The annual Newsweek/Daily Beast list of America’s fifty top rabbis came out recently. Like many of my colleagues I always read it eagerly to see who got noticed and honored. I revel in reading the names of friends and colleagues whom I regard with the same awe as the Newsweek crew. I always wonder how they determine the list and think of colleagues who coulda/shoulda/woulda been on the list if I had written it. I shake my head at some of the choices, not sure what the reviewers had in mind – but who am I to know, I’m just a rabbi, not a consumer of rabbinic services. Then I shrug my shoulders at the whole exercise. I don’t know what it means, anyway.
But this year the list generated some interesting reactions among some of my colleagues and friends. Some have voiced criticism of the whole idea of honoring rabbis in this way. After all, aren’t rabbis supposed to be humble servants of the Jewish people? The idea of singling out rabbis to call them the “best” in some ways does dishonor to the whole community of rabbis who give their hearts and souls, and in many ways, the whole of themselves. We do this not for honor and fame, but out of devotion to God, Torah and Israel, to bring honor to the Jewish people.
Other colleagues reacted to the slights they perceived on the list. One rabbinic friend started his own campaign to nominate America’s top rabbis using Facebook. (I learned about it when my name appeared on the nominated list, which just made me laugh.) MyJewishLearning.com launched a campaign for nominations and votes for the top rabbis, egging on possible competition between congregations or organizations to get “their” rabbi up there in the ratings.
So what’s going on here? I think this is a very real sign of a gaping hole in our culture — we desperately need heroes. We are starved for strong, inspiring, talented, transformational leaders. Living in a challenging time, filled with rapid change, and so much cultural, political and religious divisiveness, we are all seeking the comfort and hope that a strong leader can offer.
Many Jews feel a deep need for spiritual nourishment that they have not found in synagogues. In a culture that notices and honors those who achieve celebrity status, it is appealing to have celebrity rabbis who might just give us hope and direction.
Psalm 121 pleads, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” We need leaders cast in the mold of Moses and Miriam — courageous, visionary, creative, innovative, nurturing, and also human.
The Newsweek list of their choices for the top 50 rabbis represented leaders in this mold. I am grateful for their leadership and happy to honor them. But it surely must go beyond this. The reactions to “the list” reminds us that there are many heroes of lesser fame and stature whose contributions to the lives of many people are equally as noteworthy, and perhaps even more impactful.
And still we need more — first, by stepping back from the mentality of celebrity and super-human expectations that we learn from our culture. We need to give encouragement and support to emerging leaders. And most importantly, we do best honor to all of our leaders by joining them in the task of transforming our world.