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