As of two years ago Rabbi Norman Lamm was already suffering from a progressive dementia so severe that he sometimes went for hours without recognizing anyone. On his better days he was able to conduct conversations but his colleagues could tell he was a shadow of his former self. His current state is a far cry from his days as the brilliant President of YU from 1976 to 2002.
In 1993 Lamm also became the Rosh Yeshiva (Yeshiva Head) of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) after the death of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. When Lamm retired as president, his replacement, Richard Joel, a lay lawyer, was not considered as Rosh Yeshiva. The YU board rejected Rabbi Hershel Schachter, an extraordinary rabbinical scholar who was prone to gaffes (e.g., inflammatory statements about race). Instead the board extended Lamm’s appointment as Rosh Yeshiva. Because finding an acceptable replacement was a political minefield they continued Lamm’s appointment even after they knew about his deteriorating mental status.
On December 13, the Forward’s Paul Berger, Jane Eisner, and Larry Cohler-Esses reported, “Lamm says he let alleged high school abuser leave quietly.” The reference to Lamm drew on a December 7th interview in which he is reported to have said:
If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly. It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry…… My question was not whether to report to police but to ask the person to leave the job…… When [the wrestling] came up, [Finkelstein] had decided to leave because he knew we were going to ask him to leave…… The responsibility of a school in hiring someone is to check with the previous job. No one checked with me about George.
The quotes by Lamm instantly turned a story about abuse at YU into a narrative about a callous hierarchy shuffling molesters from one job to another like the Catholic Church.
YU insiders were furious at the Forward for “ambushing” Lamm. They believed the Forward knew Lamm’s condition because it was common knowledge in modern orthodox circles. They may have been mistaken.
I believe the Forward is poorly informed about most of the orthodox world. Their coverage of the sex abuse trial of Nechemaya Weberman trial was the worst of any secular publication. They got snookered by a cub freelancer, Batya Ungar-Sargon, who uncritically parroted the Satmar line about a trial and sentencing being biased against Hasidim.
When the story about Lamm was published, people reached out to the Forward and told them about his condition. Having been advised, the Forward should have conducted its own inquiry and admitted they erred in interviewing and quoting Lamm, a man no longer capable of informed consent. They could have done all that while still standing by the rest of their story.
Since the Forward never acknowledged Lamm’s diminished mental status, YU was now free to extend the deception that Lamm was mentally fit. They proceeded to use his resignation at the end of his three year contract to blunt the damage to their image inflicted by a regular series of articles in the Forward about abuse at YU.
On June 30,, 2013, six months after the story appeared, YU released a twenty-one-paragraph resignation letter purportedly written by Rabbi Lamm which had four paragraphs devoted to the abuse scandal. There was a disclaimer early in the letter: “Conditions have caused me to rely on help from my family in writing this letter.” The paragraphs pertaining to the abuse scandal were written by his family and the rest had been written by Lamm about five years ago, but this was not disclosed to the public.
The next day, Shmarya Rosenberg reported on Failed Messiah, “When Lamm was quoted by the Forward late last year about abuse at YU’s high school, he already had dementia, and the Forward was told this very clearly by several sources. Yet the Forward chose to use those quotes without disclosing how impaired Lamm was.”
The Forward, like most print publications, doesn’t usually respond to attacks by bloggers, least of all Shmarya Rosenberg, who often attacks them for unethical conduct. But this criticism stung because they knew many other people were saying the same thing. Two days later, Paul Berger replied:
I have been accused of knowingly taking advantage of a man with a deteriorating mental state…… Prior to my interview with Lamm, I was unaware of rumors that Lamm …… [was] ill…… I did what any reporter would do. I looked up Lamm’s address and, one morning, I showed up at his apartment door. I told Lamm who I was…… No trickery was involved. I simply sat in front of Lamm and took down notes as he explained the reason for his actions and his regret. Under such circumstances, is there any reason for a reporter not to report that? (Emphasis added by YL).
The Forward’s account allows for the possibility that Lamm is mentally diminished while denying that Berger knew this prior to publishing the story. This conveniently sidesteps any responsibility to issue a correction. By characterizing the reports of dementia as “rumors,” this article cleverly places the onus on YU to prove otherwise. Internal modern orthodox grousing is irrelevant to the Forward because they are not an important part of their funding base or readership.
However, the Forward may be angling for an award for its otherwise excellent series and is worried that the charge of unethical conduct could take it out of the running. I suspect the Forward wanted to rejoinder the criticism for a while, but was now confident that they wouldn’t be challenged by YU or Lamm’s family. They found it convenient to focus on Shmarya Rosenberg, a controversial blogger, instead of naming their most active critics, informed YU insiders.
Shmarya Rosenberg fired back on July 4th, now insisting that the Forward knew about Lamm’s condition before the interview. I am an agnostic about whether the Forward knew about Lamm’s condition before the interview or afterward. Either way, at some point they knew. They failed ethically, either in intentionally conducting an interview with a man not competent enough to give his informed consent or in not issuing a correction conceding that the interview was obtained without proper informed consent.
By now there is a whole secondary literature of opinion pieces drawing on Lamm’s original statements to the Forward and Lamm’s resignation letter. Most articles and posts admire Lamm’s abject contrition and feel it mitigates or even transcends YU’s earlier failures. Others take umbrage at the letter as self-pitying and self-serving in ascribing YU’s conduct to misplaced compassion for the abusers and misplaced confidence in their ability to mend their ways. The critics believe that YU’s conduct was primarily or significantly motivated by the need to protect the reputation of the institution.
This debate is worth having, but not in the context of the resignation letter. Lamm is beyond the stage of being able to speak to these issues. He should be judged on his past conduct alone.
Until now, I avoided talking about Rabbi Lamm’s dementia for two contradictory reasons. I was reluctant to dwell on a shortcoming of the Forward’s reporting because I was convinced that almost everything else they said about YU was true. I was also squeamish about subjecting Lamm to an embarrassing report about his mental decline.
I was wrong on both counts. There is no more shame in dementia at the end of life than in being sexually abused as a child. Sooner or later all of us depend on the honor and compassion of others to protect us from exploitation.
Ronald Reagan got it right when he bid adieu to public life admitting, “I have… Alzheimer’s Disease… I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.”
In spite of YU’s resentment over the lawsuit filed by Mordechai Twersky, Barry Singer and seventeen others, YU has been given a gift, an opportunity, albeit late and under pressure, to do the right thing. I call it a gift because these survivors have paid thrice, first in the abuse, than in the frustrating attempt to work within the system, and now in going public with more potentially embarassing details of their abuse and their subsequent problems in life. They deserve a lot of credit for overcoming their shame, the very thing that made it possible for this cover-up to go on for so many years. I wish Rabbi Lamm’s colleagues and caretakers had done the same for him.