My column this week is about all those lists of top rabbis and other Jews, and I mention my tongue-in-cheek stab at compiling a list of “Least Inspiring Rabbis.”
It turns out, Brad Burston of Ha’aretz also fantasizes about writing a real-life list of rabbinic malefactors:
A year ago at this time, I wrote a piece which I ultimately decided was too venom-laced, too cruel, and too socially un-redeeming even for this often problematic space.
An end of the year feature, it was called “The Top 10 Rabbis Judaism Could Do Without.” No one saw it. I threw it out.
It was a time for new beginnings, I believed. A time for granting the benefit of the doubt. A time for giving a chance, for hoping against hope. A time to refrain from tarring all rabbis with the refesh – the filth of a few.
Which rabbis would have made the list?
[T]hose whose rulings contravene some of the most fundamental moral precepts in Judaism, and also those who issued bans on living with non-Jews, as well as those who have declared it moral to kill Arab innocents, even infants, and those who preach the destruction of Palestinian property, and those who have advised IDF soldiers that mercy toward Arabs is cruelty, and those whose ardor for settlement is such that it has bent and broken the principle that the saving of human life takes precedence above all else.
What can I say? After a year of waiting and watching, I now realize that I’d been wrong in more ways than I knew. Not only was the list of 10 Rabbis that Judaism Could Do Without, mean-spirited and presumptuous, it also turned out to be much, much too short.
UPDATE: In a fun coincidence, Jeffrey Goldberg’s Bloomberg column, posted almost simultaneously with mine, is also about the proliferation of top Jew lists — meaning, of course, that my column will be doomed to even more obscurity than it usually achieves.
Goldberg indulges in some humble-bragging about making some of the lists before getting to his point:
Why are these publications aping a practice of non-Jews — singling out Jews for their special prominence in society? Please don’t misunderstand; I love playing the “Who is a Jew?” game as much as the next Semite. Scarlett Johansson! Jake Gyllenhaal! Anthony Weiner! (OK, you can keep Weiner.) The phenomenon of disproportionate Jewish representation in many high-profile fields (including, but not limited to, musical comedy, gastroenterology, the violin, physics, hedge funds, column-writing and, in an earlier period, professional basketball), combined with ancient and deeply embedded anti-Semitic ideas that are still prevalent in some parts of the world, suggests that they should resist the urge to quantify “Jewish power.”
I think it’s a weak point. Goldberg is right that the Jerusalem Post list can’t decide “whether a Jew is powerful because of his influence within the walls of the world Jewish community or because of his impact on the world around him.” But the Forward list and even Newsweek’s top rabbis list seem to focus inward — not “look at which Jews are running the world” but rather “look at the way Jewishness is being expressed in the marketplace of ideas and influence.” When the Jewish media tally Jewish power or influence we do it to describe something about what it means to be Jewish. An anti-Semite sees Sheldon Adelson as another cog in the Jewish conspiracy machine; a Jewish newspaper sees him as the embodiment of a number of converging trends: the right-ward drift of pro-Israel politics; the ability to translate minority wealth into national influence; the dissonance between a wealthy man’s philanthropic interests and his political activities. We’re not responsible for the anti-Semites’ reductionist worldview. And I don’t think anti-Semites rely on Jewish newspapers to fuel their hatred.
That’s why I like how the Forward describes its criteria for its top 50 list: it’s Jews who “made the most significant impact on the news in the past year.” The Forward 50 becomes a review of what we talked, thought, and buzzed about over the past year. Matisyahu made the list in years past not because he was “influential” (to judge by the number of Hasidic reggae artists who followed in his wake), but because he captured the Jewish imagination and the wider world’s attention in a fascinatingly Jewish way.
Take away our ability to talk about Jewish cultural, political, and economic impact, and what do we need a Jewish press for anyway?
Don’t answer that.