March 14, 2013
Is the Newsweek rabbis list good for the Jews?
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Nevertheless, being on the list is now one of the most cited accomplishments for the rabbis it names — inscribed at the top of Wikipedia pages and proudly pronounced in bios and speaking introductions, even as it has alienated some colleagues. For those fortunate enough to make the list, the acknowledgment is flattering and can be professionally beneficial: “It grants you a certain public recognition and credibility, and, most important, if you have something to say, it makes your voice louder,” one top-ranked rabbi said.
But for the vast array of rabbis left out, the list can have a pernicious downside. “They’re looking for influential people, which means celebrated, not sanctified; celebrated, not compassionate; celebrated, not deeply spiritual,” said Feinstein, who has been on the list four times. “Now why a rabbi would use that as a criteria is beyond me. I think it’s sheer foolishness.”
While critics claim that the list promotes secular values over spiritual ones, the list’s makers claim it offers a map of the Jewish-American landscape. It also seems to encourage the idea that a rabbi matters more if he or she pursues public attention. By rewarding so-called newsmakers, “the list itself actually redefines the goals of the rabbinate,” Klein said. Stardom has become the new standard. But how did a measure that many think is arbitrary, inappropriate and misunderstood manage to impose a Hollywood-style hierarchy onto a holy calling?
“I’m the first person to acknowledge that it’s extremely problematic to rank clergy,” admitted Abigail Pogrebin, who has worked on the list since 2011; this year, since the addition of a professional reporter, she is one of four people involved in the selection process. “You could even say it’s un-Jewish to give people numbers, as if there’s any real meaning to them. I can’t really defend that.”
Pogrebin is a New York-based journalist and television producer of some prominence, with credits on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” and is also the author of the 2005 book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” Her book, also an exercise in distinction, profiles 62 of “the most accomplished Jews in America,” according to a blurb on Pogrebin’s Web site, and its acclaim is what brought her into the orbit of the organized Jewish community. Her discernment of Jewish “stars” elicited speaking invitations from synagogues across the country, and consequently sparked her interest in the purview of the religious world. “I became a little bit of a rabbi groupie,” she admitted.
Pogrebin caught the attention of Lynton and Ginsberg, who recruited her to do the list (she is also a longtime close friend of Lynton’s wife, Jamie). At the time, after four annual lists, another big change was afoot: Sanderson was pursuing the top post at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (to which he was later named), and needed to bow out. Suddenly, he aspired to the “community-building business” and the divisive ranking of rabbis didn’t quite jibe with his new mission. “I thought the list had run its course,” Sanderson said recently, brushing it off like a bad habit. “I don’t want anything negative now. I’m in a different role.”
But though it was Lynton and Ginsberg who conceived the list and whose names are most closely associated with it, they vested the bulk of the work it required with Sanderson and then Pogrebin. And from the first list, in 2007, they introduced a broad set of criteria by which they measured rabbinic influence: Is the rabbi a leader within his or her community or denomination? Has he or she made an impact on the Jewish community? Are they nationally renown? Do they have a strong media presence or political connections?
Sanderson and Pogrebin both claim they approached the task with sincerity and seriousness, though when asked about the specifics of their system, both replied with some ambivalence and were, at times, defensive. For example, how did they decide which rabbis to consider? How did they measure the precise “impact” of one’s influence? And what metrics were used to justify ranking one rabbi over another?
To be fair, the list makers have never called their process a science. To the contrary, they have been exceedingly transparent about the list’s subjectivity from the start and never made claims about methodical integrity. Both in Newsweek and during subsequent interviews, they have insisted their system is “unscientific,” “arbitrary,” “subjective” and “inexact.” And they openly state that their interest is more in showmanship than spiritual virtuosity. As religion editor Miller wrote in the preamble to the second list, in 2008: The makers “ranked rabbis according to their ability to raise money, publicize causes, sell books or chat on television news shows — not according to their ability to lead, inspire, teach or console.”