The fifth installment of Daily Beast- Newsweek’s Top Rabbis list appeared last week. The co-creators were Michael Lynton —Sony Pictures chairman and CEO, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of Time Warner Inc. Neither one seems knowledgeable or qualified to make such a list and Los Angeles is not known for culture. This year they brought in journalist Abigail Pogrebin, former 60 Minutes producer and author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. She helped edit Lynton and Ginsberg’s brainchild. Where the prior lists seemed all wrong, this one has its finger on something correct—media is the medium.
James Hunter in his latest book (discussed here) asked: why religious groups do not change American culture if they are so prevalent and dedicated? His answer is that they do not play in the big leagues and confine themselves to their parochial culture. This list lets us know who is playing in the media league. And for many rabbis in the coming decade reaching people will involve media, social media, networking, and preaching to those in power. Since Jews have reached the highest levels of society in the last years and the greatest acceptance in society of any group then this public media faith may be the way of the future for those who want to influence society. CLAL is now training rabbis to use the media and preach to general America culture as a whole what it calls “rabbis without borders.”
But what about the list? Is this order indicative of anything? Others have done excellent jobs of fisking prior lists – here, here, and here.
My angle is to look at the trends and not to look at the ranking at all and more importantly, not to look at the names. Not more than 25 actually belong on the list. The other 25 could have been interchanged with other names. But the trends are correct.
What are the trends?
Chabad represents authentic tradition to most Jews and most American Jews have some involvement with Chabad. Jews in Reform Temples eagerly await their shmura matzah from the local shaliach. In the public’s eye Chabad is mainstream Orthodox and has pushed most other forms of Orthodoxy out of the picture.
Denominational Rabbis are insulted that the Kabbalah Centre is on the list but the Kabbalah Centre, Aish, Chabad, and many other groups besides the major denominations have great influence over Jewish life.
If you are involved in an indie minyan then you are “in” this year. It does not matter which rabbi was honored.
If you are involved in Joshua Venture then you are honored.
If you are connected to the game changing foundations then you are on the list such as Bronfman, or Wexner. If the Jim Joseph Foundation had a rabbi in charge it would have been on the list, while if Wexner loses its Rabbinic director then it is off the list.
The list rewards interfaith work, involvement in politics, and those that criticize the system.
The list rewards anyone who is bringing change rather than having accomplished it. The prime case is that Rick Jacobs is on the list and Eric Yoffie is off even though Yoffie had another successful year of leadership. Something akin to the Obama peace prize.
Those proclaimed by the list are the members of the RVI who criticized the status quo of the Reform movement and seek to lead Reform into new terrains of the 21st century. But at this point, they are only critique not accomplishment. The list rewarded those who criticized the Conservative movement, even if the solution will not necessary come from those figures who issued the critiques. And it heavily rewarded Open Orthodoxy. This is a good chance for some of my readers to know what is going on in other movements. Go download their speeches and critiques. If Reform and modern Orthodoxy remade themselves in the 1980’s into success stories from their nadir, it pays to watch who emerges from the new Conservative and Reform initiates.
Many of the rabbis share the religious message of Oprah, the gospel of prosperity and individual growth. Religion relates to one’s own narrative. Many of the rabbis have appeared on TV or written plays or other forms of media.
Who are the intellectuals and authors that have broad appeal? David Wolpe, David Saperstein, Jospeh Telushkin, Jill Jacobs, and Arthur Green. The emphasis is on social justice, ethics, a narrative sense of religion. Note that Green is credited with environmentalism and pacifism, more ethics than pantheistic metaphysics. There needs to be more rabbis to step into the mass market book niche. More rabbis should be able to successfully have a public debate besides Wolpe. On the other hand, I wish someone more learned and bookish rabbis could learn to have an impact with their ideas.
Reb Zalman has been issuing a book every few months and is taking on a new following.
My readership does not first think of organizational rabbis or even synagogue rabbis but teachers of Torah in the broadest sense- Rabbis Green, Dorff, and Schachter.
And of course the first Rabbah is mentioned as an exemplar the way Sally Priesand was a celebrity as the first American female rabbi.
From this list, one sees that Open Orthodoxy has won the media war. American Jewry has accepted it and cheers it on. Returning to my point above from James Hunter, Open Orthodoxy may have lost the blog wars and the YI wars but blogs and the RCA are considered provincial and not competing in the main cultural arena. In the major cultural arena as defined by Hunter, Open Orthodoxy seems to have won.
But from where I sit and type, Open Orthodoxy seems to have few applicants and ever fewer strong applicants. It is struggling for legitimacy and is not getting major positions. Am I too far away? Too close? I dont see the change. And I found the choices idiosyncratic. The list is written as if there is a tidal wave of YCT rabbis reaching major pulpits. So I decided to directly ask one of the authors of the list who wrote a recent article on Avi Weiss.
Last year, the third member of the evaluation team Abigail Pogrebin befriended me on Facebook. Now what are Facebook friends for, if not for quick interviews on what they write? (For example, Peter Beinart on his Orthodoxy.)
1] I know that you wrote an article on Avi Weiss. Your list is heavily slanted in its Orthodoxy section to Open Orthodoxy.
It’s true that my reporting for the Avi Weiss story for New York Magazine made us more familiar with the leading figures in Open Orthodoxy but we didn’t decide to include them because we favor their philosophy necessarily — more because they’re clearly at the vanguard of a significant movement that both balances Orthodox requirements and re-envisions Orthodox learning and ritual. Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz were already on the list last year so there were some new additions, as was YU’s Hershel Schachter, who is as far from Open Orthodoxy as they come. It should also be noted that Schachter entered the list higher than Hurwitz and Linzer.
One thing that we think is important, is that it’s very significant that we put Krinsky first. So to those who feel that “true” Orthodoxy got short shrift, no ranking gets greater notice than the number one slot.
2] Do you think they have that much influence? And on whom?
I think there’s no question that YCT is having real influence because its graduates are going to some of the nation’s most prominent Hillels, shuls, and organizations –and they’re bringing their new approach to Orthodoxy with them. If you look at the job placement list of YCT’s graduates the last ten years, I think you’ll see what I mean. These rabbis are going to some of the top positions in Jewish leadership and clergy and they’ll have an impact on their students and congregations. I think there’s no question that many Orthodox Jews– who feel the old models are too fixed —have been responsive, despite the discomfort and criticism of others who think Open Orthodoxy isn’t Orthodoxy.
3] How did you pick the open and modern orthodox rabbis? It seemed arbitrary.
There are obviously too many rabbis to include — in every denomination — but we chose the rabbis on the front lines of this reinterpretation of Orthodoxy who have been most on our radar over the last year. Part of the goal of the list is to tell readers what is happening in the Jewish world in terms of new ideas and leadership– no matter how controversial.
Editorial distance is important because we aim to include rabbis who meet our criteria, whether we “like” them or not.
4] Does the list offer any insight in your mind to the future of the Reform and Conservative movements?
Absolutely, we think the list reveals the internal tensions and dissatisfaction in both movements. Peter Rubinstein’s Rabbinic Vision Initiative, which was launched in the last year to very strong reactions — positive and negative — represents a bold questioning of the URJ’s effectiveness and relevance, and involved the participation of several rabbis on our list, who have some of the largest Reform synagogues in the country, namely Rick Jacobs, Steven Leder — who almost quit the URJ because he’s been so frustrated, David Stern, and Stephen Pearce.
As is well known, the Conservative movement is also doing some serious soul-searching, since many of its leaders feel its definition and virtues have become perilously unclear. See especially Ed Feinstein, who sounded the alarm at the recent convention in Las Vegas, David Wolpe — who has said that Conservative Judaism needs a definition it can fit on a bumper sticker, and Julie Schonfeld — head of Rabbinical Assembly — who is taking this precarious moment extremely seriously as she travels the country to hear from 400 of her movements rabbis to try to address the malaise.
5] Do you have any criteria for what is Judaism?
That’s a very interesting question and obviously more complex than I can answer succinctly, but basically I think we know that we’re recognizing Jewish leadership in the pulpit, the seminary, and in organizations, but we’re not listing people according to observance or whether they’re meeting some standard of what it means to be A Good Jew, or an “authentic” or “Halachic Jew.” When most Jews think of “Judaism,” they think of the religious practice itself — not just worship but study of Torah and Talmud, observing Kashrut, Mitzvot, etc. I don’t think we’d ever begin to list people according to some standard of an authentic Jewish life.
6] What do you keep getting asked?
Why weren’t more women on the list? (Although many reporters have noted there were twice the number as last year — see Marc Tracy in Tablet, Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the Forward, and The Jewish Week)– and I would just like to remind those critics that 13 our of 50 women amounts to 26%, which exceeds the proportion of women in the rabbinate. We still want the list to reflect the reality of Jewish leadership, which doesn’t mean to suggest we don’t know there are plenty of other influential women rabbis doing significant, important work.
One side note from the list is that Rav Schachter is only being documented by his critics similar to the way the Hatam Sofer was only documented by those who opposed him. The Hatam Sofer was a strong leader of his rabbinical followers and offered appropriate leadership for his communities. But since his followers could only write hagiography we only hear the side of those authors with whom he differed. So too Rabbi Schachter is showing up in the history books as an opponent of people he disagrees with and not for his own sake. It is unfortunate that he is unlikely to produce a student to write a critical analysis.
If offered to fly out to LAX to work on next years list, I have in mind 2-3 Centrist and Yeshivish names that could be added to the list. In the meantime- Which Orthodox Rabbis have a national effect on all of America’s Jewry?
OK- now all those who emailed me that you wanted me to post on this topic, here is your chance to comment and discuss.