There was something unsettling last week when a group of non-Jewish members of Congress and a Canadian rabbi announced with great fanfare the formation of the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values. Some found it interesting, others found it disquieting and still others found it downright offensive. We are left scratching our heads trying to figure out why a congressional Torah Values Caucus is necessary, and what its organizers and their rabbinic enabler are trying to accomplish.
The caucus is currently comprised of five members of Congress – four Republicans and one Democrat (hence, their ability to call themselves “bipartisan”) – led by their rabbinic “adviser,” Rabbi David Hofstedter, the founder of an Israel-based Torah education organization called Dirshu. Hofstedter joined his five congressional followers to explain that the reason for the caucus is because “Torah values have been under attack for so many years,” and that respect for religion, respect for human dignity, honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, charity, compassion, empathy, “which are the foundation of this nation, have been under attack.”
In a press release, Hofstedter explained that, among other things, his congressional Torah values effort will focus on “the uneven-handed (Covid-related) lockdown of Synagogues and Yeshivas in New York that was and is inconsistent with city and state policy.”
Hofstedter’s confused vision notwithstanding, his congressional flock seemed to have a different set of objectives. According to Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a co-chair of the effort, the real focus of the caucus is to show “our support to our Jewish friends. We are 100% with you against antisemitism in any form.”
The mixed messaging of the announcement, coupled with the fact that not one of the 37 Jewish members of Congress announced participation in the caucus, just makes the effort even more puzzling.
The professed philosemitism of the group’s goal of “advancement of Torah values” is nice. But what are the “Torah values” they are seeking to advance? At least as we understand it, nothing in the list of behavioral objectives or COVID-related challenges listed by Rabbi Hofstedter is uniquely Jewish, nor do they appear to be singularly “Torah values.” We urge the good rabbi to find other venues to advance his agenda. And if the founding members of the caucus want to use their congressional platform to fight “antisemitism in any form,” we welcome them with open arms.
The Jewish community is under siege. Antisemitism and the targeting of synagogues has become a serious and festering American problem. If members of Congress want to help, they should join the Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism in the House and the Senate. And if they are looking for immediate, tangible results, they should prevail upon the petty, ego-driven obstinacy of wound-licking Republican senators who are holding up the confirmation of Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt to serve as special envoy to combat antisemitism.
Torah values are not political. Members of Congress and their advisers need to stop trying to make them so.
I apologize for the lateness of this comment, but I believe it will help to explain the purpose and need for a Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values.
Torah values, or more accurately the Jewish portion of the Bible (the so-called Old Testament), are what are essentially the Judeo-Christian moral values that form the foundation of our Republic and the Constitution of the United States, as well as the foundation upon which Western civilization was built. Those values also have endowed Western civilization with the capacity to evolve in a positive direction toward guaranteeing individual liberty and equal justice for all, and toward the ultimate goal of a peaceful world where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” [Isaiah 2:4].
For these reasons, I would hope that Jewish members of Congress will join the Congressional Caucus for advancing Torah values.
For an engaging and scholarly treatise on the connection between biblical moral values and our present political system, see “The Virtue of Nationalism,” by Yoram Hazony (Basic Books, 2018). In fact, I believe this deeply insightful book is so essential to a full understanding of today’s divisive political culture, and the ancient, essential, and noble origins of nationalism, that I would suggest WJW consider publishing a review of this book.