The Tradition of the Lamm and the Fox

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The Tradition of the Lamm and the Fox
Zev Eleff

Sometime during the summer of 2005, Rabbi Norman Lamm dialed my family’s home line. My father answered it and handed me the phone. I had prepared for this moment. A few days earlier, I had called his office to request an interview with R. Lamm on behalf of the Yeshiva College student newspaper. His longtime assistant, Gladys Cherny, noticed the nervousness in my voice. She offered to call ahead before patching me through to R. Lamm. That would provide me with ample time to compose myself. I thanked her for that courtesy, confessing that I had recently fumbled through initial encounters with other prominent Modern Orthodox figures, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Hershel Schachter. I was determined to get it right this time around. Gladys laughed and reassured me once again. 

The strategy did not work. Gladys wasn’t on the other line. R. Lamm called directly from his home. It was a Sunday morning and R. Lamm wanted, so he claimed, to get a head start on his workweek schedule. The real reason was that another matter had come up which conflicted with my scheduled interview. R. Lamm had agreed to my meeting and was determined to keep his commitment. Sunday morning was his only available timeslot. 

The conversation carried on, much better than I had originally feared. R. Lamm was very personable. His candor made it near-impossible to suffer discomfort in his presence. Gladys reminded me of this exchange a couple dozen times as I visited with R. Lamm as an undergraduate. She rehearsed it one final occasion before my exit interview with R. Lamm when I completed rabbinical ordination. In response, I explained to Gladys that it was the “idea” of R. Lamm that had overawed me. 

This is because R. Lamm’s legacy is multivalent. Since he passed away on May 31, R. Lamm’s family and disciples have marveled at his scholarly breadth. For instance, R. Lamm wrote a pivotal book on Mitnagdim and followed that up with an award-winning tome in Hasidism. He published traditional talmudic novellae and a lengthy dissertation on the theological implications of extraterrestrial life. He authored the most well-used manual on family purity and the most oft-cited eulogy for Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He wrote the most essential essays on Modern Orthodox Judaism and then, deciding to rebrand, furnished the formative piece on Centrist Orthodoxy.

The linchpin of Rabbi Lamm’s oeuvre was Torah scholarship. He had declared his position in unequivocal terms as a sophomore at Yeshiva College. “The leaders of a religion and nation cannot be built by a heterogeneous mixture of Latin, basketball and Varsity shows,” he had written in in the student newspaper in November 1946, “with a dash, here and there, of the teachings of the basic doctrines and spirit of that religion.” The undergraduate Norman Lamm described traditional Torah learning as the “heart of Orthodoxy.”

A young R. Lamm shortly after the launch of his journal, Tradition

Each memoirist points to R. Lamm’s creativity and self-discipline, qualities that held him in very good stead as rabbi of The Jewish Center in Manhattan and president of Yeshiva University. These attributes also figured prominently in his other endeavors as a leader and writer. One of R. Lamm’s first initiatives was an idea for a journal for “Jewish Thought.” He ended up calling that publication Tradition

Launched in 1958, Tradition benefited from R. Lamm’s originality. More important, however, was his resolve. The correspondence included in the Marvin Fox Papers at Brandeis University reveals much about R. Lamm’s determination, that self-discipline that many others have pointed out in their descriptions and memories of Rabbi Norman Lamm. 

Orthodox leaders started several journals during the 1950s. They were motivated by the earlier initiatives by American Jewish elites such as Rabbis Robert Gordis and Samuel Dresner of the Conservative movement. The Orthodox reckoned that such projects were useful to help jumpstart a renaissance amid allegations that their community was stuck in a rut, mired in, what sociologist Marshall Sklare described as, institutional and intellectual “decay.”

The most ambitious attempt to cultivate a class of Orthodox public intellectuals was the brainchild of R. Norman Lamm and Prof. Marvin Fox. Prof. Fox was an important Jewish philosopher, first at Ohio State and then at Brandeis. He was a leading scholar of Maimonides, long before Jewish studies was fashionable in academe. Both men shared a vision of elevating Jewish ideas through mentoring young scholars and writing in an accessible manner for general readers. 

Their bond moved the effort along. The Rabbinical Council of America agreed to house the publication and provide some financial support. The RCA made it clear to the determined editors that it was up to them to get the journal off the ground, to “win the active cooperation of the truly creative minds in orthodox Jewish circles.”

Many years later, R. Lamm recalled much of the same. As the spiritual leader of Congregation Kodimah in Springfield, Massachusetts, he operated near R. Dresner of Congregational Beth El. In 1955, R. Dresner had led a successful effort to revive the short-lived journal, Conservative Judaism. R. Dresner and other Conservative leaders leveraged a religiously pluralistic spirit in the 1950s which, to combat the “secularists” in charge of the Soviet Union, embraced sophisticated thinking on so-called Judeo-Christian values.

This and other intellectual enterprises animated R. Lamm. “We Orthodox had nothing but Jewish Life [an Orthodox Union magazine], which had no essential gravitas, and was not a serious intellectual journal,” wrote R. Lamm in an unpublished memoir. “It was an embarrassing situation. I mentioned it to the late Rabbi Solomon Sharfman, who was then President of the Rabbinical Council of America. He immediately appointed me chairman of the RCA Publications Committee—a tried and tested method of getting a pesky young trouble-maker off your back—and instructed me to remedy the situation as best as I could expecting, of course, that nothing would come of the issue.”

Prof. Marvin Fox (1922-1996)

The lack of support portended the challenge of recasting Orthodox Judaism in a 1950s American religious milieu. R. Lamm continued forward, despite the incredulousness. In December 1956, R. Lamm enlisted Rabbis Emanuel Rackman, Bernard Lander, and Marvin Fox to serve on the editorial team. Each member sported dual “Rabbi-Dr.” credentials, apart from R. Lamm who would later earn his Ph.D. from Yeshiva University in 1966. There was, however, an important distinction between the founders and the editors they aimed to recruit. R. Lamm was in his late-20s and Prof. Fox was thirty-two years old. The other two men were a half-generation older and far more professionally established. 

The two scholars did not know one another before embarking on the journal, at least not well. They started out addressing one another formally as “Rabbi Lamm” and “Professor Fox.” But by the end of the preserved correspondence they were “Norm” and “Marv,” coordinating vacations with one another and concluding their long letters with updates on their young families. The warmth and comradery shared by the two is evident at the end of a long memo written to Prof. Fox in November 1958, shortly after the appearance of the first issue of Tradition: “Excuse the verbosity. Whenever I’m tired, overworked, and tense, and find myself at a typewriter writing to a friend, I let go like a yenta to a shecheiniste.”

R. Lamm’s and Prof. Fox’s youthful spirit augured well for their determined effort to deny the naysayers. Yet, it also presented several problems for their initiative. First, the pair lacked the credibility among the Orthodox to mobilize a movement. Early on, R. Lamm told Prof. Fox that “you are the only other real editor I have. The others just have titles.” He urged Prof. Fox to remain with him, understanding that the editorial labor was significant and committee cooperation would be good to maintain a certain level of rigor. Or, as R. Lamm put it: “I don’t like one-man journals.” 

On some occasions, R. Lamm was prepared to resign: “Marv, I’m sorry I ever took this damned job as Editor,” he confessed. “There just isn’t enough talent around, and I haven’t got enough time to do all this work. Besides which, yourself of course excluded, I have no one on the Editorial Committee.”

The pair also encountered a shortage of interested writers. Both believed that Orthodox Judaism possessed worthy scholars and presumed that a periodical was all that was needed to attract their attention. Several Orthodox thinkers—Prof. Alexander Altmann, for instance—had found a hospitable home in the earliest volumes of Judaism and did not feel overly compelled to supply R. Lamm’s more narrowly-targeting Orthodox journal with his publications. 

The material, then, was sparse. The duo rejected several manuscripts because of the “inferior literary quality of the articles.” For one of the accepted submissions, R. Lamm complained that “insofar as footnotes are concerned, each and every one needs checking. In reviewing references to Rambam and Talmud only, I found I had to correct 3 of every 4!” 

It was apparent to the team of editors that the most significant author they could draft to write for Tradition would be Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In April 1957, their letters testify to a tag-team effort to prod the Rav to submit a manuscript, and that he had “given them his official permission to start ‘nudging’ him for his own contribution.” Their efforts paid off, but only in time and during the tenure of R. Lamm’s successor. Ultimately Tradition would serve as the home for some of R. Soloveitchik’s most important English essays, the most significant, of course, being “Confrontation” and “The Lonely Man of Faith.” 

Compiling the first installment was an exasperating chore. Owing to this, R. Lamm wrote to Prof. Fox and the other members of the editorial board: “You are aware, no doubt, of one of our main problems: dearth of good writers who have something to say. Because of this fact, we must rely on our Editorial Committee to contribute articles and reviews as well as their editorial advice and work.”

Making matters worse, the journal’s sponsors were reluctant to provide long-term investments. The financial limitations and dearth of substantive submissions meant that the journal first appeared semiannually rather than quarterly, as it does now. Throughout the earliest stages, R. Lamm struggled to win over the cynics among the RCA. “They’re saying we’ll never do it,” he wrote to Prof. Fox. “I tell you that with God’s help we will. But, to get it done before the millennium is over, some action is required. Hence, action.” 

The appearance of the first issue in the autumn of 1958 did not totally mollify the concerns of the doubters. “After much wrangling, Yeshiva University agreed to sponsor the journal for half or more of its expenses,” R. Lamm reported, “but that YU’s name would not appear as the cosponsor—at least not for the present.” 

The editors persevered because of their friendship—R. Lamm compared their bond to the biblical David and Jonathan—and a sense of youthfulness that helped forge a singular vision. They also relied on a formula that appeared to benefit other faith groups. Their work aimed to cultivate a circle of “orthodox intellectuals” but aspired to remain accessible to a broader readership. By this, R. Lamm meant that he would not be “bothered by the lack of footnotes. There is no law,” he continued, “that every article we publish must be completely documented and annotated. We are not issuing a scientific or academic journal.” 

Notwithstanding these challenges, the strategy worked. The appearance of the first issue “must have made a good impression,” surmised R. Lamm. He reported that Yeshiva president “Dr. Belkin, originally the great pessimist who wouldn’t associate Yeshiva’s name with a probable failure, has now let it be known that he ‘would not object’ to announcing Yeshiva’s co-sponsorship.” 

The tone of articles in the four years of Lamm’s editorship were marked by a sophistication of topic and research and an accessible form of written expression. The editors solicited articles that matched the tenor of the times. These included “Secular Civilization at an Impasse,” “Jewish Ethics and Self-Psychology,” “Koheleth and the Modern Temper” and “The American and the Jew.”

R. Lamm’s several contributions redounded to the self-confidence of the burgeoning group of young tradition-touting elites. The contemporary stylings of the journal also led the editors in search of ample doses of polemic, mostly to unseat Conservative Judaism as the best positioned religious movement to negotiate Jewish tradition and modern life. R. Lamm, by then associate rabbi of The Jewish Center, penned lengthy articles in opposition to mixed seating in the synagogue and changes to the traditional religious marriage contract. Moreover, by naming the journal Tradition, for example—also under consideration were names like Traditionalist, Ideas, Reflector and Moriah—R. Lamm had in mind a “sacred task of reinterpreting to our fellow Jews the divinely given Tradition.” 

The opposition returned the theological volley. For example, Rabbi Morris Adler of the well-heeled Conservative-affiliated Shaarey Zedek in Detroit railed against R. Lamm and his journal, claiming in the pages of the Jewish Spectator that the inaugural issue had demonstrated the “wrong way” and an altogether lack of “honesty and integrity [extended] to those who seek to reinterpret the tradition.” The criticism emboldened the Orthodox editors. R. Lamm welcomed the “all-out-attack,” believing that he was duty-bound to turn away his religious opposition.

R. Lamm remained at the helm until 1962 when he passed the reins to Rabbi Walter Wurzburger. R. Lamm continued to publish articles in Tradition—typically less polemical than his early contributions—and endured as a guiding force for rigorous Orthodox-styled scholarship. 

In fact, he reused his 1950s formula—to develop talented scholars and provide readable substantive material for laypeople—three decades later. It was by and large a top-down approach, to empower thought-leaders to expand their scope and identify the necessary vehicles to reach the broader public. As president of Yeshiva University, he conceived the Orthodox Forum to “mobilize the most creative talents of our community to provide thoughtful and comprehensive direction to those who look to us for leadership.” 

By then, R. Lamm was far more sanguine about the state of “Orthodox Jewish Thought.” Much credit is owed to R. Lamm’s and Prof. Fox’s uncanny determination, the hallmark for a vision to propel an unforecasted Orthodox comeback in American Jewish life.

[Click here to enlarge images.]

Zev Eleff is chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College and associate professor of Jewish history at Touro College.

[Published on June 7, 2020]


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