Believe it or not, I've got something positive to say about Newsweek.com's widely panned recent ranking of the 50 most influential rabbis in America - this despite that fact that I belong to the legions of the rankled unranked.
The list, a product of three Hollywood bigwigs with entirely too much time on their hands, came up at my seder. I for one hadn't given it a second look - OK, I did give it a thorough first look - and the whole episode might have passed uneventfully had not my mother asked, "Are you on it?"
But rather than dialing up a therapist, I chose to take her query as a signal that this list needs to be taken seriously. Whether or not it is a good thing, it is the way people think. Rankings are everywhere. Call it the "American Idol" factor, or the Lettermanization of America. Everyone needs to be rating something. There are even top 10 lists of top 10 lists.
Come to think of it, Jews have been creating such lists for centuries. In Chapter Five of tractate Avot alone, there are nine top 10 lists. And, in an interesting twist, here the rabbis rank their congregants. (So what type of learner are you? A sieve, a funnel, a sponge or a strainer?)
Magazines routinely try to quantify quality in reviewing doctors, lawyers, hospitals, colleges and politicians. That quantification is often deceptive. We can rank billionaires on net wealth, but even Forbes can't rank how much they've bettered humanity. I know and admire several doctors who have turned up on New York Magazine's "best of" lists and, while I'm happy for them and their kvelling mothers, I have no idea what makes them better than others whom I also know and admire.
How does one measure the influence of a rabbi? Is it as simple as the Hollywood formula has it: 20 points each for fame and "impact on Judaism," and 10 apiece for "media presence," community leadership, movement leaders, the "size of their constituency" and a bonus 10 for "greater impact?"
The Newsweek list puts a premium on popularity. For Israel Salanter, a 19th-century rabbi, humility and integrity were the true measures of rabbinic greatness. He once claimed famously that a rabbi who is liked by everyone is not a rabbi (though he added, "one who is liked by no one is not a mensch"). These sentiments were echoed by subsequent leaders like Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who feared no person and eschewed popularity when it flew in the face of conviction. How many points does the list give for integrity, humility and conviction? How many for wisdom?
I've had several opportunities to do scholar-in-residence weekends outside my congregation. It's a wonderful experience, but there was nothing like returning home afterwards. Being a rabbi is about connecting with others on the deepest, most human level, something that rarely can be accomplished over a single Shabbat, no matter how spectacular, and something that can best be done in smaller communities, not mega-shuls. And once that personal connection is made, its depth cannot possibly be measured.
I've also had the horrific responsibility to officiate at four recent funerals of people in their 30s. On each occasion, the only thing I had to offer were words that came directly from my heart. Who can measure the impact of such words on a grieving parent? Each one of those eulogies had a more profound influence than anything I've ever had published.
The Jewish future is being forged by hero-rabbis in the trenches, one Jew at a time.
Miraculously, despite the lousy rating system, the moguls chose well. Their list contains many role models (and close friends) who have influenced me greatly. They all deserve to be recognized for the quality of their teaching and the depth of their humanity rather than the extent of their popularity. There is no question that among them are several who should be considered "gedolay ha-dor,' our generation's greatest.
One more positive thing: The list's very appearance signals that, in some small way, the place of the rabbi in American Jewish life is veering its way back to the center, where it has always belonged. There's something comforting in the fact that rabbis maintain a level of mystery and fascination in the public eye. This should be no surprise to anyone who has ever gone to a swim club, kids' soccer game or anywhere else Jews tend to gather, where inevitably the discussion turns to rabbis. But now, as our communal center of gravity is slowly shifting back toward the synagogue, the rabbi's role is shifting too, away from the ceremonial and symbolic and toward the substantive, from mere fascination to outright respect. A rabbi is now just as likely to be giving the keynote address as the invocation.
Several years ago, I proposed that American Jewry needs a chief rabbinate. While the suggestion was only half serious, the Newsweek list signals that perhaps the time has come to look for new ways to recognize rabbinic excellence - and to understand the true criteria for achieving it.
Most of the last century's great Jewish leaders were rabbis. For every Brandeis, Buber or Ben Gurion, there was a Heschel, Kaplan, Soloveichik, Silver and a Wise. Their greatness was not measured on a point system, but by the power of their message, the passion of their commitment and the depth of their love for Judaism and humanity. For decades, however, the rabbinate has been marginalized and, as result, Jewish leadership has been infested with mediocrity. The appearance of the Newsweek 50 signals that a new era of rabbinic greatness might just be at hand.