When Warren Buffet, a member of the highest echelon of the wealthy, starts complaining that he is not paying the government enough taxes, we may be forgiven for our initial cynicism, but not for our continued indifference. Nearly every significant public policy discussion and decision is influenced by our attitude toward the legitimacy of taxes. From the “fiscal cliff” to “debt ceilings” to “the right to health care,” our perspective is shaped by our implicit “theory of taxes.”
Jewish tradition and law have always grappled with questions related to fair and just taxation. Upon entering the Promised Land, the prophet Samuel warns his co-religionists that establishing a kingdom will give the new king the right to impose and collect high taxes. In the Talmud, the rabbis struggled with questions of who should pay for the
collective building of a protective wall around the city. “Is it (the tax) made per person or according to assets?” Maimonides, writing in the Middle Ages, insisted that Jews have an obligation to pay taxes to a non-Jewish king, as long as the taxes are not imposed in a discriminatory manner.
Today’s rabbis generally agree about the obligation to pay taxes. Based on talmudic precedents, this obligation is grounded in the concept of dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the sovereign is the law.” In practice, this means that the monetary laws of the government are binding on Jews, even when they differ from Torah laws, and the principle
applies whenever and wherever there is a non-discriminatory government and an
honest method of tax collection.
This legal rationale, while perfectly fine when employed by a benign king, sounds clunky to those of us living in modern democracies. Moreover, the concept of dina d’malchuta dina is subject to manipulation by those who are seeking loopholes or rationalizations for avoiding paying their fair share of taxes. As one contemporary rabbi noted, a non-Jewish government may have the right to levy just and fair taxes, but a Jew does not necessarily have an obligation to pay a debt to a non-Jew. While it is prohibited to lie on one’s tax forms, is it prohibited not to fill out the form in the first place?
The failure to pay one’s taxes can lead to a chillul haShem (public desecration of God’s name), as in a recent Massachusetts case, wherein the Internal Revenue Service announced that it was seizing the assets of a local yeshiva for failure to comply with the IRS code. But the threat of being exposed cannot serve as the foundation of our obligation to pay our fair share of taxes.
Ultimately, grounding our obligation to pay taxes in the concept of dina d’malchuta dina is problematic, because it assumes that taxes are an external imposition foisted upon us poor Jews by a foreign power. In contemporary rabbinic writings, rabbis wedded to this language describe the secular government as if it is still a medieval theocracy. Such rabbis have lost a significant opportunity to educate their followers on the importance of participating in civil dialogue and political debate as equal citizens. A mature discussion of the seemingly arcane topic of taxes by today’s rabbis might finally provide us with a deep understanding of democracy from within an authentic Jewish law perspective.
Consider the creative view of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University. “It is important to note that today the basis for taxation is totally different from what it was in talmudic times.” According to a contemporary understanding of Jewish law, we ought to ground the obligation to pay taxes not in the anachronistic notion of dina d’malchuta dina; rather, we should invoke the talmudic concept of shutfim or partnership. Schachter concludes, “All people who live in the same city, state, and country are considered ‘shutfim’ with respect to the services provided by that city, state, and country. The purpose behind the taxes is no longer ‘to enrich the king’ in the slightest.” (Torahweb.org)
In introducing a new metaphor — that citizens of a modern democracy are more like partners than subjects — into formalized Jewish legal thinking, Schachter has taken a first important step in opening up an entirely new vista from which to think about the legitimacy of taxes and the responsibility of partners to participate in public policy discussions. In this alternative view, it is not us versus them, but rather “we the people” who must formulate fair tax rules and just public policies. It follows directly from Schachter’s new formulation that as Jewish partners in this process, we have a unique right and obligation to bring to our fellow citizens the best of Jewish legal and ethical thinking.