At the end of the last millennium many publications and other media were putting out lists of various different kinds reflective of that millennium. One such list published by Jerusalem Report Magazine consisted of the 100 most influential Jews. They then invited readers to list their top 10 and perhaps the reasons for the choices. I though it would be fun to do so at the time so I came up with a list of my own. These are my choices not in somewhat of chronological order order. I based them on their over-all impact on us today rather than how they impacted their own time. Over five years have passed since I compiled this list and I don’t think I would change any name on the list. For those who read my blog and haven’t seen my list before, here it is followed by my reasons for choosing them:
1. The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon
2. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki
3. The Beis Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Caro
4. The Rama, Rabbi Moses Isserles
5. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah Kramer
6. The Baal Shem Tov
7. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner
8. Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik
9. Rabbi Aharon Kotler
10. Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Of course, there are a great many more people who might qualify to be on the top ten and indeed many could make legitimate arguments for any of such names that do not make my top ten. The list could have easily included names like the Ramban, R. Shraga Fievel Medelowitz, Dr. Bernard Revel, The Chofetz Chaim, R. Shnayer Zalman of Liadi, The Mezritcher Magid, R. AY Kook, R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, The Nodeh B’Yehudah, and Rabbi Akiva Eiger. These are just some of the names that come to mind. All of them are great figures of the last millennium and many would argue that I could easily replace one or more of my choices with one or more of these names. And they might even be right. Indeed there are many more names that I haven’t mentioned that might easily qualify. But in order to keep the list down to ten I had to make choices.
Here are the reasons for my choices.
I chose the Rambam because of his Magnum Opus, the Yad HaChazaka, extracting all Halacha from the Talmud and organizing it by subject matter, a feat which has never been duplicated. Add to that his treatise on Jewish Philosophy: the Moreh Nevuchim, his mastery of Medicine, and his general level of genius... choosing him is a no brainer.
Rashi... because he opened up the Talmud for all of subsequent generations. Without Rashi's commentary, the Talmud would be a closed book. And the Talmud is where our Torah SheBal Peh was discussed, debated and written down for posterity so that the Oral law would not be forgotten. Without it Judaism would be lost as we would have not way of knowing Torah SheBal Peh since over time there were too many new developments requiring Psak which would have made impossible to transmit orally through the generations.
R. Yosef Caro who codified in his Shulchan Aruch all practical Halacha taken from the Talmud as discussed by the major Rishonim for all subsequent generations in a simple and straight forward manner.
R. Moses Isserles whose glosses appended to Rabbi Caro’s Sefardi orientaion in the Shulchan Aruch, are the Halacha for Ashkenazi (European) Jews.
The Vilna Gaon, because of his great piety and genius which is acknowledged by all segments of Jewry, and because of innovative elimination of excessive pilpul in learning Talmud, and because of his meticulous and courageous corrections of Shas.
The Baal Shem Tov whose creation of Chasidus has had one of the most profound impacts on Judaism since the destruction of the second Temple. Chasidus can be credited with the salvation of Judaism during the turmoil created by the combined effects of: enlightenment, the opening of general society to the Jews, and the subsequent threat of Haskalah to a population ill equipped to handle it.
R. Chaim Volozhiner, who created the Yeshiva as we know it today. Without the Yeshiva, knowledge of the Torah would have been even more severely limited than it was. It was through the yeshiva that the elite minds of the day were able to absorb Torah knowledge and spread it to the masses. And because of that, ultimately the Yeshiva system itself has spread to the masses so that today all of Jewry has opportunity for Torah knowledge.
R. Chaim Soloveitchik because of his revolutionary approach (of clarity and definition) to learning Talmud and commentaries (especially the Rambam), which has been adopted as the standard form of learning invirtually all Yeshivos today.
R. Aharon Kotler, whose transplantation of the classic yeshiva of Europe (i.e. the Volozhinist model) to American soil and subsequently established almost singlehandedly the wide system of Yeshiva Chinuch, in all of it's facets: elementary, high school, post high school Beis HaMedrash, and Kollelim we have in the US today. Even though Yeshiva Education existed prior to this time in all facets it was meager and in danger of extinction.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik because of his immense intellect, and knowledge of Torah. His knowledge and intellect is not disputed even by his biggest detractors. His influence on thousands of Talmidim that he personally taught is probably greater than any other single individual, and those students are influencing thousands more. His profound influence on society was felt far beyond the borders of YU and impacted not only the MO but even the RW. His Philosophic thought transcends even the Yeshiva world into and is studied in universities. He was considered the greatest living Orthodox Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century. His 2 great works, "Halachic Man" and “Lonely Man of Faith" are even studied in Conservative JTS and Reform HUC. I personally believe that his approach as expressed in the above mentioned books is the quintessential essence of Judaism and requires that Man not only know all of Torah that he can but also all of Mada that he can.