This weekend The Jerusalem Post continued its annual Shavuot tradition of listing the world’s 50 most influential Jews. I was honored to sit on the jury; turns out list-making is as much fun as list-reading and list-bashing. But, at the risk of not being invited back, the more I entered into the spirit of Shavuot, the more I regretted the particular values we highlighted by issuing the list on that particular holiday.
When first invited to participate, the phrase “influential Jews” unnerved me.
Even as Jews celebrate our community’s many superstars, connecting the words “Jews” and “influence” stirs fears of anti-Semites accusing us of undue power and manipulation. But my inner Zionist defeated my inner-Diaspora yid. Even if that list delights anti-Semites, I defy their bigotry. If, say, Italian-Americans can list influential Italian-Americans without fear, Jews should list influential Jews without feeling insecure. Besides, when one of the people most responsible for America’s shortsighted and dangerous Iran nuclear deal, Wendy Sherman, makes the top 10, along with leading opponents of that deal including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we have vivid proof of our community’s diversity: some might even call it chaos.
Ultimately, my objection centers on what we should consider Shavuot values or Torah values. Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, commemorates receiving the Torah. It is a holiday celebrating learning and piety, humility and morality. These are not the qualities that usually propel people toward positions of wealth, power and influence in modern society. Shavuot is the holiday of the “still, small voice” not the booming, self-promoting advertisement. It is the holiday of Jewish values not secular accomplishments.
The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, remembered regretting, as a child, Moses’s absence from the Passover Haggadah (which was done to avoid deifying him).
However, Moses becomes the pivotal figure in Shavuot, the individual worthy of receiving the Ten Commandments and writing the Torah. Soloveitchik noted that Moses is remembered not as Moses the Great, Moses the Liberator, Moses the all-powerful, but as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher.
So, allow me a modest proposal. For next year, issue the list of influential Jews on Passover, when we commemorate the exodus from Egypt and our nation’s rebirth in freedom.
That is the holiday of history-making, of nation-building, of big-shotting, because individuals do indeed shape our times and liberate us from all kinds of shackles. List the 50 Jews who continue to lead us as a people – and broadly as people, as world citizens – for better and worse.
On Shavuot, the Post should issue a different list, reflecting this holiday’s spirit. Celebrate 50 Jews who have influenced others, spiritually, ethically, intellectually – and, my wife suggests, list them alphabetically or by their good deeds, don’t rank them from top to bottom. After Passover, while counting the Omer, building up to our reliving of the giving and receiving of the Torah, invite readers to nominate the teachers, mentors, social activists, intellectuals, friends, or relatives who most influenced them personally. Simply asking the question should trigger lovely thought processes, interesting conversations, and even perhaps expressions of gratitude to those who have broadened us over the years and helped make us who we are today.
In his new book The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks popularizes another Soloveitchik insight: the distinction between Adam 1 and Adam 2.
Brooks calls it résumé Adam versus eulogy Adam. Résumé – or better, obituary – Adam emphasizes our external drives and accomplishments, leading to the kinds of achievements that make headlines, and might merit fuller obituaries. Eulogy Adam emphasizes our internal virtues and values, leading to the kinds of connections our loved ones memorialize – and hopefully appreciate while we are alive, too.
Last year, one of the great Zionist educators of the second half of the twentieth century, Mel Reisfield, endured serious health crises. For decades, Mel was the charismatic visionary at the heart of the Young Judaea youth movement, America’s largest Zionist youth movement. Word spread that Mel was ailing. Within days over 500 people posted good wishes on a website, wishing this still-vigorous octogenarian long life. In the process, they shared memories of this larger-than-life character and thanked him for shaping their lives.
It was amazing and moving. Tributes poured in from every decade of his involvement with the youth movement, stretching back to the 1950s. Some thanked Mel globally for helping to shape them as parents, for inspiring them to become educators, for teaching them about the vitality of the Jewish people, for jump-starting the process that brought them to Israel, for embodying enduring Zionist ideals, for modeling how to lead a worthy, values-filled life. Others zeroed in more specifically, appreciating a particular word of advice offered, a standout lecture or insight, a well-timed and much-appreciated gesture of love, friendship or support.
Most also illustrated their wishes with warm, funny memories of a colorful character who mischievously taught dirty words in Hebrew when the public culture was more puritanical, who counted the points he scored rather creatively in basketball when competing against kids half his age, and who has always thrown himself into everything he does with a zeal and a passion few of us possess.
Usually, we wait for funerals to deliver such tributes. Mel and his wonderful wife Yaffa now have a book of printouts cataloging all these memories, all these thank-yous for a life well-lived, for values embodied, for ideals fulfilled.
My Jerusalem Post
colleagues have not responded yet to this proposal. Next Shavuot is a year away. Even without the spur of list-making, perhaps each of us should think, now: “Who has influenced me in my life, intellectually, ideologically, spiritually, morally, emotionally? And did I remember to thank him or her?” For many, it’s not too late....The author is a professor of history at McGill University. His eleventh book,
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press this October. Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video! Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.