “Conservative in practice.” That simply is not true, neither in deed nor in creed. In fact, failing in religious praxis can be found in all segments of Orthodoxy. There are many many yeshivish looking men who fail to daven every day just a many Modern Orthodox men do, and many chareidi women who fail in the test of tzniut by dint of tight form fitting clothes in contra-distinction to MO women in pants. The recent popularity of web sites catering to “frum” people interested in lifestyles best termed scatological is evidence of that.

    What I meant by Orthodoxy’s left wing are those who dare to ask certain tough questions about religious outlook; who might be intellectually attracted to Louis Jacob’s theses (for example), or who have little interest in limud Torah beyond the rabbi’s weekly sermon. Or those who remain in the Orthodox fold simply out of intertia, apathy, family/social pressure or any combination of those and other variables. They are the ones who now find them denominationally homeless. There is no room for them in Orthodoxy any longer.

  7. Nathan says:

    “There will be additional charter schools and they will eat further into non-Orthodox/Modern Orthodox enrollment, and more critically, into the Judaic commitment of their students.

    The Solomon Schechter system will continue to erode, reflecting mainly the astounding decline of the Conservative movement that not long ago was heralded as American Jewry’s largest.”

    SOURCE: Paid advertisement from Marvin Schick, titled: Our Two Tuition Crises, 2009 May 22, the Jewish Week, page 14, http://www.mschick.blogspot.com

  8. Raymond says:

    I never understood the need for non-Orthodox forms of Judaism in the first place. Organizations like Chabad and Aish HaTorah do more than an adequate job in reaching out to unaffiliated and/or non-Orthodox Jews. The mistake that the non-Orthodox movements have made, is in their position that the traditional, Torah way of life is not even a goal to strive for in the first place. All is permitted. But if that is the case, then nothing is being accomplished by affiliating oneself with those non-Orthodox movements. They have no meaning.

    I do think, though, that there is room for something called Jewish culture, culture created by Jews of whatever stripe, that includes exactly the kinds of things that gentile culture includes, things like literature, music, art, psychology, history, and so forth. Reading the works of Isaac Singer or Franz Kafka or listening to such popular Israeli singers as the late great Ofra Haza may not make me a more religious Jew, but that is not the goal of these creators of art in the first place. I want Jewishness to be more than just studying the Torah and doing its Commandments. Put another way, I echo the sentiments of Dennis Prager, who has often said that G-d is interested in more than just religion.

  9. DF says:

    A little sense of perspective, please. It took about 800 years for the Karaites to die out completely. The talmudic rabbis debated the status of Kuttim for hundreds of years. And, of course, though small in number, there are still Samaritans yet today. So, any discussion over the death of Reform, (regardless of how that prospect is viewed) is very premature.

  10. yeshaya says:

    If, as some commenters have suggested, many MO are actually Conservative in practice, I think this is a good thing, and we need more of it. Of course it would be better if they were more observant. And I’m not saying it’s good if, Heaven forbid, the actual leadership of MO shuls encourages lax observance or kefirah. But if Orthodoxy is really going to dominate, it’s got to incorporate everybody, including people who are never going to get around to becoming completely observant. This is the Sephardic way — no matter how observant you are and no matter what you believe, you affiliate Orthodox.

  11. cvmay says:

    The question that Rabbi Lamm poses regarding ‘who will speak and act for the Jewish community at large’ – has largely been ignored. Any ideas anyone? Does the Torah community have the desire, ability and reassurances to do so?

  12. lacosta says:

    sadly ,every blog i saw where the story was covered, r lamm was routinely disparaged by haredi commenters. MO is as anathema to the haredi world as all other heterodoxies….

  13. Nathan says:

    Dear ReJewvenator,

    In recent decades, Conservative Judaism congregations in New York City have been closing down and/or becoming Orthodox. I witnessed this sevral times. A large CJ synagogue near where I live has about 200 people for Shabbat morning prayers, but 99% over age 55.

    Michael Steinhardt, a Jewish philanthropist, found that
    Orthodox Jews are 50% more likely to volunteer their time
    to Jewish causes.

    While 14% of Orthodox Jews contribute more than $5,000
    to Jewish charity, only 2.8% of the Conservative and
    1% of the Reform do so.

    The Orthodox do so despite carrying school tuition bills
    often in excess of $50,000 per year.

  14. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    Why focus on names? No matter what it’s called, there will always be a school of thought which considers Halacha malleable and will seek to adapt it to the contemporary ethos. That which Zecharias Fraenkel started in Breslau, cannot be undone simply with the demise of JTS in New York or the Conservative synagogue infrastructure. The general rightward shift in Orthodoxy will probably render it wholly unwelcoming to that ideology.

    At the same time, that righward shift is alienating many heretofore Orthodox Jews. Concepts like Da’as Torah, along with the inability or perhaps unwillingness of the rabbinic establishment to form a cohesive response to the scandals that plague the Orthodox community, the focus on trivialities like public entertainment rather than trying to deal with new realities, all serve to force the conclusion of many marginal Orthodox Jews that they are no longer part of the mainstream Orthodox body politic. They may be culturally Orthodox, but are no longer considered truly so. The loss of a serious Conservative alternative leaves those people denominationally homeless. It will be that combined vacuum, populated by former committed Conservative Jews and disenfranchised Orthodox Jews from which a new movement will arise.

  15. Ori says:

    Tzippi: And yet something in me disagrees. Because for a Jew there is some element of coming home, and something essential (as in, essence); this is not so for most non-Jews.

    Ori: What I wrote is that essentially Heterodox Jews are the same as gentiles. That is grand heresy, and goes against everything the Torah says. You couldn’t be Orthodox if you didn’t disagree.

    Yet culturally, that is precisely what is happening. There is a Halachic difference between Jane Smith (intermarried Jewish mother) and Judith Schumacher (intermarried Jewish father). But they are raised exactly the same and go to the same Reform religious school. There is some difference between them and Janice Sinclair, a friend in high school who doesn’t go to any religious service, but not a great one.

    If you want to attract Jane, you have to attract Judith and Janice too. Maybe it will result in Jane deciding she wants to be Jewish. Maybe it will result in Judith, or Janice, deciding they want to be Jewish (and they’ll convert).

  16. David N. Friedman says:

    Regarding the handwriting on the wall, Reform will continue to have a lot of members and even as they spread through intermarriage, they will insist that they are Jewish and their numbers will continue to be very large. Rejewvenator has much of it right about the Conservative movement, adding the understanding that Conservative Jewry has lost a lot of its most committed members to Orthodoxy, specially a growing number of Modern Orthodox shuls.

    The schism will endure and it is not at all one in which the Orthodox will soon dominate and the liberal heterodox movements will largely disappear. The liberal wing of the Orthodox world is significant and it is easy to see that many Orthodox shuls are populated with what would be called Jews who act as Conservative Jews. The playing field has merely shifted. A normal Reform Jew of my youth is more likely to be comfortable in a Conservative shul today. A Conservative Rabbi of my youth would be an Orthodox or MO Jew today. The Orthodox are winning demographically by having more offspring who are much more likely to stay in the fold.

    There will be simply, by the numbers, a rightward shift in the Jewish population into the future but the division of Jew v. Jew will remain in an altered demographic.

  17. tzippi says:

    Ori, I take what you have to say very seriously. And yet something in me disagrees. Because for a Jew there is some element of coming home, and something essential (as in, essence); this is not so for most non-Jews.

  18. Ori says:

    Tzippi: So (ok, maybe I’m going back to hand one) how to attract the disenchanted?

    Ori: If Judaism were a missionary religion, how would you go about attracting non Jews? Whatever you come up with will be the way to attract the Heterodox too.

  19. tzippi says:

    Like Tevye, I need some extra hands.
    On the one hand, as long as Jews affiliate Jewishly, they are that much closer to something resembling authenticity, and maybe the spark will somehow be ignited. Once they cease to affiliate, where will they go? To the nihilism of Buddhism, that offers some spiritual appeal? Will people want such a sense of community that they will be vulnerable to anyone who lovebombs well? I sense that that’s where some of Rabbi Lamm’s pain comes from.

    On the other hand, with each generation, there is less and less of anything Jewish. Some years ago I read an article by a reform rabbi cum baal teshuva who had never heard of carrying on Shabbos! Now, not only is there ignorance but the social agendas – egalitarianism and gay rights, e.g. – are so entrenched within the movements themselves.

    So (ok, maybe I’m going back to hand one) how to attract the disenchanted? There have been a spate of articles about independent minyanim (and some great gibberish from a conservative spokesman about how the minyan men and women are motivated by the same fine roots of the movement they can’t hack anymore). From what I’ve read, I have to wonder how appealing observant Judaism is due to accepting said principles as articles of faith, and considering any opposition to said articles no better than bigotry.

  20. rejewvenator says:

    @Nathan if 28 years ago you saw there was no future for C and R, and the future is here and so are the C and R movements, weren’t you wrong 28 years ago? Might you still be wrong now?

    Everyone keeps looking at this right-to-left spectrum and seeing C Jews moving in two different directions. That is a mistake. There is not a continuum, a line – there’s a 3-d space. Committed C Jews growing up in the C movement are creating entirely new forms of combination. They are hard-core egal, and fully accepting of homosexuality in laity and clergy. They openly engage in premarital sex, but they are more stringent about kashrut in non-kosher restaurants. They are shomer-shabbat to MO standards, pretty much. They embrace learning while accepting the DH. They find their greatest religious expression in social justice that is universalist, and their relationship to Israel is characterized by their love for the concept, their disappointment over the ongoing conflict and the costs all sides have borne, as well as a sense of alienation over how the state’s religious apparatus has rejected them.

    That’s a whole new brand of Judaism, and even though it’s the product of the C movement, it is still in its adolescence and refuses to affiliate with its parent. But it is a growing movement, and an attractive movement. It would be a mistake to lose sight of it. Change is here for the American Jewish community. We are living through revolutionary times, and these old modes of thinking, regardless of your ideological position, are not applicable too these new realities.

  21. Bob Miller says:

    As long as some Jews want to have their cake and eat it, too, there will be movements supporting that wish. However, lately, fewer and fewer Jews are attracted to the middle ground between genuine Judaism and thoroughgoing secularism. The secularists, of course, are vanishing off the Jewish map, too.

  22. Moishe Potemkin says:

    I believe that this dilutes the strong halachic and hashkafic case against ordination, in terms of the issur of serarah, issues of tzniyus, and the need to entrust halachic determination only to those who have had many, many years of near full-time immersion in Gemara and Rishonim, something that women have in fact not at all “just come in to.”

    The only quibble I have with Rabbi Adlerstein’s quibble is his reference to the strong halachic and hashkafic case against ordination. A case exists, to be sure, but Rabbi Lamm is qualified to disagree with Rabbi Adlerstein as to whether those arguments are in fact compelling.

    [It’s not a quibble. I fully agree. I’m sure that Rabbi Lamm could marshall such a case. I did not use the definite article to connote exclusivity, but to point to a specific set of arguments I had in mind. Thanks for the corrections – YA]

  23. cvmay says:

    “If we won’t be involved in the issues that affect us all as a people, others will speak for us”.
    The last few years we have imported the hanhagoes, hashkafos and minhagim from Bnei Brak/Yerushalayim to the shores of the USA. That is a discussion of its own…..together with the Charedei cultural moras of Eretz Yisroel comes the political attitude and outlook of insular & narrow issues that concern that particular sector. There is no anguish over events that “affects us all as a people” SINCE we have not yet reached the point of believing/honoring or respecting each other as a people.

  24. Jewish Observer says:

    It should also be stressed that the main problem with triumphalism is that it belies our lack of “lishmah”. If our whole purpose is kiddush shem shamayim why should we feel good when others fail? If anything, we should measure success by how many C and R Jews become O.

  25. Loberstein says:

    Rabbi Lamm visited my home town of Montgomery,Alabama about fifty years. He was invited by our YU rabbi, Rabbi Aaron Borow. I was very young but I remember a parable he told.The short version is that there was a debate between a Karait and a frum Rabbi in front of the Czar as to which form of Judaism is true. The rabbi started by telling the Czar that he surely recalls that Moses was told at the Burning Bush to take off his shoes. Why is there no mention that he put his shoes back on, because a Karaite snuck up and stole the shoes. The Karait rebutted that this is a lie as there were no Karaites until millenia later. Aha, said the rabbi, this proves my case.
    It is the greatest compliment to a rabbi that a kid actually remembers his speech 50 years later. It applies to this situation also.
    Conservative Judaism must metamorphisize into something else if it is to survive. In its current form, it no longer appeals to its intended constituancy. Orthodoxy has changed, Reform has changed, maybe Conservatives can find a path that is authentic and soul nourishing and become a more totlerant liberal type of orthodoxy or it can become closer to Reform by ordaining gay rabbis, replacing halacha with “covenental Judaism” and becoming about the same as Reform. One choice that is not available is staying the same. Maybe it will split and some will become frummer and some will become reform.

  26. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    I must disagree with Rabbi Lamm. Reform has been able to reinvent and transmogrify itself numerous times in the past 150 years, and will do so again. The movement is presently growing, even if it does so by diluting itself, and can pull that off indefinitely. Whether or not we will be able to consider Reform Jews as one with us is another matter. With regard to the Conservative movement, if it is dying, it’s because we have absorbed its more traditional wing into organizational Orthodoxy. But don’t celebrate, yet. The Conservative minions who now identify themselves as “Orthodox” to a very great extent are practicing the same Conservative Judaism they grew up with. And if we look on our left wing, we will find more than enough kefira and apikorsus that is identical to what the Conservatives preach. Except now, we can no longer possul it on the grounds that it is “Conservative.”

    Welcome to the brave new world.

  27. Benjamin E. says:

    I assume that is meant to be ironic, Nathan?

  28. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    Personally I was surprised and amazed by R. Lamm’s comments. They are completely out of character for his public persona. Privately, he has made such statements, but rarely if ever publically.

  29. Nachum says:

    I remember R’ Lamm giving us a talk once (in YU) where he said that decades ago, he was part of the “better dead than Red” school of thought on this issue: Better be unaffiliated than Conservative or Reform.

    As the years went by and he saw the alternative, he accepted the idea that it might be better for Jews to be part of the non-Orthodox movements than nothing at all. Hence, I suppose, his “heavy heart,” and I can definitely see his point of view here.

    R’ Adlerstein, a question: Would you say that R’ Lamm may have a halakhic basis- which may be right or wrong, and with which we are free to disagree- about womens’ ordination? As to learning…men are ordained every day who’ve only learned, at most, twenty five years or so. There are certainly women out there today who’ve learned on the same level for a similar amount of time.

  30. Nathan says:

    When my best friend and I were 18 years old, we clearly
    realized that Reform and Conservative have no future.

    That was 1981, and in the 28 years since then,
    nothing has happened to change that opinion.