Jewish Influence – by Rabbi Avi Shafran


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It isn’t likely that very many people exhaled at long last with relief at the news that three entertainment industry executives had compiled their pet list of “America’s 50 most influential rabbis.”  But there was still something worthwhile, if not terribly comforting, to learn from the venture.

It was, to be sure, an odd bird, rendered stranger still by its prominent reportage in Newsweek magazine, a periodical that once actually reflected its name.  The roster, in any event, became fodder for much mirth-making – jubilant press releases from groups boasting connections to one of the Fab 50, and snickers from more disinterested corners.

There were even some knitted eyebrows, since lists of “influential” Jews more commonly reside in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, where they are usually festooned with swastikas, SS bolts and the like.

And there was some puzzlement too.  Why, even if for some reason one wished to identify paradigms of Jewish influence, would one limit the focus to clergypeople?   What of Jewish teachers, activists, writers?

What I found thought-provoking, though, was what the trendy troika’s choices say to us about the contemporary concept of influence.

To be sure, included on the list are some noteworthy people, including the one at its top, Rabbi Marvin Hier.  But, at least to my lights, any lasting influence he will have derives from the educational impact on society of the Simon Wiesenthal Center he heads.  The list-compilers, however, gave him their first-place nod because of … his association with “almost every world leader, journalist or Hollywood studio head.”  How silly of me.

Even closer to truly enduring influence are the accomplishments of another name on the roster, that of Rabbi Nosson Scherman (although, at #45, he was listed well after a “Kabbala” snake oil salesman and a radical political guru famous for cloaking extreme left-wing stances in Jewish garb).  By, along with Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, conceiving and building the Jewish publishing and translating powerhouse called ArtScroll/Mesorah, Rabbi Scherman has helped render accessible to more Jews than ever before a wealth of Jewish textual sources – including the entire Shas Bavli.
But those men and a few others on the list – like Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Program – are the exceptions.  The bulk of the coronated received their crowns because of their connections to the rich and famous, or for their promotion of “progressive” positions at irreconcilable odds with Judaism.  The point system the Hollywooders employed, moreover, gave particular weight to criteria like “Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally?”  And: “Do they have a media presence?”

Well, being famous or photogenic must certainly be nice.  But, as any of a large number of contemporary celebrities readily evidence, such attributes are superficial and fleeting – to put it mildly.

Surely the compilers of the list, with their credentials in the entertainment industry, must realize that.  And yet still they seem to conflate influence with celebrity.

Judaism’s understanding, of course, is very different.

Influence in the Jewish view, particularly when rabbis are being considered, is measured in the energizing of authentic Jewish learning and ideals.  Put simply, the coin of the Jewish realm is not trendiness but Torah.  And what it purchases is not Jewish clout but the Jewish future.

Measured by that standard, to those sufficiently foresighted to separate the effective from the ephemeral, the 50 most influential rabbis are likely unknown, sadly, to most American Jews.  And, in fact, those Roshei Yeshivos, Admorim and Rabbonim would be scandalized to find their names on any “most” list.  They are modest Jews who shun the limelight and whose momentous influence lies in their effect on their talmidim, congregants and followers – to whom they impart the timeless and authentic Jewish mesorah.  A mesorah that is not just pondered but lived, determinedly and proudly, and passed on to future generations.

Many who head yeshivos or seminaries, of which there are dozens in the United States have educated and inspired thousands of students.  Likewise Chassidishe rebbes, and respected congregational leaders.  And likewise, too, so many other mechanchim and lecturers, some who present shiurim that draw large and enthusiastic crowds.   One offering, in Brooklyn, attracts well over a thousand attendees each week – and is broadcast to other locales where at least as many Jewish men and women gather to participate at a distance.

Although the title “rabbi” in the Orthodox world is not used for women, thousands of students mourned like daughters of the deceased when a noted mechaneches, lecturer and life guide passed on two years ago; among the maspidim at her levaya were Gedolei Yisroel.  And, through personal memories of her wisdom and advice as well as tapes of her lectures, she continues to teach countless Jewish girls and women today – and surely will for many years to come.

The larger world’s pathetic ignorance notwithstanding, such is true Jewish influence.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


  1. The list does not pretend to use an Orthodox Judaic yardstick in making its determination. In fact, Orthodox Judaisim does not believe in creating these types of lists at all. Also, Olam Hafuch Ani Roeh, do you think being a great speaker who attracts crowds of thousands should make you influential in Judaisim. I don’t think that is an Orthodox yardstick either.

  2. Contrary to the official anti-Internet and anti-media position of the Agudah, the essays of one of their leading officials, Rav Shafran (including this one), appear regularly at the Am Echad Web site. Having spoken with several distinguished Rabbanim SHLIT”A who are members of the Agudah’s Moetzes, I have come to the conclusion that there is no single Daas Torah on these matters; Chilukei Daos would be more accurate. Accordingly, Lefi Anias Daati, it would be more appropriate for Agudath Israel to advocate strict parental supervision of the Internet so that young people will only view Kosher sites like this one.

  3. Avraham: Aguda’s position is much more nuanced than just “anti-internet”. Having spoken myself with several gedolei rabonim on this issue, including one member of the moetzes, I believe that the gedorim are clear that it has not been forbidden in a business setting. And even in private homes, when there is a business need, there are conditional dispensations available for those wishing to follow Da’as Torah. But in an office, there is clearly no outright issur. I’m sure that Rabbi Shafran is posting his articles on the internet from the Aguda office. I’m sure that the servers are not in his living room. That itself should meet your criteria for “strict parental supervision of the Internet so that young people will only view Kosher sites . . . .”

  4. It is interesting that the agudah only likes lists which include their people on it, you can be sure that if the list had shafran’s or zwiebel’s name in it, it would be hailed as a major kidush hashem, but since the list actually reflects the truth about who really wields power and they are left out, they go around crying like a bunch of babies. Why do you even post this dribble?

  5. Influential- one who has great influence. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition. This can most definitely be defined as the ones who INFLUENCE others or politics the most and may not be gedolim at all. INFLUENCE can be measured by how many people attend a speech more than by torah knowledge.

  6. I find it an outrage that Krinsky and Chabad are credited for anything for yiddishkeit let alone having “truly built a shul on every corner”.
    I find it most delicious however, that the men sitting atop 42 Broadway cannot yield one of Newsweek’s Top 50. Rabbi Shafran should have taken several deep breaths and counted to twenty before hitting the keyboard.

    Edited by Site Moderation Panel

  7. Baki. You may be a baki in Webster, but the gadol sitting in learning in his study may be influencing more people then the the guy who is a great darshan.