Top 50 Rabbis in America?
In accord with the general mania for “top ten” and “top 100” lists, the Newsweek website now offers us a “Web Exclusive” list of “The Top 50 Rabbis in America.” Woohoo!
It’s no big surprise that the three Hollywood “power brokers” who put this list together managed to find only five women who could muster the “influence” necessary for inclusion. Given the low number, however, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the list-makers were straining to find enough women so that they could respond to inevitable criticisms with the claim that actually 10% of their chosen rabbis were female. Interestingly Orthodox rabbis (representing about 10% of the American Jewish population) come in at almost 35% of the list.
The troubling implications of this exercise in list-making could fill another top 50 list, but let me speak here to just one central concern.
Almost thirty-five years after the ordination of the first American woman rabbi, it would be tough to argue for any more influential innovation in American Judaism than the transformation of women’s religious roles within every denomination. Surely women rabbis must have played some part in this trend. Yet, a list dominated by those who lead large institutions (both cultural and congregational) or who have a strong media presence will inevitably miss the impact of women who still have been largely excluded from Jewish mainstream institutional leadership and from leadership in the largest congregations that this list celebrates.
Changes in women’s roles and public Jewish identities have created a much different American Jewish community than that of 30 years ago. Clearly, the list’s recognition of Sharon Kleinbaum for her leadership of the world’s largest synagogue for queer Jews, and of Janet Marder and Toba Spitzer for their attainment of mainstream denominational leadership would not have been possible without that transformation. While it’s great to see them here, their inclusion fit into an old-style map of Jewish leadership that sees only big organizations and congregations. Any rabbi list that could really capture the impact and dynamic force of today’s Jewish community would inevitably include a high percentage of women.
But then again, a list might be the last place where we might expect to find that kind of rich and inclusive community represented.