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Yeshiva President Rabbi Lamm, Harrison Ford and Humility

This article originally appeared in the L.A. Jewish Journal and is reprinted with permission. https://jewishjournal.com/judaism/317044/rabbi-lamm-harrison-ford-the-meaning-of-humility/

Harrison Ford had been defeated. However, the victor was not a red lightsaber-wielding Kylo Ren in a galaxy far, far away, but rather, a nobody.

In 1976, on his first day as president of Yeshiva University, then-48-year-old Rabbi Norman Lamm was excited. Undoubtedly dreaming of expanded academic programs, enhanced Torah-learning opportunities for women and men, and building a new donor base, he eventually took a lunch break. Picking out his food in the cafeteria, he headed to the register to pay. But when asked by the food-services staff member to display his campus ID, then pay, he froze. He didn’t have his ID on him. “Are you a student?” the cashier asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Are you a professor?”

“No.”

“You’re not a student. And you’re not a professor. Then you must be a nobody.”

“You’re right,” Lamm said. “I’m a nobody.”

When Rabbi Judah the Prince, the great compiler of the Mishnah, died, the Talmud tells us the sages, his compatriots, lamented there was no more humility left in the world. Or at least most of the sages thought so. “It’s actually not true,” Rabbi Joseph piped up. “I am still here. And I am humble.”

Commenting on this humorous and slightly perplexing exchange in a 1963 sermon on the Torah portion Beha’alotecha at Manhattan’s Jewish Center, where he then served as rabbi, Lamm explained Rabbi Joseph’s intent. This ancient rabbi, like Moses—described in the reading as “the most humble (in Hebrew, anav) above all men that were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3)—was, in fact, truly humble, despite being bold enough to say so.

Lamm then explained how one could be both humble and confident in one’s abilities: “[Humility] refers not to self-deprecation, but self-restraint. It involves not an untruthful lack of appreciation for one’s self and one’s attainments, but rather a lack of arrogance, and a lack of insistence upon kavod, honor. To be an anav means to recognize your true worth, but not to impose the consequences upon your friends and neighbors …. It means to appreciate your own talents, neither over-emphasizing nor underselling them …. [It] means graciousness when receiving honor, dignity in response to humiliation, restraint in the presence of provocation, forbearance and a quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism.”

With the lyrical and interpretive brilliance characteristic of his stunning and still-resonant sermons, Lamm’s description of a confident humility encapsulated his life’s project. His defining and championing of Torah U’Madda, a life of adherence to Jewish law alongside committed intellectual and professional immersion in modern society, was revolutionary at the time and resonates in its adherents to this day. His books, the journals he founded and the speeches he delivered across the globe paved the roads and designed the signposts through which Modern Orthodoxy still navigates. Of course, Lamm’s case for the spiritual legitimacy of an Orthodoxy engaged with the world was not without its criticisms, both from the right and left of the Jewish spectrum. But he was confident enough in his convictions to withstand them.

He once recalled attending a conference in which a liberal Jewish representative advocated for a “de-Judaization” of the Land of Israel itself, more integration into Western society’s mores. Lamm recounted, “At the main session, a leading proponent of these ideas declared that he was not a Jew, but a member of the Hebrew nation. ‘You are a French national,’ he said to no one in particular, ‘and you are an English national, and you’—pointing to me—‘are an American national. I am a Hebrew national.’ My response was more or less this: ‘Mr. A., in the country I come from, Hebrew National is the name of a firm that manufactures kosher baloney, and while what you are proposing is baloney, I am certain it isn’t kosher.”

Ultra-Orthodoxy, too, leveled its criticisms at Lamm’s advocating secular education as a core component of the Almighty’s curriculum. But Lamm, ever level-headed, parried their provocations. Judaism, he taught, was to be part of the global moral conversation. Our faith, and its bearers, were to be held high when in the halls of power. Tradition was to stay true to itself in the ivory tower of academia, unapologetic in the public square. Our God-given talents were to be utilized, calmly and assuredly, in representing Him on this Earth. And maybe even beyond.

In a 1966 article titled “The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life” in Tradition, a journal he founded, Lamm offered a reflection amid mankind’s efforts to breach the heavens and the concomitant possibility of finding new lifeforms amid the stars. In the conclusion of his 51-page analysis he wrote:

“Man, we may learn conclusively in the not-too-distant future, may no longer be regarded as the purpose of creation. But his actions and his destiny are of significance to a Creator who, in His infinity, is not bewildered by numbers. While he must begin to feel a new and pervasive collective humility in the face of the immeasurable richness and variety of God’s world, the psychological climate of such wonder and humility need not lead him to conclude that God is unaware of his existence.

“The discovery of fellow intelligent creatures elsewhere in the universe, if indeed they do exist, will deepen and broaden our appreciation of the mysteries of the Creator and His creations. Man will be humble, but not humiliated. With renewed fervor, he will be able to turn to God, whose infinite goodness and providence are not limited to, but certainly include, one small planet on the fringes of the Milky Way.

“We may yet learn that as rational, sentient and self-conscious creatures, ‘we are not alone.’ But then again, we have never felt before, nor need we feel today or in the future, that we are alone. ‘For Thou art with me.’ ”

A couple of years after beginning his tenure as Yeshiva University president, Lamm bumped into a new neighbor who just moved in down the hall of his building on Central Park West. Fresh off of his recently released movie “Star Wars,” 35-year-old Harrison Ford was excited. But then he froze. Lamm didn’t recognize him.

“Do you know who I am?” the movie star asked the unimpressed rabbi.

“No,” Lamm said. “Do you know who I am?”


Rabbi Stuart Halpern is the senior adviser to the provost and senior program officer of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University in New York. He edited the Derashot LeDorot series collecting the sermons of Rabbi Lamm, his grandfather-in-law.

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