Refined Rebukes: The High Holiday Sermons of Rabbi Norman Lamm

Streams of congregants, unbelievable as it sounds today, flocked to shul on Shabbatot simply to hear the sermons of Rabbi Norman Lamm. They remain exceedingly popular, including talks he delivered as young as twenty-four. They were ingenious, exquisitely crafted, and, though they were delivered from 1951–1976, remain uncannily germane in 2023.

Curiously, though, Rabbi Lamm remained beloved even when he took to the pulpit to criticize his well-heeled, politically powerful congregants, many of whom nonetheless sponsored the publication of his sermons and later backed his candidacy for President of Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Lamm most stridently rebuked his congregants during the Yamim Noraim. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah 1953 at the West Side Jewish Center and 1954 at Kehilat Kadimoh in Springfield, Massachusetts – he delivered essentially the same sermon at both shuls – the young preacher wryly remarked that “to follow the throng to the House of G-d, to the Shul and Beis Hamidrash, you have to defy the greater throngs demanding conformity to their Halacha of bridge on Friday nights and their minhag of Golf on Shabbas. It has occurred to me that it takes more courage and heroism for a man to eat kosher or daven Mincha in public than for that same man to jump into a communist foxhole.”

And in “The Bitter Truth,” his maiden Rosh Hashanah sermon at The Jewish Center in 1959, Rabbi Lamm decried “the pitiful state of Jewish education in mid-Manhattan,” which he called “nothing less than disgraceful.” He scoffed: “Have you heard a parent say: ‘hebrew school? But I don’t want my boy to become a rabbi.’ As if we should therefore refuse to have him learn to brush his teeth because we don’t want to make a dentist of him!” Rabbi Lamm suggested that parents who deny their children rigorous Jewish educations have only themselves to blame if their children intermarry. Had today’s average rabbi begun his High Holiday sermons with such scathing mussar – and the same held for his contemporaries – he’d probably find himself back on the job market in time for the following High Holiday season. Yet somehow, mysteriously, Rabbi Lamm pulled it off.

Nor were these isolated, off-the-cuff remarks; they were essential to Rabbi Lamm’s raison d’etre as a rabbi. In 1952, Rabbi Lamm served as a guest High Holiday rabbi in Ottawa. In his Kol Nidrei sermon, after challenging the assembled community members to embrace an ethical Torah life over one of “temptation,” which he termed the choice between “Decalogue or demons,” he turned the question inward:

Tonight the young Rabbi who speaks to you, addresses himself as well. He knows that he is in the bein hashemashos of his life, at the dawn of his career; that he has left his studies and rabbinic training and is soon to occupy a pulpit of his own; he is in between Preparation and Action; between School and Career. And I ask myself: which will I choose: Luchos or Mazikin? When I occupy my pulpit, will I sacrifice my ideals in order to please and placate others? If I believe in kashruth and Sabbath, will I refrain from mentioning them and maintain a respectful silence because I do not want to offend the sensitivities of my people? In my sermons, will I let the principles perish whilst I preach the platitudes? Will I dedicate myself to the Decalogue or to the Demons?

We can only respect Rabbi Lamm for committing to such principled leadership. But it begs the question: what magic sauce made his sermons beloved even as he castigated the very congregants who thronged to hear him?

Certainly, part of the story is that he was very cautious with his words, calling out his community only irregularly. He expended political capital parsimoniously. And sometimes he was especially cautious, brilliantly so. In his soaring Rosh Hashanah Sermon “If I Were a Prophet,” for example, Rabbi Lamm ingeniously delivered scathing rebuke to the congregation indirectly, wondering aloud as to the sort of rebuke he might have delivered had he been a prophet. After detailing a series of searing critiques, he muted the criticism by noting that rabbis have long donned not only the mantle of the prophet but also that of the far more tolerant, Aharon-like priest. Had he been a prophet he might have delivered such rebuke, but, of course, he was a mere rabbi.

Beyond his prudence, his success also derived from the seriousness with which he took the sermons and his audience, always raising the intellectual bar and never dumbing anything down. The sermons, as noted, were timely, and he leaned into current events instead of shying away. His derashot were masterful literary constructions. He always sought out feedback and, as evidenced by the extensive handwritten notes that accompany his sermons’ final versions, he persistently learned and grew. He also attributed part of his success to the fact that at The Jewish Center, he rotated weeks with Rabbi Leo Jung, gifting him extra time for reflection and preparation. And the fact that he was prepared to speak frankly ironically strengthened his position precisely because he was unafraid to speak truth to powerful congregants, whom he always encouraged to agree or disagree with his presentations.

But these points hold for all his sermons. The High Holiday talks stand on their own. A review of the 103 Elul and High Holiday sermons in the online archive all his available Yamim Noraim derashot offers a unique explanation for his congregants’ receptiveness to the mussar: precisely where he was most critical of his congregants, he expressed a fundamentally optimistic viewpoint toward his audience and all humankind.

Specifically, three interrelated themes recur throughout the Yamim Noraim sermons. Together, Rabbi Lamm weaved the following narrative:

  1. At bottom, we are deeply spiritual beings. Our task is to recover our pristine souls and to believe in our latent spiritual potencies.
  2. Precisely because of our deep-seated capacity, we dare not be complacent. We must demand of ourselves more and more.
  3. Finally, although living out our potential is out-of-step with most of society, we must do the unpopular thing. We are the normal ones, he went so far as to put it in some sermons; it’s much of the world that has gone insane. This message was particularly relevant in the 1950s, the age of “the common man,” but remained relevant through the end of his pulpit career in the mid-1970s.

This overarching summary provides a framework for considering the major themes Rabbi Lamm emphasized in many of his High Holiday sermons. But it also enables us to better appreciate how Rabbi Lamm was able to couch his mussar successfully: his central message was fundamentally positive, and the rebuke was only an aspect of that fundamentally optimistic overarching theme.

Let’s review three representative High Holiday sermons to see how Rabbi Lamm develops these themes. In The Revelation of Man (Rosh Hashanah 1963), Rabbi Lamm opens by referring to the beloved song, Hayom Harat Olam, which we recite immediately following the shofar blowing during Mussaf. What, he inquires, is the connection between the shofar and this prayer? Rabbi Lamm answers by referring to the only time the phrase “harat olam” appears in Tanach, Yirmiyahu chapter 20. In that context, Yirmiyahu, who was persecuted by the Jews, curses the day he was born, wishing that his mother’s pregnancy would have been eternal – “harat olam” – so that he need not have seen the light of day. In its biblical source, Rabbi Lamm notes, the term “olam” refers not to a place but to a time: eternity. The machzor, he proposes, suggests the opposite of its meaning in Yirmiyahu, in the sense that today commemorates not a delayed birth but rebirth. The shofar, he notes, was once a call for the freedom of slaves. Indeed, that past year, observes Rabbi Lamm, blacks successfully continued to advocate for their natural rights. So too on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar calls on us to liberate ourselves from spiritual constrictions.

Entering the heart of his message, he declaims:

It is a fundamental teaching of Judaism that religion and faith are not something that need to be superimposed upon man from without, but already exist in the Jew as part of his nature and native character. The author of the Tanya spoke not only for Hasidism but for all of Judaism when he declared that each of us possesses an ahavah tivit u-mesuteret, a natural and concealed love of G-d that strives for liberation and release. The greatest talent of the Jew is — his religion, his Torah.

It is an article of faith with us: in the deepest levels of the self there is a core of purity, of goodness. Beneath the cynicism lies an uncorrupted idealism; beneath the layer of envy, gems of generosity; beneath the crude will for power, the noble desire to serve; beyond the doubt and confusion, certitude and faith; within the disillusioned adult, a precious, hopeful, bright-eyed child; within the hard-boiled shell beats a soft and warm human heart.

Rabbi Lamm urges his listeners to recover their sense of prayer – what Rav Kook called “the constant prayer of the soul” – their inborn kindness and love for every Jew, commitment to their spouses, and dedication to Torah study. Rabbi Lamm reminds us that we possess pure hearts and infinite spiritual potentialities.

But precisely because we have so much potential, the Yamim Noraim call on us to live up to that capability. This leads Rabbi Lamm in “The Royal Reach” (Yom Kippur 1964), the title of his earliest published collection of sermons, to consider David’s uplifting request in Psalm 27, recited during the High Holiday period, to sit in the house of God his entire life. Undercutting the inspirational nature of David’s request, R. Abba bar Kahana strangely understands that David was pleading not to sit in the Temple or a study hall, but in a palace. He wanted to be king – “malkhut sha’al.” Is this not unfair to “the sweet singer of Israel”?

Rabbi Lamm answers that R. Abba did not mean to say that David asked for the throne but that he asked in a regal manner. David, who had been hunted like an animal by King Saul, was tormented. We would expect him to approach God desperately with the affect of a beggar. Instead David raised his head with dignity and asked like a sovereign. While he presently found himself in dire straits, he was able to look beyond his predicament and conjure the foresight to ask not only for survival but even for spiritual prosperity as well. Rabbi Lamm urges his congregation to approach God in the same manner. Look beyond your limitations and maintain your ambitions as Jews, he urged. Do not be satisfied, as are so many American Jews, with mediocrity. Instead, push yourselves beyond your current, limited sights and strive to be spiritual kings and queens! We dare not be satisfied with 55,000 students in Jewish day schools; we must strive for 250,000 and more. We must push ourselves to observe more Shabbat, more kashrut, more taharat hamishpacha. The same is true of our responsibilities toward our children. We must never be satisfied with the bare minimum; instead, we must strive to provide them with full Jewish educations and spiritual lives.

But particularly in the times and places he served, one major pitfall stood in the way of congregants: the social pressures toward mimicry. And so in “The Perils of Conformity” (1953 and 1954), citing Albert Einstein, he notes that the great danger of the age was that of conformity to the crowd. “How common,” he quotes another scholar as having asked, “must the common man become?” He rues the past times when ordinary people would read the Bible or Shakespeare instead of a “pulp magazine.” Instead,

Today the common man has become even more common for fear of becoming uncommon, for fear of being dubbed an “intellectual” or “book worm” or “egg-head” or “turning religious.” Gone are the days when a Jewish father and mother would pray and work and sweat so that their son would become a “lamdan” or “gaon,” or a doctor or professor or scholar of some sort. We are raising a generation of robots, who laugh when others laugh, cry when others cry, and sin when others sin.

This, he adds, was precisely the sin of Adam, who ate from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden not on ideological principle but, as the Torah emphasizes, because he listened to his wife’s voice, not her words. He didn’t actually consider her opinion, the Torah suggests; he simply followed others blindly without thinking for himself.

Rabbi Lamm relates that he had recently dined with the celebrated author Herman Wouk. Wouk mentioned that he had recently enjoyed lunch with a well-known older Jewish author, Sholom Ash. Ash noticed that Wouk was careful only to eat kosher food, and noted that this was unusual; in his day, it was more common for young authors to be revolutionaries. Wouk responded that he was a revolutionary. He too refused to simply follow the crowd, which ridicules religion. Oddly enough, he thinks for himself.

Rabbi Lamm adds:

The rabbis noted that during the era immediately leading up to the messianic age, truth will be absent from society, and groups will sit as adarim in the desert – in gangs. In short, genuine truth-seekers will abandon everyday living and instead will take to desert enclaves to ensure their survival. This cataclysm is precisely the situation today! “The man of truth would rather pray in a lonely corner in his own house, or in an impoverished and outmoded ‘shtibel,’ rather than conform to the smart crowd and ride to a luxurious ‘Temple’ on the Sabbath.

Whatever the masses are doing, he concludes, each person must permit the call of the shofar to jolt him out of complacency.

Taken together, Rabbi Lamm’s sermons tell a unified story of a leader who, while unafraid to levy sharp criticism, ultimately conveys a larger message of optimism. At heart, we are fundamentally religiously committed, capable of pushing ourselves beyond mediocrity, and able to avoid the temptations of the modern who strives to be like the Joneses.

As we enter the Yamim Noraim, Rabbi Lamm’s message resonates deeply. We need not choose between inspiration and self-criticism. At their best, the two themes are not just consistent but mutually enhancing. While we can no longer flock to hear Rabbi Lamm’s High Holiday sermons, we can still revel in the revelation of man, extend a royal reach toward spiritual greatness, and assiduously avoid the perils of conformity.

Originally published in The Jewish Press here.