“Of making many lists there is no end, and much blogging wearies the eyeballs.” Ecclesiastes doesn’t say that, exactly — but might have had the author lived to see the proliferation of lists ranking the most influential rabbis and other Jews.
The latest entry in an increasingly crowded market is the Jerusalem Post’s “50 Most Influential Jews .” According to the newspaper, its honorees have “a proven record of incredible political, social, and cultural influence on the Jewish world and the world at large.” Its top 10 includes a mix of Israeli politicians (Yair Lapid, Benjamin Netanyahu), American political leaders (Jack Lew, Debbie Wasserman Schultz), and business leaders (Sergey Brin of Google, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook).
Luckily for the Post, you can’t be sued for copying the idea for a top 50 list: The Forward has been compiling its own “Forward 50” for almost 20 years (full disclosure: As an editor there a decade ago, I helped compile the list). Every autumn, The Forward looks for Jews who “made the most significant impact on the news in the past year”; its 2012 list was headed by gambling mogul and political fund-raiser Sheldon Adelson, gymnast Aly Raisman, TV sensation Lena Dunham, haredi activist David Zwiebel, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
And The Forward itself has been overshadowed by the Newsweek/Daily Beast list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis.” Not to be outdone, The Forward fired back earlier this year with its own list of America’s 36 “Most Inspiring Rabbis.” Forward editor Jane Eisen writes that they chose rabbis who “touch the soul and create community.”
(I fantasize about compiling a list of “Least Inspiring Rabbis.” I file notions like that under “Ideas for Farewell Column.”)
Critics of these lists complain that they are unscientific. (As an alumnus of The Forward I can attest that our methodology was at least as scientific as a beer tasting at a frat house — that is, we had a certain expertise in the topic at hand, although our decisions were more than a little subjective.) But such critics are making a category error. The lists shouldn’t be judged by the standards of social science, but of cultural criticism. The lists are essays, meant to capture a moment in Jewish history as illustrated by the individuals who seem to be making that history. Jon Stewart is named to a lot of these lists, not because he is a paragon of Torah Judaism or a Defender of the Faith, but because he represents the sensibility of a sizable Jewish liberal demographic. Rabbi Sharon Brous may not be a household name, but the innovations she has brought to her southern California congregation are emblematic of what’s happening at independent congregations around the Jewish world.
And what do these lists mean by “Jewish” anyway? Zwiebel is an easy call, since he is an Orthodox Jew who litigates on behalf of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. But Lena Dunham? Despite a Jewish mom and a Jewish boyfriend (a Schechter grad, yet!), her work on the HBO series Girls may not strike the average viewer as particularly Jewish. Maybe it’s a question of wavelength: Something about an overeducated, underemployed, aspiring writer named Hannah living in Manhattan sets off our Jewish radar.
When I worked on the Forward 50, we’d invariably have a debate over Alan Greenspan, who as chairman of the Fed was undoubtedly among the most influential people in the world. But despite his name and a face that belonged on the bima on Friday nights, Greenspan barely identified Jewishly, and was apparently more familiar with the works of Ayn Rand than Moshe Rabbeinu. Compare him to Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew serving as the president’s right-hand man. In the end, we had something like the Rule of Two: Subject Identifies Jewish, Others Identify Subject as Jewish, Subject Achieves in a Distinctly Jewish Way. If two apply, you qualify. That’s why Greenspan never made the list, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger did.
Invariably, the lists reflect the ideology of the editors who make them. Another new list maker is The Algemeiner, a conservative Jewish weekly that published “The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life 2013.” Its list is heavier on political and social conservatives than the Forward list (for example, all of its “Religion” picks are Orthodox men), and the very word “positively” in the title seems to be a dig at some of the other list makers.
Magazines and websites love lists, because readers tend to. Some lists carry an air of authority, like U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” (although even there, many criticize the criteria). Some, like Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” or “100 Best Albums of the Nineties” are just there to start arguments. That’s not a bad thing, because arguments help clarify the things we care about. A lot of people don’t sweat whether Abe Foxman or Alan Dershowitz is the more influential leader, or if Larry David is a Jewish icon or a shanda for the goyim. But the future of the community depends on those who do care, even if just a little.