At a time in American politics when it seems just about anything is possible, it was one of the more bizarre occurrences of a congressional session that has had no shortage of them. Last month, two members of Congress—one Democrat and one Republican—announced that they were forming a Torah Values Caucus. It would be one among many dozens of caucuses that seek to advance myriad causes.
But there was a really odd thing about this one. Though the title suggests that this group will be guided by the laws of Judaism, neither of the two founders—Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), (who has lately found himself under ethical scrutiny) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.)—are Jewish. Nor were any of the three other members who joined the effort. There are 28 representatives and nine senators currently serving in Congress that are Jewish. But none of them, including the two Jewish Republicans whose conservative politics might lead them to agree on most issues with these five, chose to join.
The fact that such a caucus included a man named Bacon didn’t escape the derision of some of the group’s critics. Wags can also say that this group makes no more sense than any of the 37 congressional Jews forming a Catechism Caucus to make sure that the teachings of the Catholic Church are taken into account by legislators.
But the right-wing tilt of the members—and the fact that they are advised by an Orthodox organization called Dirshu, established nearly 20 years ago in Toronto, Canada, and headed by Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter—meant that a number of liberal Jewish groups chose not to regard it as either a joke or irrelevant to their own concerns.
To the contrary, several groups, including the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, T’ruah, Americans for Peace Now and Partners for a Progressive Israel, signed a joint letter denouncing the effort as, at best, “misguided.”
The letter did acknowledge that the new caucus was resolved to fight anti-Semitism and also made clear that it would be focused on bolstering support for Israel. But with no small amount of condescension, the letter talked down to the five Torah caucus members, saying that if they had the smarts to consult “with rabbis and Jewish leaders from many of the major institutions in American Jewish life,” the creation of the caucus “might have been avoided.”
The groups signing the letter are all fervent supporters of amnesty for illegal immigrants and embrace an open-borders approach to that issue, yet seemed to forget that they chided the caucus for relying on the advice of a foreigner—“a single rabbi from outside the country”—who they said caused the group to get “a skewed sense of our community’s needs and values.”
But the problem doesn’t stem from the liberal groups’ uncharacteristic xenophobia. What they really don’t like is that the Torah Values Caucus will be “pursuing one set of religious values” clearly not in tune with their own and that in doing so, “your legislative activity raises significant concerns regarding the separation of church and state, which has been one of the keys to the long-term safety and security of the American Jewish community.”
That is a point of view definitely in line with the views of the overwhelming majority of American Jews who are politically liberal and vote for the Democratic Party.
But it is not the view of all American Jews. Hence the liberal groups’ anger about the advocacy of this caucus is meaningless since many Orthodox and politically conservative Jews agree with like-minded non-Jews that a high or impregnable “wall of separation” between church and state is not in the interests of Jews or anyone else.
For example, Jews who support school choice believe that the ardent liberal separationists who think it is wrong to spend tax dollars on religious schools are hurting Jewish interests, as well as those of non-Jews who want to be able to choose a different or better school for their children rather than the local government-funded one. That’s especially true for kids of poorer families who are often trapped by failing public schools in inner cities, deprived of a fair chance at a better life because of the political debts owed to the teachers’ unions by the Democratic Party.
Indeed, there is a very good argument to make that this was in no way intended by America’s Founding Fathers, almost all of whom (with perhaps the exception of Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase about separation) believed that what they were doing was establishing a government informed by religious values and freedom of religion, not from it.
That is a point that reasonable people can debate. Assuming, that is, there are reasonable people left in a country where a political tribal culture war has divided Americans to the point where they not only read, listen and watch different media, but isolate themselves from other points of view on social media as well.
What really undermines the arguments against a Torah Values Coalition is the fact that groups like the RAC, which is a major voice advocating in favor of issues that often have little or nothing to do with strictly Jewish interests, do so under the banner of their own, different interpretation of Judaism.
Employing the concept of tikkun olam, groups like the RAC seek to mobilize whatever forces they can muster to enact a laundry list of progressive political causes. The term now usually translated as “repairing the world” was used in traditional Jewish learning to reference the goal of getting the whole world to accept the sovereignty of the Creator and the laws that were laid down in the Torah. But now it’s merely a religious cliché deployed by liberals to serve as a justification for their partisan platform.
Some of those beliefs are arguably in sync with the social-justice agenda that many American Jews have come to believe are synonymous with Judaism, even if others disagree with the notion that their faith is defined by the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. But they also sometimes include making common cause with radical ideas, such as those associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and defending critical race theory—both of which are associated with anti-Semitism.
Seen from that perspective, the RAC has no more right to speak in the name of Judaism than those who are cheering on the Torah Values Caucus.
Invoking Judaism or the Torah is questionable when advocates conflate faith with politics, no matter which end of the political spectrum they are coming from. But an objective look at the array of forces seeking to influence policy in Washington will show that neither liberals nor conservatives have a monopoly on virtue or the willingness to play the faith card on behalf of causes tangential to specific Jewish interests. And if liberals think it isn’t kosher for conservatives to try and chip away at church-state separation, others can say with just as much, if not more, validity that groups like Peace Now, which seek to undermine American support for Israel while claiming to speak for the Jews, are even more treif.
The idea of a Torah Values Caucus may seem comical, but if the new group is to be rejected, it’s not because its members contradict the views of progressives, who have no more right to claim the mantle of Jewish authenticity. Indeed, they have a place in the free marketplace of ideas, and will rise and fall based on the strength of their arguments—and little else.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.