Top Rabbis, Interview with Abigail Pogrebin, and Open Orthodoxy

The fifth installment of Daily Beast- Newsweek’s Top Rabbis list appeared last week. The co-creators were Michael Lynton —Sony Pictures chairman and CEO, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of Time Warner Inc. Neither one seems knowledgeable or qualified to make such a list and Los Angeles is not known for culture. This year they brought in journalist Abigail Pogrebin, former 60 Minutes producer and author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. She helped edit Lynton and Ginsberg’s brainchild. Where the prior lists seemed all wrong, this one has its finger on something correct—media is the medium.

James Hunter in his latest book (discussed here) asked: why religious groups do not change American culture if they are so prevalent and dedicated? His answer is that they do not play in the big leagues and confine themselves to their parochial culture. This list lets us know who is playing in the media league. And for many rabbis in the coming decade reaching people will involve media, social media, networking, and preaching to those in power. Since Jews have reached the highest levels of society in the last years and the greatest acceptance in society of any group then this public media faith may be the way of the future for those who want to influence society. CLAL is now training rabbis to use the media and preach to general America culture as a whole what it calls “rabbis without borders.”

But what about the list? Is this order indicative of anything? Others have done excellent jobs of fisking prior lists – here, here, and here.
My angle is to look at the trends and not to look at the ranking at all and more importantly, not to look at the names. Not more than 25 actually belong on the list. The other 25 could have been interchanged with other names. But the trends are correct.

What are the trends?
Chabad represents authentic tradition to most Jews and most American Jews have some involvement with Chabad. Jews in Reform Temples eagerly await their shmura matzah from the local shaliach. In the public’s eye Chabad is mainstream Orthodox and has pushed most other forms of Orthodoxy out of the picture.

Denominational Rabbis are insulted that the Kabbalah Centre is on the list but the Kabbalah Centre, Aish, Chabad, and many other groups besides the major denominations have great influence over Jewish life.

If you are involved in an indie minyan then you are “in” this year. It does not matter which rabbi was honored.
If you are involved in Joshua Venture then you are honored.
If you are connected to the game changing foundations then you are on the list such as Bronfman, or Wexner. If the Jim Joseph Foundation had a rabbi in charge it would have been on the list, while if Wexner loses its Rabbinic director then it is off the list.

The list rewards interfaith work, involvement in politics, and those that criticize the system.

The list rewards anyone who is bringing change rather than having accomplished it. The prime case is that Rick Jacobs is on the list and Eric Yoffie is off even though Yoffie had another successful year of leadership. Something akin to the Obama peace prize.

Those proclaimed by the list are the members of the RVI who criticized the status quo of the Reform movement and seek to lead Reform into new terrains of the 21st century. But at this point, they are only critique not accomplishment. The list rewarded those who criticized the Conservative movement, even if the solution will not necessary come from those figures who issued the critiques. And it heavily rewarded Open Orthodoxy. This is a good chance for some of my readers to know what is going on in other movements. Go download their speeches and critiques. If Reform and modern Orthodoxy remade themselves in the 1980’s into success stories from their nadir, it pays to watch who emerges from the new Conservative and Reform initiates.
Many of the rabbis share the religious message of Oprah, the gospel of prosperity and individual growth. Religion relates to one’s own narrative. Many of the rabbis have appeared on TV or written plays or other forms of media.

Who are the intellectuals and authors that have broad appeal? David Wolpe, David Saperstein, Jospeh Telushkin, Jill Jacobs, and Arthur Green. The emphasis is on social justice, ethics, a narrative sense of religion. Note that Green is credited with environmentalism and pacifism, more ethics than pantheistic metaphysics. There needs to be more rabbis to step into the mass market book niche. More rabbis should be able to successfully have a public debate besides Wolpe. On the other hand, I wish someone more learned and bookish rabbis could learn to have an impact with their ideas.
Reb Zalman has been issuing a book every few months and is taking on a new following.
My readership does not first think of organizational rabbis or even synagogue rabbis but teachers of Torah in the broadest sense- Rabbis Green, Dorff, and Schachter.

And of course the first Rabbah is mentioned as an exemplar the way Sally Priesand was a celebrity as the first American female rabbi.

From this list, one sees that Open Orthodoxy has won the media war. American Jewry has accepted it and cheers it on. Returning to my point above from James Hunter, Open Orthodoxy may have lost the blog wars and the YI wars but blogs and the RCA are considered provincial and not competing in the main cultural arena. In the major cultural arena as defined by Hunter, Open Orthodoxy seems to have won.

But from where I sit and type, Open Orthodoxy seems to have few applicants and ever fewer strong applicants. It is struggling for legitimacy and is not getting major positions. Am I too far away? Too close? I dont see the change. And I found the choices idiosyncratic. The list is written as if there is a tidal wave of YCT rabbis reaching major pulpits. So I decided to directly ask one of the authors of the list who wrote a recent article on Avi Weiss.

Last year, the third member of the evaluation team Abigail Pogrebin befriended me on Facebook. Now what are Facebook friends for, if not for quick interviews on what they write? (For example, Peter Beinart on his Orthodoxy.)

1] I know that you wrote an article on Avi Weiss. Your list is heavily slanted in its Orthodoxy section to Open Orthodoxy.

It’s true that my reporting for the Avi Weiss story for New York Magazine made us more familiar with the leading figures in Open Orthodoxy but we didn’t decide to include them because we favor their philosophy necessarily — more because they’re clearly at the vanguard of a significant movement that both balances Orthodox requirements and re-envisions Orthodox learning and ritual. Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz were already on the list last year so there were some new additions, as was YU’s Hershel Schachter, who is as far from Open Orthodoxy as they come. It should also be noted that Schachter entered the list higher than Hurwitz and Linzer.

One thing that we think is important, is that it’s very significant that we put Krinsky first. So to those who feel that “true” Orthodoxy got short shrift, no ranking gets greater notice than the number one slot.

2] Do you think they have that much influence? And on whom?
I think there’s no question that YCT is having real influence because its graduates are going to some of the nation’s most prominent Hillels, shuls, and organizations –and they’re bringing their new approach to Orthodoxy with them. If you look at the job placement list of YCT’s graduates the last ten years, I think you’ll see what I mean. These rabbis are going to some of the top positions in Jewish leadership and clergy and they’ll have an impact on their students and congregations. I think there’s no question that many Orthodox Jews– who feel the old models are too fixed —have been responsive, despite the discomfort and criticism of others who think Open Orthodoxy isn’t Orthodoxy.

3] How did you pick the open and modern orthodox rabbis? It seemed arbitrary.
There are obviously too many rabbis to include — in every denomination — but we chose the rabbis on the front lines of this reinterpretation of Orthodoxy who have been most on our radar over the last year. Part of the goal of the list is to tell readers what is happening in the Jewish world in terms of new ideas and leadership– no matter how controversial.

Editorial distance is important because we aim to include rabbis who meet our criteria, whether we “like” them or not.

4] Does the list offer any insight in your mind to the future of the Reform and Conservative movements?
Absolutely, we think the list reveals the internal tensions and dissatisfaction in both movements. Peter Rubinstein’s Rabbinic Vision Initiative, which was launched in the last year to very strong reactions — positive and negative — represents a bold questioning of the URJ’s effectiveness and relevance, and involved the participation of several rabbis on our list, who have some of the largest Reform synagogues in the country, namely Rick Jacobs, Steven Leder — who almost quit the URJ because he’s been so frustrated, David Stern, and Stephen Pearce.
As is well known, the Conservative movement is also doing some serious soul-searching, since many of its leaders feel its definition and virtues have become perilously unclear. See especially Ed Feinstein, who sounded the alarm at the recent convention in Las Vegas, David Wolpe — who has said that Conservative Judaism needs a definition it can fit on a bumper sticker, and Julie Schonfeld — head of Rabbinical Assembly — who is taking this precarious moment extremely seriously as she travels the country to hear from 400 of her movements rabbis to try to address the malaise.

5] Do you have any criteria for what is Judaism?
That’s a very interesting question and obviously more complex than I can answer succinctly, but basically I think we know that we’re recognizing Jewish leadership in the pulpit, the seminary, and in organizations, but we’re not listing people according to observance or whether they’re meeting some standard of what it means to be A Good Jew, or an “authentic” or “Halachic Jew.” When most Jews think of “Judaism,” they think of the religious practice itself — not just worship but study of Torah and Talmud, observing Kashrut, Mitzvot, etc. I don’t think we’d ever begin to list people according to some standard of an authentic Jewish life.

6] What do you keep getting asked?
Why weren’t more women on the list? (Although many reporters have noted there were twice the number as last year — see Marc Tracy in Tablet, Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the Forward, and The Jewish Week)– and I would just like to remind those critics that 13 our of 50 women amounts to 26%, which exceeds the proportion of women in the rabbinate. We still want the list to reflect the reality of Jewish leadership, which doesn’t mean to suggest we don’t know there are plenty of other influential women rabbis doing significant, important work.

One side note from the list is that Rav Schachter is only being documented by his critics similar to the way the Hatam Sofer was only documented by those who opposed him. The Hatam Sofer was a strong leader of his rabbinical followers and offered appropriate leadership for his communities. But since his followers could only write hagiography we only hear the side of those authors with whom he differed. So too Rabbi Schachter is showing up in the history books as an opponent of people he disagrees with and not for his own sake. It is unfortunate that he is unlikely to produce a student to write a critical analysis.

If offered to fly out to LAX to work on next years list, I have in mind 2-3 Centrist and Yeshivish names that could be added to the list. In the meantime- Which Orthodox Rabbis have a national effect on all of America’s Jewry?

OK- now all those who emailed me that you wanted me to post on this topic, here is your chance to comment and discuss.

25 responses to “Top Rabbis, Interview with Abigail Pogrebin, and Open Orthodoxy

  1. Well, naturally, my personal bias is that our friend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield could have displaced a few of the Rabbis on that list, but I actually agree that this list is about how Rabbis are finding ways to be influential in the greater marketplace of ideas, especially vis a vis their relationship with the media.
    Orthodox interests may be parochial, (I know that’s not what you said) but the halachic discussion that took place over brain death is one that will yield substantive results for Jewish life, even if only a small slice of the community is affected at first. Therefore, it seems some of the players in that debate deserved more attention.

  2. Open Orthodoxy always won the media war: See Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman. They knew they were playing a global, transdenominational game. Eliezer Berkovits is an interesting counter-example; he carried water for the Centrists as their designated philosophical hit man, but it earned him no credibility when he struck out on his own.

    The other interesting question is why does the list bother people so much? If it’s not important, why quibble? Is it simply because “Newsweek” is a higher status media outlet, so it’s worth picking a fight with? Is it because nothing demands a quibble like a numerical list (cf. Sefer Hamitzvot et al.)? Or are people threatened by the radical pluralism of it, of putting Herschel Schachter and Avi Weiss and Arthur Green and Yehuda Berg all on the same page, of saying: “These are your Judaisms, oh Israel!” without any accompanying moral judgment?

    In other words — and I know I’m reaching here, but I have a 350 word editorial to write today — isn’t this the kabbalistic confluence of opposites, the opportunity to look for the divine sparks in everyone, even Herschel Schachter, even Yehuda Berg? And isn’t this what we’re meditating on as we do the permutations on the sefirot through the counting of the Omer?

  3. What about the lack of representation of the Agudah world? It is true they dont really play in the mainstream media, but as Adam Ferziger has pointed out, the establishment of lakewood community kollels across the country has had a real impact on many places.

  4. Who would be the Krinsky of the community Kollel world?

  5. Dr. Brill, sounds like an implicit criticism of the culture – when the only people considered “influential” are the ones calling for change, without actually doing/being capable of achieving it, well that’s a bad thing, no?

    • The assumption of the list is that these people can and will change things. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon may not be the equivalent of Krinsky because the former is not the name and face behind the social networking, the magazines, and the media.

      • I am not sure you are right, if you consider Haredi media and artscroll in the mix you are certainly wrong. I needn’t remind you that in an age when newspapers are shuttering and a huffpo article+metrocard will get you on the subway, Hamodia and its imitators are growing like mushrooms.

  6. I’m curious about the community Kollels. Are they really comparable to Chabad? Are they really attracting community support? And is that support Orthodox dollars looking to achieve Kiruv, or non-Orthodox dollars who are bringing money from outside the Orthodox economy into it?

  7. What about 2Satmar, 2Bobov and Skver…a lot of people. In addition there are the American branches of Belz, Ger and Vizhnitz, plus Monsey Vizhnitz. Are they all chopped liver, because they have no global soup kitchens? Is the Skverer Rebbe really a less dynamic, cutting- edge figure than any of those rabbis on the list?

    There are some questionable assumptions here about social networking, and how the Jewish world changes. The chasidim create change by forming tight knit communities and creating facts on the ground, 6-12 children per family per generation. A 4% growth here and a 50% intermarriage rate there does make a difference.

  8. I think Nosson Sherman from Artscroll should be on the list.

  9. “2Satmar, 2Bobov and Skver…a lot of people […] A 4% growth here and a 50% intermarriage rate there does make a difference.”

    Could you help me with the arithmetic: of 4.25m self-identified Jews by religion in the US, less than 10% (possibly as low as 5%) consider themselves Orthodox. (Source:

    The extinction of non-Orthodox Judaism has been predicted for over 150 years; and, while birth rates are high amongst Charedi/Chassidic Jews, there seems to be increasing anecdotal evidence of growing attrition as well.

    Net net: I don’t see how one can be classified as “influential” without being seen as relevant by non-Orthodox Jewry. The Agudah / Charedi / Chassidic world is largely irrelevant to even Modern Orthodox, let alone non-Orthodox Jews.

  10. Is there anybody at all doing real demographic research on Orthodox and haredi communities? It shouldn’t be too hard to take one community — Atlanta or Dallas or wherever — and figure out the actual impact of Chabad, of community kollel, of everything else. It shouldn’t be too hard to analyze census data for New Square and even Monsey and match some figures to the propaganda. Is anyone doing it?

    For another way of considering the top rabbis, I’ve drawn up an Amazon list of the books they’ve published.

  11. Chasidim are not evangelical. They work , raise many children and keep them close to home. They do not take responsibility for global poverty and pollution, and they don’t make any attempt to change American culture at large. They don’t intermarry. They have a very high growth rate. The chasidic model is not represented in the Daily Beast list. It should, because over say 20 years the charedim will become even more important. That’s my point.

    As for numbers, I implicitly relied on the estimates of Heilman in “Sliding Towards Orthodoxy.” I assume, relying on my sketchy memory that Orthodox are 10% going to 15% of the Jewish population, and that charedim and their fellow travelers are 60% of that number and chasidim are 60% of charedim, or around 200, 000 plus chasidim. I am not one of those who say Conservatives and Reform will disappear, though I do believe the current charedi retention rate is very high, and they will become an ever increasing percentage of the whole. The upshot is if the current Orthodox numbers are lower than I assumed, I stand corrected, but I don’t see why it effects my comment.

    There is something of a Larry Summers story going on here. It is said that every time Summers fails at a job he gets appointed to an even more important job. Here are a bunch of rabbis that failed to do their job, at least as a group. There wouldn’t be a Reform Vision Initiative if the Reform were a church militant on the march. The Conservatives would not be reinventing themselves every Monday and Thursday if they weren’t demoralized and confused. So Newsweek proceeds to honor these same rabbis for saying we have a problem.

    American Jews are not bereft of all vision. We have great novelists, important academics, vocal and influential journalists. Our problem is that in general our rabbis are weak, and getting weaker. The 2 Teitelbaums, the 2 Halberstams and the Twersky of New Square are going from strength to strength.

  12. Thanks for the 2006 Heilman reference, ej. The relevant chapter — “The Numbers” — is pp. 62-77 and can be viewed on Google Books:

  13. On Sliding to the Right demographic numbers- see both posts. There were originally dozens of back and forth comments between SH and SIW.

    • This seems to be an — undedifying, five years on — disagreement about the percentages within Orthodoxy rather than the percentage of Orthodoxy within American Jewry.

      Since Heilman postulates that the Charedi market share of Orthodoxy is 27 to 32 percent (p. 76), I am left wondering what SIW thought the number should be. Irrespective, the absolute numbers are “in the noise” relative to the broader demographic of American Jewry.

  14. So 600k Orthodox and 200k Haredim (143k , actually) estimated as of 2005.

    Has there any quantitative analysis of the 2010 census data yet?

    So what’ s your best guess for 2030? Doubling of Orthodox to 1.2m and tripling of Haredi to 600k? I’ll take the under, myself. We haven’t yet seen a modern Judaism that maintained itself for three generations, and I don’t think contemporary haredism will be the exception.

  15. An important point: The haredi Judaism of my childhood (e.g. Telshe yeshiva) was sustained by the non-Orthodox majority. There are no doubt still 80 year olds giving to Lakewood. Unless the community kollels are wildly successful, the community is creating a very different economic reality for itself. It can either change radically or collapse. My money is on both shocking change and shocking attrition.

    • This comment has no context besides calling to light the desideratum of an economic history of jewish orthodoxy. How else would you even know one way or the other? Anecdotes about old men and Telz aside.

      • No, the desideratum is an economic future history of Orthodox Judaism. Which is tougher to pull off.

        However, to the extant that economic journalism / sociology of Orthodox Judaism can be practiced, I’m open to suggestions and willing to making phone calls. With the very restrictive caveat that said phone calls and leg work be confined to Bergen and perhaps Rockland County.

  16. No seriously, there is not enough economic history of religion to go with the ton and a half of ideological, intellectual and sociological history. We really have no clue.

  17. Apropos of demographics, I just had my 15 minute phone interview for The Jewish Community Study of NY 2011.

    No big surprises, but I had to ask the interviewer if “Independent” or “Post-Denominational” was on the list when asked my affiliation. It took some searching, but she found “Post-Denominational/Trans-Denominational”.

    By default, the script is are you: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or other. And, “other”, starts with Reconstructionist…

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