Something About the Newsweek Rabbi List

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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

  • Anonymous

    Excellent essay rabbi.

    Firstly, what they wrote about Rabbis Shachter and Kaminestsky happen to be true, but of course the question is whether the holding back of progress is all they are good for. I personally can’t list any benefit I recieve from either rabbis as a member of the Orthodox contingent (especially since I disagree with much of their views and opinions, particullary the ones listed in this very essay.) Other than reading Shachter’s books or occasionally hearing him speak I have no direct connection to him.

    The transition of rabbinic control from the pultpit rabbi to the Yeshiva dean was a huge error that has resulted in much of the problems we are seeing today.

    Very simply, the pulpit rabbi, whose job it is to deal with the laypeople and answer their lay related questions is someone who lives in the layperson’s world and can generally relate to his or her life. Therefor any answers or advice were grounded in real world experience.

    However, the Yeshiva Dean, whose main goal is to seperate himself from the world, to remain alone in the four walls of the Study Hall, has zero knowledge of the layperson’s life and has no experience in the real world and his advice and opinions cannot represent real world and correct ideas.

    TL;DR: taking advice and halachic rulings from Yeshiva Heads is like taking stock market advice from a tibetan monk.

    • dov

      If you go back 25-30 years you will see Orthodox had a few key Rabbanim, like Reb Moshe Feinstein zt’l who led the whole community as a whole.  We had true mesorah and leadership.  The issue I see for today is we have lost that trait.  With so many people receiving Smicha, and making their own Psak, people out doing each other we keep upping what is considered “Frum.”  We have lost the advent of people having a Rav to go to. 

      Consider I went to Yeshiva for Elementary school, then a different Yeshiva for High School, then some go to Eretz Yisroel.  Hopefully get married, live in a community.  Who is the Rav that you are associated with, where is that connection that we rely on.  I will go one step further on Mesorah.  If I ask a question to most Ravs where there is differences in opinion based on Chasidich, Msnagid, Litvuk, etc…  Most Rabbonim will give a Psak.  Very few will ask can you ask your father what your Menhog is.  I sadly see a world where we lose the normal Gedoliim, who are approachable to the average person.  
      As far as the list goes, I look at ALL the names on it and laugh at their attempt at wooing me to buy their magazine.  

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm, I wonder what R’HS reaction would be to these three items:

    1. “pushed Yeshiva University to the right” … perhaps he might agree and consider it a good thing. Perhaps much of the Orthodox world considers this a good thing?
    2. “against various forms of modernity in the name of preserving rigorous Halacha” … I think he would definitely agree that this one is good and critical for Orthodox Jews. I mean, who could possibly be against “preserving rigorous halacha” from the onslaught of modernity?
    3. “dominant, intimidating force behind the RCA” … I think he might support the first adjective and not the second.

    I am very interested in knowing who exactly wrote the blurbs – there is no way someone outside the Jewish world (or outside the Jewish orthodox world) wrote them.

    • Anonymous

      1) is very true, and many are not happy. One breakoff yeshiva already opened as you well know. My work brings me to Washington Hghts on occasion and more than 50% of the ppl on the street on dressed like the people in Beth Medrash Gavoah. Of course clothing doesnt mean anything, but it means they are more comfortable identyfing with the right than ever before.

      2) I once read a good comment: “if each generation was allowed their own changes in the name of progress over the past 2,000 years, Judaism today would be completely unrecognizable to that of the Rabbis” – of course it has changes a whole hell of a lot anyway, but in spirit its the same.

  • S.

    If Orthodoxy wants to be seen as something other than anti-modern and reactionary then it needs to be those things. Society is not going to understand the grandeur of something which is in principle opposed to the things which society is for, any more than frum society understands the grandeur of the society which it opposes. It’s not unfair so much as it just is.

    • S.

      I will say that the only reason why R. Shmuel K made the list is because he is the only one who speaks to the media.

  • wif

    Does Newsweek discuss into its criterion?

    • They do. Follow the link at the bottom of the post.

  • So reading between the lines, what you’re saying is we should pressure them to put you on the list next year? 😉

  • Passing Through

    Curious as to why you don’t consider Rabbi Krinsky to be to the right wing of the Orthodox spectrum . . .

    • You’re kidding, right?

    • You’re kidding, right?

      • Passing Through

        Not at all.  Unless you’re simply saying that Chabad doesn’t count strictly as “Orthodox Judaism”.  I’m ok with saying that too, but not sure you go that far . . .