Ask the Rabbis
It is said that only two things are inescapable: death and taxes. On death, there is a firm, distinctly Jewish position: Judaism is against death. We are commanded to “choose life” every day in all that we do. Our goal is to fill the world with life.
It’s harder to oppose taxes. They have been levied in every age and by every form of Jewish association, be it national state, segregated minority or local community. In the Bible, there is a tithe for the poor, a tithe for the Levites, terumah and gifts for the priests and shekel payments for communal sacrifices. In medieval times, there were taxes within the community on foodstuffs and mandatory tzedakah. There was no history of progressive taxation, although that development fits the goal of Judaism to create a just society; such taxes were adopted in the modern State of Israel.
Although the Torah recognizes private property and upholds its rights, it does not have the fierce anti-tax tradition that is so prevalent in America today. That attitude sees government as the problem. On the contrary, says Rabbi Hanina: “Pray for the well-being of the government; for were it not for fear of it, each person would swallow the other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2). The tradition does oppose unjust taxation—just as it opposes governments that oppress people or show unjust favoritism.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
New York, NY
The Hebrew Bible and Talmud are replete with references to taxation and accept it as a necessary feature of communal life. Without funding, public services cannot be provided or sustained. The Torah specifies a half-shekel tax from every adult to cover the annual operating costs in the Holy Temple, and the kings of Israel regularly taxed the people to finance the construction of public buildings, upkeep of and improvements to the sanctuary and other communal projects.
At the same time, there is an implicit recognition that the power to tax individuals lends itself to abuse. This was particularly so in a time and place where kings and tax collectors functioned without oversight or regulation and were notorious for overtaxing their constituents. In principle, then, Judaism recognizes the obligation of the individual to contribute financially to communal institutions but simultaneously upholds the right of the individual to demand that taxes be reasonable and just and that tax revenue be spent in a judicious manner.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Everyone knows that the Bible mandates a tax of 10 percent, or a tithe. There is no death tax, and indeed it seems odd that anyone should be penalized for dying, something over which one has little control. The operative theme is that anyone of means must help support those of diminished income. But the Bible also recognizes that the single most important human necessity is not food, clothing or shelter, but dignity. And being dependent on someone else for support is a fundamentally undignified existence. Hence, the social welfare system is geared toward maintaining people’s dignity and helping them get back on their feet.
Taxes are not meant to be burdensome or excessive. The Talmud also says that a person should not give more than 20 percent of his income to charity, but the rabbis say that if one has sinned, then he can give more for the purposes of forgiveness and redemption.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach