October 19, 2018

Time to end ‘Top Rabbis’ list

Kudos to the Jewish Journal and writer Danielle Berrin for a fair and balanced article about Newsweek magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Rabbis” list. Given the prominence of Los Angeles rabbis at the top of the list, one might have expected the article to cheerlead on its behalf. But the article was not only balanced; it probably left most readers with a negative view of the list.

Kudos as well to the rabbis who made the list yet were quoted as being critical of it, such as Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, whose critiques of the list were scathing.

The list actually accomplishes something very rare: it has no redeeming values, yet does great damage. It weakens an already somewhat fragile institution: the rabbinate. And it applies Hollywood values to a profession that least needs them — religion. Rabbis should not be regarded as stars.

This is no reflection on the rabbis who made the list. On the contrary, my beloved friend since high school, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, with whom I wrote my first two books, was on the list five times. And I am honored to count some of the Los Angeles rabbis in the top tier as friends for decades. Rabbi David Wolpe was one of the few non-family members in my home 20 years ago for my second son’s bris. I delight in his well-deserved success. So, too, I have often worked with Rabbi Marvin Hier since he came to Los Angeles; and I’ve known his colleague on the list, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, since we were both children in Brooklyn. As a member of a boys choir that sang at my parents’ Orthodox synagogue on the High Holy Days, he slept in our home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But as much as some of the rabbis on the list deserve being so honored, the list is degrading to the rabbinate. It is nothing more than a function of the contemporary preoccupation with celebrity over substance, of fame over significance.

Its destructive effects are legion.

It inevitably pits rabbis against one another.

It makes big synagogues similar to big film companies — looking to sign up big names.

It will surely affect at least some rabbis’ work by having them think about how they will make next year’s list rather than how to touch Jews’ lives.

It inflicts something Judaism prohibits inflicting even on animals — gratuitous pain — on almost all American rabbis. As the article notes, Rabbi Zoë Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah on the Westside of Los Angeles, “has never appeared on the Newsweek list, which she said, can sting. ‘I would love to be in such a place of holiness that things like that [list] didn’t bother me,’ she said. ‘But it’s only human to want to be recognized, and when a list like that comes out, it does make you question yourself.’ ”

The list also places a premium on “social activism” and on “innovation” — rather than on doing the far less glamorous things that rabbis should be doing. Will there be a list of the rabbis who visited the greatest numbers of sick Jews in hospitals? Who sat the longest with grieving widows? Who brought the most joy to Jews in nursing homes? Who blew shofar on Rosh Hashanah in the most homes of Jews shut in by illness? Or, for that matter, gotten the most Jews to take God and Torah seriously? Of course not. Those things are a) immeasurable, and b) of no concern to the makers of the list.

The list Hollywood-izes a sacred profession (just as, to be fair, American Jewish University’s [AJU] foolish program “Dancing With the Rabbis” did the same thing); sets at least some rabbis’ sights on fame; puts at least some rabbis in competition with another; distorts at least some rabbinic salaries; and tells at least some young Jews that in religion, like Hollywood, fame is what really matters. (Other than her fame, is there is a reason the AJU has invited Joan Rivers to lecture there?)

Even one of the list’s compilers acknowledges that some rabbis lobby to get on it. Isn’t that enough proof of the list’s insidiousness?

The most dynamic movement in Judaism today is Chabad. Yet, other than the movement’s head, not one of the thousands of Chabad rabbis (or their equally important wives) who live their entire lives far away from every one of their relatives and friends to serve Jews and on behalf of Jews (often as the only representative of Judaism to non-Jews in a city or even a country) is on the list. If you visit Cambodia, as I did a couple of years ago, you won’t find any famous activist rabbi in the capital, Phnom Penh. But you will find a Chabad rabbi. As you will in Katmandu, Nepal; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; not to mention Madison, Ala.; Bozeman, Mont., and hundreds of other cities in every one of the other U.S. states.

But not one rabbi running a Chabad House anywhere in the world made the Newsweek list. Why would they? They are neither “social activists” nor sufficiently “innovative” to make the list.

The damage having been done, it is now time to end this list. It would be a Kiddush Hashem, a loving act to fellow rabbis, and a lesson to young Jews about what matters, if every rabbi on the list publicly demanded that the list no longer be compiled. 

Finally, to the many rabbis not on the list who have done more good than many of the rabbis on the list, I offer this rule of life derived from a lifetime in public life: 

The famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).