The value and virtues of Top 10, 25 or 50 lists are endlessly debatable. But what is indisputable is that they start discussions – and disputes. The publication this week of the new “Top 50 (U.S.) Rabbis” compiled by Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman & CEO Michael Lynton, News Corporation Executive Vice President Gary Ginsberg and JTN Productions CEO Jay Sanderson and published by Newsweek, and the addition this year of the “25 Most Vibrant Congregations” is no different.
From the moment these lists first appeared, people have been attacking them for being too hip and media-centric, to ignoring traditional (read: Orthodox and yeshiva) rabbis, and for ranking the un-rankable. At the same time, they have sparked debate as to what makes a rabbi effective in the modern world.
Shmuel Rosner, as usual, offers a pungent critique of the list and its worth:
In a real world of serious rabbis such list will change only very slowly and very rarely (Can you imagine: this year, Hillel is tops Shamai for the number one slot!?). The fact that Newsweek can tweak its list so quickly is testimony to one of three things:
- Newsweek doesn’t do a serious job.
- Rabbis aren’t as important as they used to be.
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly says, “The list is meant to be picked over, so pick over it I will,” and he does, with his own tart and funny comments on many of the list’s leaders. Here’s what he says about Newsweek’s pick of David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty, and FOO (Friend of Obama) as No. 1:
This pick is typical of the list, which slights congregational rabbis (the ones who interact with, you know, Jews), but it makes a certain amount of sense: Saperstein has become a central player in the liberal wing of American Jewry, which is the wing on steroids.
Finally, when I passed this list around to members of the current class of Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative Fellows, they made similar comments. One wrote: “Friends, we’re all fine rabbis. Please let’s not get sucked into this hideous ranking system before Zagat starts reviewing our sermons and congregations.”
With all that as prologue, several Hartman-affiliated rabbis and their congregations, as well as FOH (Friends of Hartman), made the list:
Two synagogues on the Top 25 list are represented in the current cohort of Rabbinic Fellows:
- Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y. (Rabbi Etan Mintz)
- Congregation Beth Am, Palo Alto, Calif. (Rabbi Josh Zweiback)
Past members of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program on the list are: Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, new head of the CCAR, and Ed Feinstein of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA. The list’s chief FOH is David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.