Dr. Norman Lamm’s Trailblazing Talmudic Methodology
Two trends are particularly prominent in contemporary Modern Orthodox Torah study. First, the last two decades have seen a rise in the popularity of non-halakhic spiritual texts, particularly hasidut. The popularity of Netivot Shalom, Sfat Emet, the Piazescner, and Rav Shagar, to name just a few, bears more than adequate testimony to this striking development.
Second, particularly in Israel, there is an increasing tendency to integrate traditional Talmud study and a wide range of alternative methodological tools. Sometimes termed “Neo-Lomdus,” these approaches mix Brisker Lomdus, historical tools, literary methods, hasidut and kabbalah, and even art and music, and have gained popularity among a cluster of yeshivot hesder. Rav Shagar, whose thought has been the subject of lively discussion on these pages in recent weeks, was at the forefront of these developments, stressing the importance of deriving personal meaning from text study.
In a more moderate vein, Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein has suggested that Brisk’s emphasis on the defining essential halakhic principles can lead to a deeper appreciation of halakhah’s underlying values. In his terminology, the “what” can lead us to better understand the “why.”
Best known for his mastery of Jewish philosophy, hasidut, and homiletics, Dr. Lamm also distinguished himself as a first-rate lamdan. As a youngster, Dr. Lamm first studied with his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Yehoshua Baumel, author of the Responsa Emek Halakhah, and later under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. While President of Yeshiva University, he taught and published Talmudic discourses each year.
In elucidating his viewpoint, we will examine a variety of Dr. Lamm’s articles and books, especially The Shema, Torah Umadda, and Halakhot Va-Halikhot, a collection of his Talmudic novella. A careful study will demonstrate that Dr. Lamm assigns significant weight to both halakhah and aggadah, and forcefully advocates the integration of classical Talmudic analysis with the study of Jewish thought. What is more, this advocacy of integration flows from Dr. Lamm’s embrace of monism, a mystical position prominent in hasidut and the thought of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook. Taken as a whole, his ideas anticipated current trends in Talmud study by decades, and offer a bold philosophical foundation upon which to construct the synthesis of Jewish law and Jewish thought.
Weighing Halakhah and Jewish Thought
Alongside his attraction to mahashavah, Dr. Lamm regularly stresses the importance of halakhic study, insisting that they are to be viewed as equally important. While he points out that according to Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin “the highest value is assigned the study of Halakhah” (Torah Umadda, 162), Dr. Lamm refuses to privilege either Jewish law or Jewish thought in his own constellation of values.
In his introduction to The Shema, a work that explores the relationship between halakhah and spiritual experience, for instance, Dr. Lamm insists that both halakhah and spirituality are essential. As he puts it in the introduction:
The contrast between the two—spirituality and law—is almost self-evident … Yet both are necessary. Spirituality alone begets antinomianism and chaos; law alone is artificial and insensitive. Without the body of the law, spirituality is a ghost. Without the sweep of the soaring soul, the corpus of law tends to become a corpse … In Judaism, each side – spirit and law – shows understanding of the other; we are not asked to choose one over the other, but to practice a proper balance that respects and reconciles the demands of each.” (The Shema, 6-7)
True, in response to social trends that he saw as troubling, Dr. Lamm variously lays greater emphasis on halakhah and spirituality. In response to the sexual revolution and the New Morality of the 1960s and 70s, for instance, Dr. Lamm emphasizes the importance of law as a bulwark against permissiveness. “Without law,” he writes, “we cannot distinguish between licit and illicit love.” Law also protects love from falling prey to its own excesses. Left unchecked, “love destroys all – including itself” (Seventy Faces, vol. I, 176-77). On the other hand, (Seventy Faces, vol. II, 94-107), Dr. Lamm also defends the sermon, which places great emphasis on Jewish thought and morality, bemoaning the devolution of the sermon into a dvar halakhah.
His larger point regarding sexual ethics and homiletics, however, is not to privilege law over spirituality or vice versa. He seeks, in the spirit of the Golden Mean, to restore a rightful balance that has been disrupted. Refusing to assign greater weight to the realm of halakhah or Jewish thought, he contends that both are indispensable.
An Advocate for Integration
So much for the theoretical balance between the study of Talmud and Jewish thought. But what should be the proper interaction between these disciplines? May there be any “slippage,” for instance, between Gemara and hasidut?
In Torah Lishmah, Dr. Lamm elaborates what he terms Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner’s “Dissociation Principle” (277). According to this rule, which Rabbi Hayyim formulated in relation to the study of Gemara and mussar, Talmud study must be pursued independently of any other discipline. This view is an outgrowth of Rabbi Hayyim’s general position that Torah must be studied for its own sake and not for an ulterior motive, and that to cling to Torah is ipso facto to cling to the divine (279). Importantly, though, Dr. Lamm does not present R. Hayyim’s view as his own.
Instead, in Torah Umadda, Dr. Lamm begins to present his own view on the prospects of synthesis. After tentatively proposing a middle ground between outright separation and complete synthesis, Dr. Lamm “admits, with appropriate professions of shame and inadequacy, that he has not (yet) come to a firm conclusion on the matter” (190). He goes on to explain that the hasidic approach to Torah u-Madda, to which we will soon turn, allows him to sidestep the question. He prefers to leave the question open, declaring that “every individual is free to follow his or her own judgment, talent, and inclination in choosing either genuine synthesis or coexistence” (190-1).
Elsewhere in Torah Umadda, Dr. Lamm is less equivocal. After citing Rambam’s attempt to develop an overarching framework encompassing Jewish thought and Jewish law, Dr. Lamm refers to the potential value of such a project:
As long as halakhic Jews persist in isolating Halakhah from integration into Hashkafah (a larger theoretical framework or Anschauung), it runs the risk of becoming a form of religious behaviorism in inadequate relevance to the perennial problems of the human spirit. (85)
Dr. Lamm’s aforementioned Halakhot Va-Halikhot, a compilation of twenty-seven Talmud essays that Dr. Lamm previously published in Torah journals, forcefully presses and models this synthesizing methodology. As he observes at the outset of his introduction, roughly half the chapters in the book attempt to bridge halakhah and aggadah; the latter, he hastens to add, includes not just Talmudic and midrashic sources but also the Jewish mystical, hasidic, and philosophical traditions.
In a crucial passage, he explains that the goal of linking these areas is to
reveal the spiritual and conceptual closeness between these two worlds, and to demonstrate that the giants of Jewish law who engaged in agadic thinking (as previously defined) did not possess bipolar souls, God forbid. Instead, there are basic notions that found expression in different ways, namely both regarding Jewish law and areas beyond Jewish law. This is what motivated me to entitled this book Halakhot Va-Halikhot. (Halakhot Va-Halikhot, pg. 12)
Herein, Dr. Lamm not only advocates for integration over coexistence, but also offers a theological framework for his position: halakhah and Jewish thought are essentially one and the same. They are merely different expressions of a single fundamental truth.
On the basis of this approach, Dr. Lamm explains a Talmudic teaching: “The school of Eliyahu taught: Anyone who studies halakhot every day is guaranteed to be destined for the World to Come, as it is stated: ‘His ways [halikhot] are eternal’: Do not read ways [halikhot]; rather, laws [halakhot]’” (Niddah 73a). The intention of the Gemara is that halakhot contain kernels of halikhot, namely wider motifs. One who integrates them merits a share in the World to Come (11-12).
Dr. Lamm cites precedents for this project. Rabbi Meir Simchah and Rabbi Yosef Rosen of Dvinsk, one a mitnaged and the other a hasid, sought to harmonize Rambam’s legal rulings with his philosophy as presented in the Guide to the Perplexed. Rabbi Shalom Schwadron and Rabbi Yosef Engel sought to reconcile halakhah with kabbalah.
For instance, in his Otzrot Yosef (Ma’amar Levanah, Ma’amar David), Rabbi Engel seeks to account for the kabbalistic view that the moon is associated with the sefirah of malkhut, royalty. Rabbi Engel cites extensive sources from the Gemara in support of this kabbalistic contention. Furthermore, he marshals his halakhic position that the Sanhedrin sometimes functions not as an independent entity but as a proxy for the entire nation. Just as the Jewish people are associated with the sefirah of royalty, so too is the moon, which is sanctified by the Sanhedrin, the people’s representative.
Remarkably, Rabbi Rosen possessed some twenty additional manuscripts in which he located the roots of the kabbalistic tradition in the Bavli and Yerushalmi; apparently, Dr. Lamm rues, these were ravaged by the Holocaust’s inferno (14-15).
Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch insists that “the difference between law and lore is only in their manners of learning and deduction; but regarding their content and form, they form a single, complete Torah. It is impossible to arrive at a complete understanding of one without the complement of the other.” Moreover, Dr. Lamm’s teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik, often integrated the two domains in his public lectures, and “one is obligated to speak in the language of his teacher” (16). All these titans viewed halakhah and aggadah through a unified lens.
In Dr. Lamm’s sweeping portrait, hasidim, mitnagdim, Briskers, and mussarists stand side-by-side in support of integration; the Bavli and Yerushalmi offer a foundation for mystical ideas. What is more, Dr. Lamm argues not just for practical synthesis but for the fundamental unity of halakhah and Jewish thought. As he puts it, “to what may the matter be compared? To a blind person who feels numerous branches, but does not know that they are all unified as part of a single tree, for there is a single root to them all” (12).
Monism for Moderns
Dr. Lamm’s sympathy for the kabbalistic and hasidic doctrine of monism, which drives him to unify the various domains of Torah, is a central motif in his theology.
In “The Unity Theme and its Implications for Moderns,” Dr. Lamm advocates for the contemporary necessity of such a worldview. In the modern world, “the Whole Man has faded into obscurity… Man’s spiritual and religious life has become a true World of Disunity. Long before the atom bomb struck Hiroshima, the modern world sustained a historic atomization, the fission and dis-integration of man’s heart and soul and mind, and the beginning of the end of his universe” (55).
Instead, the Zohar, hasidic thinkers, Rav Kook and even, to a degree, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, promote a fundamentally monistic view of this world. Our entire universe, according to this theological view, is a part of the divine. God is not the equivalent of the world (pantheism) but He encompasses and transcends the world (panentheism).
Moreover, Rav Kook holds that there is a need for yihud, unity, in the “transcending of epistemological limitations” (56). All knowledge, unless one attaches oneself to God, the sole source of all knowledge, remains partial. Thus, for Rav Kook, all entities, whether material or conceptual, including the various components of Torah, are truly one. Prophecy and halakhah must be understood in relation with one another, for ultimately, they are one and the same. Much the same may be said, according to Rav Kook, for the distinction that has been artificially and harmfully drawn between halakhah and aggadah.
Dr. Lamm’s colleague and fellow philosopher Rabbi Walter Wurzburger vigorously opposed the presentation of halakhah as a monistic rather than pluralistic system (pluralistic in the sense of permitting multiple voices and truths that must be balanced). Nonetheless, in an updated version of his own article, published as “The Unity Theme: Monism for Moderns” in Faith and Doubt (pps. 42-68), Dr. Lamm refused to cede any ground.
Further, in Torah Umadda, Dr. Lamm offers six models for the relationship between Torah and general wisdom. Two of the six, “The Mystical Model” and “The Hasidic Model,” detailed in chapters six and ten respectively, are rooted in a monistic outlook. Indeed, the two models are so similar that Dr. Lamm dedicates chapter eleven of his Torah Umadda to justifying his decision to treat them as two distinct views. The hasidic model is rooted in the doctrine of “divine immanence” (151). For the hasidic masters, God’s presence permeates all of material existence. The doctrine of avodah be-gashmiyut, worship through corporeality, is one of the primary corollaries of this precept. Nothing in our world lacks divinity and the potential for sanctification. Similarly, for Rav Kook, the universe is comprised not of sacred and profane, but of holy and not-yet-holy. Through the encounter of Torah and wisdom, a higher truth emerges.
Indeed, Torah Umadda’s organizational structure, which concludes with the hasidic model and compares its implications with those of all previous models (chapter twelve), implies that Dr. Lamm favors this approach. In a published interview, Dr. Lamm makes the point explicit, stating in reference to the hasidic stance, “The last one is really the one that’s my darling.”
Dr. Lamm’s attraction to monism, both on theoretical grounds and as a salve for modern wounds, offers a powerful account of his embrace of synthesis in Halakhot Va-Halikhot. If existence is monistic, all parts of Torah are similarly united. This provides a powerful theoretical foundation for an integrated learning methodology. It also helps to explain his refusal to assign theoretical preference to halakhah in comparison with other domains of Jewish thought: in the end, there really is no point in privileging one domain of Torah over others, for they are ultimately one and the same. Although a particular methodology is appropriate for each realm of Torah study, there is a single root to them all.
Dr. Lamm’s embrace of monism offers an important starting point for a holistic model of talmud Torah. As practiced in his public shiurim and exemplified in his printed essays, Dr. Lamm put forward a theory of lomdus as “monism for moderns” decades before such an approach became popular in Israeli circles. In presciently anticipating key aspects of these developments, Dr. Lamm offers a model for an integrated model of lomdus to which today’s interested Talmud student may readily turn for inspiration.
From 2004-2007, my wife Tova (Dr. Lamm’s granddaughter) and I enjoyed the exquisite opportunity to learn with Dr. Lamm once each week throughout the academic year. I vividly recall riding the elevator each Tuesday at 12pm up to the fifth floor of Yeshiva University’s Furst Hall, where Dr. Lamm’s suite was located. We stepped into his office, so inundated with sefarim that they spilled over into a fully-stocked closet next door.
Each year we chose another subject. We studied Pirkei Avot with a range of commentaries, R. Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, the subject of Dr. Lamm’s dissertation written under Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and selected sections from R. Meir Simha of Dvinsk’s Meshekh Hokhma. Beyond the fond memories, two impressions are still etched in my mind. Taken together, they offer a personal perspective that enriches our analysis of Dr. Lamm’s approach to lomdus.
First, Dr. Lamm’s wide-ranging erudition was on full display. In relation to our study of Avot, for example, I recall him recommending multiple commentaries with which I was utterly unfamiliar. He recommended a commentary written by a hasidic rebbe who sympathized greatly with the Religious Zionist movement – an unusual combination, to say the least. In addition to his familiarity with eclectic sefarim, he also demonstrated a mastery of a remarkable range of interpretive approaches. I still recall his suggestion, to take just one example, that the Mishnah (Avot 5:19) contrasting Avraham and Bilam can best be understood as a subtle polemic comparing Christianity unfavorably with Judaism. Throughout, his capacity to marshal philosophical, psychological and historical tools in the study of Avot, too often reduced to vertlach and not sophisticated analysis, thrilled and inspired.
Second, Dr. Lamm’s unending love of learning was palpable. He would joyously share his favorite explanations. Even more striking was the look of unadulterated joy when we encountered a text or idea that he found enlightening. At ages 77-80, following an enervating career as a pulpit rabbi and university president, he still exhibited almost childlike energy. He was forever assimilating fresh material and updating decades-old ideas.
The weekly chavruta, in other words, demonstrated how a lifelong commitment to interdisciplinary learning can empower even the busiest of community leaders to continue developing as a Torah scholar. I saw first-hand how Dr. Lamm’s passion and erudition enabled him not only to envision but also to implement his vision of an integrated model of talmud Torah. For that inspiration, I am eternally grateful.