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Interview: Rabbi Norman Lamm and the Rebbe

Rabbi Normal Lamm, former head of YU, passed away yesterday, the 8th of Sivan. In 1994 he was interviewed by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, which was printed in his book, Conversations with the Rebbe.

The book is available for purchase Here.

RD: Rabbi Lamm as the president of Yeshiva University, for the last twenty years, I’d like to hear from you your impressions about the Rebbe and Lubavitch. I have heard that you had an interesting meeting with the Rebbe in Yechidus.

NL: Before I tell you about the particular Yechidus let me say from the outset that I am not a Lubavitcher Chasid; however, in general I am very kindly disposed to Chasidus, and I have a special respect and affection for Lubavitch. It does not mean that I am a Chasid, because if I were a Chasid I would accept everything the Rebbe said with no questions asked. It so happens that on almost all major policy decisions I would have disagreed with the decisions of the Rebbe. Yet I considered that he was preeminently the most distinguished, the most important Jewish manhig in my lifetime and probably in the last century, because his contribution to Yahadus was incalculable. I have a great, enormous respect for Lubavitch, not only the late Rebbe, but for the Chasidim too. Their work in the Chabad houses, in every area has been enormous.

I appreciate their openness. Whenever I travel out of the city, I come to a Bais Chabad or a Lubavitcher shul, your people are doing exactly what we did. In other words, in an attempt to reach the people, you don’t throw every chumra, stringency at them. If you have to read a passage with them in English, you read it in English. If they come by car, you don’t ask them any questions because they’re going to ride anyway. You don’t make it a policy you’re allowed to ride with a car, but you don’t make a policy that if you ride with a car you can’t come into my shul. This has basically been our approach all along. Until you have enough people to set up in a community by your standards. I think it’s intelligent. It’s the way things should be done. Getting back to the Yechidus, It was probably in 1956 that I met the Rebbe of blessed memory. It was about the day school we had in Springfield Mass., where I was a Rabbi. We had a day school and there was also a Lubavitcher day school. My concern was that there was competition for a very few students. I came to the Rebbe. I saw him quite late at night, I don’t remember exactly what time. He took a halachic stance, that there is no Hasogas Gvul, infringement when it comes to Talmud Torah. That’s the way it remained. He didn’t order any change. To this day there are two schools that operate separately. I was not necessarily pleased with this decision but I respected it.

RD: You were the principal of the other school.

NL: I wasn’t the principal — I was a rabbi in the community. I felt responsible for that day school because it was the day school that serviced my congregation. Like so many suburban or out of New York day schools, it had quite a number of non-orthodox kids from non-orthodox families whom we tried to bring closer to Yiddishkeit. The same was true of the Lubavitcher day school.

I had tried to effect some sort of unification but it didn’t work. I accepted the Rebbe’s decision, and never held it against him or the Lubavitcher in Springfield, who are still very dear friends, people I like very much, like the Eidelmans.

RD: Were there any personal or philosophical things discussed during the Yechidus?

NL: No.

RD: Were you here in America when the Previous Rebbe came in 1940.

NL: I was a Bar-Mitzvah boy at the time. I was born here. I must tell you that to my recollection, the impact that the Previous Rebbe had was nowhere near as widespread and powerful as the last Rebbe. There were a number of Chassidishe Rebbeim. All of them had a certain amount of prominence, but no one really overwhelmed the public. It’s the most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe who had this tremendously wide influence and brood impact on the Jewish community as a whole.

RD: Can you tell me about your philosophical approach to Torah Umada. I have read your book, Torah Umada and see several ideas that resemble concepts mentioned in Chasidus.

NL: My view of Torah Umada is based largely on a Chasidic concept, the idea of Avodah B’Gashmius. As I write in my book, the Chasidic Gedolim themselves did not approve of science in their generations, but, nevertheless, it follows logically from their premises. I think the Lubavitcher are probably the closest to us in that respect. The Rebbe himself did not forswear advanced secular education. He himself studied in Berlin and at the Sorbonne, and he sent his talmidim here. We have a number of talmidim who were sent here by the Rebbe. If he really thought they should not be exposed to Torah Umada he wouldn’t have let them come within a mile of us. To wit, certain Litvishe Yeshivas. The Rebbe on the contrary — we never considered him anything but a close friend.

RD: You studied with Rabbi Soloveitchik.

NL: Of course.

RD: Did you ever hear from Rabbi Soloveitchik discussions about the Rebbe?

NL: No. He may have had them, but I didn’t hear. I certainly never heard any criticism. I know that later on he went into Crown Heights for a farbrengen. I think he was there also for the Shiva call. It is obvious that he would not have gone had he not had a lot of respect for him. The Rov did not go to other people just like this. He had a lot of respect, I know, for Reb Aharon Kotler of blessed memory, and for the Lubavitcher Rebbe. To say that there was any kind of split between them would have been terribly wrong. On the contrary.

RD: I also understand from some of your writings that you have a specific shitah on orthodoxy. What is your understanding of what the Rebbe has done for Orthodoxy?

NL: The Rebbe did an enormous amount for Orthodoxy. The idea of kiruv that was accomplished by Lubavitch is incredible. I think we were “the first kids on the block” when it came to that. I remember in the 1950’s we had these huge seminars that our Yeshiva founded. Later, because of financial reasons, we had to pull back and others came to fill the void, but Lubavitch acted on its own, separately from some of the others. They have done tremendous good. I applaud them.

RD: What is your position on the upcoming elections in Eretz Yisroel?

NL: I wouldn’t go into that because it is a political discussion, which is more nuanced than you want to hear. I’m not a dove and I’m not a hawk. I feel that a lot of the talk is overblown. We are right before the elections, and we’re not getting an honest opinion by anyone, either by Labor or Likud. I think that whoever wins is going to have to do more or less the same thing. The difference will be only in style, not in substance. I’m not terribly excited about this election, one way or the other. What concerns me more than the peace process in the long run is the Kulturkampf that’s taking place. That bothers me. Here I feel that the real issue is, are we going to be a nation like all the nations, or are we going to be an Am Segulah? That is much more critical for the future development of Am Yisroel and Medinas Yisroel than whether we are going to negotiate with the Arabs with a smile or with a smirk.

RD: Have you yourself attended a farbrengen?

NL: No. I’ve seen it on television but I haven’t been there.

RD: I detect in your writing Chasidus. Have you actually learned Tanya?

NL: Well, I come from a Chasidic background somewhat. My grandfather of blessed memory Harav Yehoshuah Baumol was a very, very prominent Williamsburg Rav, the author of Teshuvah Seforim which dealt with some of the most important halachic problems of World War Two and that period. He himself was not a Rebbe by any means, but he was the first Rosh Yeshiva in Vishnitz when he was 16 or 17 years old. He started the Vishnitzer Yeshiva in Vishnitz. He came from that lineage, from the Tzanzer background.

My other grandfather of blessed memory was an simple person. He was not a Rov, but he was a man who traveled to the Belzer Rov in Lemberg. So I come from Chasidic background and therefore feel very close. What happened was, when I was in college I used to read on my own the history of Chasidus, because of my family interest, and then, after I got Semichah and I decided to go for a doctorate, I did my work on Reb Chaim Volozhiner, which led me of course to Lubavitch and in turn to Tanya. I learned Tanya and Likutei Torah in an attempt to understand the differences between Chasidus and Hisnagdus. You have that in my Sefer on Torah Lishmoh. It is really a story of the growth of Hisnagdus and the relationship between Hisnagdus and Chasidus.

That sefer was printed originally in Hebrew by Mosad Harav Kook, and subsequently came out in an English translation called “The Torah ???”published by Ktav. I can give you a copy if you wish. It constantly refers to Chabad, because Chabad obviously has the most articulate exposition of Chasidus. Almost all the others are Droshos, a good Vort which was said at Sholosh Seudos, which a Chasid recorded. But the leaders of the Chabad movement, they themselves wrote. They wrote seforim directly on Machshovoh, Jewish thought and Divrei Elokim Chaim, (Kabbalah and Chasidus). So here you have it straight, and it is much more systematic, much more organized.

RD: In your analysis of Reb Chaim Volozhiner, do you see a major philosophical difference that led to the split between the groups?

NL: I see a major philosophical difference between the Chasidim and Misnagdim as represented by the difference between Reb Chaim as a talmid of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal haTanya as a talmid of the Magid. The differences are very subtle. Major consequences to the differences, but the differences themselves are very subtle and they go within the same context. It’s not as if one is coming from left field and one from right field. They are in the same context of how you interpret certain elements, in the detail of dealing with the result of Tzimtzum, the contraction of G-d’s infinite energy.

There, I think I’ve discovered the nub of the differences which leads one to transcendence or to immanence, and how they relate to each other. It leaves one with a great deal of respect for both sides.

RD: I don’t really understand the view of the Vilna Gaon, how Tzimtzum is to be understood in the simple sense. He seems to say that Hashem in His true essence left the universe!

NL: This difference goes back even before the Gaon. I’ll give you the sefer in English so that you can better understand where the Vilna Gaon was coming from.

RD: I have seen some Rabbinic graduates of Yeshiva University that have become Conservative Rabbi’s. Is my assumption wrong? I’m not saying it’s rampant. However why is it?

NL: It’s a generational thing. This happened for instance, when I graduated from Yeshiva College in 1949, there were still people, generally on the lowest level of the class, who thought they couldn’t hack it
here, couldn’t make it, couldn’t go into a semicha program that had a Rav Soloveitchik , and they also probably were more economically oriented, so they went to the Conservative movements seminary. This wasn’t only here. I could show you now leading reform and conservative rabbis who come from Torah Vodaas and Chaim Berlin. We always produced more rabbonim, so with us it was more emphatic. I am here president almost twenty years. I don’t know of a single student who went to the Seminary during these last twenty years. I could show you a number of students who came from the Seminary to us. The wheel turns over. It’s a completely different orientation.

Now we have people coming to us from the outside in general. Completely from secular backgrounds. Coming to learn, and many of them become Rabbonim and Rosh Yesivos. Not merely musmochim in pulpits, but Rosh Yeshivos, and some of the finest. So we have people who defected to the conservative movement a generation or two ago. Now we have people who have defected in the other direction, ones who used to be anti-yeshiva becoming pro-, generally associating with the Litvishe yeshivos, but we haven’t had any defections to the left in at least twenty years. A whole different atmosphere.

RD: Would you say that the initiation of the Torah Umada movement would be with the Vilna Gaon’s allowing of certain ideologies that were not in the Jewish community at that moment.

NL: What kind of ideologies did he allow?

RD: When the Haskalah movement came to Russia from Germany, and they began to emphasize teaching Dikduk, Hebrew grammar. I have also read that the Vilna Gaon sent some of the Talmidim to study general secular studies.

NL: It’s true and it’s not true. See, the idea of emphasizing Hebrew grammar comes much before the influence of the Haskalah. It goes back to the Maharal. So does the emphasis on Machshovoh. It goes back to the Maharal, who was really a first-rate educational reformer who was critical of the ??? system. Incidentally, we have now reverted to the system that he criticized. We teach Gemorah and that’s all; you start a boy on Gemorah before he knows how to read Chumash and Rashi, and you put him into pilpul immediately, the Maharal was very upset by it. He was a great educational reformer; that tendency was there already.

What the Gaon did was not to battle the Haskalah, which I don’t think affected him very much directly. It was a generation later that that took place. What he did was, he told his talmidim, that there should be some understanding of mathematics, and therefore Reb Boruch Mishklov writes in the introduction to one of his seforim that the Gaon asked him to translate Euclid from Greek into Hebrew and also told him the famous statement that certain people say is not authentic, but that itself is propaganda. It’s authentic — I’m 100% sure it’s authentic: “When a person lacks one measure of the world’s wisdom, there are 10 measures of Torah wisdom that are lacking.” That is very important for our Hashkafah, philosophical view.

Torah Umada draws in this sense to some extent on the Misnagdic groups and to some extent on the Chassidic groups. It’s simply an attempt to find, from within our own Mesorah, tradition the ability to approach the world in this particular way.

The Gaon was attempting to bring in legitimate Chochmas Haolom, worldly knowledge into the Jewish community, and he had some talmidim, such as Reb Menashe of Ilya ??? who were very important in setting up a different kind of educational system, one which would prepare students more rationally, more intelligently for being able to understand Tanach and Torah Sheb’al Peh, the Oral Torah. I don’t think they were very successful. And I think the reason they weren’t very successful was because the Haskalah came along and radicalized the frum community. If not for the Haskalah, I think naturally the frum community would have come to the same conclusion in a context of Emunah. Once they had to fight the Haskalah, with its excesses, it no longer followed what I would call a natural development, which would have had Limudei Chol in the context of Yiras Shomayim. That threw a crimp into the whole development.

RD: Thank you for your time. Let us meet in Yerusholayim, together with Moshiach.

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