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.
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.