Posts Tagged ‘rabbis’

In Conversation: Rabbi Andrew Straus

July 27, 2011

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the fourth in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Andrew Straus may be 50 and a veteran of three congregations, but he’s the new kid on theTemple Sinai block, having taken over as senior rabbi on July 1st after the retirement of Rabbi Steven Chester. Still, less than a month into his rabbinate here, it’s already clear to me that he is a wonderful addition to the Sinai community.

Rabbi Andrew Straus

Rabbi Straus — whose wife Karen and three children accompanied him from his previous pulpit in Tempe, Arizona — brings warmth, humor, energy and intellectual vigor. During his first Shabbat service at Sinai, he turned the d’var Torah into a room-wide back-and-forth on that week’s Torah portion.

He seemed to already know the names of half the attendees, and the other half he learned by asking them to introduce themselves as they made comments. I suspect that two decades from now, people will be saying the same thing about Rabbi Straus that they said about Rabbi Chester: I can’t imagine Temple Sinai without him. 

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Q: Tell me about why you became a rabbi.

A: I was entering my senior year at Brandeis, about to graduate with a history degree. I didn’t want to go to law school, and I didn’t want to pursue a PhD. So I said, ‘Let me find the longest graduate program that will put off the real world longer than anything else.’ And rabbinic school was another five years of graduate study.

That’s the joke answer, although there’s some truth to it. But more seriously,  I was looking at what I wanted to do with my life. I loved working in the Jewish community, so I started looking at getting a master’s in Jewish education or possibly in Jewish social work. At that time they would teach you education, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. Or they would teach you social work, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. The major focus was on the professional degree, not the Jewish studies.

What I wanted was to study Judaism in a more serious way – and then figure out what to do with it afterwards.

What I’ve since come to realize is that the rabbinate allows me to dabble in all of those areas. I get to do the social work stuff and the counseling; I get to be involved in education; I get to be involved in community organizing and community issues. Sometimes I think I’ve become a jack of all trades, though I’m not sure I’ve mastered any of them.

Q: What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?

A: I grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where my parents were very involved in the Jewish community.  They don’t use the term ‘refugees’ to define themselves, since they left Germany right after Kristallnacht and didn’t go through the camps. But that experience certainly shaped them and how they were involved in the Jewish community.

I very clearly remember going down to New York for Israel Day parades or for Free Soviet Jewry day marches. I remember the Yom Kippur War, just before my Bar Mitzvah, sitting with my father at the J.C.C. and making calls about who was going to donate what to support Israel. I remember some of the doctors in the community leaving to go to Israel for the Yom Kippur War.

For my parents, it was very important we have Shabbat dinner together. And more often than not, we went to Friday night services together too.

Q: Was your family Reform or Conservative? 

A: It was a Conservative congregation, a very liberal Conservative congregation. The first Shabbat that Conservative synagogues were allowed to count women in a minyan, our congregation was doing it, and at the first Shabbat where the Conservative movement gave permission for women to read from the Torah, we called women to the Torah.

Choosing Reform Judaism

Q: What drew you to become a Reform rabbi rather than Conservative? 

A: At the time, the Conservative seminary was not accepting women, and that didn’t make any sense to me. And at the time, it was understood that you would be shomer Shabbat — traditionally observant of Shabbat and kashrut and the mitzvot. If you didn’t do those things, it could be grounds for expulsion.

I didn’t want someone forcing me to do those things. I might choose to do them – but I didn’t want someone forcing me.

I realized that, if that’s where I was, it was really more of a Reform Jewish attitude than a Conservative one. So maybe I belonged at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Q: Are there parts of Reform Judaism that remain uncomfortable for you?

A: Growing up as a kid, I remember going to my aunt and uncle’s Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, and walking in and hearing the organ and the big choir and thinking, ‘God, I’ve walked into church!’

I’m not sure I could be in a fully classical Reform congregation – one that was still using the Union Prayer Book with services largely in English, where the cantor is hidden and there’s a pipe organ with a large professional choir. But the (Reform) movement has become much more traditional over the past 30 to 40 years. This embrace of tradition made it much easier for me. And I think I’ve become more liberal.

Rabbi Straus leads an interfaith program at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona / Photo by Temple Emanuel

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being a rabbi? There are so many different components of this job – the pastoral counseling, the Jewish scholarship, the social action, the interfaith work. 

A: Of the things you mentioned, I certainly enjoy the social action, the Jewish education, the pastoral counseling. If I could eliminate all the administrative pieces, that would be great. But that comes with the territory. I love teaching, I love counseling, and the social justice stuff often gets me jazzed, especially when you can see where it makes an impact on the community.

Broadening the meaning of Kashrut

Q: Do you personally feel more of an affinity for the spiritual/reflective aspect of Judaism or the tikkun olam/community-building aspect of Judaism? 

A: I’m not sure I see the two as separate. I understand Judaism as asking us to be God’s partners in healing this world. My understanding of the mitzvot is they are designed to help me live a conscious life – to help me think about these issues both interally for myself and the Jewish community, and for the external community. If I can use kashrut as an example, I think kashrut is about conscious eating. What am I about to eat? How was this animal slaughtered? Am I eating dairy or am I eating meat?

It takes an instinctive part of who I am – as an animal, I have to eat – and brings it to the head and heart. My pet dog doesn’t use his brain when he eats. I’m a human being, and I have to use my brain and my soul when I sit down to eat.

Q: I feel that kashrut often emphasizes the letter of the law rather than the meaning. I can understand putting attention into buying local, or into how food is produced. But that’s totally different from separating milk and meat and using margarine rather than butter at a meal. 

A: What I find really interesting is this whole new movement called eco-kashrut. The Conservative movement has taken the lead with a new certification called Hechsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek.  Traditional kashrut only looks at the last ten seconds of an animal’s life – how is it slaughtered? The Conservative movement is saying that’s not enough. We have to look at how that animal is treated through its entire life, how the workers in the slaughterhouse are being treated, how the farmers are being treated. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

In my own home, we eat very little meat. But when we do, we don’t look at whether it has been properly shechita’ed (slaughtered), because most meat in America today is slaughtered with relatively little pain — which is what kashrut is really about — but we do look for natural or organic or free-range. We expand the definition.

This doesn’t fit my Orthodox brothers’ categories. But it fits my categories, and it fits what you were saying about looking at the broader picture.

A God constrained by the laws of nature

Q: Let’s take a leap into the abstract and talk about God. What is your conception of God? 

A: It’s very much an evolving conception. I often joke — but am also serious — that the day I think I know with absolute certainty who and what God is, that’s the day I’ve stopped growing as a human being and a Jew. That’s certainly the day I should get out of the rabbinate, and probably the day I should die.

I am very much influenced in my thinking about God by writers like Mordechai Kaplan, Harold Schulweis, and Harold Kushner. They teach that God is not a supernatural God who can come down and fiddle in the laws of nature.

Kushner has written that we ultimately have to choose between a God who is all-just and a God who is all-powerful. And given that choice, I choose a God who is all-just. This means that God has created the world in such a way that the world operates by certain laws – the laws of genetics, physics, chemistry, all those laws that scientists are discovering on a regular basis.

It’s not that God chooses not to interfere with those laws, but that God cannot intefere with those laws. So when someone gets cancer, I can’t blame God for that cancer. At the same time, it means God doesn’t pick and choose and say, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, you’re going to be cured from your cancer but Mr. Cohen, you’re going to die from your cancer.’ That’s got to do with all the other scientific laws.

Where is God in all that? God is with the scientists and doctors inspiring them to discover cures or provide the best possible care that they can. God is with the community saying, ‘How do we support Mr. Cohen and Mrs. Schwartz through their healing process, and how can we be God’s partners in doing that?’

Q: If God is with the doctors studying cancer, is God also with the vandals who come and break into Mrs. Schwartz’s house while she is in the hospital? 

A: No. I would argue that the vandals – or the terrorists, or whoever you want to substitute into that sentence – are people who have chosen not to listen to the will of God.

Q: But people who do horrible things often believe they are hearing God. Think of all those popes who carried out crusades and pogroms in the name of God. 

A: That’s not the God that I believe in. The God I believe in couldn’t possibly condone actions like that. And that goes for the jihadists, crusaders, or whomever you want to substitute there, who says ‘I’m acting in the will of God.’ No God that I believe in could condone that.

Q: But they’re as confident as you are in their view of God. Why should I put greater credence in one, rather than conclude it’s all subjective and everyone is making things up to justify what they want to believe? 

A: There is admittedly an element of subjectivity. That’s why I can do the interfaith work I do. Because I believe that ultimately there is not just one path to God. I don’t believe there is ultimately just one ‘true religion.’

Judaism is the best way for me to understand my role in the world and my relationship with God. Committed Christians find that Christianity is their way, and committed Muslims would say the same thing. But to me, any religion that teaches hate and violence in the name of God goes beyond the realm.

Baseball as a metaphor for spirituality

Q: In your own life, do you feel that you have ever communicated with God or experienced the presence of God?

A: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘presence.’ I might use the word ‘ force.’ But yes. There are moments when we sense that force. As Danny Syme once taught me, when we think about love, we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, or feel it with any of our five senses. But we all know when we’ve been in the presence of love and when we’ve felt loved.

It’s the same thing with God. We can’t experience God with any of our five senses. But we know when we’ve been in the presence of God. Although often we don’t know it till after the fact.

Q: Have those moments for you been in prayer, or in nature, or in driving the carpool? 

A: Rarely in driving the carpool! But there are times when a kid will make a comment, or I’ll see a beautiful sunset while driving. There are moments while teaching. There have also been moments when I’ve been with families in a hospital room, saying a prayer, and something happens.

Each time it’s different. But there’s a sense: God was present in this moment.

I often use an analogy of baseball. The greatest baseball players right now are batting 350, which means they only get a hit 35 percent of the time at bat. They go right back to the dugout 65 percent of the time. But they know – to get that hit, they’ve got to work on their batting 350 days a year. And they’ve got to be willing to fail time after time after time.

The same thing is true for us in our experience of God. Too many of us walk into the sanctuary and think that every time we’re going to get a home run.  If you think hitting a baseball at 90 miles per hour is hard, true experiences of God are harder yet. So as a community we have to learn to say: When I open myself up to those possibilities, more often than not, nothing will happen. I’ll go right back to the dugout. There will be those times I get a single. Very rarely will I get a home run.

As my father would say: If I go to services, the odds of having a deeply spiritual experience are pretty slim. But if that doesn’t happen,  hopefully there’s been some beautiful music. And if there wasn’t beautiful music, maybe the rabbi said something that was intellectually stimulating. Or maybe I saw a friend and it was a great social experience. And if worse comes to worst, maybe there was something good to eat at the oneg.  There’s lot of different reasons to come to services.

“It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover”

Q: You did a lot of interfaith work in Arizona. What is one thing you wish more non-Jews understood about Judaism? 

A: That Judaism is not monolithic. And that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism. That what they read about in the Hebrew Bible — what they call the Old Testament — is not how any Jews worship or practice today.

Q: What do you wish more Jews knew about Judaism? 

A: I wish they would get the sense that Judaism is a way of life, with something to teach us about almost every aspect of our lives. While we might not always agree with it, we have an obligation to study and learn from it. Judaism can help us make our daily lives richer and more meaningful. That’s part of what I think Orthodoxy gets. It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover, but about how to see the world through Jewish eyes.

The other piece I wish more Jews would pick up on is Shabbat. When I work with people for conversion, I hear time and time again ‘Ahh! My life is so much richer now that I’ve embraced Shabbat.’

I don’t necessarily mean an Orthodox understanding of Shabbat, but an understanding that  ‘I can take a seventh day. I can take Shabbat and make it holy, in whatever way that word means for me – make it special. I don’t have to do chores and I don’t have to go to work.  I can make this a special day for me and my family.’

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This is the fourth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-MuchinRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

In Conversation: Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin

November 18, 2010

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

My favorite image of Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin comes from the end of a Friday evening service when her four-year-old daughter — a miniature replica of herself, like the pint-sized Archie and Veronica in those old Little Archies comic books — comes rushing up onto the bima in a pink tutu.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Mates-Muchin has been the associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland since 2005. She didn’t set out to be a congregational rabbi. Fascinated by how people choose to make sense of the world, she initially planned to get a PhD after rabbinical school and become a scholar of religion. But she gradually realized that she relished the congregational role.

“I get invited into people’s lives at the most significant moments, and that is amazing,” she said. “Plus I’m able to talk about things like ‘What is our role in the universe?’, and what are we supposed to do, and human nature. In fact, people expect me to talk about those things!”

In our conversation, Rabbi Mates-Muchin spoke about her views of God, death, and the “box” that congregants often expect their rabbis to fill — and the ways in which she doesn’t quite fit that box.

Q: Let me jump right into the middle of things. Do you believe in God, and what is your conception of God? 

A: I believe that there is a oneness to the universe and a connection to every aspect of the universe. The things that make up our bodies are the same things floating out in space. It’s the same stuff that was there at the big bang and the same stuff that will be there when our sun explodes, however many billions of years from now. 

And ultimately what we do has an effect around the universe. By virtue of that connection, I believe we are commanded to behave in certain ways — in particular with other human beings, but with the world around us as well. 

That’s why within a Jewish context, the notion of “command” makes so much sense. It’s that idea that there is no other choice. When we understand what our actions mean, how can there be any other choice than for us but to behave in a certain way?

Q: With that idea of God as the oneness of the universe, how do you then make sense of the Torah’s portrayal of God as an actual consciousness that communicates with people? 

A: I think the Torah is a great story. It’s mythology like any other myth. What we learn from it is that there is a separateness that we have to be responsible to. It is on the one hand everything, but on the other hand it is so separate that we cannot mistake it for ourselves. That is ultimately what the Torah teaches by offering the picture of God that it does – to create that analogy so we understand what the separateness is, and how we have to be responsible to that. 

Visualizing God working in the same way we see people working  was a way to help people with the notion of “it’s not all me.” The problem with talking about everything being connected is that we can mistake the things we want with Godness. But that’s not what it (Godness) is. It has to be something more elevated and loftier than any one piece of our reality.

Q: So when you’re reading a part where God is speaking through a prophet – Moses, Jeremiah – what do you make of that? Is it the person’s conscience speaking, which they call God? Or is there something that was actually channeled through them? 

A: It is a person. We all use God-talk to motivate people in different ways. You can use it responsibly. You can use it irresponsibly too. I imagine the prophets believed things about how we have to respond to the world, and told the story in such a way that people could hear it. 

Q: So do you read the words of a Jeremiah as the words of a human making something up, or a human channeling oneness? 

A: I would say it’s an inner struggle with … how to encourage people to create a society that is going to be positive and productive. Each of those prophets is having an inner struggle that is very painful, and is also attempting to call up aspects of tradition and text to determine what is the best course of action. 

You can say it is a human being responding to God’s command, in that it is a human being recognizing that ultimate connectedness of everything and attempting to get other people to recognize it and respond in a responsible and positive way. 

Q: You’re saying the concept of God is useful as a way for people to understand the oneness that’s outside of themselves. Is there a point at which it also becomes limiting, and the metaphorical parts of God get taken as too real? When people think of God as having hands and arms and a face — the old white man with a beard – does the concept become more limiting than enabling? 

A: In a lot of ways, yes. That’s why so many people fall out of Judaism and its traditional institutions. They think of that kind of God and it’s far too limiting. It’s problematic because of the gender piece as well. Judith Plaskow talks about it: As long as God is considered male, we are going to mimic that hierarchy here. 

People say that we tell these stories because that’s how kids understand things, so we need to be concrete. But you can give kids a little more too. You can tell those stories but, from early on, hint that there is also flexibility in the idea of God. That a lot of the flexibility will come from them – what makes sense to them and what makes them feel good. 

Q: What do you think happens after death? 

A: I don’t know. To me, that’s the most honest answer. There are things that I hope. Every idea about death is either what we’re hoping for, or what we’re really afraid of. I have a feeling it’s probably nothing. But I don’t know. 

Rabbi Mates-Muchin with congregants / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: Is it difficult to minister to congregants with a different idea of God or an afterlife? For instance, what if you’re counseling someone who’s just lost her husband and really wants to believe he is waiting for her in a world-to-come? Or someone who believes in a God who intervenes to get him a promotion at work?
 
 A: The concept of God and reality has got to be an individual thing. It is how you understand the way that you are supposed to function throughout life. I can’t say it has to be my way. Most of the time it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you have some concept that grounds you. The only problem comes when your concept infringes on and hurts other people. It’s about trying to understand what grounds you, how life works and what our purpose is – to me, that’s what religion is. 

My concept is what grounds and centers me. Believing that I am not any more significant than the particles floating in the sky actually comforts me more than it would (to believe that) that God is paying attention to my every move. That’s how I have to see the world in order to function appropriately. 

The tricky part is when we use the word God, we all have a different concept of what that word is…. When I talk about God, people probably assume I’m talking about something very different from what I am actually talking about. That’s okay, because the God concept serves the same purpose in people’s lives even if their concept is very different. 

Q: One question I was going to ask was about evil. If there is a God, how can God allow random evil? But it sounds like from your conception, that’s not an issue because God is not an actor or director, not a “puppeteer God,” and the universe is just unfolding according to scientific principles. 

A: I think evil is the rejection of those commands to behave in a way that is positive. To have some kind of puppeteer would suggest that nothing is good or evil because there is no choice involved. Ritual and discipline would be unnecessary if people didn’t have (the freedom to choose between) positive and negative tendencies. 

In Judaism, it doesn’t matter what your thoughts are: It matters what you do. If you have thoughts of hurting people but don’t act on it, that is a very strong measure of your character because you have recognized the difference between (positive and negative) human tendencies and the way we should behave to be a positive influence on the world. 

Q: Let’s shift back to being a rabbi. What has been your biggest surprise in being  a congregational rabbi? 

A: That’s hard to say. When you start in a new place, the adjustment can be difficult, for the rabbi and for the community.  Some people are really excited, and others are frustrated and even angry that they have to get to know somebody new.  It is such a disruption within the community that it’s hard to become part of the community. 

Q: How long has it taken you to feel a part of the Temple Sinai community? 

A: I think it takes a good two years. I’ve started in a new place twice now, and it’s such an interesting situation to be in. Coming in, most people want to have very positive feelings about the rabbi. Either you behave in such way that you support those positive feelings or you destroy what people’s image is, and that becomes a problem. You are trying to work with people’s concepts of a rabbi. 

Q: Do you feel like there’s a preconception, a box that people want to put you in? 

A: Absolutely. 

Q: What’s the box?  

A: The box is that I am expected to be what people would call “very religious.” Whether it’s keeping kosher, or celebrating certain holidays, or fasting on Tisha B’Av, they expect me to be more “religious” than they are. People assume things about how I think about God, or that I believe God wrote the Torah. 

There are some people who are really disappointed when I don’t fit the box. And there are people who are relieved when I don’t..

And I don’t fit into that box at all. Although there were times in my life when I kept kosher, I don’t now. My husband, who grew up as a Conservative Jew, does and I don’t. So I always joke that he’s the religious one. 

But it is interesting. Even in the context of this conversation. What do I want to reveal about what I really think, and how is that how going to hurt our relationship, and how I can give you something of the tradition in a way that’s positive for you? 

I don’t know that it was surprising , but it’s the hardest part – gauging at what point it’s okay for me to talk about what I think. 

Q: Do you kind of feel like you’re “in the closet?” 

A: Sometimes. I think with the “God thing” especially. Only recently have I found a way to articulate it that I’m really comfortable with, and for the longest time I was just creating something that I thought would work for other people. 

People would say “What’s your concept of God?” and I’d throw something out that would answer their question well enough, so they wouldn’t think I was some kind of heretic. And because of the box, everyone assumed that’s what it would be anyway. 

Q: I fall into the exact assumptions you’re talking about – I was surprised to hear your “cosmic” concept, which is actually really close to my concept. The most spiritual book I’ve ever read is Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” He explains all the elements and conditions that went into making the galaxy, and the big bang, and organic life, and you come away with a sense of what an unlikely miracle it is that we are able to exist on this planet. To me, that is holy. That is the miracle, that this all came together and here we are. But that’s not what you expect to hear from a rabbi. Even a Reform rabbi. 

A: My parents are doctors, and I am sure their scientific way of looking at the world had a huge influence on me.  Science helps us describe the nature of the universe, and religion helps to give us purpose.  It seems to me they are both necessary and they work very well together.  

Q: Do you get to a certain point where you go so far with science and universalism that it’s not Judaism? An Orthodox rabbi might look at your conception of God and say “She’s a Buddhist. Or she’s something, but not Jewish.” 

A: Being Jewish is about what you do. And what we are doing is forwarding the tradition of this particular people, the Jewish people. 

This particular way of life means that we do certain kinds of things. There are also a lot of emotional pieces, such as family traditions and history. It gives us that sense of belonging. 

But there’s nothing more Jewish about the universe than from any other tradition. Our texts say we are the chosen people because we wrote them. If you look at the texts of any people, they say the same thing. They might not use the word ‘chosen’ but they say the same thing. We are choosing a particular way of life (and) of course we’re going to want to pass down the sense that this is the right way to live. I think every people has that. 

Q: What would you say if a young person came to you and asked, “Why should I stay Jewish rather than become Buddhist or Unitarian?” 

A: If it were my own kids, I would talk about our family, and family history. With other kids, I would ask if there are things about other traditions that are drawing them in. And I’d ask what their parents say. And what are the things about Judaism that have been positive or negative for them. I would want to help them explore what they are looking for and why they may not have found it in Judaism.  

It breaks my heart that kids want to leave, because I do think it’s a rich tradition with a lot to offer to the world and to people in the community. But the truth is, everybody has to have that feeling of centeredness – and for the individual, however you get it is the most important path to follow. 

I feel a pull between wanting to encourage that one particular person to follow a path that feels right, and at the same time a responsibility to Judaism. Sometimes I struggle with whether I’m doing a disservice in teaching Judaism the way that I do – in looking at the bigger picture, or not talking about Judaism in the particular ‘chosen’ way, or saying that there is nothing necessarily more true about our texts. 

For instance, when I talk about Torah being the result of a lot of political negotiations (rather than the literal word of God), is that doing a disservice to Judaism ? 

Or in the end will Judaism live further in some places because people have an opportunity to see it in a way that makes more sense to them?

Number my rabbis

July 22, 2010

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

Nah.

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.”