The NY Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” arrived in my inbox today. It is subtitled “Three Dozen Millennials And Gen-Xers Reinventing The Jewish Community.” I am curious about this need to rate people- top entrepreneurs, top Jews, top rabbis, cantors, educators, whatever. Please be aware, I am not of the mindset that we shouldn’t have winners and losers, or that competition is bad. I never let my kids win, even as I coached them to learn a game. The result, my younger son, who is fiercely competitive, now uses all my tricks against me, and can beat me in just about any logic game.
How do we rate people? Sometimes there are clear guidelines. Who leads in home runs, goals, yardage? These can be objectively measured. Who sold the most gold records? What movie has the longest staying power or the biggest box office receipts? but in judging people it’s a lot harder. These people may have done, and are doing some great things, but what do we expect when we put them on such a list? What if in 20 years they haven’t reinvented the Jewish community, and it’s still the frustrating and inspiring, searching yet stiff-necked community we’ve always had?
My questions about this practice began when the Forward’s 2014 list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” arrived in my inbox a few months ago. It is misnamed, as there was a Canadian rabbi on the list. I also have a problem with the word “most”. These rabbis are culled from random submissions by Forward readers. While a great newspaper, I cannot imagine it includes submissions from every Jew (or non-Jew) who has been inspired by a rabbi, nor does every reader who has been inspired write in. The subtitle is better: “28 Men and Women Who Move Us”.
How are we to judge what makes an inspiring rabbi? Is it a sermon? Is it a moment of need? Maybe it’s a squeeze of a hand at a difficult time or a smile a a joyous one. can my subjective judgment equal your subjective judgment? Don’t we all have inspiring people in our lives? Why isn’t it enough to talk about amazing people. Why do we have to say, ‘My rabbi’s better than your rabbi.”
This year, Newsweek chose to end its “Top 50 Rabbis list”. It seems some rabbis and their congregants were lobbying for a spot on the list, or a better spot than the one with which they were honoured. I would say that any rabbi who feels the need to lobby should immediately be stricken from the list. How can we judge our own impact? As Stephen Schwartz wrote in the song “Through Heaven’s Eye’s, “A single thread in a tapestry, though its color brightly shine, can never see its purpose in the pattern of the grand design.”