Norman Lamm's Supreme Self-sacrifice

Rabbi Norman Lamm admitted responsibility - and not guilt, as Samuel Heilman claims - in not reporting abuse allegations, behavior that was completely justified by the prevailing assumptions of his generation.

Samuel Heilman's response ("Better late than never: Rabbi Norman Lamm's courage shames his Orthodox peers") to Rabbi Norman Lamm's letter of resignation as Chancellor and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University reads as a devious attempt to "damn with faint praise".

Heilman believes that Lamm has assumed responsibility for the institution's "failure" in connection with allegations of sexual abuse by faculty of students over a period of decades. Lamm indeed seems to have done so as an act of self-sacrifice for the institution that was his "faith, his vision his dream, his destiny". Heilman also claims that Rabbi Lamm admitted that his decision at the time was an act of "moral weakness and failure." But for this there is absolutely no evidence in Rabbi Lamm's letter. Nor, as I shall argue, was there, in fact, any moral deficiency in Rabbi Lamm's decision nor his resignation letter.

From Rabbi Lamm's reference in his letter to the Biblical character of Judah ("citing Judah's words, indeed we are guilty"), Heilman infers that Rabbi Lamm continues to harbor "feelings of guilt". However, to those familiar with the usage of darshanut (textual explication), it is clear that the story of Judah was invoked simply to show that true leadership requires the admission of having made a "mistake". Indeed a close reading of Lamm's letter reveals the repeated use of non-morally judgmental terms such as "correct", "incorrect, "more correct", "I was wrong". He describes his mental state at the time as well intentioned ("best intentionsdoing good".) The dynamics of Lamm's decision can be reconstructed from the occurrence of these phrases: that he had felt "momentary compassion" [for the alleged abusers] and wanted to give them the "benefit of doubt", while "not fully recognizing what is before you".

What Rabbi Lamm was "admitting" and for which he was doing "tshuvah" (repentance) was more a "sin" of omission - that is, in the light of our greater awareness today of the serious psychological harm done to abuse's victims, there was perhaps more that should have been done beyond dismissal to prevent further harm in the future. Only in this sense can Lamm's decision be seen to have been "wrong".

Every moral decision takes place against a background of live options formed by one's perception of immediate reality and the proximate outcomes of each choice. The moral values and disvalues involved in each alternative must be weighed, compared and a judgment made.

Allow me, as a somewhat older member of Rabbi Lamm's generation and coming from the same milieu and from the Yeshiva world, to describe some of the attitudes and assumptions that prevailed at the time.

a) According to the halachic tradition one must always be highly suspicious of sexual misbehavior between men and women but not at all between males. Hence, allegations of sexual abuse on the part of yeshiva faculty would prima facie be received with incredulity, particularly when the accused are colleagues, respected scholars with no public record of misbehavior.

b) In those days victims and their families were reluctant to come forward, so there was little awareness of the serious psychological damage that had been done.

c) The acts attributed to the accused are usually ambiguous, in the sense that the accused could deny sexual motivation.

d) Aberrant sexual appetites of this kind were considered controllable, so that those accused of a first offence promised to 'mend their ways', the tendency would be to give them a second chance.

e) The Yeshiva University institution had no apparatus by which to fully and fairly investigate such allegations without causing irreparable damage to the accused future and his family.

f) In those days to take the case to the 'authorities' would have achieved nothing except more grief for all concerned, and therefore was not a 'live' option.

So contrary to Samuel Heilman, I do not believe that there was any "moral weakness" in Rabbi Lamm's decision. To Prof. Heilman's condescending conclusion: "Better late than never", I could only say, to use the first words thrown at Moses in the Book of Exodus: Mi somcha le ish saar veshofet aleinu? Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us?

Shubert Spero is the former Rabbi of Young Israel of Cleveland, Ohio and former Irving Stone Professor of Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan University. He lives in Jerusalem.