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Newsweek’s Rabbi Popularity Contest Takes Some Hits

Newsweek came out with its second annual list of Top 50 Influential American rabbis, and this year started a list of the Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis. But alongside the lists, it printed an op-ed by Lisa Miller called "Is Your Rabbi Hot or Not?" that summarizes some of the criticism of the first list, and explains that the list of pulpit rabbis is a way of recognizing not just Madonna’s puppetmaster and the heads of various movements, but also rabbis who are particularly good at inspiring their congregants, nurturing growing communities, and are exceptional leaders. Miller was right when she speculated that the response to the list would cause storms to rival the ten plagues. Rabbi Jill Jacobs is already on record at Jspot complaining about how few women made it onto the lists (3/50 and 4/25).

Miller and the three guys who put together the list, (Gary Ginsberg, an executive at NewsCorp.; Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, and Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions) claim their intent is to inspire the public, and help people find rabbis who are doing transformational work. It’s a nice thought, but ranking rabbis is different than ranking local sushi bars. For one thing, it’s telling that there are only 25 Top Pulpit Rabbis, but 50 Influential Rabbis. Pulpit rabbis seem to be inherently less important than rabbis who run major foundations or movements, even though the impact of a pulpit rabbi on your average Jew is much greater than the work of the guy who runs, say, Chabad.

And beyond that, what’s the point, really of ranking them? Maybe listing fifty rabbis with great influence in American society would be interesting, but keeping track of who drops from number 23 to 29 is perhaps not a productive way of dealing with a bunch of high maintenance power brokers. And what we certainly do not need in the American Jewish community is more animosity between movements and machers in the major communities.

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