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.