In the Room Where It Happened

The Rabbi Lamm sermon I read this past Rosh Hashanah was, unsurprisingly, very good. That’s actually not the grade I gave it; mine was an A. Rather, it was R. Lamm himself who said the following in a note typed at the end of the sermon: “This sermon was given at MAIN SERVICE on RH II 1961. Was very good, though I’ve given better. Can be given at AUXILLIARY SERVICE on RH 1962 i.y.h.” [please God].

A bit of background — about 15 years ago, Yeshiva University created the Lamm Heritage Archives in honor of R. Lamm’s 80th birthday. It contains, among other things, the original typescripts and some handwritten notes of hundreds of sermons he delivered, before he assumed the presidency of YU, while he was a congregational rabbi at the West Side Jewish Center (1952-53), Kehilat Kodimoh (1954-58), and the Jewish Center (1958-1976). (Note: I had a lengthy email discussion and exchanged research with R. Lamm’s grandson-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Sinensky, in which we definitively established the dates of R. Lamm’s tenure at the West Side Jewish Center on West 34th Street, which should not be confused with his later tenure at the better-known Jewish Center on West 86th Street.)

I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Lamm, a truly outstanding darshan — homilist — preach live at the Jewish Center more than a few times. Thus, when the Archives first appeared, I decided to print and read a different sermon each Shabbat and yom tov, a practice I still follow.

In 2020, Rabbi Sinensky, the current director of the Archives, was instrumental in redesigning it to be more user-friendly. In addition to reorganizing the sermons by subject matter and date and giving titles to those sermons that had none, he made some other significant changes. Most important to me, the Archive sends out — at no cost — a weekly email to subscribers called Timeless Torah that includes a link to the original typescript of a sermon on that week’s parsha or the yom tov being celebrated. I therefore no longer have to dig deep into the website, find the right parsha/yom tov, choose a sermon (which may be one I already had read), print it, and place it in my tallit bag. Now, Tzvi has done the hard work for me.

Sadly, the passage of decades has made a few of the original typescripts almost unreadable. Not to worry; the email also includes a link to a newly retyped copy for easier reading. Nonetheless, I still print the original typescripts, not the retyped ones, because they often contain gems like the one at the beginning of this column. How did R. Lamm grade that sermon? We know the answer — and more — because he’s told us. Note, though, that while it may be true that, as he wrote, he delivered better sermons, that’s only because he was Rabbi Norman Lamm, whose “very good” is the equivalent of wonderful had almost any other rabbi delivered it, in 1961 or even in 2023. Reading his comments on the typescript is almost like being in R. Lamm’s study, listening to him evaluate his work; it’s a personal living history that adds an otherwise unavailable subtle flavor to the sermon.

Another example. On January 21, 1952, R. Lamm delivered a sermon on Parshat Shelach titled “As the Gentile Goes” (a title Tzvi added). Although many typescripts include the name of the synagogue where he was preaching, this one does not. But the sermon gives hints if you know R. Lamm’s background.

After R. Lamm received semicha (ordination) from YU’s RIETS in 1951, he served for a short time as an assistant to Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein in the prestigious Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. R. Lookstein, one of the most prominent congregational rabbis and orators of that era, was known worldwide for his prodigious speaking abilities. Moreover, he was a teacher of homiletics at RIETS, serving as a mentor to generations of YU congregational rabbis in the art of preparing and delivering a sermon.

Now back to the 1952 sermon. At its conclusion, the following notation appears in R. Lamm’s handwriting: “Criticism — old theme, esp. verse of ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves’ [written in Hebrew] — but worked out nicely (JHL); also midrash about shell found in [a certain commentator] is novel (JHL). Sermon is short — sermonette style — for hot day & smaller summer audiences.”

I’m only surmising — but it’s a solid guess based on the date and note — that the sermon’s location was KJ and JHL is R. Lookstein. Thus, what we have in this snippet is a contemporaneous recollection of the feedback that an exceptional speaker of one generation gave to his young colleague, a magnificent darshan of the next. Reading this “criticism,” we understand better the role of the rabbi and milieu of the Modern Orthodox community of that time. Plus, we almost feel like we’re eavesdropping on the private conversation between these two giants — student and teacher then, though destined to become equals. Again, we’re thrust back in time, into history, glimpsing an inside baseball view of this particular sermon, which makes it even more vivid and engrossing.

One last reason for my devotion to the typescripts. Many of them contain R. Lamm’s handwritten editorial changes. We see exactly how he substituted one word for another, while often moving around — and sometimes deleting — phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs. And all writers know that deleting words already slaved over — “writing is easy; all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed” (attribution disputed) — can often be as challenging and difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea (cf. Sotah 2a). The typescripts allow us to see, firsthand, a master at work.

But what’s most incredible to me is that almost every change makes the sermon sharper, livelier, and clearer; it becomes even more absorbing and colorful. Each change is an improvement, transforming a first-rate sermon into a better one. As I study these changes, I’m humbled to learn from them.

I’ve been writing for many decades, and like R. Lamm, I edit to the last minute, incessantly changing, transposing, adding, and deleting. Indeed, if you look at the brilliantly designed (by my daughter Daniele) cover of my new book, “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In My Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking,’” you can see in the background an actual printed first draft of one of my columns with my numerous changes, handwritten in red pen, interposed in the text. However, while I regularly do what R. Lamm did, I — to echo the biblical text R. Lamm expounded on in his Shelach sermon — look like a grasshopper to myself when comparing my work to his.

No person is perfect, and rabbis, even prominent leaders, are certainly included in that general statement. But R. Lamm had the ability, in just a few moments of personal contact, to touch the heart of a single person (see, “Hazor’im Bedim’ah — In Glad Song They Will Reap”). And from the pulpit, with soaring rhetoric, bedazzling eloquence, brilliant exegesis, and mesmerizing oratory, often sprinkled with deep lomdus (conceptual Talmudic analysis) and chasidic insights, he was able to inspire thousands over the decades. And he continues to do so today through the treasure he has bequeathed to us.

I am grateful to him weekly.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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