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Whose ‘Torah values’?

We don't need members of Congress teaching Americans about 'Torah values.' Join me in smelling a rat.

The wooden handle, or atzei chaim, that a Torah scroll is attached to. Photo by Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Something isn’t quite kosher.

This past week, two members of Congress announced the formation of the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values.

The odd thing: Two non-Jewish congresspeople are co-chairing the caucus. None of the 37 Jewish members of Congress are participating in this caucus.

Who is advising them? Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, the Canadian founder of an Israel-based organization called Dirshu.

Rabbi Hofstedter says “Torah values” were the “foundation of the USA.”

Yes, the founders of our nation clearly saw themselves and their mission in a biblical light. They saw themselves as latter-day Israelites, fleeing across the Red Sea (i.e., the Atlantic) from Pharaoh (i.e., the British monarchy), to settle the land of Canaan (i.e., North America).

The founders enshrined some “Torah values” as the values of this nation — including resistance to tyranny and seeing human beings as being made in the divine image. Just as biblical law took a meandering path to minimizing and ultimately erasing human slavery, so did the founders — to the extent that it is a daunting task to find early American legislators who were not slave holders.

But, it is an overreach to say this country was founded on “Torah values.”

Because, what, according to Rabbi Hofstedter, are those values?

“Freedom of religion.”

True enough. This country enshrined freedom of religion. While individual colonies might have originally had official religions, the nation as a whole would not.

What does Rabbi Hofstedter mean by “freedom of religion?”

He and his partners are protesting the closure of synagogues and yeshivas in New York during the height of the COVID lockdowns, which they say infringed on the freedom of religion.

Now, you see their real agenda.

I could lecture this group about my own understanding of “Torah values.” I could say pikuach nefesh, saving a life, and the mitzvah of preventing harm to yourself and others is one of those Torah values.

What do we learn from this?

First: When someone starts talking about “Torah values,” be careful. 

Rabbi Hofstedter is certainly free to offer his own curated list of those values.

But, then again, so am I, and more than a thousand of my colleagues. Our politics, world views and personal predilections will dictate those curations.

Second: When a Haredi Canadian real estate businessman-rabbi gathers a group of non-Jewish congresspeople together to promote “Torah values,” be even more careful.

Because there is a not-so-hidden agenda at foot that ultimately will not be kind to the Jews.

Rabbi Hofstedter might be all about Jewish education. But, he should realize his caucus partners could hardly care less about Jewish education or Torah. Not at all. They come with their own political agenda, which is to push this country even further to the right. They are more than happy — delighted, actually — to use him to push that agenda.

Ask yourselves: Why would a group of gentile politicians defer to a Canadian “black hat” rabbi, teaching them and others about “Torah values,” except that his teachings would harmonize with their politically conservative slant?

Third: Was I absent from the meeting when we decided to cede ownership of public Judaism to the ultra-Orthodox?

To many Americans, and American Jews, such black-hatted rabbis look the part — or, what they imagine to be the part. I call it the “‘Fiddler on the Roof’ syndrome,” which we can now update to the “‘Shtisel’ syndrome” — seeing the ultra-Orthodox as the visible carriers, and thus arbiters, of Jewish values and practice. 

Want proof? Look at what passes for Jewish art in so many Jewish homes. Roman Vishniac photographs of pre-war traditional Jews. A lot of black coats and beards and kerchiefs.

Non-Orthodox Jews might rightly protest: Where are we in those visual images? Why are we being erased?

Here is the good news. Last Shabbat, non-Orthodox Judaism took center stage.

In the space of eleven hours in Colleyville, Texas, events catapulted Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker into being not only the most famous rabbi in the United States, but arguably, the most famous Jew.

It was a most unwelcome step into Andy Warhol’s famous “15 minutes of fame.” Nevertheless, through sheer calm, menschlicheit and some chair throwing at the gunman that would have elicited the admiration of Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis, Rabbi Cytron-Walker made every rabbi, and every American Jew, proud.

That is the image of the rabbi I want to see — proud, protective of his people and driven to action.

One more detail you might have missed — and it is stellar.

When did the hostages know it was time to act decisively? It is quite simple. It happened at the moment the gunman ordered them to kneel.

No, they must have said to themselves. We do not kneel before human beings. Moses did not kneel to Pharaoh. Mordecai did not kneel to Haman.

In fact, this memory from my childhood crashes back on me: my late mother telling me “Jews do not kneel.”

The Persians believed their ruler was shāhanshāh, the King of Kings. All Persian monarchs held that title, until the deposing of the Shah, the last Persian/Iranian king.

Jews in ancient Persia knew that, and they created their own snarky response to it. As we will sing in the Aleinu at services later: “But we bow down and prostrate ourselves before melech malachei ha-m’lachim — the One Who rules over the King of Kings.”

When the gunman told the hostages they had to kneel, that was when they lost it. Or, rather, that was when they found it — the “it” being their inner Jewish outrage.

That’s my kind of “Torah values.”

Hey, on that note: If you are Jewish, and you are reading this, do me, and yourself, and the entire Jewish people — and even God — a favor.

Go to synagogue this evening — in person, if you can.

We will not let them win.