Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was Yeshiva University’s president, chancellor, and head of its rabbinical school, announced his retiral earlier this week. You may have seen the headlines which concentrated on his admission that (in the 1980s) he did not deal well with allegations of sexual abuse.
His resignation letter included the following:
“…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.”
I admire the man’s honesty. I also understand the media focus on the sexual abuse part, because (sadly) that sells. However, for those of us prepared to consider all his message in that retiral letter, there is much that is humbling, and inspiring.
I offer the following extract as an example:
“And finally, a prayer for my family, my students, my colleagues, and my friends: Learn from my experiences, both positive and negative, to achieve success with grace and to face failure with dignity, to be prepared for the extreme periods of life’s challenges without hubris or despair, and never to stop hoping and expecting better news and better times. Above all, learn the importance of commitment to great and noble ideals even when it hurts and disappoints, but to trust that ultimately it will all prove worthwhile. I pray that you will always strive to live morally upstanding and spiritually fulfilling lives, marked by abiding loyalty to the principles of Orthodox Judaism, to Torah Umadda, along with respect for all people who honestly follow the dictates of their own beliefs and conscience even when such do not accord with your own deepest commitments, and to combine your love of God and Torah with love of all humans created in the image of God.”
Rabbi, you can go with your head held high. Thank you for these wise, kind, and caring words. May they truly be an inspiration to others. (There are one or two people holding the post of Rabbi who would do themselves a power of good if the followed your example.)
The whole letter is available here. Read it.