Newsweek’s annual list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America has hit the
stands. The 2010 list, admittedly “mischievous” says Newsweek, is compiled by
media moguls Michael Lynton (Sony Pictures) and Gary Ginsberg (Time Warner), so
it is no surprise that this would be entertainment.
For their listing,
Lynton and Ginsberg use unscientific criteria. They seem to enjoy hype,
appreciating hobnobbers and hondelers more than ministers. They assign the
highest number of points in their ranking to rabbis known nationally or
internationally, and who have political or social influence outside the Jewish
world. In other words, clergy score as rabbis for the masses, not for the
Fewer points are awarded to rabbis considered leaders within
Judaism or their movements, and who have made an impact on Judaism in their
careers. Silly me. And here I thought we wanted our religious leaders to be
teachers, preachers, scholars.
Apparently a place on the White House
guest list trumps the traditional pulpit.
NO. 1 ON the Newsweek list is
Chabad’s Yehuda Krinsky, who served for decades as an assistant to the late
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Krinksy is virtually
unknown outside Chabad, and is believed to lead only a portion of the divided
movement. Then comes Eric Yoffie, the long-time head of Reform Judaism, who may
be the most important rabbi in the US as the leader of some 1.5 million Jews who
worship in 900 synagogues.
To have Chabad trailed by the Reform either
says a lot about the severe divisions within American Jewry, or that the
rabbi-watchers perceive Chabad as “authentic” Jews although they themselves
probably belong to Reform temples.
Krinsky and Yoffie are followed by
Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and defender
of the embattled Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Hier is given kudos for his
“tireless work combating issues such as anti- Semitism, bigotry and
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However, if Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League were
ordained, we’d have a challenger for the anti-anti-Semitism czar on the rabbi
David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of
Reform Judaism in Washington, was No.
1 last year, and is in the top 10
this year. He is without a doubt one of the most influential rabbis and legal
scholars in the US. Had the list compilers been more Jew-savvy, they would not
have missed Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, now the head of Agudas Yisroel, the
long-time director of its governmental affairs department, and one of the finest
church-state lawyers in the US.
You can’t have a list of influential
rabbis without Shmuley Boteach. He tells you so. He contends he is “America’s
rabbi,” which he apparently became after leaving the UK. He is the only rabbi I
know of who sells bobblehead dolls in his own image. His big claims to fame,
other than dazzling selfpromotion skills, are his books about sex and about
Michael Jackson – two things with which Americans are obsessed. You have to
wonder, though, if Jackson hadn’t died last year, and if Boteach had not been so
quick to publish The Michael Jackson Tapes, would the rabbi-watchers have
noticed him? The Newsweek list seems to be primarily by Jews for Jews who don’t
know much about Jewish life.
The order is confusing. At No. 17, for
example, is Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, president of the Reform movement’s Central
Conference of American Rabbis. In terms of influence, it makes no sense that she
is ahead of Avi Weiss, the Orthodox rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale,
New York, who in his maverick manner has advanced the rights and public
leadership roles of Orthodox women.
Jeffrey Wohlberg, president of the
Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative rabbis, ranks ahead of Yehiel Eckstein,
founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and
Again, by the influence scale, Eckstein is way up there compared to
Wolhlberg. Besides, how many Jews, including Conservative ones, can identify the
Rabbinical Assembly, much less its leader?
PEOPLE LIKE lists: the best songs of
the decade, books of the century, the worst-dressed. It is tempting to treat
this list as another lark; the moguls candidly say it is. But it is irritating
because it likens rabbis to rock stars whose stock rises as they mingle with the
outside, rather than serve the community – unless the community is a very large
one, that is.
There are several pulpit rabbis on the list who are noted
because they preside over congregations of more than 1,700 or 1,800
It is quite easy to be a rabbi without a pulpit, with none of
those irksome rabbi tasks to do, no congregants desperate with fear,
problems. And I think it is fairly easy to be a rabbi with a large
True, it must be tough recalling the names, family histories and
1,700 members, but I suspect the rabbis of these cathedrals have
resources at their disposal.
And that brings me to the slights
Much as I view the list as a cross between poor taste and a bad joke, it
rankles me that Sharon Kleinbaum is ranked at only No. 25. Kleinbaum is a
courageous pioneer for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and
Jews. She is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New
Kleinbaum, hired in 1992, had the dual tasks of leading a growing
in need of sustenance and acceptance, and ministering to a community
cruelly struck by the AIDS epidemic. It is hard to imagine a more
essential rabbi – on the pulpit, in congregants’ homes and among the
To be amused or appalled, you can find the list on
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