Metro Views: Amusing... or appalling

The ‘Newsweek’ list of influential rabbis seems to be for Jews who don’t know much about Jewish life.

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 tribe.
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 hate.”
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 ranking.
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 Jews.
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 families.
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, pain and problems. And I think it is fairly easy to be a rabbi with a large congregation. True, it must be tough recalling the names, family histories and dynamics of 1,700 members, but I suspect the rabbis of these cathedrals have multiple resources at their disposal.
And that brings me to the slights category. Much as I view the list as a cross between poor taste and a bad joke, it still rankles me that Sharon Kleinbaum is ranked at only No. 25. Kleinbaum is a courageous pioneer for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Jews. She is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York. Kleinbaum, hired in 1992, had the dual tasks of leading a growing congregation in need of sustenance and acceptance, and ministering to a community that was cruelly struck by the AIDS epidemic. It is hard to imagine a more influential or essential rabbi – on the pulpit, in congregants’ homes and among the mourners.
To be amused or appalled, you can find the list on