WASHINGTON – Bill Dauster spends his professional life drafting laws for the U.S. Senate. He spends much of his free time studying a very different kind of law — the Torah.
By day, Dauster works as deputy chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But in his free time, he has produced some of the Web’s most detailed explication and analysis of the Jewish Bible.
Dauster has written Wikipedia entries for each of the Torah’s 54 chapters — or parsha — and he constantly updates them with new information and insight.
“It’s like peeling off an onion,” Dauster said. “There’s always going to be more out there.”
It’s a process not dissimilar to crafting legislation on Capitol Hill.
Thomas Jones, a senior advisor to Sen. Jim DeMint, attends a weekly Torah study group with Dauster.
“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 of their study group. “That’s what you end up doing up here [at the Senate], is fighting over ‘mays’ versus ‘shalls’ and things like that.”
The Wikipedia entries are not just simple summaries, but analyses and interpretations informed by years of research.
“This is an impressive scholarly achievement,” said Richard Sugarman, a professor of religion and Jewish philosophy at the University of Vermont, of Dauster’s Wikipedia oeuvre. “It provides an excellent, comprehensive foundation for studying the parashot [plural of parsha]. 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.”
Dauster cites from not just the Torah itself, but also the Talmud, Midrash, Mishnah, and Haftarah, all traditional commentaries or companions to the Torah.
“My wife has been kind enough to let me get several Talmuds, so I have it in four different translations,” Dauster said.
The Talmud, often referred to as the oral tradition of the Torah, is a lengthy work, or, as Dauster calls it, “a big enterprise.” One of the versions Dauster owns contains 73 encyclopedia-sized volumes.
“All these things accrue,” Dauster said of his copious reference material, lamenting that his small home library has been overrun with Torah related books.
Dauster has worked in Washington since 1986, entirely in the Senate except for a stint in 1999 when he served as deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton. He has literally written the book on budget policy in the U.S. Senate–Budget Process Law Annotated. In fact, he’s written three versions of it.
Dauster started studying Torah in the early 1980s and began attending study groups regularly in the 1990s. After reading about Wikipedia in Tom Friedman’s book “The World is Flat,” he realized that it could be an outlet for some of his 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 said. “So in October 2005, I started playing around…and started writing those articles.”
After seven years of writing about the Torah, he’s produced around 400,000 words (about 800 single spaced pages) on Wikipedia.
Although there may be a book’s worth of information in Dauster’s Wikipedia opus, the collaborative nature of Wikipedia presents challenges that a traditional manuscript does not.
In July, a Wikipedia editor flagged one of Dauster’s entries as not meeting Wikipedia’s notability standards. The editor also called the entry repetitious and biased.
The editor proposed that the entry, along with all of Dauster’s entries on the parashot, be deleted as redundant, because they were too similar to other Wikipedia entries on the Bible and other religious texts.
The week-long discussion that followed was argumentative, tedious, and filled with coded vernacular familiar to only a small subculture of Wikipedia editors. What stands out, however, are the high praises for Dauster’s work from average, anonymous Wikipedia users with no history of editing 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 wrote.
“As a Christian, I find the articles on the Weekly Torah Portions very helpful in understanding and appreciating Judaism,” wrote another.
Ultimately all the articles survived, and although it wasn’t the decisive factor, commenters were 26-3 in favor of keeping the articles.
While they’re obviously quite different undertakings, the same blunt, straightforward prose flows through Dauster’s policy books and his writings on Torah. And, beneath the surface, there are similar themes of law, discussion, and prudence.
“The law governing the budget process resembles nothing so much as sediment. It has accumulated in several statutes, each layered upon the prior one,” reads the wry introduction to Budget Process Law Annotated.
In his analysis of Bo, the parsha concerning the last three plagues on Egypt and the first Passover, Dauster wrote, “Rabban Gamaliel 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 said that the subtle similarities between his Senate work and Torah study make him better at his day job.
Studying the Torah, “Allows me to study law in a removed environment,” Dauster said. “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.”
Every Friday afternoon, Dauster goes to a Congressional Torah study group, organized by Jones, in the offices of Sen. DeMint.
Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi at Ohev Shalom-The National Synagogue, often leads the Friday afternoon Torah study sessions.
“He’ll nudge me,” Dauster said of Herzfeld, “and say, ‘Well, is this in your article yet?’”
Herzfeld played down his input.
“Once in a while I’ll make a suggestion,” Herzfeld said. “But he’s really so terrific, he’s a master of gathering a lot of information. He’s really good and thorough.”
Despite their bosses’ vast political differences (Reid is leader of the Senate Democrats, and DeMint represents the far right of Senate Republicans), Dauster and Jones are good friends.
“There’s not a lot of ‘I’m a Republican, he’s a Democrat’ type of thing,” Jones said. “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.”