Newsweek’s Most Influential Rabbis

I love America. G-d bless America. It’s the only country I know that does not have a chief rabbi, thanks to a very divided Jewish community, and a government that is constitutionally barred from appointing religious leaders. Fortunately, elements of our so-called fourth branch of government, specifically Newsweek Magazine, has decided to anoint a list of 50 rabbis that it considers to be the most influential in the country. Did American Jews ask Newsweek to choose a Chief Rabbi for us? Do we need one in America?

The list appears to give very little on details justifying the picks, and often, the same names reappear year after year. It is disappointing, because in contrast, the Jewish Week’s annual 36 Under 36 is much more comprehensive in its picks, and the same name never appears in two consecutive years. Each pick is given a detailed profile, that helps readers understand why he or she was chosen for the list. While I am upset that my friend Heshy Fried did not make the cut this year, I find 36 Under 36 to be a far more superior list than Newsweek’s 50 Rabbis.

Let’s consider the top dog, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of Chabad. “As the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Krinsky is the contemporary face of the Hasidic branch,” writes Newsweek. That’s funny, because unless I’ve seen Rabbi Krinsky at public rallies, parades, or Tweeting his thoughts, it’s a stretch to say that he is as public as the Rebbe was in his lifetime. What has Rabbi Krisnky done in the past year anyway? Thankfully, the fine journalists of Arutz Sheva approached the rabbi and received some answers.

The second place honor goes to Reform rabbi Eric Yoffie, who “represents 1.5 million Jews in more than 900 synagogues in his role as president of the Union of Reform Judaism.” Really? Does Yoffie truly speak for every Reform Jew in America? Are there polls that back up this assertion? Does it matter? He’s planning on retiring soon, anyway.

From there, the list goes on with mostly the same names as last year. A few bright spots include Conservative rabbi Morris Allen, in his first appearance on the list, for inventing Hechsher Tzedek. Riverdale rabbi Avi Weiss shot up on the list to 18 from last year’s 38th place, thanks to the “rabba” controversy that he ignited. The rabba herself, Sara Hurwitz, also made the list at number 36. Not far from where her mentor was last year.

If Hurwitz can be included on the list, why not include any self-proclaimed rabbi then? Why not include rebbetzins, chazzans, or anyone else who uses the pulpit for a position of leadership in the community? Remember, before 1840, The U.S. did not even have any rabbis. Shuls were led by cantors, and self-described “Jewish ministers” or “reverends.”

In short, this Newsweek list should not be given much serious thought. If Newsweek really cared about the direction in which the American Jewish community is heading, its criteria would be based on innovators- those struggling to defend, reinterpret, change, or reinforce our traditions. Those who are helping keep members in the fold, attract new members, ease the transition for converts, grapple with contemporary issues like gays, settlements, and intermarriage, those building new communities, or keeping existing communities relevant. Instead, it is based on superficial items like synagogue size, political connections, and name recognition.

This is similar to how secular Jewish leaders are often ranked by their wealth and philanthropy more than their actual leadership qualities. This inevitably creates a list crowded with Bronfmans, Steinhardts, Lauders, and Bloombergs, at the expense of less wealthy but equally passionate and active individuals. While I can barely afford to give a chai for an aliyah at my shul, I work hard to attend pro-Israel rallies, organize thought-provoking lectures, invite people to my home for meals, and other good work. But because I am financially poor, I doubt I’ll ever make any of these lists of top Jews who care.

The Newsweek list is diverse on denominations (including leaders of the numerically marginal Jewish Renewal and Kabbalah Centre) but almost monolithic Ashkenazi. Where are the Sephardic, Bukharian, or Syrian rabbis? Why isn’t my community represented here?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Josh

    Are there even any Lubabs who consider Krinsky to be their leader? I thought most of them (especially in CH) hate his guts.

    • zalman

      the yechiniks consider him the antichrist and would probably lynch him if he walked into 770.

      • chosid

        Ignorance is bliss when you talk out of your cakehole, isn’t it?

        Rabbi Krinsky is in 770 quite frequently. And he has never been so much as threatened with violence.

  • jimmy37

    Seriously, most of these lists are nothing more than marketing tools to sell a magazine. The criteria and evaluations are arbitrary. The 10 Best, or 20 Worst, or 50 Most Anything lists get your attention. People want to identify with winners, and what better way to than to check out a Most list to see if you (or they) agree with the picks.

  • Julie

    Why is Newsweek ranking rabbis in the first place? Who is behind the ranking? I agree with some of it but it’s largely predictable except for the Chabad rabbi (he seems to have only inherited his rank instead of building it on his own like most of the other rabbis on the list).

    I was much more disappointed last year (or maybe it was the year before, I can’t remember) in the Forward 50 because it was like the list was made up by people who weren’t Jewish but were trying real hard to think of famous Jews or were going off a list on Wikipedia. Really, “Steven Spielberg”?

    • http://tevytown.wordpress.com Tevy

      Why rank rabbis? It’s good PR, of course…

      It gets people like you and me to click on their links, read their stories, potentially buy the magazines and debate the material.

      Clearly the chosen story idea is fulfilling some of those goals…
      But I’m sure you already knew this.

  • guyinla

    it’s not ranking greatest rabbis; it ranks most influential rabbis, who will inevitably have lots of political connections. and ftr krinsky isn’t the leader of chabad in the sense that he gives guidance to it’s members; he just runs the programs and finances.

  • Future Druggie

    Why do a list of Rabbis? What about influential priests/ministers/imams?

  • JEWISH DEMOGRAPHICS
  • http://conservadox.tripod.com Woodrow/Conservadox

    I don’t know who likes Krinsky and who doesn’t, but I do know that he (no doubt unintentionally) inspired this VERY amusing website:

    http://yudelkrinsky.com/

  • Bubba Metzia

    You know a list is complete nonsense when not only does it list Yehuda Berg, but it refers to him as “world’s leading authority on the Kabbalah movement.”

  • S. Tefilinov

    Rabbi Rabbs also didn’t make the list!

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