March 14, 2013
Is the Newsweek rabbis list good for the Jews?
One night some years ago, two powerful Jewish men in media, one from New York and one from Los Angeles, were walking together through the streets of Jerusalem when they hatched a little idea.
Michael Lynton, then CEO and co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and his longtime friend Gary Ginsberg, who served as a lawyer in the Clinton White House before becoming a vice president of News Corp. (and, consequently, a close personal adviser to Rupert Murdoch), were strolling around outside the King David Hotel when they noticed all “these little plaques” on the various buildings identifying the institution inside. “I remember talking to Gary about the fact that in certain other religions — most notably the Roman Catholic Church — there’s a central authority that determines doctrine, theology and policy,” Lynton recalled. But Jewish religious authority in the United States, he realized, “It’s a little bit of a mystery. Who are the people who determine these things? And then we thought: Wouldn’t it be fun, and a little bit mischievous, to put together a list of who these people are and rank order them?”
When the men returned from Israel, they decided to enlist some help. Since Lynton, now CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Sony Entertainment, Inc., considered himself something of an outsider in the Jewish community, he sought an additional partner who knew the community more intimately. He called Jay Sanderson, who at the time was president of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) in Los Angeles and whom Lynton had known for many years. The timing proved propitious. Sanderson had been intensifying his involvement in Jewish communal life and, aware of Lynton’s power in Hollywood, had been industriously trying to engage him in Jewish causes. “So Michael calls me, and he says, ‘You know the Vanity Fair list of the most powerful people in Hollywood?’ ” Sanderson recalled in a recent interview. “ ‘What do you think about us doing a rabbis list?’ ”
[Related: Is it time to end ‘Top Rabbis’ list?]
Sanderson was intrigued, but also thought the idea was a little nuts. “He had this notion we’d do a list and it’d be in U.S. News & World Report,” Sanderson said. “I think it’s crazy, but I’m willing to entertain it, because it’s using the lens of rabbis to talk about Jewish issues and start a series of conversations.”
Over the next weeks and months, Sanderson, Lynton and Ginsberg began brainstorming over The List. “We were kind of like guys talking about World Series baseball. Like, who can name the most dead rock stars?” Sanderson said. “And I’m introducing them, I’m contextualizing rabbis — if you have a rabbi like Marvin Hier who literally can get the president of the United States on the telephone, as well as numbers of world leaders, and has a mailing list of over 100,000 and is winning Academy Awards — that defines a rabbi differently than the rabbis we grew up with.”
Sanderson proceeded to pull “three all-nighters” trying to develop criteria for evaluating rabbis. He came up with a point system, “some way to figure out who was No. 1 and who was No. 2,” and in doing so, began to reflect on the highly idiosyncratic role of rabbis in the 21st century. “I’m thinking to myself, if the role of rabbis has changed and it’s reflective of change in the Jewish world, imagine what a thought-provoking piece this could be if we did rank them. I drank the Kool-Aid. I still think there’s no way anyone’s going to print this list.”
But a short while later, Ginsberg invited Sanderson to his office in New York. When he arrived, Lynton was already on the phone and a stately mystery woman with lightning-colored hair inquired about the rabbis list. “Who are you?” Sanderson recalled asking. “I’m Lisa Miller, the religion editor of Newsweek, and I want to print the list.”
One year later, Miller would recount for Newsweek the thrill that followed that meeting: “The list ran the week before Passover, and before it came out, the machers” — as she called Lynton, Ginsberg and Sanderson — “conceded that they were having more than a little bit of wicked fun imagining the kind of storm that was about to rain down like so many frogs or locusts.”
And rain it did.
“That list is about penis size,” one Reform rabbi from Los Angeles complained.
“They’re looking at who’s famous, who’s a celebrity, and that’s not what being a rabbi is about,” Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein added.
“The essence of the rabbinate is in the intangibles and you can’t measure the intangibles,” another said.
This spring’s list, dubbed the “Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Top 50 Rabbis” since the demise of Newsweek magazine’s print edition, is due out soon and by now has become a tradition — albeit a highly controversial one. “To reduce a calling like the rabbinate to this Americanized competitive reality binge diminishes its whole purpose,” Rabbi Zoë Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, said. Critics find it odd that the subjective assessment of no more than three or four people in any given year — none of them with ecclesiastical experience — has become the prevailing barometer of rabbinic achievement. “That list isn’t significant,” said Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. “The most important rabbi on that list is No. 51.”