Monday, May 05, 2008

Newsweek Publishes Annual “50 Most Influential U.S. Rabbis” List

Newsweek has published its second annual list of the “50 most influential rabbis in the U.S.” As was the case last year, the first time the list came out, the top 50 is destined once again to become the subject of intense debate surrounding the names on the list, the criteria for selecting them, and the identity of the selectors. Setting aside petty rivalries and the squabbling about why so-and-so made it into the top 10, why he (or she) is absent, and how they could have him on a list of rabbis to begin with, the most pertinent observation that has been made about last year’s rankings, and again now, is that the obvious prerequisite for making it onto the list is an effective public-relations operation and high-visibility media presence.

The three who compiled the list are all major players in the American media market, and besides being quite obviously warm Jews who enjoy calling themselves machers, it is difficult to say what other expertise they have that enables them to assess a rabbi’s influence. And the criteria they put together for grading the rabbis says as much.

A total of 30 points is awarded depending on how well they are known nationally and internationally and whether they have a media presence. Another 30 points are available for political and social influence and having a greater impact beyond the Jewish community. In other words, 60 percent of their ranking is based on factors not usually connected with a rabbi’s traditional role. Their Jewish leadership, their influence on Judaism, their work with their own communities, and the size of those communities counts for another 40 points.

The compilers took this observation to heart, and this year, while keeping the main list more or less the same (with changes in the rankings, of course) added a second list of the “Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis in America,” those with the ability to inspire and lead communities and individuals.

However, this column is not going to be about what makes a rabbi influential in America; you can read about that in dozens of blogs.

What really interested me is that when looking at this combined list of 75 influential rabbis of one of the largest and richest communities in Jewish history, none of them have any significant influence in that other major Jewish community, Israel. Almost none of them are even known in Israel, outside a very small group of people concerned with Israel-Diaspora relations. Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, appears at the top of the list for the second time. He might be one of the best-connected Jews in Hollywood, but I’m willing to bet that 99 percent of Israeli Jews have never even heard of him or the Wiesenthal Center, or else they think that it deals with Nazi-hunting.

Number two on the list (up from 12 last year), Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, might have been interviewed twice over the last few months in Haaretz, but his influence on anything that happens in Israel is less than negligible. Even within the small Israeli Reform community, his power is limited due to the independent positions taken by the Israeli Reform movement and the uneasy relationship it has with its American “parent organization.”

Last year’s number two, down to four on the current list, Yehuda Krinsky of Lubavitch, and arguably the most powerful figure in the Chabad establishment in the U.S. following the Rebbe’s death, while not being a household name, is probably the only rabbi on the list with some kind of influence outside America, due to the international character of the Lubavitch movement.

But since the whole Lubavitcher structure is based on strong shlichim (emissaries) running their own show wherever they’re based, and anyway, even when the Rebbe was alive, it was already seriously factionalized, Krinsky would find it hard to overrule the Israeli leaders. Besides, Chabad has a lot less influence on Israeli politics today than it did a decade ago, when it had the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Another Lubavitcher on the list, Shmuley Boteach (number nine), enjoyed in the 1990s a brief period of notoriety in Israel for his books on sex, but that has long since passed. Number 11, Kaballah guru Yehuda Berg, gets a brief mention in the Israeli press whenever his acolyte, Madonna, comes for one of her visits, but that’s it. Number 16, Zalman Teitelbaum, leader of the Satmar chassidim (well, at least some of them) has a middle-sized community also in Israel, but their radical anti-Zionist ideology renders them entirely irrelevant outside the charedi world. The rest of the list are total nonentities in Israel, and indeed almost anywhere else in the Jewish world outside the U.S.

A list of the most influential rabbis in Israel would read like this: Yosef Elyashiv, Ovadia Yosef, the Gerrer Rebbe, Mordechai Eliyahu, and so on—elderly ultra-Orthodox leaders of chassidic sects, Litvak yeshivas, or their Sephardi counterparts and groups of radical young settlers. These rabbis command the allegiance of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of followers, control political parties and whole government coalitions, who with one word can launch huge demonstrations, block the entrance to Jerusalem, ruin businesses, build or dismantle settlements, and decide the fate of peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors. (Haaretz)

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