At the age of 85 and after leading Yeshiva University for 27 years, Rabbi Norman Lamm submitted his letter of resignation on July 1, 2013. Rabbi Lamm leaves behind a magnificent legacy. He saved the institution from financial collapse by erasing the deficits he inherited and by raising enormous amounts of money to support all its divisions. Rabbi Lamm improved the academic standards. He opened the first program of Talmud study for women in Yeshiva University’s history. He promoted pastoral training to supplement and complement the rabbinical school’s textual emphasis. He stretched the areas of concern for both Yeshiva University and for Orthodoxy by addressing social and political issues. He also established respectful dialogue with other branches of Judaism.
I recall that as a newly ordained rabbi serving a small congregation in New York City I read a column he wrote for weekly Jewish newspaper opposing the ordination of women as rabbis, a matter hotly debated by the Conservative movement at that time. While I agreed with his thesis, I disputed his characterization of Conservative ideology and his understanding of the history of the movement: points that I included in a letter I wrote to him. In response, he invited me to meet with him and discuss the matter further. Both time and circumstance prevented me from accepting – a fact I regret until this day. But his gentlemanly tone and collegial spirit left a considerable impression with me.
Yet despite his considerable contributions, Rabbi Lamm’s legacy will be permanently marred by what he did not do. It is now clear that during his tenure members of the staff of the Yeshiva University High School for Boys sexually abused a startling number of students, and rather than report the abusers when the information reached him, Rabbi Lamm let the abusers leave quietly. He now admits to the mistake and confesses the need to repent.
Repentance is, indeed, a powerful and transformative thing. Even though there are some sins for which repentance is not efficacious, the overarching message of Judaism is that those who are truly contrite and change their ways are given a second chance. So it sounds odd that anyone should consider Rabbi Lamm’s record permanently tarnished. Yet it would be hard to imagine otherwise. There are few “sins” still universally acknowledged in contemporary society. But sexual abuse and tolerance for sexual abuse are two of them.
Given this state of affairs, there is an emergent message that all would do well to consider: live your life as if there are no second chances. Without denying the possibility and validity of repentance, each person should behave in such a manner that would make repentance unnecessary. Rather than live with regrets for mistakes made, aim at avoiding mistakes altogether. Rather than rely on the corrective of repentance, live correctly from the start. And this New Year gives us the opportunity to do precisely that,