Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was the third president of Yeshiva University. After his retirement from that position in 2003, he was named the university’s chancellor and rosh ha-yeshivah (head of school). He is the author of many books, and recently completed “The Megillah: Majesty & Mystery,” a new commentary on the Book of Esther published in time for Purim by the OU Press. Publication was celebrated Tuesday night at Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah. Deena Yellin Fuksbrumer interviewed Dr. Lamm prior to the event. What follows is an edited version of that interview.
Q: What motivated you to publish “The Megillah: Majesty & Mystery”?
|Rabbi Norman Lamm|
Lamm: This is part of a series about Jewish holidays published by the OU Press. I already published two previous volumes – the first one, about Pesach, was called “The Royal Table: A Passover Haggadah.” The second was “Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays….” This one is focused on Purim, but also contains material on Chanukah and Yom Haatzmaut [Israel Independence Day]….
Q: How is “Majesty & Mystery” different from other works about Purim?
Lamm: It takes on what is one of the minor books of the Tanach, M’gillat Esther, but is certainly an interesting one. It’s fascinating because the theme of the book is anti-Semitism, and what it leads to and why. That’s a major consideration for modern Jewish readers, especially now. Unfortunately, the topic of the fate of the Jew in the world is always relevant. There’s a lot of similarity between the Purim story and the history of the Jew in the contemporary world. It has a great deal to teach us….There are several essays about other things that should be of interest to everyone, including Israel, Thanksgiving, and Jerusalem.
Q: Is there any singular message in your book that you hope to convey to your readers?
Lamm: Every time I read the Purim story, I’m surprised by how contemporary it can be. Scratch below the surface, it’s not an easy book to understand. It was written under certain considerations that are not always available to us. It’s not open. It doesn’t give messages that are straight. Everytime we read it, we can find new messages. The roles of Mordechai and Esther are fascinating. The picture of King Achashverosh is very fascinating. He’s basically a fool. Yet, at the time the m’gillah was written, he was still in power. The m’gillah has to be read on two levels. As I point out in the book, on one level, it’s a story about a series of events that took place in ancient Persia with a king who was a major actor, according to the way the story is read superficially.
The number of times the word “melech” is used is incredible. Most m’gillahs are written so that on every [column] in the m’gillah the first word is “ha-melech” [the king]. Everything revolves around this king. He sleeps, he can’t sleep, he argues, he’s quiet, he’s happy, he’s unhappy. None of the action in the story occurs without him. What we know is that he’s a fool. But he believes his own nonsense, and believes in his own importance. This is the way you need to look at it, that man is both the puppet of God and the puppeteer, the master of his fate.
Q: How did you come up with the title and what is its significance?
Lamm: Majesty, of course, refers to the king, because simply everything seems to center on him. The mystery is figuring out what the real meaning is of all of this. I couldn’t decide on a proper title, so one of my children recommended that I ask my children and grandchildren for suggestions. I told them that if anyone could give me a title, I’d take the winner out to dinner and give them a free copy of the book. My daughter, Sarah, and my grandson, Stu, both came up with similar titles. I took them all out to dinner….
Q: Moving on to another topic, are you concerned at all about what seems to be a shift to the right over the past few years at Yeshiva University?
Lamm: Yeshiva [University] is a microcosm of the world we live in. Sometimes it shifts to the left and sometimes to the right, and you can’t be both at the same time. Anyone who thinks Yeshiva is all the way to the right or all the way to the left is wrong. There are differences in emphasis. And sometimes, the differences are determined by geography. In some areas, you will find communities more to the right and sometimes more to the left. It depends where you are. The rebbeim are very, very good. They are not extremists in any direction. There are those that feel it’s more to the right, and some not….
Q: Where do you see the next group of future leaders of centrist modern Orthodoxy coming from? Are there any current centrist leaders who you think could rise to the influence of a Rav Joseph Soloveitchik?
Lamm: You can’t use Rav Soloveitchik as a model because he was so incredibly unique. You can’t replicate uniqueness. I hope there will be someone else who will emerge as a leader of the community. There were periods of history where single people were able to do great things. Today, you don’t have a single person. It’s like the presidency of the United States: Some are good, some are less good, some are outstanding, some are strong, and some are weak….
Q: How would you respond to complaints about the rising cost of tuition for day school education that places a great financial burden on middle income families?
Lamm: I’ve thought about it. I’m wrestling with it all the time. It’s a very serious question. So many schools are looking for students. Parents who should be ready to sacrifice to pay tuition are not that ready to commit themselves so their children may not end up going to Jewish schools. Eventually, those who do say it was a worthwhile investment. When I was a child, and that was a long time ago, the conditions we lived in were grim financially, but despite everything, people gave up a lot to give their children proper chinuch [Jewish education]. That feeling is not as strong now as it was then. We’ve become spoiled. I feel that the success Orthodoxy has had in America has been due to the fact that people were willing to suffer physically and financially to give their children the proper chinuch. Modern Orthodoxy should learn from that….
Q: Thank you.