Meet the Rabbis Who Believe the Torah Is on Trump's Side

The Coalition of Jewish Values emerged in early 2017, giving a voice to the Orthodox right in America for the first time. The group claims to represent over 1,000 rabbis, but liberal skeptics suggest that figure is much closer to six

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U.S. President Donald Trump receiving a book of psalms after leaving a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017 (illustrative).
U.S. President Donald Trump receiving a book of psalms after leaving a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017 (illustrative). Credit: \ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

When Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced in July, and throughout the bruising battle over allegations of sexual misconduct, a long list of American-Jewish groups spoke out against him for reasons ranging from his judicial record to doubts concerning his character.

But one organization stood out in its unswerving support of President Donald Trump’s pick.

Immediately following the riveting testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary last month, the Coalition for Jewish Values issued a statement headlined “Rabbis Urge Immediate Confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh.”

The Torah “enjoins us to avoid peddling in unsubstantiated rumors,” said Rabbi Dov Fischer, a regional vice president for the group, quoting from Leviticus. “People can easily make mistakes and harm the innocent,” Fischer continued, adding that we should be “judged on the totality of our lives, not merely on one alleged incident, and certainly not on an incident that is unsubstantiated and unprovable.”

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, another VP for the group, stated: “It is immoral to besmirch someone’s name in the court of public opinion on ‘evidence’ that would not stand in a court of law.”

The Coalition of Jewish Values hit the public stage in early 2017, seemingly for moments like the Kavanaugh nomination – giving a voice, for the first time, to the pro-Trump Orthodox right in the domestic public policy arena.

The group’s first press release came out in support of another Trump nominee who was under fire during another confirmation hearing: David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. At the time, several Jewish groups publicly opposed Friedman, who in the past had referred to J Street members as “worse than kapos” (a statement he later apologized for).

While many right-leaning and even mainstream Jewish organizations have supported Trump’s moves in the Middle East, the heavily Democratic, liberal Jewish world has been far less friendly – and often hostile – when it comes to domestic issues.

From fighting the Trump travel ban (on various Muslim-majority states) and his immigration policies, to slamming his reaction to Charlottesville and attacking his evangelical-friendly stance limiting LGBTQ rights, the consistent message from most Jewish groups is that the current White House is out of step with Jewish values. It regularly expresses fear that the administration’s tolerance and support of racism and xenophobia is no less than a threat to American-Jewish well-being.

The Coalition of Jewish Values seemingly intends to right that imbalance by “giving a voice to the overwhelming consensus of the American Orthodox community on matters related to our values” – offering a Torah-based kosher stamp of approval to conservative values and Republican positions on domestic policy.

In its mission statement, the group declared that “American liberal Jewish movements have long abandoned Jewish tradition as their final arbiter of morality, and today declare that ‘Judaism’ requires support for positions at odds with the Bible itself.”

The group’s blend of right-wing Orthodoxy and conservatism rings familiar to those who are au fait with Israel’s political scene. But in the United States, where Orthodox organizations have traditionally steered clear of rough-and-tumble politics unrelated to faith issues or pro-Israel advocacy, the Coalition of Jewish Values is unique.

The group’s affection for the Trump White House and its policies was recently reciprocated when the group, to its delight, was included in the White House’s High Holy Days call to Jewish leaders this past fall. In 2017, the three major American-Jewish denominations (Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist) boycotted the traditional phone call, after Trump doubled down on events in Charlottesville.

Interspersed with its positions on American politics, the CJV regularly praises moves by the Netanyahu government, criticizes the Jewish state’s left-wing parties and their supporters in the United States – including liberal elements in the Orthodox world.

The group’s president, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, tells Haaretz that his organization represents a “reaction to incorrect, uneducated statements by individuals and groups claiming to speak for American Jewry in areas of Jewish tradition, thought and values.”

A pro-Trump supporter sitting with protesters demonstrating against the Senate confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Washington October 6, 2018.Credit: AFP

In addition to issuing press releases, he says the group regularly initiates and joins letters to both houses of Congress and meets with congressional leaders and staffers.

The goal, he says, is to ensure that “American citizens and policymakers, Jewish and non-Jewish, should know what Jewish tradition really says, and where it leads us in understanding the pursuit of these American foundational principles.”

While he says the group’s positions are “often” supportive of the Trump White House, Lerner insists that they endorse Trump’s policies “only when it promotes policies and nominates officials whom we feel will represent our values.

“In this regard,” he says, “we are no different from the vast majority of Israeli Jews, who consider the Trump White House extraordinarily friendly to Jewish interests and Israel’s security.”

Lerner also notes that it is important that his group remain “independent” from other Orthodox organizations, because existing groups “prioritize advocacy for the needs of our community – and this limits what they can say on larger public policy issues with less immediate relevance to observant Jewish life.”

But who does the group actually represent? Lerner boasts that it is “the largest rabbinic public policy organization in America,” and that it represents “over 1,000 rabbis.” Its website offers the ability for rabbis to join, but Lerner would not provide a list of CJV members since “we have neither requested nor received authorization to share the names of those participating in our rabbinic circle.”

‘Pleasing Lindsey Graham’

Unsurprisingly, liberal rabbis who are the target of the group’s wrath are also highly critical of the coalition in return, both philosophically and due to the background of many of its leaders.

“Alas, instead of offering a serious attempt to apply Jewish teaching to the issues of the day, the Coalition for Jewish Values has become an apologist for a conservative agenda,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and a Haaretz contributor.

“They accuse liberal Jewish movements of abandoning Jewish tradition and supporting left-wing ideologues. While I don’t believe this to be generally true, it may be true on occasion. But they then do precisely the same thing on the right: Supporting right-wing ideologues and pushing an often extremist right-wing agenda in the name of a highly questionable reading of Judaism.”

Coalition of Jewish Values President Rabbi Pesach Lerner. His organization is a “reaction to incorrect, uneducated statements by individuals and groups claiming to speak for American Jewry."Credit: Pesach Lerner

In the case of the new Supreme Court justice, Yoffie says, “It is hard to see how the coalition’s enthusiastic support for Kavanaugh is consistent with an honest reading of Jewish tradition.” He adds that, as he sees it, the group is “more concerned with pleasing Lindsey Graham than with accurately representing Jewish tradition.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, recounts with a laugh that many people have described the Coalition of Jewish Values as essentially “the anti-T’ruah.”

She takes strong issue with the conservative group’s claim that it now represents the largest rabbinic public policy organization in the United States, pointing out that her group boasts over 2,000 affiliated rabbis and that, unlike the CJV, “you can find them listed on our website.”

In her view, the CJV rabbis are actually six men who only “speak for themselves” and are “besmirching Jewish tradition with their spin.” She also notes that members of the group’s leadership “have a record of dismissing women’s leadership.”

Jacobs is referring to Lerner’s past as executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, during which time he was accused, in 2010, of threatening to “destroy” a Young Israel synagogue that was attempting to permit a woman to serve as its president.

Lerner has also been an active opponent of both the Women of the Wall feminist prayer group and the creation of a mixed-gender prayer space at the holy site in Jerusalem. He was also reportedly a driving force behind the Kotel counter-lobby group Women for the Wall.

Jacobs also alleges that some of the group’s members downplay sexual harassment and are even responsible for “promoting genocide.” That accusation is a seeming reference to the group’s eastern regional vice president, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky – the spiritual leader of a large New Jersey congregation who has been criticized for blog posts suggesting that women falsely claim rape following consensual sex. He has also been slammed for some of his comments on the Palestinians, comparing them to “savages” and “zoo animals.” He also reportedly advocated measures that “encourage Arab emigration,” and that “they must be made to feel that they have no future in the land of Israel – no national future and no individual future.”

Jacobs notes that Fischer, the group’s West Coast regional vice president, is a former executive director of the Jewish Defense League, and still writes affectionately of the late extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane.

Jacobs also questions the group’s political independence. “This group was formed as a pro-Trump organization; they will twist themselves in any way, shape or form to support the Trump administration,” she charges.

But criticism from Jewish liberals seems likely only to encourage, rather than deter, the CJV rabbis and inspire them to pursue the vision that their platform describes in these grandiose biblical terms: “The Rabbinic leaders at the beginning of the Second Temple era were called ‘the Men of the Great Assembly.’ The Talmud records that they were given this title because they restored recognition of God’s true attributes, ‘returned the crown to its place,’ when others had clouded vision. At a time when many Americans, Jewish and not, have a distorted perception of Jewish views on basic questions of values, ethics and morality, we similarly hope to return the crown to its rightful place.”

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