It isn’t likely that very many people exhaled at long last with relief at the news that three entertainment industry executives had compiled their pet list of “America’s 50 most influential rabbis.” But there was still something worthwhile, if not terribly comforting, to learn from the venture.
It was, to be sure, an odd bird, rendered stranger still by its prominent reportage in Newsweek magazine, a periodical that once actually reflected its name. The roster, in any event, became fodder for much mirth-making – jubilant press releases from groups boasting connections to one of the Fab 50, and snickers from more disinterested corners.
There were even some knitted eyebrows, since lists of “influential” Jews more commonly reside in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, where they are usually festooned with swastikas, SS bolts and the like.
And there was some puzzlement too. Why, even if for some reason one wished to identify paradigms of Jewish influence, would one limit the focus to clergypeople? What of Jewish teachers, activists, writers?
What I found thought-provoking, though, was what the trendy troika’s choices say to us about the contemporary concept of influence.
To be sure, included on the list are some noteworthy people, including the one at its top, Rabbi Marvin Hier. But, at least to my lights, any lasting influence he will have derives from the educational impact on society of the Simon Wiesenthal Center he heads. The list-compilers, however, gave him their first-place nod because of … his association with “almost every world leader, journalist or Hollywood studio head.” How silly of me.
Even closer to truly enduring influence are the accomplishments of another name on the roster, that of Rabbi Nosson Scherman (although, at #45, he was listed well after a “Kabbala” snake oil salesman and a radical political guru famous for cloaking extreme left-wing stances in Jewish garb). By conceiving and building the Jewish publishing and translating powerhouse called ArtScroll/Mesorah, Rabbi Scherman has helped render accessible to more Jews than ever before a wealth of Jewish textual sources – including the entire Babylonian Talmud.
But those men and a few others on the list – like Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Program – are the exceptions. The bulk of the coronated received their crowns because of their connections to the rich and famous, or for their promotion of “progressive” positions at irreconcilable odds with Judaism. The point system the Hollywooders employed, moreover, gave particular weight to criteria like “Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally?” And: “Do they have a media presence?”
Well, being famous or photogenic must certainly be nice. But, as any of a large number of contemporary celebrities readily evidence, such attributes are superficial and fleeting – to put it mildly.
Surely the compilers of the list, with their credentials in the entertainment industry, must realize that. And yet still they seem to conflate influence with celebrity.
Judaism’s understanding, I submit, is very different.
Influence in the Jewish view, particularly when rabbis are being considered, is measured in the energizing of authentic Jewish learning and ideals. Put simply, the coin of the Jewish realm is not trendiness but Torah. And what it purchases is not Jewish clout but the Jewish future.
Measured by that standard, to those sufficiently foresighted to separate the effective from the ephemeral, the 50 most influential rabbis are likely unknown to most American Jews. And, in fact, they would be scandalized to find their names on any “most” list. They are modest Jews who shun the limelight and whose momentous influence lies in their effect on their students, congregants and followers – to whom they impart timeless and authentic Jewish wisdom. Wisdom that is not just pondered but lived, determinedly and proudly, and passed on to future generations.
Some of those truly influential rabbis head yeshivot or seminaries, of which there are dozens in the United States – many of them having educated and inspired thousands of students. Others are Chassidic rebbes; others, respected congregational leaders. And others still are teachers or lecturers, some of them presenting Torah classes that draw large and enthusiastic crowds. One offering, in Brooklyn, attracts well over a thousand attendees each week – and is broadcast to other locales where at least as many Jewish men and women gather to participate at a distance.
Although the title “rabbi” in the Orthodox world is not used for women, thousands of students mourned like daughters of the deceased when an Orthodox woman teacher, lecturer and life guide passed on two years ago; she was eulogized at her funeral by Orthodox rabbis of remarkable stature. And, through personal memories of her wisdom and advice as well as tapes of her lectures, she continues to teach countless Jewish girls and women today – and surely will for many years to come.
Such, dear reader, is true Jewish influence.