Number my rabbis

What is it that makes us human — the capacity to love? to act morally? our self-awareness? our ability to envision our own mortality?


It’s our compulsion to make lists.

After all, when was the last time your caught your cat making a grocery list? Or your schnauzer compiling names of the 10 hottest (female dogs) on the block? Do birds keep life-lists of the different varieties of humans that they have spotted?

This dramatic epistemological revelation popped into mind today when my friend Melissa alerted me to an annual Newsweek feature of which I had been blissfully unaware, a list of “The 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America.”

Actually, Melissa called my attention to a COUNTER-list of influential women rabbis called “The Sisterhood 50,”  compiled by The Forward newspaper because only six out of Newsweek‘s 50 were of the female gender.

I of course looked immediately to see if either of my temple‘s two wonderful women rabbis were on the Sisterhood list. (They weren’t.)

Then I marvelled at how, in the space of just 40 years, we have had such a blossoming of female rabbinic leadership in America that you can have a Top 50 list plus hundreds of women rabbis who don’t even make it onto that list.

And then I thought about how silly this all is.

Why on earth should Newsweek, of all places, care about the top 50 rabbis in America?

Newsweek doesn’t in fact pick those 50 itself — it just reprints a list compiled for the heck of it by two Hollywood executives, Sony Pictures chairman CEO Michael Lynton and Time Warner executive vice president Gary Ginsberg.

(The old stereotype had it that the Jews ran Hollywood. Now apparently that is all wrong. It is Hollywood that is running the Jews.)

Or, as Melissa put it: 

I’m still wondering why Newsweek does a 50 most influential rabbis list, and why the head of Sony gets to pick them…. 

In any case, why do people insist on doing these rankings? The US News & World Report college rankings have wreaked enough havoc on the world of higher education, with universities purposely trying to recruit larger and larger pools of applicants just so they can turn them all down and raise their selectivity statistics. 

Perhaps that’s the next step for the rabbinate. I can see it already: Rabbis across the country doing marriages like crazy and encouraging their congregants to breed, breed, breed, just so that they can decline to do brisses and naming ceremonies:

“Oh, Rabbi Gudnick is so influential! Everyone wants him to do their baby’s bris, but US News & World Report says he only accepts 8.7 percent of those that apply.”

Newsweek and its CEO-arbiters ranked their rabbis, one through 50. So perhaps somewhere in some shul tonight a rabbi is tearing his or her heart out over why they were ranked number 27 and not 26.

Meanwhile, The Forward’s list of women didn’t rank its 50, just listed them alphabetically — which I guess is a little more feminist and egalitarian.

But still. Why are we driven to do (and read) this stuff?

I don’t quite think this is what Moses had in mind when he wrote a book called, in English, “Numbers.”

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2 Responses to “Number my rabbis”

  1. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Sue L. wanted to post this comment but had, um, technical difficulties so I’ll post it for her:

    One of my personal favorites is Parade Magazine’s periodic (annual?) list of the world’s worst dictators (e.g., Shouldn’t it, after all, be “best” dictators?

    And if you’re a dictator, do you aspire to be #1 (=worst?). Is your mom proud if you make #1, and ashamed if you’re #10?

  2. Susie M Says:

    So, inquiring minds want you to find out…why does the Sony CEO get to pick the best rabbis…and why in the world would he know who they are?

    P.S. Love the comment above, too! Hilarious!

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