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Reading between the Lists

As long as humans have been writing, humans have been making lists and ranking things.  Some lists are trivial, some significant, but all are instructive, speaking first about the prejudices and interests of their creators.  The new Daily Beast/Newsweek list of "America's Top 50 Rabbis for 2012" is, like most American lists, whether of rabbis, cars, or colleges, designed to shape reality as much as reflect it.

Relevant Links
American Jews, American Judaism  Ruth R. Wisse, Jack Wertheimer, Standpoint. Two leading scholars meet to discuss the state of contemporary American Jewish life and the challenges to it from within and without. Is there cause for optimism?
Haunted Houses  Allan Nadler, Jewish Ideas Daily. The most consistent feature of synagogues in the land of the free is a chronic inchoateness marked by extreme architectural, spiritual, and liturgical malleability, and an almost endless shiftiness.
Spirituality Lite  Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas Daily. The Jewish Renewal Movement is brimming with avowedly noble aspirations. Why are the movement and its writings so shallow?

The list, complied by Abigail Pogrebin, Gary Ginsberg, and Michael Lynton, showcases the American compulsion to treat all facets of life as a competition.  It aims to capture the newsworthiness and "impact on Judaism" of rabbis, as well as their media presence, leadership, and size of constituencies.  The authors correctly make no apologies for their subjectivity and offer the disclaimer that they "never expected it to be taken as seriously as it is." This is unlike, say, the U.S. News & World Report listings of colleges or hospitals, which are taken deadly seriously by their subjects and by consumers. The list is admittedly skewed towards the two coasts and, to keep it from becoming "unwieldy, fixed, and dull," neglects "rabbis who keep their heads down and continue to do their pastoral, spiritual, or organizational work year after year."

The passion for the new and newsworthy is precisely a feature of American Jewish culture in the 21st century. It is therefore either odd or reassuring that 18 of the 50 rabbis on the list lead congregations, albeit of vastly different sorts. Pride of place goes to large and established institutions with many hundreds or thousands of members and a wide array of programs, like David Wolpe (#1)'s Sinai Temple in Westwood, Marcia Zimmerman (#34)'s Temple Israel in Minneapolis, and Arthur Schneier (#27)'s Park East Synagogue in Manhattan. Smaller congregations, such as Andy Bachman (#41)'s Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, are also highlighted. The message is that, contrary to certain expectations, predictions, and hopes, congregations (broadly defined to include traditional synagogues as well as interest- or identity-based groups) continue to be a focal point for American Jewish life.

The list's denominational breakdown, whether by accident or design, also looks oddly like that of American Jewry: five slots are Reconstructionist, 16 are Reform, nine Conservative, eight Orthodox, seven Modern Orthodox, one Haredi, three Jewish Renewal, and one independent. What the list does not reflect are the implosions of the Reform and Conservative movements. The jarring problems of synagogue and denominational membership are only implied by frequent references to the Reform movement's Rabbinic Vision Initiative, spearheaded by Central Synagogue's Peter J. Rubinstein (#3).
It is therefore predictable and dismaying that over 20 of the rabbis touted as the "top" are the heads of major Jewish institutions, denominational movements, seminaries, or educational and community institutions. The top-heavy structure of American Jewish life, evident to anyone who continues to participate in (and pay for) its organized forms, is unwittingly displayed. Readers might also ask whether the upheavals that have gone on within these institutions, and which are briefly reported on in the rabbis' biographies, are designed to protect the institutions or better serve the community.

Even more dismaying is the aspect of Jewish life that is conspicuous in its near absence. While many of the list's rabbis are involved in adult education or outreach (including, at #33, the three broadly-smiling "stars" of the independent Mechon Hadar in Manhattan), only one day school head or secondary educator, Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan's Ramaz School, made the list (#26).

The fall of the day school from grace (and the complete absence of camping, non-sexy but shown to be important in strengthening Jewish identity) is a harbinger of things to come. Day schools, fantastically expensive, are out; adult education, at the advanced, remedial, and outreach levels, is in. Such adult programs also only thrive on the coasts where there is money to support them and critical masses to take advantage of them (although the patient, global work of Chabad rabbis, the very definition of rabbis who keep their heads down—notwithstanding a #2 slot for movement leader Yehuda Krinsky—runs counter to the image projected by the list).  In this light, and with respect to the shockingly high cost of Jewish living, it is worth recalling that over 80 percent of American Jews live in and around only ten urban centers. Adult education and outreach are inherently praiseworthy, but there is a hint of defeatism in the failure to put today's children front and center in the Jewish agenda.  

"Outreach," as in Kerry Olitzky (#31)'s  Jewish Outreach Institute, also merges into social action.  IKAR, the Los Angeles-based "progressive, egalitarian Jewish community" headed by Sharon Brous (#5), sponsors weekly Torah study in the morning and a "Green Action Party" in the afternoon. Social action, social justice, and social welfare are all well represented, showing that American rabbis are expected to be progressive moral exemplars as much as or more than teachers of Torah and explicitly Jewish values.

It is worthwhile to contrast the Daily Beast/Newsweek list with the "Forward 50," which is constructed along cultural as well as religious and political lines. Only Richard Jacobs (#7), the incoming head of the Union for Reform Judaism, made the top five of the Forward list (territory he shared with left fielder Ryan Braun and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), but a scattering of other rabbis were included. The picture of American Jews and Judaism presented by the "Forward 50" is even more strongly skewed toward social justice and good works.

Does any of this paint a picture of the American Jewish community, outside the minds of the editors? Is the list a snapshot, a caricature, a wish list? At best the Daily Beast/Newsweek list is useful in spite of itself, and in spite of being embedded in a maddening kaleidoscope of the weighty and the idiotic, from comedian Stephen Colbert's musings on youth unemployment and a list of "5 incredible ski spots" to Paul Begala's preemptive attack on the Supreme Court for potentially striking down the Affordable Care Act.

This context matters in that the Daily Beast/Newsweek is marketing a Jewish story to non-Jews. That story is resolutely positive; the Jewish community has earnest leaders, most of whom are under 60, doing good works with their eyes set firmly on the future. The institutions they lead are dynamic and the causes they promote are wholesome. Grinding, prosaic reality is pushed to the background, along with the truly tawdry aspects of Jewish life and rabbinic leadership. There are no child molesters, tax cheats, or organ brokers, and no one demanding that Israel be dismantled. Overexposed self-promoters are at a minimum (tabloid fixture Marc Schneier clocks in at #35 for his "consistently bold work on Jewish-Muslim coexistence," while the previously ubiquitous Shmuley Boteach drops from #11 to #30). The Jewish community does not appear to be shrinking, or aging, or torn apart by dissent over Israel, women, or gays. The Daily Beast/Newsweek list is almost enough to give one hope—which perhaps in the end is what is needed.

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Rob on April 4, 2012 at 8:11 am (Reply)
The assertion of "defeatism in the failure to put today's children front and center in the Jewish agenda"--i.e., that "day schools are out"--is true only of non-Orthodox Judaism. When Jews value country club membership and bragging rights about their childrens' admissions to Ivy League schools more than they value their children's Jewish souls, then their Judaism and Jewish children suffer. In the Orthodox world, I see successful doctors and lawyers living hand-to-mouth, driving ten-year-old cars, and leaving themselves impoverished at retirement in order to pay for day school tuition, all for kiddush hashem. Even when non-Orthodox are able and willing to pay day-school tuition, it generally goes for naught because their children see and adopt the hypocrisy of their parents when the kids learn Torah in school but eat treyf and violate shabbos, leading to further assimilation and intermarriage. There is no future for Judaism in those who do not live a Jewish life that is distinct in obvious ways from non-Jewish life.
Gil Student on April 4, 2012 at 8:21 am (Reply)
One year, I was speaking to probably one of the most powerful Orthodox rabbis in the country in the week when this list came out, and I mentioned to him that his absence from the list speaks volumes about its inherent problems. He said that it's his job to make sure he's not on the list. His role is to improve the Jewish community and, to some extent, promote his organization. It's not to promote himself.
Danny M on April 4, 2012 at 10:20 am (Reply)
I am now in a deep sleep. Thanks.
Larry Kaufman on April 4, 2012 at 10:36 am (Reply)
Although this list is always preceded by a disclaimer as to subjectivity and an explanation of the biases in the criteria, it nonetheless provokes criticism that could theoretically be avoided by changing its name from Top 50 Rabbis to 50 Top Rabbis. While the nuanced distinction would be unnoticed by most readers, it would give the compilers a short way to explain their method.
Jon Lopatin on April 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm (Reply)
I think you are unnecessarily nasty toward people working to strengthen and improve "major Jewish institutions, denominational movements, seminaries, or educational and community institutions." You ask whether "the upheavals that have gone on within these institutions . . . are designed to protect the institutions or better serve the community." One might also ask whether webzine writers are endeavoring to provide new information and analysis about the institutions of the Jewish community--or using snide innuendo to suggest naked self-interest on the part of others while making the writers themselves seem oh-so-clever. If you think the institutions mentioned here are behaving badly, say so and provide some evidence. Otherwise, how about a little derekh eretz?

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