As the deputy chief of staff for policy for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Bill Dauster is busy formulating the wording of new laws for the United States Senate.
But his interest in scholarly exposition is most definitely not limited to the secular world – the sharp-minded intellectual has also gained prominence for his Internet writings on the Torah. In fact, Dauster is the author of Wikipedia’s entries for each of the 54 parshiot in the Chumash, and he regularly updates them with new thoughts. “It’s like peeling off an onion,” Dauster notes. “There’s always going to be more out there.”
More than only mere summations of the text of the Torah portions, Dauster’s Wikipedia pieces are well-crafted analytical dissertations based on extensive research. “This is an impressive scholarly achievement,” said Richard Sugarman, a professor of religion and Jewish philosophy at the University of Vermont. “It provides an excellent, comprehensive foundation for studying the parshiot. It presents a broad, yet detailed overview. It shows evidence of serious scholarship and erudition. It can be used as a springboard for studying the Torah.”
In his elucidations of the weekly portion, Dauster – who spends much of his spare time studying Torah at Bethesda, Maryland’s Congregation Beth El – draws relevant thoughts from a wide scope of Torah sources, including the Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash and Haftarah. “My wife (Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub) has been kind enough to let me get several Talmuds, so I have it in four different translations,” he explains. Describing the Talmud as “a big enterprise,” Dauster seems to accept as a fact of life that his constant need to study different texts has caused his modest-sized home library to overflow with sefarim.
Clearly, Dauster has learned how to use his G-d-given mental prowess to benefit both the general and Jewish worlds. A lawyer, economist and speechwriter, he has served on U.S. Senate and White House staffs since 1986. Among his many professional accomplishments, Dauster helped manage the Senate’s passage of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings restoration of 1987, the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997 and 2007–2009, the McCain-Feingold act in 2002, the Medicare Prescription Drug Act of 2003, and Health Care Reform in 2010
Launching his practice of regular Torah study in the early 1980’s, Dauster started attending study groups a little over a decade later. When he heard about the blossoming Internet encyclopedia called Wikipedia, he instinctively felt it could serve as a valuable public forum for the spread of Torah knowledge. “I noticed that they did not have articles on the weekly Torah portions and I thought, this is a little corner of the world that I could contribute something to,” Dauster reveals. “So in October 2005, I started playing around ... and started writing those articles.” Over the seven years that he has devoted to this lofty pursuit, Dauster has written approximately 400,000 words (about 800 single spaced pages) on Wikipedia.
One of the writer’s biggest challenges has been the automatic input of Wikipedia editorial staff. This past July, one of the site’s editors cited a Dauster entry as not reaching Wikipedia’s notability standards, and added that the piece was “repetitious and biased.” The dissenting editor went so far as to recommend that every one of Dauster’s parsha pieces on Wikipedia be deleted due to alleged redundancy, as they appeared too similar to other entries on the Internet portal that discussed the Bible and various religious texts.
For the next week, Wikipedia editors engaged in a minutely detailed online discussion about Dauster’s contributions. The author’s most avid support actually came from Wikipedia users who do not get involved in editing the website’s articles. “This article and those on the other Torah portions represent the best of modern thinking applied to historic scholarship, encouraging us to question, reexamine and study further. I have used them for Torah study here in the middle of nowhere because they do not push a particular agenda. I think this is a work of exceptional scholarship,” one anonymous user submitted. Another user wrote in, “As a Christian, I find the articles on the Weekly Torah Portions very helpful in understanding and appreciating Judaism.”
Dauster’s work was vindicated when – in sync with Wikipedia readers who had voted overwhelmingly to retain his pieces – the site’s overseers decided to keep all of his Torah entries intact.
The multi-faceted writer utilizes a similar clear-cut style to set forth both government policy and Torah concepts. Naturally, he also uses both outlets to delve into related themes of law and intellectual discretion. “The law governing the budget process resembles nothing so much as sediment. It has accumulated in several statutes, each layered upon the prior one,” he states in his sardonic introduction to Budget Process Law Annotated, one of four books on legal matters that he has authored.
In his Wikipedia discussion of Parshat Bo, the Torah portion that relates the final three plagues to afflict Egypt and the first national celebration of Pesach, Dauster wrote in a similarly dry style, “Rabban Gamliel once reclined at a Passover seder at the house of Boethus ben Zeno in Lud, and they discussed the laws of the Passover all night until the cock crowed. Then they raised the table, stretched, and went to the house of study.”
Dauster readily acknowledges the beneficial impact of his religious avocation on his professional endeavors. “Studying the Torah allows me to study law in a removed environment,” he contemplates. “It allows me to do it in a more recreational way that has less pressure and is intellectually diverting to me. As the Sabbath allows us to sort of recharge our batteries, doing this analysis of the Talmud and the Torah allows me to recharge my way of thinking about how the law works.”
Dauster attends a weekly Friday afternoon Congressional Torah study group that is organized by Thomas Jones, who works as a senior adviser to Republican Senator Jim DeMint. “Sometimes the rabbi will be like, ‘We’re going to look at Exodus 15, verse 3, and talk about that for an hour, and what does that mean?’” Jones said regarding the group. “That’s what you end up doing up here (at the Senate), is fighting over ‘mays’ versus ‘shalls’ and things like that.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads Ohev Shalom - The National Synagogue, is a frequent leader of those weekly study sessions. “He’ll nudge me,” Dauster discloses about the rabbi, “and say, ‘Well, is this in your article yet?’” Responds Herzfeld, “Once in a while I’ll make a suggestion. But he’s really so terrific, he’s a master of gathering a lot of information. He’s really good and thorough.”
Although Dauster is employed by the Democratic Reid and Jones serves the right-wing Republican DeMint, the two maintain a friendly relationship. “There’s not a lot of ‘I’m a Republican, he’s a Democrat’ type of thing,” Jones insists. “We sometimes have different perspectives on things, but I don’t think that’s partisan or anything like that, just different people have different perspectives on parts of Scripture. Bill’s great ... he really reflects all that’s good about the institution up here. He’s a good guy and he gives a lot to the Senate and to folks studying Torah.”