Opinion |

The New 'Torah Values' Congressional Caucus Is Not What It Seems

There was confusion, even ridicule, when two non-Jewish members of Congress recently launched a caucus for the "Advancement of Torah Values." The lobby's real agenda is even more remarkable, and disturbing

Judah Isseroff
Judah Isseroff
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., co-founder of the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values, addresses supporters in Omaha, Nebraska
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., co-founder of the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values, addresses supporters in Omaha, NebraskaCredit: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Judah Isseroff
Judah Isseroff

The announcement of the "Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values" was met by confusion and some ridicule last week. Announced by its co-chairs, Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska and Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, the new caucus promises an across-the-aisles approach to "combatting anti-Israel bigotry and protecting the Jewish community’s values and right to worship freely."

On the one hand, this mandate appears to indicate just another example of the futile attempt to re-apply bipartisan lipstick on the proverbial pro-Israel pig. After all, most of Rep. Cuellar’s colleagues in Congress would recognize him as more of a DINO (Democrat in Name Only). Naming it the "Torah values" caucus seems incidental, just another attempt at differentiating its branding from all the other bipartisan pro-Israel groups on the Hill.

But there is more there than meets the eye. With respect to how this new caucus intends to show commitment to Israel, its stance accelerates the rightwing attempt to brand all criticism of Israel as out-and-out racism: Rather than offering the familiar justifications for American support for Israel as a matter shared values or strategic national interests, the reason is given in terms of "combatting anti-Israel bigotry."

Israel supporters, it seems, now constitute their own protected class of American citizens. Perhaps the caucus will advocate that they be extended Title IX protections, or something similar.

And there is something else remarkable about this new caucus, not related to the accelerated breakdown of the bipartisan consensus on Israel, nor about the rhetorical transformation of all anti-Israelism into something indistinguishable from racism/antisemitism. This remarkable feature is evident from the inclusion of the term "Torah Values" in the very title of this new caucus.

When and how did the non-Jewish Reps. Bacon and Cuellar learn and then adopt the term "Torah Values?" How did they come to understand that protecting "Torah Values" is so crucial to their mandate as Congressmen? What are "Torah Values" anyhow?

Let’s step back a moment to note that this new caucus does not seem to be the exclusive brainchild of Reps. Bacon and Cuellar. Rather, the organization Dirshu, founded by Canadian businessman Rabbi Dovid Hofstetder, is the major behind-the-scenes player.

Dirshu is an educational organization that expands access to Torah learning for baale-baatim — that is, Orthodox men who work full-time and have to find ways to maximize the efficiency of the time they have available for Torah study. Since its inception about 25 years ago, Dirshu has gone global — from Canada to Israel to Europe, and now, to the halls of Congress.

So Bacon and Cuellar seem to have got the term "Torah Values" from Dirshu. But what does the term mean? And what place could it possibly have in a Congressional caucus?

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks about the United States-Mexico border during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington last yearCredit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Broadly speaking, "Torah Values" is an Anglicized derivative of Daas Torah. Daas Torah is the ideology that the Torah, or a Torah perspective, has something to say about every last facet of human experience and conduct, whether or not the issue is explicitly referenced or anticipated by the Torah and its rabbinic expositors.

Thus, there is a Torah point of view on the question of permitting access to the Internet or smartphone usage; on the exact right length of a skirt or pigment of a woman’s tights; on the right brightness of the lights in a kosher-certified restaurant or the suitability of attending a Yankee game during Yeshiva week.

Daas Torah responds to the recognizable need to make the Torah applicable to the changing realities of modern life. Yet, rather than recognize that there can be differences of opinion or some uncertainty when attempting this modern application, the "Torah values" framework seeks to rule out all uncertainty and any appearance of novelty, claiming an exclusive and eternal mandate over what is permitted or forbidden to Jews in the modern world.

"Torah Values" refers to living a "Torah lifestyle." That is, a holistic (or totalizing) mode of living where everything is done in reference to the Torah perspective. Of course, the glaring question is who gets to say what the Torah perspective is on a whole host of questions that have less definitive precedent in rabbinic literature. In other words, the phrase "Torah Values" begs the question of authority.

According to the dominant understanding in the Lithuanian Haredi world (of which Dirshu is part), deference to rabbinic authority is indispensable to a life of authentic Torah Values. Importantly, rabbinic authority does not mean the traditional authority of the rabbis of the Talmud or the medieval interpreters. Rather, rabbinic authority means the authority of living men, whose perceived superiority in learning and ethical conduct gives them something of a divine right to authority.

This digression into the particulars of Daas Torah reveals something crucial. It makes plain the connection between the pledge made by the caucus — to protect "the Jewish community’s values" — and to protect the "right to worship freely." That unelaborated marriage of rationales is based on the "Torah Values" idea that rabbinic authority is the authority that counts.

The Haredi rabbinical leadership oversees the Dirshu-organized celebration in Jerusalem of the completion of the seven-and-a-half year cycle of studying the TalmudCredit: Gil Cohen Magen

The implication is that for "Torah Jews" to genuinely have the right to religious freedom, they must be free to obey the declarations of their rabbis — even and especially when those declarations conflict with the policies and regulations of city, state, or federal governments.

Dirshu’s own statement celebrating the caucus’ establishment gives this more explicit substance. It invokes the "uneven-handed lockdown of Synagogues and Yeshivas in New York." In other words, "Torah Values" suffered from Covid-related regulations and closures. In the wake of these closures, this new caucus is being formed with the explicit purpose of supporting rabbinic authority, meaning autonomy, in future clashes with government regulations it deems hostile to a Torah lifestyle.

Strikingly, the arrival of "Torah Values" on Capitol Hill is not happening by means of traditional Orthodox Jewish lobbying. The caucus is not the brainchild of long-standing advocacy organizations such as Agudath Israel of America.

Nor is it coming under a broader ecumenical umbrella for the protection of religious freedoms. This is most definitely not the establishment of a religious liberty caucus (there already is a "Congressional Prayer Caucus"), because this is not about freedom of worship in the Constitutional sense, but carving out a special exemption for the "Torah Values" world.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against COVID-19 restrictions in New York. October 7, 2020.Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/ REUTERS

Rather, this claim to represent "Torah values" is a partnership between a straight-up Jewish religious organization and a couple of members of Congress: an anti-state worldview with a lobby in the halls of power of the state.

But what is fascinating is the specificity of "Torah values": It seems that traditional Jewish values no longer need translation or explanation for conservative Christian members of Congress. For reasons going far beyond and around Israel, Orthodox Jews are their cause célèbre. Such Jews are, for them, a paragon of ‘family values’ and communal self-reliance. Thus, it seems, they are entitled (even in the eyes of certain Congressmen) to a get-out clause from the rule of law and the normal responsibilities of citizenship.

The irony that this advocacy will be carried out by actual members of Congress, rather than by representatives of the Jewish community, is almost too much to bear.

Orthodox Jews have become so beloved of (not to mention fetishized by) some conservatives that certain Americans public officials are being transformed into lobbyists for Haredi self-rule. The out-and-out success of Jewish life in America has made possible the fullest realization of a political strategy once meant to keep the czar at bay.

Judah Isseroff is a PhD candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. His dissertation is entitled "Beyond Political Theology: Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Theology of Givenness"

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