Senate staffer writes on U.S. law by day, Jewish law by night

By David Gutman

Capital News Service

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Bill Dauster pauses in his office at the U.S. Capitol. Dauster spends his professional life drafting laws for the U.S. Senate and much of his free time studying the Torah. Bill Dauster pauses in his office at the U.S. Capitol. Dauster spends his professional life drafting laws for the U.S. Senate and much of his free time studying the Torah.

David Gutman, Mct

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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 adviser 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 the 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 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.