Can anyone give me the Talmudic citation for the teaching “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”? (Just kidding. It’s Groucho Marx.)
We Americans have this silly addiction to top 10 (40, 50) lists. I suppose it began as a marketing artifact (and largely continues as one, as we faithfully follow the top selling books, recordings and films each week). From its humble beginnings in top 40 radio, the whole thing has escalated, as is our wont. Now we have the American Film Institute generating the top 100 movie musicals or heroes and villains of all time. The essence of such lists is their omissions, of course. As Gore Vidal put it, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
Now Newsweek magazine has come out with a new sort of top 50 list, the “Top 50 Rabbis in America.” Three media and entertainment executives devised the list using a scoring system that reflected their own values (at least 50 out of 100 points relate directly to public presence and influence). So really, it could be seen as a list of the 50 rabbis who speak, publish and appear on TV the most (including some who might more accurately be characterized as spiritual entrepreneurs). However you see it, the list includes some powerful teachers and advocates of social justice.
I was very happy to see three rabbis from the Jewish Renewal movement, of which I am a member: Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Waskow, and Michael Lerner. In my in-box this morning, I find messages from the latter two and a dozen others, deploring the list for its sexism (it appears that only 5 of the 50 are women), cataloging its many omissions of brilliant and worthy spiritual leaders, and questioning the whole enterprise. I’m certain there will be many op-eds to follow.
With characteristic good humor, Reb Arthur (I have the honor of serving on the Board of his peace and justice center, The Shalom Center), led off his demurral with a quip:
Mark Twain, when threatened with being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, noted that “if it weren’t for the honor and glory of the thing, I’d just as soon walk.”
That’s about the way I felt this week at being listed by Newsweek as one of 50 notable American rabbis.
This is the week before Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus from slavery in Egypt. In preparing to re-enact our liberation at the Pesach seder, we purge ourselves of chametz. This literally means leavening: flour foods that puff and rise with yeast and other leavening agents are avoided for the holiday’s eight days in favor of flat matzo, the bread of affliction baked on hot rocks as the enslaved fled their oppressors. But it also refers to all that is inflated in our own self-regard, anything clogging our hearts and minds so that instead of truly seeing others, we see only ourselves. In this time of the deflation of ego, it is fitting for the recipients to question the ego-puffing honor Newsweek has doled out to 50 souls (and perhaps also to question the magazine’s timing).
But truly, I think my friends would have written the same responses regardless of the time of year. Many of us, acting out a democratic impulse that has gotten a little distorted, are in the habit of believing an honor to some is an insult to those not honored. We rush to offer corrective instruction.
I’d like to add my voice to the discussion on the side of slowing the rush and enjoying the discussion. Yes, it’s frivolous and questionable to promulgate such a list. But consider this: whether intentional or not, the main function of such a thing is to start a dialogue like the one that has already commenced, one in which people outdo each other to appreciate their teachers and add to the honors list. In the first rash of emails, I have already read names entirely new to me. A fine thing, is it not, to set people talking about whom they wish to honor? The law of unintended consequences works again!
As my people gather to recall our time in slavery and pray for the liberation of all who are enslaved, I wish you a season of keen appreciation and low ego-inflation, a season of accepting all honors and honoring others in their turn.