Sunday, July 3, 2016

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, z”l

Cross-Currents by Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein

We note with great sadness the petirah of one of the deans of the American rabbinate, Rabbi Maurice Lamm.

My most vivid recollection of Rabbi Lamm is of the person who firmly put a smug young man – me! – in his place. It was during one of my earlier years in Los Angeles, when I still saw things as sharply divided between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness. The latter, of course, included Modern Orthodoxy, something that I had turned off to growing up in Kew Gardens Hills and watching what happened to my friends. So when I was invited to a community event at Cong. Beth Jacob, the flagship Modern Orthodox shul in Beverly Hills, I had no problem accepting the honor. It essentially meant debating Rabbi Lamm on the merits of large synagogues (we used to call them synagogues with Edifice Complexes) versus the increasingly popular (and much frummer shteibels.

I made my case, and didn’t think I had done so badly. I had walked into a trap, however. Rabbi Lamm rose up to cream me. He made a number of good points that I had not considered, and he was entirely correct. I don’t think he touched my arguments for why people enjoyed the smaller shuls where each person meant more, but his counter-argument was impressive. If you splinter a community into small devotional cells, entire aspects of community life disappeared. Some important activities required a critical mass of people to sustain them. Only larger shuls could deliver them.

To Rabbi Lamm, this was not a question. He understood what fewer and fewer of us today understand: HKBH expects us to give up parts of our individual comfort for the good of the tzibbur.

His challenge to me resonated, and changed me for life. We subsequently became friends. When he published a book introducing Judaism to non-religious teenagers (writing for a vastly different audience showed his great agility as a writer), he asked me to review it for Jewish Action. Years later, his brother Rabbi Norman Lamm יב”ל, then President of Yeshiva University, turned to him to figure out who this Adlerstein guy was. Was he so black as to hate YU and everyone in it?  Rabbi Maurice assured his brother that Adlerstein’s bark was worse than his bite.

The commitment to tzibbur was something that he lived. He was the consummate old-school shul rov. Anything that was important to his flock was important to him – and he did not delegate. He did it all himself.

His sefer on aveilus became and remains a classic. While in circles further to the right halachic detail became the only concern, Rabbi Lamm understood the need for many people to engage the whys and wherefores of what they were living through in their times of tragedy. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning is still the book you want to give to people who want the comfort of context and explanation.

 יהי זכרו ברוך

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