Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf has written a defense of the Newsweek/Daily Beast rabbi list for the Huffington Post in which he basically makes the argument that since the list honors ‘influential' rabbis and not ‘best' rabbis -- even though it is called ‘top' rabbis (definition: the highest or most important rank, level, or position) -- that it is perfectly legitimate, not harmful and “succeeds” in its aim.
But Knopf’s defense distorts the debate about the rabbis list in several egregious ways. In his opening paragraph, for instance, I was especially disappointed to discover he considers the cover story I wrote about the list for the L.A. Jewish Journal a “ferocious polemic” (his ever-so-subtle suggestion came via linking to my piece with those words) since it was meticulously reported and thoroughly detailed; in fact, every single person who either conceived of or worked on the list is represented in the piece, as are a number of well-respected rabbis, many from the list, some not, almost all of which were quoted on the record. And, (unlike the Newsweek list) the story was contextualized with a range of concrete measures, which in addition to the interviews, included original graphs and charts. All of this was done for the express purpose of representing the subject’s fullness and complexity.
I’m not sure if Knopf read the piece, but if he had, he might take note; instead, he deigns to mislead his readers by suggesting that my story appeared “almost immediately” after the 2013 list was published, when in fact, the story appeared both in print and online about two weeks prior to The Daily Beast posting.
The most harmful error, however, is the result of a shocking misperception. In his piece, Knopf feels the need to mount a defense of individual rabbis, which implies that he either used the reportage as occasion to acknowledge his teachers and mentors, which is sweet, or he deeply misunderstood the Jewish Journal’s coverage. My reported story was a critical and analytical look at the history of the list and its impact on the scant but visible parts of the community who care about it; it was not at all about the worthiness or deservingness of individual rabbis (in fact, I noted my intense admiration of many of the listed rabbis in a recent blog post). Similarly, Dennis Prager’s opinion column for The Journal, to which Knopf also refers, explicitly states: “This is no reflection on the rabbis who made the list.” And indeed Prager took pains to single out those list-making rabbis he deeply admires.
The rabbis who make the list are really beside the point; and it’s worth noting that never during the course of my reporting was it revealed to me who would appear on the 2013 list. Instead, my reporting was based on extensive data my colleague Jonah Lowenfeld and I compiled, given the available lists from 2007-2012.
The point of my piece was not to suggest that the hard-working and very talented rabbis selected don’t deserve the acknowledgment; it was to question the purpose of the list. After all, the rabbinate is supposed to be one of the few places in American life where the centrality of holy work and higher thinking obviates the need for a competitive and shallow star system. But perhaps the writer James Salter was right when he wrote, "We live in the attention of others. We turn to it as flowers to the sun."