America’s Top Fifty Rabbis
If you ever wondered how to judge the success of a rabbi, you know how complex the matter can be. What are the criteria, the measuring rods, by which a rabbi is judged?
But fret no longer: Newsweek magazine on April 2 solved the problem by publishing its annual list of “America’s top 50 rabbis.” What yardstick was used is not made clear. Was it Torah learning? Apparently that was not a factor, since among the jurors there seems to be no one who could measure Torah learning. Was it the ability to uplift and inspire a community to return to Torah learning and living? That, too, was evidently not an issue, since among the jurors there was no one who could appreciate that quality. The magazine’s press release does mention “impact” as a criterion, but it is not clear how “impact” was weighed. Was it the size of the rabbi’s institution, or the amount of publicity he received? Or was it the rabbi’s popularity, which was gained by never taking a stand on anything not previously approved by the NY Times editorial pages? Rabbinic popularity, after all, is not difficult to attain: never push congregants to live more Jewish lives, to perform more mitzvos, to refrain from gossip or desecration of the Name of Gd, to devote more time to Torah study, to give more generously to tzedakah.
One wonders who chose the choosers. There were no rabbis on the committee, no Judaic scholars, no religious academicians. Instead, they were captains of industry – top executives of Time-Warner, Sony and CBS. Their only qualification to be judges of rabbis is that they all seem to be Jews. (In which they are very traditional, for is it not an old Jewish article of faith that every Jew, no matter how unlettered, is a rabbinic mayvin?…)
It is not even certain if any one of the judges is personally an observant Jew, or is conversant with any basic Jewish text. How very strange: those who choose prizes for literature are themselves writers; prizes in physics are awarded by other physicists. It is quite correctly presumed that only those who are themselves experts in the field can measure the qualifications of their peers. By what standards are the Newsweek jurors connoisseurs in what constitutes a good rabbi, much less a “top” rabbi? On this, Newsweek has no comment.
How does one evaluate the success of a rabbi? Much of what a genuine, dedicated rabbi does is so far beneath the radar, so unseen, as to defy categorization. Malachi 2:7, which refers to the teaching role of the ancient kohen, is often the model for the ideal Rav: “Sifsei kohen yishmeru daas, veTorah yevakshu mipihu, ki malach haShem Tzevakos hu” – “The kohen’s lips maintain wisdom, and they all seek Torah from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lo-d of Hosts.” It is rather unlikely that Newsweek used this verse as their yardstick, but what Malachi is saying here is that the ideal Rav is a messsenger from Gd Himself, has deep knowledge of Gd’s laws, and inspires his followers to preserve His Torah. He is, in a word, a genuine “rabbi,” which, of course, means “teacher.”
One of the most effective and successful rabbis I know is a living embodiment of this verse. He serves in a remote town with a small synagogue and tiny membership, but he devotes his entire life to his flock. He teaches: how to read Hebrew, how to study Chumash, how to practice mitzvos, how to daven, how best to serve Gd. He uplifts them, raises their sights to realize what it means to be a believing, learning, and practicing Jew. He is not well known, no one outside of his town has ever heard of him, but his personal example – and that of his wife – is on such a high level that they are a living sanctification of Gd’ s Name, and have brought countless people back to the joys of Torah life. I suspect that in the eyes of his Creator he is a very successful rabbi. But – surprise, surprise! – he failed to make Newsweek’s top fifty.
The criteria by which Newsweek’s rabbis were chosen are so nebulous and so without substance, and the jurors so pathetically unqualified, that it is hardly an honor to be chosen – although inadvertently there happen to be one or two worthy names on that list. Nevertheless, the more I think about it, the more do I feel that not to be chosen is the real honor.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.