Ask the Rabbis
“It’s not Washington’s money, it’s your money.” How un-Jewish a slogan, since our tradition is overwhelmingly pro-taxes. Judaism acknowledges that we’re all in this society together and must look out for each other. What tzedakah alone accomplished in simpler days now requires reasonable, well-levied and, yes, progressive taxes, which—like tzedakah or tithes—are not optional “charity” but mandatory “righteousness payments.” The much-maligned estate tax comes right from Leviticus 25, where private wealth is supposed to be redistributed once each generation. Ultimately, what’s good for society is good for each of us. In a Talmudic parable (Bava Kama 50b), a farmer transfers cumbersome stones out of his field, into the public thoroughfare. A wise man sees this and asks: “Fool, why move stones from a place that isn’t yours to one that is yours?”
Years later, like so many today, the farmer sees his property foreclosed. Tripping on a stone he himself once placed in the road, he finally understands: the only thing truly “mine” is what’s shared.
Education, welfare, environmental pro-tection, research, health, defense: No one can do these alone. When taxes adequately fund all these endeavors, everyone is better off. A more Jewishly inspired slogan for our day? “I’m willing to help pay for a better America.”
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
In the Babylonian Talmud, we are taught, “The law of the state is law.” Jews are obligated to observe secular governmental laws so long as they are not immoral. This dictum is repeated five times throughout the Talmud; the repetition illustrates its import. As American citizens, we enjoy equal rights and freedoms that were unknown to our ancestors who wrote the Talmud. With those rights and freedoms comes the obligation to participate fully in the civic life of our country—voting, heeding the call for jury service and paying taxes.
Taxes are also a moral duty. Deuteronomy 14:22 commands us, “You shall surely tithe.” From the Torah we learn that we are each responsible for giving one-tenth of our earnings toward helping those in need. As members of the civil society and as Jews, we have an obligation to help those in need among us. Our taxes go toward social services, education, health care and other services that help support members of our community in need. Is there a Jewish position on taxes? Yes—we have a civic responsibility and a moral obligation to pay them.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE
Union for Reform Judaism
Paying taxes is onerous. By the time we are done with federal, state, property and sales taxes, as well as Social Security, user and license fees and so on, a large chunk of our income finds its way to the government. Jewish law is explicit and unequivocal. Although we are entitled to minimize our tax burden, we must not engage in or abet tax evasion. We are obligated to pay taxes imposed by the government. The obligation stems from the famous Talmudic statement of Shmuel, “Dina d’malkhuta dina” (Bava Kamma 113a), literally, the law of the land is the law.
The rabbis asked: Is it ever permitted to evade a tax? Two answers are given: Tax evasion is permitted where the tax collector is authorized to collect any sum he wishes or, according to a different opinion, where the tax collector is self-appointed and does not represent the king.
If dina d’malkhuta dina applied when Jews were living under foreign dictatorships, it certainly applies now that we’re citizens in a democracy. In addition to arguments rooted in Jewish law, paying taxes represents a moral obligation. The Torah (Exodus 19:6) commands us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This mandate requires avoiding any kind of dishonesty, certainly financial dishonesty.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El