As Passover 2007 began, the Jewish community first became tethered to Newsweek's Top 50 Rabbis List. As Passover 2012 ends, let's finally break the bonds, and liberate ourselves from it. America has enough idols. Let's smash this one (the list, not the rabbis). It's time to say dayenu -- enough already.
On one hand, the Top 50 Rabbis is positive. It honors the important work of wonderful rabbis, and hopefully inspires people to allocate resources to their very worthy projects. Halleluyah, honestly.
But the negative consequences outweigh the list's worthy ones, so rabbis have an obligation to resist it.
Intentionally or not, the Top 50 Rabbis list lends legitimacy to forces in our broader culture that directly undermine core values of Jewish life, and probably of the rabbis on the list as well. Rabbis are called to see, draw out and celebrate that which is holy in every person, and to fan the sparks of that which is meaningful in every life. We write, counsel, teach and preach that what matters most profoundly in life is who and how we are in the world, not how many awards we win. We encourage the pursuit of deep passions over chasing recognition, status or rank. We emphasize life's abundant blessings, not that medals -- available only to the lucky few
-- equal meaning. We have to do this so doggedly because, sadly, this very orientation to life has become counter-cultural, including within our own community.
All too often, rabbis see the painful real-life implications of lives spent seeking that which brings status and stuff over satisfaction and wholeness: The family that falls apart because exhausting efforts to get ahead at work leave spouses and parents with nothing left to give at home; the man in his mid-40s who just now realizes that his pursuit of wealth has left him feeling empty his whole career; the graduate student who finds himself in rehab because of his drug use that began with "just one pill" to get him an A; the beautiful woman seeking help with her eating disorder because she sees her daughter beginning to emulate her behaviors.
Instead of playing into cultural dynamics that promulgate stories like these, rabbis should call them out as foul play. Rabbis in fact have a moral obligation to counter those forces, which encourage toxic self-criticism and senseless competition. We should instead spend our time bearing witness to the fact that there are many paths to satisfaction and meaning in life that will never win you an award, a bachelor, or a No. 1 spot on the 40 under 40.
For six out of my last 10 years in the rabbinate, I've served as a college campus rabbi. I feel I owe it to say the following to the thousands of college students who turn to me and my rabbinic
colleagues for guidance: Listen. Countless rabbis you've never heard of have gained profound satisfaction and an unquantifiable sense of purpose in the intrinsically rewarding activities of their life's work. They have found abundant blessings off the list, in lives lived in pursuit of
what they care about most deeply, and, more importantly, so can you.