Well I did not make it to the Newsweek Rabbi list, or even the My Jewish Learning Real Top Rabbi list. It would therefore be easy for me to be critical of this whole venture of voting for America’s Real Top Rabbis. However, this Real Top Rabbi vote is a reminder that rabbinic work is being carried on daily by some genuinely talented rabbis who do not make the headlines, but really deserve a thank you from all of us.
This whole phenomenon does raise a vital question as to what characteristics we look for in our rabbinic leadership. This is certainly a very old question without a simple answer neither today nor in years past.
This past Shabbat I taught a Rashi from Leviticus 9:7. Moses instructs Aaron to approach the altar. Since Aaron was already involved with the needed sacrifices, Rashi apparently saw this instruction as superfluous and therefore assumed something was happening that warranted this command from Moses to Aaron. “Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach [the altar]. So Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this [function] you have been chosen!”
One could imagine Moses being critical with Aaron here: Nu- get on with it, offer the required sacrifices, and do not hesitate! The Sefat Emet does not follow this approach. He understands Aaron’s bashfulness or reticence as a genuine religious/spiritual characteristic and one worthy of emulation. When commanded, Aaron acted, but with a certain hesitancy. What is that source for hesitating? Why not simply plow ahead eagerly?
I think it is not an expression of inadequacy to the task at hand. Rather, the Sefat Emet is suggesting that the serious religious personality has to take a breath, pause and consider: “what an awesome responsibility I have and an amazing opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah! What I am about to do is not something to be taken lightly. It is an extraordinary privilege to serve God and others. Am I truly worthy of it?” Not only a duty one must perform, a mitzvah is a statement of our worth and dignity. Have I earned the right to perform it?
As I write this it is Yom Hazikaron and this is being posted on Yom Ha-atzmaut. In this context I am reminded of one of my teachers, Rav Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He built an amazing educational institution whose students and teachers play important roles in Israel and world-wide. At a number of celebrations of the Yeshiva and at certain family celebrations he would walk around and sometimes express to nobody in particular “What did I do to merit this?” Now Rav Amital knew his talents and was not expressing false humility, but his sentiment was genuine. I think it came from this sense of amazement; how did he merit the privilege to create and nurture a yeshiva of the highest, spiritual, educational and moral order. It is the appreciation of this privilege that gives the religious person pause.
So, if you vote, vote for all the rabbis! And before you vote, pause and appreciate the privilege you have that these rabbis are your teachers and leaders.
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.