In Defense of the ‘Top Rabbis’ List

Just before Passover, Newsweek/The Daily Beast set off a firestorm when it released its seventh annual list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis.” Almost immediately, intense debate erupted. Many initiated ferocious polemics against the list in general, arguing that it is bad for rabbis and bad for Jews.

Critics argue that the list prioritizes media presence over pastoral presence; that it equates celebrity with influence; that it inflates listed rabbis’ arrogance and sense of self-importance, ironically making them worse rabbis; that it fools people into thinking that a rabbi is not important or effective if they aren’t on the list, hurting feelings and, in some cases, jeopardizing jobs.

It would, I think, make sense to hate the list if it purported to name the “best” rabbis in the country. “Best” implies the use of some objective standard for judging. I can tell you who the best sprinter in the world is, because in that context objectivity is possible. But in other contexts, like trying to identify the best artist in Paris or the best restaurant in Rome, there is no objectivity. That’s why people (justifiably) hate The Oscars. The Academy claims its mission is to honor the year’s “best” movie, but it never does. Its failure is not because of stupidity or poor judgment (though that may be true, too), but because there is no such thing as the year’s “best” movie. How can one say that “Argo” was a better film than “Les Miserables”? Both were good, but very different, movies. Apples and oranges, as they say. And the fact that one is selected by the Academy over another does not mean that the “loser” was “worse” than the winner, or that the films and actors that were not even nominated cannot be considered exceptional.

It would similarly be impossible to rank the country’s best rabbis. But that’s not what the list aims to do. It ranks the most influential rabbis, those whose “ideas, innovations, and inspiration” are shaping the landscape of American Judaism. In that task, I argue that the list largely succeeds.

Year after year, the list accurately identifies and celebrates those who set the standard for everyone else. The listed rabbis, whether we like to admit it or not, are the ones that us unlisted rabbis turn to for guidance and inspiration. I look to Rabbi David Wolpe (No. 3) as a model for excellence in sermonizing and as an inspiration for envisioning dynamic synagogue life. I look to Chabad (represented by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, No. 4) as a paradigm for Jewish outreach, warmth, and engagement. I look to Rabbi Elliot Dorff (No. 38) for thoughtful and compassionate guidance through thorny legal questions, and he has opened my eyes to the possibilities of traditional Jewish law to address contemporary needs. I look to Rabbi Irwin Kula (No. 17) as an exemplar for how Jewish wisdom can be communicated meaningfully to a broad audience. Rabbis Jill Jacobs and Shmuly Yanklowitz have made Jewish social justice work mainstream, giving my colleagues and me a deep and rich textual context for making this world a better place. The list goes on, and I know others feel the same way.

Are there snubs? Sure. If the list were a thousand names long, there would be snubs. There are also always rabbis who don’t deserve to be on the list. And the list does not include enough women and clearly prefers rabbis on the coasts.

But perfection is an impossible standard for this or any other ranking. And few can argue that the rabbis on the list are not ones who are transforming the face of American Judaism.

For example, consider this year’s top rabbi, Sharon Brous. Rabbi Brous is a prodigious talent and has successfully built one of the country’s most vibrant and dynamic spiritual communities. She is a magnet for young, unaffiliated Jews. But that’s not why she’s top-ranked. Rabbi Brous is No. 1 because she has literally sparked a revolution in the Jewish world, a reimagining of what is possible in Jewish communal life. She has propelled rabbis, synagogue leaders and communities all over the world to build warm, authentic, spiritual Jewish communities that take prayer, learning and social justice seriously. Ikar-inspired communities have sprouted up all over the country. I am currently helping build one in Philadelphia, where (with the generous and visionary support of my synagogue, Har Zion Temple) we are energizing and engaging young and otherwise unaffiliated Jews in exciting new ways.

The selection of Rabbi Brous also hits on another important job that the list does for the community: it identifies the zeitgeist. Just as the Oscars, while not good at picking the best movies, give good indications ofthe state of public morality, the rabbi list reveals where we are and hope to be going as a community.

This year’s list reminds us that one of our great communal challenges is engaging young, unaffiliated Jews. It reflects our anxiety that our synagogues are in urgent need of dynamism, passion and uplift. It suggests that the role of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Jewish life is waning, while the importance of social justice and political activism is on the rise. The list shows that we are hungry for more interreligious dialogue and cooperation, eager to bring Jewish wisdom beyond the confines of the Jewish community, and passionate about fashioning a Judaism that is relevant to the needs of our rapidly changing world.

It is hard to overstate the importance of identifying these trends, celebrating those who are working hard to address the issues at hand, and hopefully inspiring the rest of us to get busy ourselves.

So disagree with the selections or the rankings, but don’t kill the list. A few bruised egos are a small price to pay for getting to see who we are, to honor those who have helped us get there, and to dream of who we want to be.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-knopf/in-defense-of-the-top-rabbis-list_b_2980859.html)  

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