Every year for the last several years, Newsweek has run a list of the "Top 50 Rabbis," and each year it garners as much criticism as attention. (Well, I suppose that criticism is attention, and the fact that controversy creates interest is not lost on Newsweek and its advertisers.) This year's Newsweek list was strategically timed, coming out at Passover.
I cannot say anything bad about about the men and women on the list. Those I know personally are truly excellent rabbis—talented, brilliant, compassionate and passionate people. Let me disclose (and brag) that four of the fifty are my teachers, five are my friends, and I went to high school with one of them, too.
Most of the problem with the list, I think, is just the idea of ranking rabbis at all. It reminds me of the way I used to rank baseball cards when I was a kid. (What's better, a Bruce Sutter rookie card or a Rollie Fingers MVP card?). "Collecting" rabbis like this seems contrary to the values that we most admire in rabbis. Can you rank one human being created in the image of God over another?
Well, now it seems that I have to get down off of that sanctimonious high horse, because someone has put me on a list of "top" rabbis. Contending that Newsweeek's list does not represent the "unsung heroes of the rabbinical world," My Jewish Learning has compiled their own list of "America's Real Top Rabbis 2012," and I'm on it. Looking at the list, it also includes many fine rabbis who do their work with sincere love of Torah, skill in meeting the needs of people in need, and dedication to the communities they serve. I'm honored to be counted among them.
Yet, the list in My Jewish Learning is, after all, just another list. It does not include the movers and shakers of the rabbinic world—as does the Newsweek list—but it is somebody else's attempt to rank and rate. Being on the list does not really mean anything. There are rabbis on the list who give great sermons, who are great teachers, and who help people through crises with care and compassion. There are rabbis who have the same abilities who are not on the list. How do you rate one rabbi above or below others based on such qualities?
I can imagine the whispers in my own congregation: Who does he think he is, Carl Yastrzemski?
So, thank you, My Jewish Learning, and thank you to the folks who nominated me. I'm flattered and humbled. However, to climb back on top of that hobby horse of mine, let me also say that Judaism in the twenty-first century does not really need "top" rabbis. We don't need to agonize over who ranks high or low. My baseball card collection is now resting on the bottom of a landfill (thanks, Mom), and that is where this year's top rabbi lists will end up, too.
What we do need is a Judaism that brings meaningful experiences into people's lives and that allows us to remember the joy and purpose of our existence. You cannot buy that experience with a "top rabbi." It is up to all of us to build it together.