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Who are the Great American Rabbis?

by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Published on September 14, 2010 in Slate

This essay is a response to Shmuel Rosner’s post in Slate, “Will the Great American Rabbi Please Stand Up?

Great American rabbis do exist but, like the lamed vavniks of the world, they’re not always recog­nized in contem­po­rary Jewish life.

First of all, in 2010, we don’t need an authority figure to nego­tiate for our protec­tion, or repre­sent our inter­ests in main­stream insti­tu­tions, so why invest one or two Jews with hege­monic power?

Second, given the current state of Jewish denom­i­na­tional warfare, we tend to acknowl­edge only those spir­i­tual and social action leaders who are iden­ti­fied with our partic­ular stream of Judaism, a habit that frac­tures and dilutes the power of the excep­tional among us to inspire Jews across the board.

Third, many of us have the impres­sion that by citing an outstanding voice asso­ci­ated with another denom­i­na­tion, we betray or belittle our own.

Fourth, para­dox­i­cally, the more media we have access to, the less we know about the special rabbis in our midst because our celebrity culture (i.e. America’s “best” rabbis) often favors the hot shots and self-promoters over the quiet wise ones who, rather than pursue the public spot­light, are lit from within. Some of our best, if unsung, rabbis illu­mi­nate our tradi­tion and inspire Jews to act more Jewishly not by via TV appear­ances, dramatic theo­log­ical pronounce­ments or dazzling halachic rulings but by their patient commit­ment to teaching, healing, coun­seling, writing, speaking, and comforting their fellow Jews.

In short, great American rabbis animate and embody the Jewish ethos in the way they conduct their lives. 

Those of us fortu­nate enough to move in their orbit know who these rabbis are. They may not make head­lines or move millions but they make mira­cles and move us closer to the divine. 

These rabbis, in alpha­bet­ical order and drawn from all denom­i­na­tions, have been my lamed vavniks: Saul Berman, Marcelo Bronstein, Angela Warnick Buchdahl (a cantor and a rabbi), Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Diane Cohler-Esses, Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, Steve Greenberg, Judith Hauptman, Jennifer Krause, Jan Caryl Kaufman, S. Gershon Levi (z“l), Joy Levitt, Ellen Lipman, Roly Matalon, John Rosove, Chaim Seidler-Feller, David Silber, Felicia Sol, Mychal Springer, Burt Visotsky, and Melissa Weintraub.


Author of Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America, Founding Editor, Ms. Magazine.

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