Friday, February 18, 2011

Paying Our Fair Share?


Though the college students who frequent this blog might not realize it, it's Tax Time.  The H&R Block lawn signs are up.  Your 1099s have been mailed to you.  This is the season for us to calculate what we owe, and then fork over our share to the government, which will theoretically use it to fund things like government salaries, the military, scientific research, social service/safety net programs, and (if President Obama has his way) high speed rail.

This week's Torah portion (Parshat Ki Tisa) gives us the opportunity to step back and consider our position on tax policy...and more specifically: the Jewish ethical stance as to WHO should be taxed (and by how much).

That taxes exist as a necessary evil is something enshrined in the Sixteenth Amendment of our Constitution. 

But - as you may be well aware - there is also significant disagreement in American life today about how the burden of taxes should be distributed. Our current system has graduated tax rates: the more you earn, the higher the tax rate you're supposed to pay.  (We'll that's a dangerously simplified explanation of it, anyway.)

There have been any number of alternatives floated in the last few decades.  Maybe we should move to a flat tax, which would stipulate that all Americans' earnings would be taxed at the same rate.  Others would do away with income taxes altogether, and shift to a nationalized sales tax approach.

We often think about this issue as a political one.  You can see that Democrats (p.24-ff.)  and Republicans have vastly different partisan approaches to this subject.

But it's a religious issue as well.

In this week's Torah portion, we learn that Moses instituted an annual half shekel tax on every adult (male) Israelite in order to fund the building (and in subsequent years, operation) of the Tent of Meeting.  (The Tent of Meeting was the portable structure that our ancestors carried with them as they wandered thru the desert, which they used in order to encounter God.)

The text (Exodus 30:15) is explicit that EVERYONE in the community pays the same amount: one half shekel.  The rich are not allowed to pay more, and the poor cannot pay less.

The Jewish critique here is one of unfairness: the contribution of the poor man represents a much larger percentage of that person's wealth than the contribution of the rich one.

Our tradition offers us a few responses to this difficulty.  Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the monumental Shulchan Aruch (16th century), notes that there is nothing inherently unfair about the half shekel levy, for the rich man and the poor man each benefit equally from the Tent of Meeting.  The same religious sacrifices are performed on behalf of both in that structure.  Thus, they should in theory each pay the same. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of 19th century Germany) disagrees.  He believes that the Torah is not meant to be read literally in this case, because such a reading would be contrary to Jewish ethics.  As a results, he imaginatively argues that the rich are supposed to give fully according to their abilities, and the poor should do the same.  If both do that, then it will be as if they both gave the same amount - which they did, to the extent that both gave substantially - even if the actual monetary value of their donations was vastly different.

Here we have two very different approaches: one extreme which believes that the services of the community should be funded radically evenly by everyone giving the exact same amount (Caro's initial proposal), and the other extreme (Hirsch) which believes that the services of the community should be supported mostly by the rich (who are able to give the most - freely and easily).

To what extent are these two extremes caricatures of Republican and Democratic tax policies?  I know that that is a loaded question in this hyper-partisan atmosphere of our country.  I'M NOT TAKING SIDES, JUST ASKING A PROVOCATIVE QUESTION!  :o)

With tax policy high on Congress' agenda in the coming year (Republicans are looking to make permanent the tax cuts that were passed during the Bush Administration), these are not just academic questions.  How we answer them will have a real long term fiscal impact on our economy and society.

In the spirit of political pluralism, and of compromise, there is a third way: one that might navigate a course in between these two extremes.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century Poland), who penned the Ashkenazic gloss on Caro's (Sephardic) Shulchan Aruch, suggests that half of a community's taxes be raised according to the wealth and means of the taxee, and half raised via a uniform amount charged to everyone.  He notes that many of the Eastern European communities that he was familiar with had already embraced this pluralistic model  - 450 years ago! 

To what extent can Isserles' ruling serve as a model of compromise for our times as well? 

As always, I'd love to hear what you think.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

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