Personally, I find the idea of Newsweek listing the Top 50 Most Influential Rabbis a tad offensive. It feels like a dog and pony show. It also seems like the same people make the list every year for their lifetime accomplishments. So it is a measure of yearly influence? Or cumulative influence? And who cares anyway?
My feelings on the list are most aptly expressed by this post by Steven I. Weiss from 2009: Why Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis…Aren’t
But looking at the list and the descriptions of the rabbis and their accomplishments is a very enlightening and somewhat infuriating exercise. Aside from Rabbi Hier and Rabbi Cooper, who are not rabbis of congregations or schools and whose work is mostly outside the orthodox world, there are only two (maybe three) rabbis on the list that are to right wing of the spectrum of orthodox Judaism. They are Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky. Clearly, these rabbis are very influential. There is no disputing that.
The blurbs beside the top rabbis describe their contributions to society. The accolades are varied but are all somewhat positive. The two exceptions to this were Rabbi Schachter and Reb Shmuel. Their blurbs are far from complimentary.
Rabbi Schachter (emphasis mine):
Considered one of the few living sages for his sweeping expertise in Talmud and a beloved teacher by many, Schachter is widely thought to have pushed Yeshiva University to the right religiously, socially, and politically. He is against various forms of modernity in the name of preserving rigorous Halacha (Jewish law), opposing organ donation for brain death, not recognizing female prayer groups, and resisting the initiatives of his fellow YU alum Avi Weiss (#11) to foster women as spiritual leaders. Schachter is a dominant, intimidating force behind the RCA (see Goldin, #16), but his sense of humor was glimpsed this year when he made a brief cameo appearance in one of the hip Maccabeats’ viral music videos.
Shorter version: Rabbi Schachter is a bully who opposes the things that we find important. He is on this list because he is good at keeping orthodox Jews as backward as can be.
Reb Shmuel (emphasis mine):
The vice president of the Haredi umbrella organization, Agudath Israel of America’s Supreme Council of Rabbinic Sages, Kamenetsky has enormous sway when it comes to the official Haredi position on social and political issues or halachic questions. Last fall he urged the rabbinate to sign a “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality,” which advocates “reparative therapy,” and last July, while the tragic disappearance of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was in its second day in Brooklyn, he said that sexual abuse should be reported not to the police but to a rabbi, who would then decide whether to call the cops. (After an uproar, he softened this position.) The dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva in Philadelphia, Kamenetsky is one of the most esteemed gedolim—arbiters of Jewish law in the ultra-Orthodox world.
Again, Reb Shmuel’s value is only in his influence as maintaining the silly ways of orthodoxy.
Now, whether you or I agree with these positions is not the issue here. The issue is that achievement in our world is recognized by lack of progressiveness. That Newsweek chooses to portray orthodox Judaisim in this light is disturbing.
But where are the right wing orthodox rabbis who do positive things for the global community and don’t just work hard to prevent change? Do they exist and get ignored? Or do they not exist?
I think they exist. But I don’t think they are portrayed as the heroes of our community by insiders or by outsiders. The leaders of the Jewish community have become roshei yeshiva. They are not even rabbis of congregations. They are rabbis of institutions of higher learning. It is their job to protect our Torah institutions. But the rabbis out there in the shuls are doing other things. They are perhaps pushing the envelope and perhaps they are also building communities and making positive change. But the reality is that our leaders are the leaders of the yeshiva. Their “building” is internal. The yeshivas are packed with young men studying Torah. That is a great accomplishment. Newsweek doesn’t mention that. It only mentions the negative.
But there is a point here that relates to our communities. The rabbis of the adults and the families of our community get less respect and have less clout in orthodox Judaism than ever before. Newsweek sees it. We see it. Is it better for us or worse for us?
Like everything, we take the good with the bad. But we must recognize that orthodox Judaism seems to be starving for rabbinic leadership outside the yeshiva. Maybe that will get some of our best and most influential rabbis who are “building” on the outside and not just the rabbis who are “protecting” on the list.
Link: The Daily Beast