America’s Top Fifty Rabbis

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If you ever wondered how to judge the success of a rabbi, you know how complex the matter can be. What are the criteria, the measuring rods, by which a rabbi is judged?

But fret no longer: Newsweek magazine on April 2 solved the problem by publishing its annual list of “America’s top 50 rabbis.” What yardstick was used is not made clear. Was it Torah learning? Apparently that was not a factor, since among the jurors there seems to be no one who could measure Torah learning. Was it the ability to uplift and inspire a community to return to Torah learning and living? That, too, was evidently not an issue, since among the jurors there was no one who could appreciate that quality. The magazine’s press release does mention “impact” as a criterion, but it is not clear how “impact” was weighed. Was it the size of the rabbi’s institution, or the amount of publicity he received? Or was it the rabbi’s popularity, which was gained by never taking a stand on anything not previously approved by the NY Times editorial pages? Rabbinic popularity, after all, is not difficult to attain: never push congregants to live more Jewish lives, to perform more mitzvos, to refrain from gossip or desecration of the Name of Gd, to devote more time to Torah study, to give more generously to tzedakah.

One wonders who chose the choosers. There were no rabbis on the committee, no Judaic scholars, no religious academicians. Instead, they were captains of industry – top executives of Time-Warner, Sony and CBS. Their only qualification to be judges of rabbis is that they all seem to be Jews. (In which they are very traditional, for is it not an old Jewish article of faith that every Jew, no matter how unlettered, is a rabbinic mayvin?…)

It is not even certain if any one of the judges is personally an observant Jew, or is conversant with any basic Jewish text. How very strange: those who choose prizes for literature are themselves writers; prizes in physics are awarded by other physicists. It is quite correctly presumed that only those who are themselves experts in the field can measure the qualifications of their peers. By what standards are the Newsweek jurors connoisseurs in what constitutes a good rabbi, much less a “top” rabbi? On this, Newsweek has no comment.

How does one evaluate the success of a rabbi? Much of what a genuine, dedicated rabbi does is so far beneath the radar, so unseen, as to defy categorization. Malachi 2:7, which refers to the teaching role of the ancient kohen, is often the model for the ideal Rav: “Sifsei kohen yishmeru daas, veTorah yevakshu mipihu, ki malach haShem Tzevakos hu” – “The kohen’s lips maintain wisdom, and they all seek Torah from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lo-d of Hosts.” It is rather unlikely that Newsweek used this verse as their yardstick, but what Malachi is saying here is that the ideal Rav is a messsenger from Gd Himself, has deep knowledge of Gd’s laws, and inspires his followers to preserve His Torah. He is, in a word, a genuine “rabbi,” which, of course, means “teacher.”

One of the most effective and successful rabbis I know is a living embodiment of this verse. He serves in a remote town with a small synagogue and tiny membership, but he devotes his entire life to his flock. He teaches: how to read Hebrew, how to study Chumash, how to practice mitzvos, how to daven, how best to serve Gd. He uplifts them, raises their sights to realize what it means to be a believing, learning, and practicing Jew. He is not well known, no one outside of his town has ever heard of him, but his personal example – and that of his wife – is on such a high level that they are a living sanctification of Gd’ s Name, and have brought countless people back to the joys of Torah life. I suspect that in the eyes of his Creator he is a very successful rabbi. But – surprise, surprise! – he failed to make Newsweek’s top fifty.

The criteria by which Newsweek’s rabbis were chosen are so nebulous and so without substance, and the jurors so pathetically unqualified, that it is hardly an honor to be chosen – although inadvertently there happen to be one or two worthy names on that list. Nevertheless, the more I think about it, the more do I feel that not to be chosen is the real honor.

This article first appeared in Mishpacha.

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9 Responses

  1. cvmay says:

    Newsweek magazine conducts a poll or survey and we, Jewish Readers are confused, perplexed and feel misjudged. Is this for real? Have you noted the Anti-Israel rhetoric, the slugs at Jewish CEOs, and their over-all POV. WHO REALLY CARES, NOTICES OR SHOWS CONCERN?

    I am more bewildered with the yearly deletion/void/ignoring of “Hey Iyar -Yom Haatzmaut” in our Jewish, Torah media and newspapers. For the first time ever, the Flatbush Jewish Journal FJJ had an OP-ed page on Yom Haatzmaut which was refreshing to skim through. Of course, the Rabbi (an unknown to most)with the favorable or positive POV towards the day was given little space and/or strength of analysis. Have we lost the ability to communicate, discuss and bring forth ideas on ISSUES? A sorry state for the youth and young adults of today which is headlined as “OUR WAY OR THE HIGHWAY”.

  2. cohen y says:

    lacosta
    April 26, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Even their clientele smirk at this

  3. dr. bill says:

    to say “one or two worthy names’ is a tad overdone. i wonder if a thought provoking Ph.D. (i read it) from the univerity of chicago, and a wonderful job at a prominent congregation, as well as more than 2 rabbis with solid orthodox credentials, are not deserving. despite a clear bias (to the left/fashionable modernity), some traditional stalwarts stood out. their choice is, IMHO, a real honor.

  4. David says:

    Who is the Rabbi in the remote town with a small synagogue? I want to move there. Thanks. Gut Shabbos Kosdesh.

  5. lacosta says:

    had the top 50 included 50 haredi [ and only haredi] rabbis, would there be any need for any commentary on how even the she’eino yodeah lishol knows We are right?….while we may not like the facts of the real world , the proportionality of the clergy listed by sectors in judaism was probably not all that far from the mark… while the haredi community may not like it , and must halachically besmirch all non Torah True clergy, the impact of many on the list is undeniable to those whose head is not in the sand….

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    Given the fact that the author is a member at a prominent R congregation in Manhattan, one can at least acknowledge the fact that she included R Shemuel Kamenetsky and RHS on the list in question.

  7. Shimon says:

    Point well taken. However, one should be careful about disparaging those on this list. Despite their probably not wanting to be on the list, there are a number of legitimate shul Rabbanim on this list as well as Rav Hershel Schecheter and Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky.

  8. CJ Srullowitz says:

    Fear not, Rabbi Feldman. Newsweek became obsolete a decade ago, while great rabbis such as yourself continue to educate and inspire.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    I wouldn’t put any Newsweek employee among America’s Top 50 Journalists.