Honorary degrees, prizes, awards, lists of outstanding achievers


Werner Cohn




This proposition, “if it glitters it is gold” – who believes it ?  Nobody, obviously.  But many act as if they did, and this act of bad faith is the basis of much of the politics of prestige.

A now-deceased colleague of mine, Ralf Dahrendorf,  was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. German-born and remaining active in German affairs to the end of his life,  he lived in Britain where he became outstanding among the scholars of the United Kingdom. And I must admit that my high opinion of him was bolstered by the fact that during all the years that I was in contact with him I largely shared his scholarly and political views.

In 1993, Queen Elizabeth made Dahrendorf a life peer in recognition of his previous service as the Director of the London School of Economics and Warden of St. Anthony’s College at Oxford.   At the time of this elevation to the peerage, Dahrendorf was married to an English woman with the maiden name Ellen Joan Krug.  This marriage ended in divorce in 2004.  Dahrendorf then married someone else and somewhat later he died, in Germany in 2009, aged 80.

Now some time after Ralf was made life peer in 1993, Ellen took to calling herself “Lady Ellen Dahrendorf.” I do not know the extent to which it is customary for spouses of life peers to use their spouses’ titles.  In any case, Ellen has not been married to Ralf for some eight years now,  nor was she married to him at the time of his death.  Yet she persists in the use of his title, under circumstances that suggest a claim for special consideration based on her former husband’s achievements.  In 2007 she was one of the founders of the British anti-Israel “Independent Jewish Voices,” together with such luminaries as Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Pinter (a Nobel laureate in literature), signing the IJC declaration as “Lady Ellen Dahrendorf,” as indeed she signed subsequent declarations of this organization.

This “Lady Ellen” story illustrates the problem of the relationship between glitter, or outward appearance, and actual merit, or a reality that this glitter is represented to signify.

I know something of Dahrendorf’s work, having been in the same field and having studied his major book in some depth.  I consider it of great merit, knowing, of course, that other specialists may think less highly of it.  Nevertheless, when the Queen saw fit to honor Dahrendorf’s work, his knowledgeable colleagues, generally, could give their approval.  But what about the merits of his then-wife,  Ellen Krug ?  Who can, by first-hand knowledge, vouch for her merits – say her merits as a great scholar’s ex-wife ?  Surely, to ask this question is to answer it.

So the question arises of how we can establish the merit of a person.

We began with the metaphor of a precious metal, gold, and how to tell it from base metals like polished brass.  In the case of the metals, we have acid tests that can tell the base from the precious.  Despite the ready availability of such tests, there are persons who will try to sell brass as gold, by an appeal to its glitter.  We say that such sellers are acting in bad faith, and that their willing buyers, like “marks” in a confidence racket, are gullible and/or greedy.

Are there acid tests for determining qualities in people that would distinguish, for instance, a great scholar from a charlatan ?  There are not.  But there are approximations to such tests that I have suggested in the case of Ralf Dahrendorf.  In brief, if we have first-hand knowledge of a field and devote conscientious effort, we can determine, within a reasonable degree of confidence, answers to such question.  That would constitute what I would call a primary judgement.  Beyond that there are secondary judgements:  repeating the opinions of others without knowledge of how such opinions were formed, or basing judgements on the acclaim (glitter) of other people. Some secondary judgements, as we shall see, have more validity than others. Many constitute, quite frankly,  an endorsement of the specious dictum if it glitters it is gold.  My own view is that the validity of secondary judgements is a matter of degree, from very high in some cases (say some of the Nobel science prizes) to very low in others, say lists like those of the “best rabbis.”

When it comes to Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics, I am inclined to think that the committees assess the merits of these laureates more-or-less validly.  Nevertheless, there is obviously no fully reliable relationship between scientific merit and the prizes.  As Robert Friedman has pointed out in his 2001 book The Politics of Excellence, there is typically more than a casual bit of skullduggery and petty politics in these, the most august of the prizes.  And Steven Novella, in an eye-opening article entitled “Beware the Nobel Laureate Argument from Authority,” cites some Nobel prize winners in science who, once outside their specialties, speak with neither prudence nor indeed intelligence.

Such comments would also apply to the Pulitzer prizes, awarded for putative excellence in journalism and literature.  I have been able to interview someone who has sat on Pulitzer prize juries.  His account suggests an earnest effort to select the best work, even though, of course, judgments in this field are probably more subjective than they are in science.  But my source also told me – surprise surprise -- that he knew of Pulitzer recipients who do not deserve the honor and non-recipients who do.  Such occasional glitches, of course, do no speak against a basic integrity of the Pulitzer enterprise.  On the other hand, the conservative writer L. Brent Bozell III has a more serious complaint.  He asserts, with just cause in my opinion, that there is a systematic bias against conservative journalists and writers when it comes to awarding Pulitzers.  And he gives many telling examples.   Come to think of it, what shall we make of the 1932 Pulitzer winner Walter Duranty, Moscow’s NY Times correspondent at the time, who thought that Stalin’s Russia was a true workers’ paradise, and whose work was later described, by his own paper, as "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper" ?

Once we leave the arguably reputable world of prizes like the science Nobel, the Fields Medal in Mathematics, and to a lesser extent the Pulitzer, we enter a murky world of back-scratching, political bias, bad faith, just plain capriciousness, and only incidental integrity in prize giving.

Anyone who has taken a critical look at the Nobel peace prize must conclude that, as often as not, it is a sham.  The recipient list over the years contains estimable persons but also an astounding number of political hacks, nonentities, even scoundrels, at least in my opinion.  Here are excerpts from the very moderate discussion in Wikipedia:

... Some commentators have suggested that to award a peace prize on the basis of unquantifiable contemporary opinion is unjust or possibly erroneous, especially as many of the judges cannot themselves be said to be impartial observers.[16]

... Norwegian historian Įivind Stenersen argues that Norway has been able to use the prize as an instrument for nation building and furthering Norway's foreign policy and economic interests.[17]

... the grandson of one of Nobel's two brothers, Michael Nobel, also criticized what he believed to be the politicisation of the award, claiming that the Nobel Committee has not always acted in accordance with Nobel's will.[18]

Similar criticisms have justly been made of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  When this particular Nobel was offered to Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964, he refused to accept and pointed to the illusory glitter of such worldly acclaim.

When we come now to the world of honorary degrees, we find, on the whole, that it has this similarity to college athletics:  both contradict the professed academic values of devotion to scholarly excellence.

When I was a beginning professor at a liberal arts college back in the 1950’s, I was asked to vote, as a member of faculty, to bestow honorary degrees on a number of wealthy donors to the college.  After looking at some of the criticisms of honorary degrees, I learned that very frequently such bestowal constitutes no more than a crude money-raising technique on the part of colleges, with little or no regard for the merit of those so honored.  That was certainly the case at the college at which I taught.  I voiced these objections, only to incur the lasting displeasure of the college’s president.

Everything I have learned about honorary degrees since then has confirmed my view of those days.  I do not doubt that there are recipients – honorary “doctors” – who merit any and all honors that human beings can bestow.  But such cases are certainly no more frequent than are the awards for reasons other than academic, artistic, or indeed any other kind of merit.  When examined closely, the financial interests of the granting institution seem to loom large, as do the politics, sometimes extremist, of those who decide.  (A partial listing of Noam Chomsky’s honorary degrees shows thirty-seven universities, including Harvard and Peking.)  And, of course, celebrity status almost guarantees an honorary degree from somewhere.  Lilit Marcus gives some detail, and comments:

Some people slog through four years (or five, or seven…) of college in order to get a degree. But these celebrities were handed honorary degrees from schools like Harvard and Yale just for doing basic stuff like winning Oscars or being the richest person in the world. Oh, celebrities.


Now the so-called earned degrees can, of course, be just as meretricious as the honorary ones.  I am speaking of the practice by braggarts to flaunt a legitimate Ph.D. or even an M.D. far outside the realm in which such a degree can have any relevance.  But this is a slightly different subject, one that I have discussed previously.


Below the honorary degrees, there are all sorts of awards, award dinners, distinctions, and lists of high achievers.  Some of these are bestowed on individuals, others on institutions (the Nobel peace prize was given to then-fashionable groups like the Red Cross and the Quakers).  The most charitable thing one can truthfully say about most of this honoring is that it reflects poorly on the judgement of the bestowers, and poorly also on the integrity of the recipients.


Some of the vocabulary of this honor industry is telling.  There is much talk of how “prestigious” such awards are once they are given.  And there is another curious term used, I believe, exclusively in the honor industry:  “honoree.”  Here is my advice.  When you hear either of these telltale terms, run, don’t walk, run far away.


When the head of the self-styled “Spiritual Progressives” of California, Rabbi Michael Lerner (“privately ordained”), when this Rabbi decided that he would award his “Tikkun Award” to the South African judge Richard Goldstone (after Goldstone had accused Israel of “war crimes”) Lerner characterized the award he had just bestowed as “prestigious.”  Well, naturally, it was awarded by himself, and who would be better qualified to judge his own ability to bestow    “prestige” ?


Among the most notorious of the honor lists there is the annual account of ostensible “Best Colleges” issued by the U. S. News and World Report.  This magazine itself, USN&WR, is now defunct, but its “Best Colleges” rankings, undeterred, arrive each year online in time to influence gullible college applicants and their parents.  I do not think that there is a thoughtful academic who will defend the USN&WR ranking scheme.  Malcolm Gladwell has examined its methods in detail, and he reports that the rankings, under all their pseudo-scientific trappings, amount to no more than the prejudices of the rankers.  Of course they glitter, and such glitter is accepted as gold, or at least is represented as gold, by some who stand to profit.


As I have suggested, all those who care for academic values deride the USN&WR rankings.  Nevertheless, it seems that some colleges are not above using these meretricious rankings in their advertising.  And even if the rankings do not endorse the overall quality of a given institution, there is often some wrinkle, some sub-category, that the university publicity people can exploit.  Here is the blurb from the New School University’s website:

For the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report’s ”Best Colleges” edition has recognized The New School as the nation’s leading university for international undergraduates. The magazine’s rankings, which are released today, also place The New School at the top of its list of “Highest Proportion of Classes Under 20 Students,” as well as one of the official “Best Colleges of 2013.”

Unlike the USN&WR claims for colleges, the annual “Top Rabbis” list of The Daily Beast and Newsweek makes no overtly unreasonable claims.  In fact it comes with some disarming “disclaimers” :

   The list is subjective.

   Its creators never expected it to be taken as seriously as it is.

   We know there are many more than 50 worthy rabbis in the U.S.

And so forth.


But the disclaimers notwithstanding, the list and its findings, as we shall see, are taken seriously indeed, at least by some of its “honorees” and their associates.


Before we get to that, it is worth noting some peculiarities of the list.  I have some personal knowledge of about a dozen of these rabbis.  In at least two cases, my personal experience agrees with the judgement of the list’s authors.  I have studied the works of both of these men and have listened to their teachings on a number of occasions, finding them full of perspicacity and wisdom.  But in some six cases, my personal experience stands in sharp contrast with the published judgments.  I found these people boastful, vacuous, in at least one case untruthful, and generally unsuitable as spiritual guides.  But these views of mine are at least as subjective as those of the list compilers, and lacking expert knowledge of what constitutes rabbinic excellence, I will not insist on them in any way.


But there are also some objective peculiarities in the list.  (I am using the most recent, 2012 version;  there are 50 ranks but a total of 53 individuals since in two cases a given rank is assigned to more than one individual).


According to the 2002 American Jewish Population Study, some 3% of American Jews identify as Reconstructionist.  But on this “top rabbis” list there are five Reconstructionist rabbis, or 9.4% of the total.  Then there are three Renewal rabbis, and three “independents.”  These adherents of dissenting groups (i.e. dissenting from the major denominations) give the list an offbeat coloration, something, I suppose, its supporters savor.


In at least one case, that of the leader of Renewal’s guru Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (number 39 on the list), there is some problem of whether he can be called a Jewish rabbi altogether.  His teachings are syncretic, with particular emphasis on Buddhism.  He has held the World Wisdom Chair at the Buddhist  Naropa Institute, and, generally, preaches a faith that combines Buddhism with Judaism and other religions. Moreover he has made a practice of “ordaining” his followers as “rabbis,” without requiring an education in a recognized Jewish theological seminary or yeshiva.  I would also have doubts, on similar grounds, about the other two Renewal rabbis on the list.


So we must conclude, the presence of some outstanding individuals notwithstanding, that this list of “top rabbis  cannot be accepted as a serious, or indeed honest reflection of rabbinic merit, i. e. of scholarship, wisdom, purity of heart. It is, as the authors themselves suggest fairly clearly, a public relations enterprise, embodying the values of advertising rather than those of spiritual leadership.


With these thoughts in mind, I wrote to the president of the synagogue which is led by one of the honorees of The Beast-Newsweek.  Here is an edited version of my message, dated August 13, 2012:


Dear Mr. [ ]

I live far from your synagogue and far from [your city], but, nonetheless, I am a great admirer of Rabbi [ ].  I have read some of his writings from time to time, I follow his column in the [newspaper], and I have also heard him speak on various occasions. I think that his work is an asset to the Jewish people, and I am grateful that your synagogue enables him to exercise leadership on a national scale.

I feel moved to write to you today because I think that your website -- inadvertently of course -- contains materials that detract from Rabbi [ ]'s stature.

I do not agree with foolish "rankings" of rabbis in the media for three major reasons:

1.  Unlike the performance of Olympic runners, there is no rational metric for ranking rabbis.  Each great rabbi is different from all the others, but how can we say that one is "better" than the next, except by the most subjective of standards ?

2.  Saying that one rabbi is "better" than others implies the others are not as good as he.  Do you believe that this invidious commentary on the merits of other rabbis is justified ?

3. Celebrating popular acclaim, as if such acclaim were a sign of virtue, runs counter to the values that our great teachers -- not least Rabbi [ ] himself -- teach consistently.

Now of course the media will be the media, and we have little control over the false values that they preach.  But when your synagogue website not merely mentions but actually gloats over this golden-calf behavior on the part of the media, I think that you have gone astray.  Below is an excerpt from your site's text:

Rabbi [] - Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post. [ ] is the Rabbi of [ ]. He previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College, and UCLA. Rabbi []’s work has been profiled in the New York Times, and he regularly writes for many publications, including [ ], the Washington Post’s On Faith website, The Huffington Post,New York Jewish Week, and many others. He has been on television numerous times, including the Today Show, Face the Nation, ABC this Morning, and CBS This Morning. In addition Rabbi [ ] has been featured in series on PBS, A&E, the History channel, and the Discovery channel. Rabbi [ ] is the author of seven books ...


   Named the number one rabbi in America by Newsweek (2012)

   Named one of the fifty most important Rabbis in America by Newsweek (2007-2012)

   Named one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post(2012)

   Named one of the one hundred most influential individuals in L.A. by Los Angeles Magazine (2006)

   Named one of the hundred most influential Jews in the United States by the Forward (2003)

   Recipient of the Hope Award from the Tower Cancer Research Foundation

   Winner of a Rackower award for Jewish Journalism

   Award for distinguished contribution from the Wellness Center.

   Award for excellence in single commentary by the American Jewish Press Association (2005) 

In short, I think that your biographical treatment of Rabbi [ ] is demeaning of him and of the values that he teaches, and I wish to urge you, respectfully, to consider removing this offensive material from you site.

Respectfully yours, etc.

Five weeks have passed since I wrote this to the president of Rabbi [ ]’s shul.  No doubt I will receive a reply in due time, some time ...


The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in upper Manhattan next to Columbia University, is an outstanding institution of higher learning.  I know this from odd courses I have taken there, from the many scholarly lectures I have attended within its gates, and from discussions with members of its distinguished faculty.  JTS’s excellent lecture series is generally free and open to the public, and – unusual for New York City – its fine scholarly library is also freely available to the public. 


So you would think, would you not, that JTS considers the “Top Rabbis” list as beneath its dignity.  Well, you would be wrong.  The fact is that JTS’s website trumpets the appearance of JTS graduates at considerable length and with considerable fanfare.  “Fourteen JTS Graduates Included in Newsweek / Daily Beast 2012 List of "America’s Top 50 Rabbis" reads its proud press release of April of this year.  The same website (search under “prestigious”) also boasts of many other similar distinctions that its faculty have amassed.  Some of these scholars, indeed, seem to have been kept very busy being honorees in a number of venues; have they been too busy to chance upon the advice of Ethics of the Fathers, VI-5, “Do not crave honor”?

The JTS, besides being an honoree, is also an honoror, if that is the right word.  It seems that each of its rabbi-graduates, twenty-five years after graduation, is awarded an honorary D.D. degree by the Seminary, based exclusively on the fact of having lived a further twenty-five years after leaving the school.  A number of recipients have expressed some discomfort at participating in what is so clearly a bit of a charade.  But none are on record, insofar as I know, of refusing the honor.

Rabbi Elliot Gertel of Chicago writes

... the Seminary has, for many years, bestowed an honorary doctorate upon its students who have been at large for 25 years or more.  I suspect that this tradition developed because, after so many years, it was impossible to rein or reel us back in.  The plan might therefore have been to flatter us into remembering our teachers and re-examining our ideals and our commitments.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Stamford, Conn., is somewhat more analytic, in an article entitled Questioning My Degree:

I received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary this spring. I appreciate the recognition, but it has prompted some disquieting questions.

Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas, usually after about 25 years of service. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment. ...

But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on purely intellectual terms? Once upon a time, rabbinical seminaries were bastions of cold-fish, Litvak elitism, often then wedded to its secular, German sister, the venerable “Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism).” But these same schools are now committed to taking Judaism out of the ivory tower, promoting, as JTS put it in its new strategic plan, “Scholarship in Service to the Jewish Community.” So shouldn’t the rabbi of the 21st century be recognized as a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.D.?

And what, really, is a Doctor of Divinity? I hear that in the United Kingdom, a D.D. is the highest honor a university can give, higher than Doctorates in law, medicine, science, letters or music. But American universities have no such hierarchy, and here it almost sounds like a degree they might confer at Hogwarts for having mastered potions and the dark arts.  

How should people address me? Debretts, a website that calls itself “the modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement” favors “Dr. Cohen” over “Rabbi Cohen” for invitations and salutations. With the Jewish establishment subtly agreeing that “My kid the doctor” trumps “rabbi” on the parental aspiration scale, that trampling sound you hear is another generation of our best and brightest running away from the rabbinate.

And why should I need an honorary title at all? Shouldn’t my life-work of facilitating Jewish journeys be sufficient? Plus, my wife, who is a psychologist, worked long and hard to earn her doctorate. It makes me feel a bit uneasy about accepting one simply because I’ve survived.


So far so good.  Rabbi Hammerman here seems to embrace my own point of view, which is that honorary degrees, even under the best of circumstances, should not be confused with the true merit that they ostensibly signify.  But, alas, somewhere along the line something went awry.  Rabbi Hammerman’s synagogue, Temple Beth El of Stamford, maintains a website, and on that website it gives biographical information on its rabbi, Joshua Hammerman.  And this bio contains the sentence

In 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary for his years of service to the Jewish people.

So which is it ?  “Service to the Jewish people” or just having lived twenty-five years after graduation ?  This is a piece of legerdemain, isn’t it, and, far from inspiring admiration for the rabbi, it raises doubts about the veracity, if not the rabbi’s, at least that of those responsible for the synagogue’s public relations.


Concluding Thoughts

I have suggested that there is a problematic relationship between merit (however defined) and ascribed honor.  Ascribed honor is the ostensible sign of merit, but as we have seen, it is not the unfailing evidence of merit for which it is too often taken.  The relationship between merit and ascribed honor is statistical, sometimes higher than at other times.  Even under the best of circumstances, say the Nobel science prizes, all we can say is that there is a high probability of merit in those being honored. 

Below the science Nobel and certain other more-or-less scrupulous awards, there is an ocean of cynically-bestowed honor which nobody takes at face value, and which, therefore, must be seen as instances of bad faith.

In the law as it relates to advertising, a distinction is made between allowable puffing (“my burger tastes better than any other”) and forbidden misrepresentation (“my burger will cure your cancer”).  But as the legal scholar David Hoffman has shown, the distinction is not always clear, nor is puffing as harmless as the law assumes.  The distinction revolves partly around what a “reasonable man” would believe, though the law is not based on empirical inquiry into the actual beliefs of such putatively reasonable people.

What could be a justification for untruthfulness in the bestowal of honor ?  Presumably it would be that, being mere puffing, such ostensible honor will not be taken seriously – so what’s the harm.  In the meantime there is gain – money, prestige, acclaim – for both bestowers and recipients of even the most meretricious prizes, honors, lists of ostensible merit, tribute dinners, etc. etc.

My view is different.  I think that any deviation from what is known to be the truth is harmful, and invites more such deviation.  But most of all I oppose both bestowal and acceptance of meretricious honor because it tends to devalue authentic achievement.  As bad money drives out good, acclaim for the counterfeit tends to defeat the genuine.

But whatever one’s view on the ethics of honor-giving and honor-receiving, it is good to keep in mind that no, it is not true that if it glitters it is gold, and it is also good not to accept at face value the citations that go with the bestowal of worldly honor.




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