Who were the most influential Jews of all time?

Whether one agrees with Michael Shapiro’s listing in his 1995 387-page book “The Jewish 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Jews of all Time” or not, the books should make us think not only whether we would agree with his selections, whether we would delete some names and substitute others, but also who we would consider Jews who influenced our own lives, and even more, why they did so, and are we living up to that inspiration.

Shapiro’s list

The list and biographies of the listees is interesting in what it includes and excludes. It even lists and discusses people who would most likely not consider themselves Jewish, such as Gustav Mahler who converted to Christianity, those who we will be surprised to learn were Jewish, as Marcel Proust, those we may think were not really very heroic, like Queen Esther, those we prefer to think never influenced us, such as the mystic Isaac Luria but who had a profound impact despite our not knowing it. He also left out men and women who many of us think had a profound impact upon our lives.

Of course, the most influential Jew for me was Maimonides who introduced me to a rational approach to life. I would place him on the top of the list with Moses. Shapiro has Maimonides as number 16 after Judas Iscariot and Gustav Mahler, two men who made no significant impact on my life, although I recognize that Judas, according to the New Testament, pointed out Jesus to the Romans who crucified him. I like Mahler’s music but not his songs, but his decision to convert to Christianity so that he could get a job and his mistreatment of his wife always bothered me, so I would include neither of them.

Names I would add

My interest is the Bible. I wrote many books on the Bible. Besides Maimonides, one of my heroes is Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919) who is said to have had total recall and speak 39 languages. He authored Mikra Kipheshuto, “The Bible According to its Literal Meaning.” I included his views in my many books on the Bible because whether I agreed with each one or not, they made me think, and I included them to prompt others to think

Another is Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam (around 1085-1158), the grandson of Rashi (1040-1105) because he like Maimonides and Ehrlich took a rational approach to the Bible reading what the Bible actually says rather than what Midrashim imagine the Bible is saying. Shapiro includes Rashi as number 20, and does not mention Rashbam. He is right, of course. Children are taught the Bible together with Rashi’s midrashic views. Rashbam is never mentioned in elementary Jewish schools even though Rashbam criticized his granddad’s methodology, even to his face, and Rashbam reports that Rashi agreed with him and said if he had the chance to do it over, he would have followed Rashbam’s methodology of explaining what the text states and not inventive inspirational notions.[1]

A good example of Rashbam’s technique is his revelation that according to the Bible, the day begins in the morning, not at night. For in Genesis 1, the Bible speaks of divine creations during each of six days, then states that this was followed by “and there was evening and there was morning, one day (a second day, etc.). These verses clearly state that the day ends and begins again when the sun rises.[2]

I would have also included Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, both of whom lived in the second century CE.  Shapiro has neither of them. They had different ideas on how the Bible should be interpreted. Rabbi Akiva who the Romans butchered around 135 CE is an important influential teacher because his view and not that of Rabbi Ishmael, who apparently escaped, became the accepted view. Rabbi Akiva’s view influenced the Midrashim, Rashi, most Bible commentators, and is the basis of virtually all sermons that congregants hear from rabbis today in synagogues. It is not the view of Maimonides, Rashbam, and Ehrlich, and I think it is wrong. I also think that congregants should recognize the basis for the sermons and interpretation they are hearing so that they can evaluate whether they feel it is a correct interpretation of the biblical verse upon which the midrashic lesson is supposedly based. The lesson in most instances is correct, but contrary to the rabbi, the lesson is not in the Bible.[3]

Rabbi Akiva insisted that since God dictated the Torah to Moses, letter by letter, and since God is all-wise, God will say exactly what is intended, with no superfluous letter. Therefore, every letter of the Torah text must be mined to discover teachings that are not explicit in the Torah text.  In contrast, Rabbi Ishmael insisted that we read Torah as we read other books because “the Torah speaks in human language.” Repetitions which abound in the Torah do not imply a new lesson or new halakha. As in human literature, repetitions in the Torah may simply be to emphasize what is already stated, not to add something new.

Others that I would have included

According to Jewish law, a man and woman is a Jew if his or her mother was Jewish. This includes the descendant of a female ancestress whose daughter was automatically Jewish, whose daughter of the third generation was automatically Jewish, and so on. Thus, even after many generations, if a child, male or female, descended from a line of women whose ancestor was Jewish, that person is considered Jewish by Jewish law.

Accordingly, one could include people such as Elvis Presley.[4] It would also include President Lyndon B. Johnson who was Jewish because his grandmother and mother were Jewish and Judaism passes from the mother. Because his granddaughter was the child of a non-Jewish woman, she converted to Judaism.[5]

 In short

It is good for everyone to have their own list of the people who influenced them the most. They should ask themselves why they chose the person for the list, and decide if the individual still influences them and why.

[1] As I footnoted in my first Mystery of Judaism book.

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, who wrote a generally rational Bible commentary, criticized his grandfather harshly for inserting midrashic explanations into his commentary and not sticking to the plain meaning of the biblical passages. In his commentary on Genesis 37:1, he told his readers that he upbraided his grandfather for the way he explained the Torah, and that Rashi assured him that he agreed with him. Rashi told him that if he had years to write new explanations, he would write a book in the way that Rashbam wrote his commentary.

In Genesis 49:17, where Rashi states that the verse is referring to the judge Samson, who would not be born for another couple of centuries, Rashbam angrily writes that anyone who thinks that this passage is speaking about Samson doesn’t know how to understand the Torah.

In Deuteronomy 15:18, Scripture mandates that slave owners must give their Hebrew slaves gifts when they set them free. The Torah continues: “It should not seem hard to you … because he gave you double the service of a hired man.” Rashi (based on Midrash Sifrei) proposes that Scripture’s “double” means that Hebrew slaves work day and night, while hired employees works only during the day; the nighttime work is when the master gives the slave a Canaanite slave so that he can have children from the union that would belong to him as slaves. Rashbam calls this interpretation “foolish” and “vapor.” The plain meaning of the verse, he says, is that the “master” should not feel bad in having paid for slaves twice, when he purchased slaves and now when he must also give them gifts.

The eleventh century rationalist Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived around the same time, wrote mockingly: Rashi states that he translates the Torah according to its plain meaning and he is correct—one time out of a thousand.

[2] Also, in the temple the sacrifices began in the morning.

[3] Maimonides pointed this out in his extended essay called Chelek. Those who think that Midrashim are true are fools. So too are those who dismiss Midrashim entirely since they are untrue. Midrashim are important even though the method used to derive the message is false because the message in most cases is true.

[4] Jerry Klinger, President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, wrote about him in many places.

[5] Dov Peretz Elkins, Four Rabbis at Lunch, Ktav Publishing, 2019.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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