Commentary

Rabbi Norman Lamm and His Crusade for the Jewish Home

Norman Lamm
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Editors’ Note:  This is one of three articles in a Lehrhaus series in honor of Rabbi Norman Lamm’s ninetieth birthday, observed on December 19, 2017. In addition to Zev Eleff’s essay, we also invite you to read Lawrence A. Kobrin’s and Tzvi Sinensky’s contributions.

Zev Eleff

Sometime in the 1960s, Rabbi Norman Lamm delivered a lecture to The Jewish Center’s Young Marrieds Club. By his own account, his Upper West Side audience of twenty-somethings offered a “cordial and approving reception,” convincing Rabbi Lamm that he ought to publish his remarks on the merits of marriage and family purity.

In short order, Rabbi Lamm’s best-selling Hedge of Roses emerged as the go-to text for Orthodox marriage counselors, rabbis and young people. The book championed the “purity of the Jewish family” and its responsibility for the “perpetuation of the House of Israel.” Its author looked to the Orthodox Jewish home as a sanctuary from an “environment where the breakdown of family life becomes more shocking with each year.” For Rabbi Lamm, then, the home was more sacred, perhaps, than the synagogue.

His notions apparently resonated. Feldheim Publishers printed six editions of the short tract. The family purity manifesto was also translated into French, Hebrew, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Rabbi Lamm’s focus on the Jewish family endeared him to a generation of Orthodox young people that sought out a theologian and pastor to make sense of their changing American climes. These women and men were the first cohort of Jewish day school graduates. Owing to different backgrounds, their religious observance and intellectual expectations varied from their parents’ way of life. They were eager to encounter a more sophisticated discussion and guidance on issues that mattered to them. These included Communism, Cold War politics, and Civil Rights.

Yet, none of these themes dominated Rabbi Lamm’s sermons and writings more than family life. His concentration on the family is also striking for its socially conservative bent. On other religious matters like liberal education, Zionism, and interfaith dialogue, Rabbi Lamm held a centrist position, neither fully in line with the rightward Agudath Israel stance, nor the leftward point of view espoused by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, among others.

The Jewish home was different. Rabbi Lamm’s domestic conservatism bespoke a rigidness intended to keep Orthodox Judaism apart from a rapidly changing postwar American culture. His views fit neatly alongside other traditional-minded religious leaders of that age.

For Rabbi Lamm, the home represented a constant, an anchor of religious authenticity that permitted serious-thinking Orthodox Jews to responsibly experiment with ideas like Zionism and liberalism without loosening their foothold in religious traditionalism. The family was therefore the singular monument in Jewish life that could not change one bit, no matter how much modernity nudged it to move in that direction.

Tradition and Family

The challenges to the traditional family did not begin in the 1960s. Declining birth rates, increased instances of divorce, and more complex modes of sexuality loomed in American life long before the 1960s and the Sexual Revolution. Historians Riv-Ellen Prell and Rachel Gordan have shown that this was the case for Jews in the United States, as well. Nonetheless, the Sixties increased the commotion as social scientists tabulated steeper inclines and declines in directions that concerned—often terrified—advocates of the traditional family, Orthodox Jews included.

They also worried about the new environs of the American family. The untested suburban frontier and more upscale urban neighborhoods frightened Jews of all stripes. These places were beyond the supervision of the “old guard.” There, religion could take on many hybrid forms. Expectations about social interactions and relationships were also placed on unsteady ground in these locales. For instance, Benjamin Steiner has shown that “radical” measures taken by Conservative leaders on behalf of agunot were motivated by concerns over the state of the postwar Jewish nuclear family.

Orthodox Jews were also deeply troubled by the moral values and religious ethos of the so-called crabgrass frontier. On occasion, Orthodox educators and rabbis indoctrinated their students with these fears. Here are the sentiments of a member of the Torah Vodaath High School Class of 1955:

But even in America Jews have and still are spreading out in remote cities and villages, thereby losing contact with the core of Jewish life which had been established in New York. In these small towns they are at present falling prey to the rapidly gaining Conservative movement and are forgetting the principles and ethics for which their parents and grandparents forfeited their lives a mere decade ago.

These feelings did not halt Orthodox migration to the suburbs. Nor did remaining in older neighborhoods prevent the permeation of family and sexuality discourse. Instead, many Jews—Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform—cautiously settled into their new environments, constantly reminding their coreligionists of the traditionalist ethic learned from their immigrant, urban experiences. Orthodox leaders were especially committed to this social conservatism. They were compelled to fashion a rhetoric that “inoculated” their followers from the perils of a less prudish postwar American society.

Rabbi Lamm on the Family

Rabbi Lamm claimed that all of this was stirred by a maelstrom of cultural subjectiveness. It defied the Orthodox religious instinct to search for order and remain obedient to a system of Jewish law. Rabbi Lamm therefore viewed it as his mission to stymie the so-called New Morality and its doctrine, as he once defined it: “all that really counts in human relations is that the relations be human; that no relationship ever be such as to hurt or offend another and that, on the contrary, the purpose of all activity be the entry into ‘meaningful personal relationship.’”

For him, the 1960s had ushered in a corrupt code of ethics, a “misguided cult of moral mediocrity only barely redeemed by its ethical motif.” Orthodox leaders agreed that their flocks were less tethered to traditional sensibilities, ideas that, as an ideal anyway, most rabbis had taken for granted. Rabbi Lamm figured that it behooved his trendy West Siders to listen to these lessons, knowing that many of them encountered these forces, or might end up under the heavier influences of the “sophisticates of suburbia.” Their Judaism, he reckoned, was far stronger if their homes conformed to a traditional ideal.

From the Pulpit

The major challenge to reach the rank-and-file was to create a more compassionate and less aloof Orthodox pulpit. Years after departing The Jewish Center pulpit, he recalled the state-of-affairs at the well-heeled congregation. Sermons and classes at The Center, he alleged, did not touch the personal and sensitive chords that Rabbi Lamm aimed to address.

The synagogue “was a very stuffy place when I got there,” he remembered in the 1980s. Rabbi Lamm’s response was to furnish a more welcoming atmosphere, to discuss the social issues that mattered most to an up-and-coming generation of Orthodox Jews. “I tried very hard to warm it up a bit,” he explained, “without sacrificing the attractiveness of formality.”

Focusing on the family offered that down-to-earth feel. His crusade on behalf of the family was evident. One of the five sections in Rabbi Lamm’s first collection of sermons was dedicated to “The Family.” There, he defended the “Jewish Mother,” chastised the detached “Jewish Father,” and railed against modern impulses to lighten up on child rearing. In May 1969, he fired lots of brimstone at Philip Roth and his new novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth’s sexually provocative novel transformed him into an American celebrity, a notion that gave The Jewish Center’s famed pulpiteer great cause to shut him out of the congregation’s unofficial reading lists

His efforts extended beyond The Jewish Center. Rabbi Lamm tried to do the same for the young people who encountered him at Yavneh intercollegiate programs at Columbia University, his frequent keynotes at Orthodox Union conventions, and in the classrooms of Yeshiva College.

Publishing a Message

Rabbi Lamm spent significant time writing on these matters. Perhaps his most important contribution on this score was on behalf of the Rabbinical Council of America and its organ. In the second issue of Tradition—a journal he founded in 1958—Rabbi Lamm defended the mehitzah. The seating configuration of the synagogue was crucial for Orthodox Jews. It represented one of the emerging points of division between theirs and the Conservative congregations. Orthodox advocates had expended much energy arguing for the mehitzah’s importance vis-à-vis Jewish law. Rabbi Lamm rehearsed these points, but his message, in the main, concerned the “social and psychological” aspects of separate synagogue pews.

The synagogue was a place for intense retrospection and holiness. Mixing the sexes was counterproductive. To him, “as long as men will be men and women will be women, there is nothing more distracting in prayer than mixed company.” Instead, separateness, at least in the synagogue, was a means of negating the raging cultural influences of the world beyond its walls. It was a means of controlling the “frivolousness” and “bashfulness” that stood in the way of a sincere religious encounter with God.

What is more, Rabbi Lamm felt compelled to rebut the popular Christian adage: “The family that prays together stays together.” For him, the home was the appropriate place to cultivate family togetherness:

During the week each member of the family leads a completely separate and independent existence, the home being merely a convenient base of operations. During the day Father is at the office or on the road, Mother is shopping, and the children are at school. At night, Father is with “the boys,” Mother is with “the girls,” and the children dispersed all over the city—or else they are all bickering over which television program to watch. And then they expect this separateness, this lack of cohesion in the home, to be remedied by one hour of sitting together and responding to a Rabbi’s readings at a Late Friday Service! The brutal fact is that the Synagogue is not capable of performing such magic.

He therefore called on Jews to take advantage of their domestic realms to fix the ills of American family life. The synagogue’s role—one of them anyway—was to inspire its worshipers to transport its messages to everyday home life. This was a lesson that Rabbi Lamm preached regularly from the pulpit.

Beyond Modern Orthodoxy

His reach also moved past his own Modern Orthodox enclave, stretching into the Orthodox Right and, in a very different direction, the general American Jewish public. In the pages of the Agudath Israel monthly, Rabbi Lamm expressed astonishment over the breakdown of the American family. He dismissed Hippies and Yippies of distorting priorities of love and marriage. He also blamed American Jewish groups, particularly the non-Orthodox.

In line with the Agudah mission, Rabbi Lamm—not at all a card-carrying Agudist—cautioned his Orthodox colleagues, no matter how much they wanted to maintain good relations with their Reform counterparts, that they could not dismiss the “havoc wrought by Reform when it abandoned Jewish marriage law” (way back, in earnest, in the 1860s). He feared the loss of a values-centered foundation established by the guidelines of traditional Jewish marriage. To Rabbi Lamm—italics included—this, accordingly, was “probably the most irresponsible act in the recent annals of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Lamm’s domestic conservatism also engaged the women and men who subscribed to the Encyclopedia Judaica yearbook. In the 1974 edition, Rabbi Lamm reinforced his views on homosexuality first articulated in a 1968 article in an OU magazine. In step with other religious leaders of conservative faiths at that moment, Rabbi Lamm pushed back against progressive Christian groups’ reinterpretation of Leviticus 18:22.

Many Happy Returns

In December 2007, the Yeshiva College student newspaper dedicated space to celebrating Rabbi Lamm’s eightieth birthday. Aptly titled, “Happy Birthday, Rabbi Lamm,” the editorial was meant to offer an honest accounting of the newly minted octogenarian’s legacy, of a Jewish leader who understood that satisfying everyone was not an option:

Creativity was his mark, and it led to both cheers and boos. He took original positions that made him a hero for many and possibly too original for others … His conception of Torah u-Madda has comforted many, while appearing elitist and impractical to others. Undaunted by conventionalism and critics from inside and outside Yeshiva, Rabbi Lamm has always made sure to be candid with his thoughts and remarks, and never too shy to offer comments to which he knows that some will scoff.

Ten years later, Rabbi Lamm is ninety and we might draw a different lesson. Most central to Rabbi Lamm’s Orthodox creed were aspects of Jewish life that he had long ago tied to the home and family. Whether his 1960s conceptions of this theme jibes with modern sensibilities is besides the point. This was how he earnestly and boldly expressed religious authenticity to his congregants and young followers. That conviction earned him much respect. The rest was just commentary.

Happy birthday, Rabbi Lamm.