Forward Thinking

Why Newsweek Is Ending Top 50 Rabbis List

By Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg and Abigail Pogrebin

  • Print
  • Share Share

Some of the rabbis from the Newsweek Top 50 Rabbis list. / The Daily Beast

If we’ve ever watched how a well-intentioned concept can generate unintended consequences, it’s the Newsweek Top 50 Rabbis list.

It was conceived back in 2007 simply because we were genuinely curious about which rabbis were considered leading lights and why.

It evolved over the years into a more reported piece, as we tried to showcase the broad diversity of pacesetters, speakers, teachers, authors, activists, and congregational leaders.

We tried to make it more reflective of the rise of women in the rabbinate and we tried to introduce readers to lesser-known trailblazers.

The list never pretended to use any scientific methodology. We were always transparent about its subjectivity. We always kept our sense of humor.

But despite our lightheartedness, the list started to carry too much weight for too many people.

Some rabbis felt personally wounded when they weren’t mentioned. Others told us it adversely affected their career opportunities. We started receiving emphatic pleas from certain rabbis to add them to the roster (or move them higher in the rankings). Some of those rabbis enlisted friends or colleagues to lobby us insistently. Some even came to our offices with personal pleas to be included, others to offer prayers for our souls.

To be clear, we were always queasy about ranking rabbis, first because it could be unseemly to rank people of faith, and second because the point from the beginning was not to create a competitive hierarchy (who can really delineate #32 from #45?) but rather to identify 50 important, interesting Jewish clergy in America. Nevertheless, we followed the advice from every magazine editor who told us that rankings matter: if you want people to pay attention, you need a scorecard. The Rabbis needed standings.

We justified the rankings by the reporting and by guidance from those most familiar with each denomination. We wanted to understand who, in one of the two countries in which Judaism is thriving, is widely considered an arbiter, authority or inspiration when it comes to liturgy, policy, and connectivity.

The list circulated instantly and widely every spring when it was published just before Passover. And it dependably sparked what we considered to be healthy debate about what’s most exciting today in Jewish life, which rabbis were included and whether the list should exist at all.

But then “The List” started to be over-legitimized. People simply took it too seriously. And opinions grew more virulent and befuddling on both sides.

At the same time that some clergy faulted the list, others said it was a vital educator for the majority of American Jews who have no idea what’s going on in Jewish leadership.

While some clergy may have faulted the list for giving rabbis the wrong goal (to “make” the list), almost every rabbi we featured has highlighted their inclusion prominently on their professional bios.

While some faulted the list for encouraging rabbis to maximize their public profiles rather than focusing on their unsung work, those same people didn’t read the list closely enough: we included several people who have never been mentioned in any news story.

So, despite the fact that we still believe the rabbis list offered a valuable, unusual snapshot of the Jewish landscape, we can see the original conception has been misconfigured into an unhealthy contest which outweighs its potential contribution.

We are therefore choosing to discontinue it after seven years.

To those rabbis whom we offended, we offer atonement: we never meant it to harm anyone’s self-esteem.

To Jon Meacham, who first saw merit in the list, to Tina Brown and the editors at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, we thank you for featuring the list prominently every spring.

And to those whom we included these past seven years, and all those whom we would have included had there been more space: keep up the inspirational work. We’ll still be watching you.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: rabbis, Newsweek

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.