Rabbi Lamm's Resignation - Honourable, or Too Little, Too Late?

Six months after Forward Magazine wrote a damning expose of allegations of child abuse by staff members at Yeshiva Universty's High School in Manhatten - Rabbi Norman Lamm, President of YU, has resigned.

Rabbi Lamm's rather long (6 pages) resignation letter, in which he "acknowledge[s] that [medical?] conditions have caused me to rely on help from my family in writing this letter" 
also addresses the minefield of Rabbi Lamm's (mis-) handling of allegations of child abuse.

And it is to this I turn as I contemplate my response to allegations of abuse in the Yeshiva community. At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived. I understand better today than I did then that sometimes, when you think you are doing good, your actions do not measure up. You think you are helping, but you are not. You submit to momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what is before you, and in the process you lose the Promised Land. I recognize now that when we make decisions we risk, however inadvertently, the tragedy of receiving that calamitous report: tarof toraf Yosef, “Joseph is devoured,” all our work is in vain, all we have put into our children has the risk of being undone because of a few well intentioned, but incorrect moves. And when that happens—one must do teshuvah. So, I too must do teshuvah.
True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong. I am not perfect; none of us is perfect. Each of us has failed, in one way or another, in greater or lesser measure, to live by the highest standards and ideals of our tradition — ethically, morally, halakhically. We must never be so committed to justifying our past that we thereby threaten to destroy our future. It is not an easy task. On the contrary, it is one of the greatest trials of all, for it means sacrificing our very egos, our reputations, even our identities. But we can and must do it. I must do it, and having done so, contribute to the creation of a future that is safer for innocents, and more ethically and halakhically correct.

Biblical Judah was big enough to admit that he was small. He confesses a mistake. He can experience guilt and confront it creatively. After the incident with Tamar, he does not offer any tortured rationalizations to vindicate himself. He says simply and forthrightly: tzadkah mimmeni (Gen. 38:26), she was right and I was wrong. And with that statement Judah is transformed into a self-critical man of moral courage. He concedes guilt. He knows that he is guilty with regard to Joseph, and together with his brothers he says aval ashemim anachnu, “indeed, we are guilty.” Pushed to the limits of the endurance of his conscience, he rises to a new stature and achieves a moral greatness that is irrefrangible and pellucid.

This is what I am modeh as I reflect on my tenure. Tzadkah mimmeni. I hope that those who came forth and others who put their trust in me will feel that faith vindicated and justified. Modeh ani.

(You can read the full text of the letter here: http://www.jta.org/2013/07/01/news-opinion/norman-lamms-resignation-letter-from-yeshiva-university#ixzz2YN1GlFHZ

On the one hand - I admire Rabbi Lamm for admitting he erred, and in resigning. This is the honorable thing to do. For an 85 year old with a towering career in Jewish education and institution building, this is a very humiliating way to retire. There are many other rabbonim and community leaders who zig-zag and evade responsibility for mishandling child abuse allegations - they would do well to follow Rabbi Lamm's example.

On the other hand...

1. Rabbi Lamm couches his apology in analogies to the biblical Judah. In effect, declaring his admission of error to be itself heroic. "Moral greatness".

With all respect to Rabbi Lamm - the commentary could be left to others.

2. Rabbi Lamm admits (modeh) to doing the wrong thing (but only in retrospect) while claiming to have had the best of intentions at the time, such as "compassion" (presumably for the alleged perpetrators).

Rabbi Lamm does not apologise to the boys, who are now men, whose lives were devastated by the abuse from his staff.

A direct apology from Rabbi Lamm to those who paid the heavy price for his mishandling, and a sincere request for their forgiveness, would help fix the wrong he did and bring some measure of healing/solace to the victims.

3. Rabbi Lamm doesn't actually clearly spell out what he did wrong.

As far as I'm aware, the main "ill-conceived" mishandling was that Rabbi Lamm (eventually) sacked Rabbi Finkelstein, after Rabbi Lamm's studious inaction during many years of receiving consistent complaints, and Rabbi Lamm then enabled Rabbi Finkelstein to take up a position as dean at the Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Fl., with free access to hundreds of children.

I appreciate the argument that has been used in Rabbi Lamm's defence that "things were different" in the 1970 and 1980's, when most of the alleged abuses apparently took place, than they are in 2013.

However, in the field of child abuse, the main progress in the intervening decades has been in better understanding the effects of childhood trauma on the life of the child.

I was a schoolboy in a Christian all-boys Public school in England during those years, and it was pretty obvious that a teacher found to be behaving inappropriately with the pupils would be sacked and (to the extent possible) prevented from teaching elsewhere.

Common sense, whether Jewish or Gentile, hasn't changed much between 1970 to 2013.

Furthermore, it was only in 1995, after decades of complaints, that Rabbi Lamm agreed to sack Rabbi Finklestein. It's hard to argue a different value system was in vogue in 1995 than it is today.

4. There has been no transparent enquiry or investigation of the cases of Rabbis Finkelstein and Gordon - and who knows who else.

After the Lanner debacle, the OU undertook such an investigation, by objective third parties, and with a mandate to set out policies to ensure (in Rabbi Lamm's words) "the creation of a future that is safer for innocents".

Rabbi Lamm has not (to public knowledge) ensured that the YU of tomorrow, will be any safer than the YU of yesterday.

So - Rabbi Lamm has done the correct thing by resigning.

However, as Rabbi Lamm knows full well, Teshuva is a multistage process:
Vidui - Confession, full and sincere
Making Good - fixing the broken
Cessation of Sin - stopping the behaviour.
Spiritual Cleansing - to the point that one wouldn't do the same sin again.

With Rabbi Lamm's pen apparently being held by his relatives, and his self-glorifying admission, smudging on the details of his failures, his omission of a direct apology to the victims of his mistakes and his failure to appoint an investigative third-party committee - mean that Rabbi Lamm's claims to be doing genuine teshuva are weak.

It even raises the (otherwise unthinkable) possibility that Rabbi Lamm had been put up to resigning, not out of genuine regret, but in order to avoid legal or other complications for Yeshiva University.

I am not asking Rabbi Lamm to humiliate himself.

I am disappointed that such a luminary as Rabbi Lamm has fallen short (again) of the ideal.


  1. First, what evidence do you have that he hasn't apologized to the people involved? Do you expect his public statement to include all details of his private correspondence with people involved?

    Second, in the past 10 years there's been a huge and evident turnaround in the attitudes in the YU world towards abuse. Why is this turnaround not credited to, among others, Rabbi Lamm? Certainly YU as an institution has changed their behavior in more recent similar circumstances.

    Third, a person's mistakes are as big as their endeavors - the only person who can be sure of never making big mistakes is a person who never does anything big. Rabbi Lamm deserves commendation for his statements.

    1. Hi DovK

      1. This is a public letter by Rabbi Lamm. I would not expect him to name the victims or reveal other confidential information. I would expect him to relate to and apologise to the victims as a group in this letter.

      2. Things are better at YU: So let Rabbi Lamm write how important child protection is to him and YU - what new measures they've introduced and how much safer children are today than previously. In short - we sinned, we fixed it. He doesn't say any of that.

      3. It is true that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. When a great man makes even a common error, the repurcussions are larger. Sometimes the repercussions are so large that "you lose the Promised Land". In Rabbi Lamm's case, I believe his many achievements still stand - along with his failings.

    2. But this is not a letter or article about abuse. This is his farewell letter as he resigns. It includes very brief overviews of what he clearly sees as the big issues of his tenure. He doesn't elaborate on any of the points he makes, rather he's clearly selecting the biggest points to briefly mention as he steps down. The fact that he chose to include the abuse and his feelings of regret is as much as can be expected in a forum in which big things are all only mentioned and put into a context.

    3. Asher Lipner, Ph.D.26 July 2013 at 22:05

      1) That his apology was couched in his long resignation letter and not the separate statement it deserves speaks volumes. That it took the Forward expose to get a long overdue apology, (social norms did not just change last week) makes it appear suspiciously like celebrities who apologize not for bad behavior but for getting caught. There had been many opportunities SINCE 1995 to apologize after victims came to him and told of their suffering.

      In contrast, Yehuda could easily have stopped his shameful sin from public eye by destroying Tamar's life, but chose to confess publicly without any Forward expose.

      2)There has not been a single example given of a change in YU's policies or behavior. Not a single incident of allegations of sexual abuse by a staff member, dorm counselor or student, in which YU has either called the police or the media to warn the public of the danger.

      And they still have not publicized Finkelstien and Gordon's danger to children in Jewish communities where the Forward does not reach, including in Israel, where the predators currently reside.

      3) While he may not have been sufficiently aware of the damage to young boys of being used as sex objects by their rabbis and teachers(did he think it was GOOD for the boys?),the pressure to keep quiet put on the boys by the administration was inexcusable at any point in time. Likewise keeping in place rabbis with such behavior as role models of spiritual living.

      4) As for a private apology to the survivors, or details of the "acting with the best intentions but being wrong", YU's lawyers who vetted his letter, would never allow that, once the Forward reported that the victims had retained a lawyer.

      In addition to his Mea Culpa, does still need to apologize to the victims publicly, because he shamed them publicly by enabling the whole community to ignore their suffering, forcing them to go public.

      5)He also needs to make amends to the families of the victims, the parents and students whose well-being he put at risk, the Yeshiva for tarnishing its reputation, and to the Jewish community for the public Chillul Hashem he created.

      6) The most important problem with his apology is that he gave excuses and denied exhibiting any fault in character, or righteousness, saying it was all done with the best intentions but with poor understanding of the problem. If he would speak to the responsibility of institutional leaders to change priorities from putting the institution's fund raising needs and their own personal image before that of protecting individual's basic human rights that would be a Kiddush Hashem and inspire a positive change in the way Klal Yisroel does business.

      The victims certainly felt insult added to injury by any excuses he gave at all.

      They would have been better served had he followed the example of Joe Paterno, also of old age and infirmity, after being ingloriously fired from his lofty leadership role, for similar behavior.

      His only public comment to explain the meaning of what had happened, contained no excuses or explanations, but was simply:

      "I should have done more."

  2. Didn't Rabbi Lam permit the Gay pride club in YU? David's wrong he is not a little late he is a lot late. Rabbi or no Rabbi there should be zero tolerance for this behavior. He should have known better.

  3. Resigning at age 85, without making full confession let alone any sort of apology, or doing any of the necessary work at restoring mental health in the preyed-upon, molested students is a no-brainer. Lamm is preparing to die, to meet his Maker. He's fully aware that he holds lots of aveirot on his record. He took the coward's way out with superficial behavior disguised as deep, meaningful and clerical teshuva. It is a page out of tractate Gitin, and the story of the carpenter's apprentice.

    The debt-ridden carpenter borrowed cash from his apprentice, and sent wifey to collect the funds - in the days when women NEVER went in public alone for fear of rape. She didn't come home after 3 days. Hubby finally decides to search for her at the apprentice's home. The apprentice gives a baloney story that she took the cash - but rumor has it that she was raped by locals on the way home. Neither man had gone to her aid while the woman was allegedly "missing." The fact of the matter is that she'd been hiding from the hubs - unmolested - at the apprentice's home all this time. The apprentice advises hubby to divorce his ruined wife. He does. Then he pours wine for the apprentice's marriage to the new divorcee - in total servitude for the unrepaid loan. There's more to the story, but I've made my point. NONE of these men, no matter how much they presented themselves as tzadikim under unusual circumstances, measured up to the standard of simple decency. Hubby endangered his walking-alone unprotected wife (or pimped her to the loan-giver) while engaging in suspect biz practices. The loan-giver cons wifey into considering him her savior, then cons the debt-ridden boss into making marriage material with her. End of story: HaShem seals the decree to destroy Bet HaMikdash as the 1st husband's tears fall into a wine cup he is pouring for his creepy employee.

    Lamm, like the characters in the story, is no saint. He messed up knowing full well what H' and halacha required from him. And now he wants us to consider him saintly. I'm not buying the story.

    1. geez have none of these accounts, so I am responding as anon2. Your reply is brilliant and on the mark, and the others involved in this issue, either personally or "halachkially" should take note, I applaud you. (i have none of the listed accounts to make myself less anonymous, although i would. Kol Hakavod.

  4. David - It looks right you are correct in your assertion that there is a lawsuit in progress:

  5. http://www.timesofisrael.com/former-students-sue-yeshiva-university-for-380-million/

  6. I found this via a link on "Frum Follies". EXCELLENT post!

    We have become so jaded by the (in)actions of "gedoylm" who never admit any mistakes or failings that we rightfully look at Rabbi Lamn's admissions with great admiration.

    But, only by the low standards we've become used to is that so. It's a terrible failing by YU.

    The OU? Did it handle the Lanner affair well? I guess it depends by what you compare it to. It's certainly a shame that the OU keep R.Belsky on the payroll while he even to this day defends the indefensible (Kolko).

    Who/where are the good guys?

  7. https://frumfollies.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/the-forward-and-yu-are-colluding-in-claiming-rabbi-norman-lamm-is-mentally-competent/


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