American Orthodoxy

Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Theology of Anti-Racism

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Shmuel Lamm

Rabbi Norman Lamm significantly impacted world Jewry through his scholarship, oratory, and organization of communal institutions. Part of his influence stemmed from the thousands of sermons and addresses he delivered over the course of his career, particularly as Rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan and later as President of Yeshiva University. These contributions to the American Jewish homiletic tradition, however, have remained underexplored.

For Rabbi Lamm, derashot were qualitatively different from a discourse on Jewish law or a Talmudic lecture. At the same time, they were more than “Torah lite.” In his “Notes of An Unrepentant Darshan” he described the derashah as a critical tool for Jewish leaders which, done well, inspires Jewish values, elucidates halakhah and, through the lens of Torah, speaks to moral issues on the minds of the audience. As Rabbi Lamm argued, “If Halakhah is the science of Jewish religious life, derush is its art, and esthetics needs no apology in its claim to a rightful place in the sanctuary of Torah.” It behooves us, then, to pay serious attention to Rabbi Lamm’s derashot, a genre that, nearly more than any other medium, offered him a chance to speak most closely to the values of his audience.

One of the most explosive and persistent issues throughout Rabbi Lamm’s years in the pulpit—first at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan from 1951-1953, then Kodimoh in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1954-1958 and, finally, from 1958-1976 at the Jewish Center in Manhattan—was racism and the Civil Rights Movement. Starting in 1951, Rabbi Lamm delivered numerous sermons that touched on both these themes. He preached on topics as broad as Jim Crow laws and South African apartheid and as specific as the Groveland Four in Florida and the Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C.

In these sermons, Rabbi Lamm decried the brutality of racial discrimination and called for its end. But beyond engaging the plight of the victims, Rabbi Lamm focused on the perpetrators: racists themselves. Though Rabbi Lamm’s sermons were delivered over the span of many years and focus on different aspects of the racist’s persona, woven together they yield a fleshed-out conception of racism.

An Untitled Sermon from 1954
To appreciate Rabbi Lamm’s views on the evils of racism, we must first explore how he viewed the responsibilities of those with freedom and power in society. One of Rabbi Lamm’s earliest sermons on this theme stemmed not from concerns over racism, but antisemitism. In 1954, while Rabbi Lamm served as the Rabbi of Springfield’s Congregation Kodimoh, a local newspaper advertised houses marketed to exclude applications from Jews. Soon after, in response, Rabbi Lamm delivered an impassioned sermon in which he focused on American antisemitism’s ability to engender a religious inferiority complex among Jews, prompting them to use their social freedom to abandon Judaism in favor of doctrines more culturally compatible with their neighbors.

In the face of this acculturation concern, Rabbi Lamm examined the responsibilities of Jews living in a free society. To do this, he analyzed the Jubilee year, with its proclamation of freedom for the bondsman in the following verse: “And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). Relying on an interpretation proffered by Rashi, the medieval Biblical commentator, Rabbi Lamm interpreted the freedom granted by this proclamation as a freedom of movement. The freed bondsman can live wherever he likes and in association with whomever he likes. But, as Rabbi Lamm proceeds to note, the second half of the verse is just as important: “you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” As he interprets, the Torah instructs the bondman that, with his newfound freedom, he must choose to return to and associate with those of his ancestral faith.

Like the freed bondsman, Rabbi Lamm announced, “every thinking man and woman” in a free society chooses to live by a set of beliefs. But as the Torah’s proclamation indicates, these beliefs must be judged by the degree to which they reflect either the worship of God, or of a foreign ideal. In the modern age, these foreign ideals have taken a variety of new forms. As Rabbi Lamm described:

Some of our people have bowed before the god of Communism, only to learn that now its true colors show when it puts forth its ‘restricted’ sign … Some have put their faith and sought redemption in the naive nineteenth century belief in Progress and Science, only to see it … bellowing forth mushroom-shaped clouds … Some have tried Ethical Culture, others have tried assimilation. They are wanderers, aimlessly hopping from station to station on the great road which leads nowhere. Come back, says God, each to his heritage, to Torah, and each to his family, to Israel.

In Rabbi Lamm’s view, every ideological system, regardless of its religious professions, must be evaluated according to whether or how it encompasses Godly values. It is this standard that Rabbi Lamm would consistently employ—including, as we shall see, in the context of racism—to measure the conduct of the powerful.

“The Religious Foundation of Business” (1963)
The 1960s and 1970s marked the black American community’s most vigorous protest efforts against discrimination. It was the era of mass sit-ins across the southern states, widespread voter registration movements, and the Birmingham Campaign in Alabama. Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. were at the height of their activity and violent and nonviolent protests garnered rapt national attention.

Rabbi Lamm delivered his 1963 sermon, “The Religious Foundation of Business,” a few days after the landmark March on Washington during which, in front of 250,000 fellow protestors, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This momentous civil rights event provided a backdrop for Rabbi Lamm’s address on dishonesty and discrimination in business.

In this sermon, Rabbi Lamm considered with his congregants the mystifying statement in the Talmud (Bava Batra 88b) that ‘the [heavenly] punishment for false measures is more severe than for sexual immorality.’ The man with his fingers on the scale, in other words, is worse than the adulterer. Rabbi Lamm seized on the obvious challenge: How can financial deceit eclipse adultery, one of the most severe sins in Jewish religious tradition?

Rabbi Lamm’s response weaved in thoughts from the nineteenth century commentator Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Neziv). Relying on Neziv, Rabbi Lamm observed that the adulterer’s sin is a crime of passion. He is overcome by a flash of desire. By contrast, the creation and use of false measures requires a colder, more calculated decision. It indicates less a one-time act and more an effort to perpetuate methodical corruption. The mindset behind prototypical false measures, then, is more extensive than a crime of passion. Whereas the sin of adultery is momentary, the sin of false measures is systematic.

In that vein, argued Rabbi Lamm, the sin of false measures, in its premeditated and comprehensive rejection of Godly principles, is a subset of the most severe iniquity of all: idolatry. Just as idolatry represents a repeated, far-reaching rejection of godliness, so too does the use of false measures. Thus, just as idolatry—as a systematic crime—is more spiritually severe than adultery, so too, according to the Talmud, is the sin of using false measures.

If employing just false measures is akin to idol worship, Rabbi Lamm asked, what does an entire system of economic discrimination say about the perpetrators? As Rabbi Lamm turned to Civil Rights and the March on Washington, he announced to his congregants:

The crux of the issue is not so much “freedom now” for the Negroes as self-respect and dignity now for the white majority which allowed such disgraceful discrimination to continue unabated for a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was bad enough when hate frenzied mobs lynched individual Negroes, but this crime of shefikhat damim (homicide) is exceeded by the greater blot on our record: the methodical economic exploitation of one segment of our population, the systematic oppression of one race as the source of cheap labor and its designation as the first to suffer in any economic recession.

Widespread, systematic racism, for Rabbi Lamm, embodied a monstrous sin of false measures. By extension, then, racism bore the spiritual mark of idolatry. Thus, Rabbi Lamm argued, there were two casualties in economic discrimination, not just one. Clearly the first were the black victims, who suffered dire economic consequences. But the weight of responsibility, the “crux of the issue,” fell upon white Americans. They, as the powerful and liberated majority of the 1960s, were the ones obligated to act with the responsibility of the “freed bondsman,” bound still to create a Godly society. Those who tolerate the idolatry of racism, then, lose their spiritual self-respect and dignity. They have subverted the divine sanctity of other humans and, as Rabbi Lamm continued, violated the spirit of American democracy. They have not returned to their “ahuzah” (heritage). They have become ethically and spiritually maimed.

“Insights Into Evil” (1964)
Yet if racism is so evil, how does the racist mindset form? Especially in an enlightened, religion-influenced Western society, it seems that if people were free to decide their own conduct and racism were an evil on par with idolatry, then no one would practice it. If each free person may choose between service to God and a host of other idolatrous creeds, then understanding society’s descent into racism, a modern form of idolatry, is critical.

Rabbi Lamm tackled this question after an advisory visit to the Jewish community in Johannesburg, South Africa, at a time when the horrors of apartheid were just beginning to attract international protest. Though, as his letters show, he established warm ties with the Jewish community there, he returned sickened by South African racism. Indeed, a short time later, in 1964, he delivered a stinging sermon, “Insights Into Evil,” in which he explored how an otherwise civilized society could support such awful discrimination. To do this, he drew upon the episode of the golden calf, the Jew’s paradigmatic, shocking sin at the pinnacle of their spiritual experience (Exodus 32).

In addressing this sin, Rabbi Lamm focused on the perplexing behavior of Aaron the High Priest. After the Jews conceived the plan to build an idol, they approached Aaron and he, surprisingly, actually constructed the golden calf. As the Torah then relates, however, “and Aaron saw and he built an altar before Him, and Aaron called out and he said there will be a festival to the Lord tomorrow” (Exodus 32:5). Relying on the medieval Biblical commentator Ramban, Rabbi Lamm interpreted Aaron as building an altar not to the idol, but to God. He was offering the Jews a way out. He declared a festival intending it as a call to rightful worship and repentance.

Yet the phrase before Aaron’s change of heart, “and Aaron saw,” remains ambiguous, as the Torah never specifies what it was exactly that he saw. The sages, according to Rashi, understood Aaron to have perceived that the once-inert calf had become alive. It moved and ate as would a real, living thing. As Rabbi Lamm homiletically reasoned, this procession—from Aaron’s initial contact with the idol, to seeing it come alive, to declaring for God—represented three stages in man’s confrontation with falsehood.

At first, a false doctrine might seem ridiculous and obviously incorrect. Aaron was incredulous that the Jews could possibly think that a metal idol could replace the God who redeemed them from Egypt. He humored them and built the calf, assuming they would snap out of their hysterics and come to their senses.

Then, however, came the second stage. Aaron saw that the idol was moving. The falsehood began to take on independent life. It became appealing. In Rabbi Lamm’s words:

As you become accustomed to it [the falsehood], as you study it, you learn that it may work—and indeed it does work! You can live with it—and get away with it. Furthermore, it is not as absurd as you originally thought. There are compelling reasons for the existence of idolatry or any false doctrine—sociological, psychological, and historical reasons … There are reasons for idolatry which you must appreciate and understand.

This falsehood then becomes entrenched, society becomes corrupted. As Rabbi Lamm continued:

If you stop at this stage of your development, then insight turns to tolerance, tolerance to sympathy, and sympathy to consent and acceptance. If you stop at this stage, then you bow the knee to a statue, you swallow the lie, you swear by falsehood. Then open-mindedness becomes closed-heartedness.

To Rabbi Lamm, this gradual slide into falsehood typified many modern forms of idolatry, whether Soviet communism, scientism, or single-minded materialism. It applied, as well, to racism, “one of the most pernicious and idolatrous doctrines in the memory of living man.”

Indeed, in a fascinating demonstration, Rabbi Lamm proceeded in his sermon to enumerate arguments by South Africans in favor of apartheid—each with its own appeal to truth, whether in statistics or cultural observations—illustrating how horrific ideals can be masked by rational, scientific arguments. None of these arguments, he thundered, could erase racism’s flagrant moral perversity. Racists were stuck in the second stage of rationalized evil.

Amid this evil, the third and final stage in Aaron’s encounter with the idol becomes critical. “And Aaron saw and he built an altar before Him [God]”—Aaron saw the appeal the idol held and, in that moment of revelation, when he appreciated all its advantages, he forced himself as well to see its perversity. As Rabbi Lamm declared, “with all the study and awareness and broadmindedness, you recognize the perniciousness, all the ugliness and danger of avodah zarah [idolatrous worship], and you condemn idolatry as evil throughout.” It is at this point that Aaron built the altar and declared a festival for the true God of Israel.

Aaron’s gut repulsion, instinctive in the first stage, was tested in the second stage. Yet instead of declaring for the idol, he had the moral fortitude, in the third stage, to declare for God. So too, Rabbi Lamm insisted, racists and racist societies must make the same turn toward God or continue suffering the spiritual turpitude of idolatry.

“Putting a Bad Conscience to Good Use” (1966)
Since racism, as idolatry, can ferment in rationalized, creeping stages, it can take on different forms. Racism is not restricted to firebrands like the Jim Crow supporters of the Old South. Indeed, as Rabbi Lamm believed, it was a subtle form of racism, the type coated with a veneer of reason and built upon legitimate cultural angst, that most often permeated his Jewish community. And so Rabbi Lamm turned his sights inward.

In his 1966 sermon “Putting a Bad Conscience To Good Use,” Rabbi Lamm illustrated a mechanism for this subtle racism through a comparison between Adam after he eats from the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3) and Abraham before he is ordered to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). The relationship between these two scenes is made explicit by Rabbi Avraham ben ha-Rambam, who contrasted Abraham’s response to God calling for him—“Here I am”—with Adam’s excuse for hiding—“I saw that I was naked so I hid.”

Both these responses, according to Rabbi Lamm, follow transgressions. Adam had sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Abraham, according to the midrashic tradition, had just thrown a celebratory feast in which he had invited all the nearby leaders and kings but, in a rare moment of callousness, failed to include any of the weak or less fortunate. When God then approaches Abraham, another midrash interprets that it was after Abraham had undergone a “deep meditation and self-analysis.” This meditation, Rabbi Lamm suggested, was Abraham’s introspection in the wake of his errors at the feast.

Yet if both Adam and Abraham sinned, they respond to God in morally opposite ways. These two ways, Rabbi Lamm argued, consisted of two different reactions to a guilty conscience. In Adam’s case, he heard God approaching and, realizing his disgraceful state, sought to run and hide. Even when confronted, he attempted to shift the blame to his wife. Abraham on the other hand, when called to attention by God, responded with an affirmation of his continued commitment to Him. He indicated his willingness, in the face of his post-sin introspection, to be tested in his faith toward God with the commandment to sacrifice his son. In the first case, Adam ran from his bad conscience. In the second, Abraham confronted it.

In applying this dichotomy to contemporary events, Rabbi Lamm addressed racism specifically in the Jewish community. As he argued in this 1966 sermon, most Jews, as relatively powerful and integrated members of American society, should suffer “some degree” of troubled conscience over the horrible white discrimination against blacks, even if most Jews are not themselves responsible for it.

But this was not enough. For in the face of this bad conscience, he feared, lay the danger of Adam’s blame-shifting, of using legitimately distasteful behavior in the black community, such as riots, the (eventual) Black Panthers, or antisemitism, as an excuse for feelings of white racial superiority. We Jews, he warned, cannot shift the blame for racism:

[T]o Black Power bigots, to the hoodlums who riot in Watts, to Negro anti-Semitism. We conveniently ignore the fact that in whole sections of our country there are whites who hold power yet we have tolerated it; that hoodlums come in all colors; and that while Negro anti-Semitism is terribly troubling, we have some degree of experience with white anti-Semitism—six million killed in our time alone!

Rabbi Lamm validated resentment against black rioters and, indeed, composed multiple sermons outlining a broader ethics of protest that he believed they, as well as other rioters, routinely violated. Yet, as he argued in a later sermon, “Law and Order,” in the wake of the ‘66-‘67 race riots, even justified resentment against some members of the black community cannot be used as a “pious disguise” for “xenophobia, fear, racial antagonisms, and innate bigotry.” Rather, like Abraham, Jews should strive to put a bad conscience to good use and, judiciously, strive for racial equality.

For Rabbi Lamm, racism is only possible because a free and responsible person can, like the manumitted bondsman, express Godly or idolatrous beliefs through his actions. In the case of racism, the specific belief expressed—like false measures—is an idolatrous one in its rejection of Godly values through the systematic victimization of others. Despite racism’s seemingly obvious evil, it can run rampant through a society because false ideologies, like the golden calf, can be easily and comfortably rationalized. Though a belief or course of action may feel instinctively evil, people are remarkably good at justifying it. And even when people are forced to confront their own racist tendencies, it is tempting, like Adam confronted by God, to evade culpability, build straw-men, and shift the blame to others, including the victims.

But there is the flip side to this gloomy picture. Like the bondsman, a person can choose to express Godly values by cleaving to one’s ethical-religious heritage. Like Aaron, a person can reject idolatry even as it threatens to overcome and use the experience to further sanctify God. Like Abraham, one can courageously concede and confront a guilty conscience, using it as a stimulus to improve.

It is not my place to venture how Rabbi Lamm would apply his views to our own day and age. That said, dimensions of racial, ethnic, and religious tension remain a central part of both the national conversation and the internal Jewish communal discourse. Rabbi Lamm certainly believed that his sermons, in imparting religious values, transcended any particular case of discrimination. Indeed, in the sermons themselves he applies each of the above lines of reasoning to a diverse array of events, ills, and ideologies relevant to his congregants. We would do well, therefore, like Abraham after his feast, to draw upon Rabbi Lamm’s sermons in performing our own introspection and self-analysis.

Difficult but, we pray, enriching conversations await.

Shmuel Lamm graduated from Yeshiva University and studied in Yeshivat Har Etzion. He works as a software engineer in New York and, outside of that, researches the sermons and other writings of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm.