Rabbi Norman Lamm is the figure most closely associated with Modern Orthodoxy. No other writer or orator engaged with the values of the movement—prescriptively or descriptively—more than he. As one of American Orthodoxy’s leading intellectuals for the first half of his career, and as the leader of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution throughout the second half, it could hardly have been otherwise. Surveying his speeches and writings on the subject over those many remarkable decades, we witness repeated and sustained engagement with defining the form and substance of the community he nobly led, albeit with variations on themes and evolution in points of focus (although never wavering in his primary commitments and concerns). And yet, R. Lamm expressed some discomfort and ambivalence about the nomenclature of the community he would come to be so closely identified with, admitting at one point that he uses the name Modern Orthodox “only with the greatest hesitation.” In 1969 he confessed to being “uncomfortable with the title “Modern Orthodox.” There is an arrogance about this assertion of modernity which should give offense to any intelligent and sensitive man. There is no better term that I have found, but I flinch when I articulate the words.”
Rabbi Lamm’s essays on Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy were the subject of our editor Jeffrey Saks’ contribution to the Rabbi Norman Lamm Memorial Volume. Now open-access, read “The Extremes Are More Logical But Absurd.”
Rabbi Lamm critiqued our community for being “too apologetic in explaining and interpreting ourselves to the outside world.” This shortcoming may be a sign of Modern Orthodoxy’s “youthfulness as an ideological movement”:
Merely to describe what we are is not a sufficiently convincing reason for being what we are or for persuading others to acknowledge our rightness and join our ranks. The great problem of modern American Orthodoxy is that it has failed to interpret itself to itself. This failure, which reveals itself in many ways, derives from a remarkable, intellectual timidity which we should have long outgrown.
If we are to be authentic, proud, sincere Modern or Centrist Orthodox Jews, he told us over the course of many decades, let’s get on with it already. What’s needed, to borrow R. Moshe Besdin’s well-worn phrase, is “It, not about it.” R. Lamm first unapologetically explained and interpreted Modern Orthodoxy to itself. Then, through his energetic leadership in thought and action, he showed his intellectual, spiritual, and religious community how to fill that form with substance and meaning.