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Tithing and Taxes

Are taxes a form of charity?  This is probably not what most Americans ask themselves when they mail their checks to the IRS.  Yet significant percentages of our taxes are used for what could be considered charitable purposes: food stamps, Social Security, housing assistance, and public healthcare, to name a few.  Can you therefore view your tax payments as part of your annual charity tithes—that is, charitable contributions out of your income?  This is a hard question for Jewish law, and it also casts light more broadly on matters relating to personal morality within a welfare state. 

Relevant Links
The Moral Costs of Jewish Day School  Aryeh Klapper, Jewish Ideas Daily. There is a lot of hand-wringing these days about whether the rising costs of Jewish day schools are sustainable.  The discussion has been about money:  How can we get more?  How can we spend less?  These questions miss the point.
Bittersweet Charity  Suzanne Garment, Jewish Ideas Daily. New research shows that Jewish women married to non-Jewish men give less charity compared to other households. Perhaps the Jewish charitable impulse may be more tenuous than previously recognized.
Jews and Capitalism  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. Why are so many Jews discomfited by capitalism—and not merely by the caricature of capitalism, but by the very idea of the free market?

The Bible asserts that one must give charity to the needy: “If there is a poor man amongst you . . . open your hand wide . . . .” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).  Yet the Torah never specifies how much money one must give.  At some point tithing became common practice, but the legal basis for this standard remains disputed.  Since the Torah commands agricultural tithes, a few commentators, reasonably, expanded this obligation to include tithing on all income (Tosafot Taanit 9a).  Other commentators, however, asserted that the obligation stemmed only from rabbinic decree (Shu"t Maharil 152), with some even downgrading it to the level of a custom (Bach YD 131).  Whatever its legal origins, traditional Jewish practice has long viewed donating 10 percent of one’s income as a benchmark, and 20 percent as an extremely meritorious act (YD 149).

While the Talmud attests that Jewish communities have always established communal funds to assist the poor, many medieval communities went so far as to specify precise portions of one's tithe that would  be transferred to the communal charity coffers.  As Judah Galinsky has documented, some communities directed half of an individual's tithe to charity (Maharam Mi-Rotenburg), while in others it could reach 75 or even 100 percent (Shu"t Zichron Le-Yehudah).  Tithing, in short, became a communal tax to support the poor and possibly provide for other religious needs. 

Of course, personal charity that went beyond communal taxes continued to exist, with Jews, particularly wealthier ones, encouraged (and, in circumstances of acute hunger, required) to provide additional funds to support the poor or additional religious activities.  Yet in communities with coerced contributions to public welfare funds, these contributions were counted toward meeting one's tithing obligations.  Thus, Meir Tamari, a pioneering writer on Jewish economic policy, has cited tithing requirements as precedents for modern national tax systems within a welfare state.  If that is the case, one might argue that Jews living in welfare states should count a percentage of their taxes as fulfillment of their charitable obligations. 

Yet many prominent decisors, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe 1:143) and Yaakov Blau (Sefer Tzedakah U-Mishpat), reject this position.  They assert that on a fundamental level, tax money paid to the government should not be viewed as part of one’s income in the first place.  Instead, in this view, taxes are essentially debts to the government built into one's gross income.  They therefore ought not to be considered a part of the income on which one calculates one’s obligation to contribute to charity, even if a large portion of the money that the government collects is used for charitable purposes.  Instead, our net, or after-tax, income is what we retain of our newly acquired income after we have paid our yearly debt to society, and we must tithe from that figure. 

Yet several prominent decisors, including Rabbis Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 9:1:5), Nachum Rabinovitch (Siach Nachum #65), and Yitzchak Weiss (Minchat Yitzchak 5:34:9), have asserted that at least people with limited incomes may indeed count a percentage of their income taxes toward fulfilling their tithing obligations.  (Other decisors believe that struggling families may also deduct basic household expenditures from their net income or count some educational expenses as part of their charitable contributions).  They argue that one is, at bottom, the owner of one’s gross, or pre-tax, income; and the fact that the state imposes taxes for national welfare projects does not change that fact.     

Yet even these latter decisors have reserved this dispensation—the permission to calculate one's tax payments toward their charitable giving —for those with economic struggles, while continuing to urge people in general to tithe their post-tax net income.    It seems that three factors push them in this direction, all of which relate to the way in which one might view the broader goals of charitable giving within the modern welfare state.     

First, as Rabbi Michael Broyde has argued, in a high-tax nation, Waldernburg's approach would significantly reduce charitable obligations—to something close to zero.  This would make it increasingly difficult to support those who aren’t helped by the government or to help critical religious institutions that require non-governmental funds, especially outside of Israel.  Quite simply, government support remains woefully insufficient for the broader community and especially the particular needs of the Jewish community.  Additional personal charity is required to fill in the gaps and create a better society. 

Second, broadly speaking and with many exceptions, Jews have benefited from the tremendous prosperity of modern times—and recognize the moral dangers of unprecedented economic disparities.  While Jewish law respects private property and personal attainment, it also calls upon its adherents to sacrifice some material superfluities or luxuries for the sake of the greater good, and this could include giving personal charity that goes far beyond paying taxes.  Admittedly, it remains difficult to draw the line for oneself or others, between reasonable expenditures and unnecessary, self-indulgent ones.  But if one's participation in local charity requires the choice, say, of a Camry instead of a Lexus, the decision is clear.  Personal charity tempers acquisitiveness and reminds us that our material blessings have arrived in tandem with economic disparities that we ought to try to mitigate. 

Finally, as Tamari notes, whatever benefits it might achieve, paying taxes does not develop the personal virtue produced by charitable giving.  Obeying the law and sending a check to the IRS do not attune a taxpayer to other people’s suffering.  To become conscious of the sorrows and misery of the poor, one must take personal initiative and interest.  Charitable giving, at its core, fulfills the commandment of imatitio dei, following the ways of God.  Ultimately, no obligatory obedience to your government, no matter how just or beneficent its actions may be, can exempt one from this higher duty. 

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes a column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.

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Bob Guzzardi, Jr. on April 12, 2013 at 10:04 am (Reply)
Grand Rabbi Gadol ha-Dor Ayn Rand says this is nonsense. Pure selfishness is the highest value. Charity only furthers dependency.
    Shlomo on April 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm (Reply)
    The same Ayn Rand who attacked government and charity her whole life, but then accepted many years of Social Security payments in her old age?

    On second thought, I can't think of a more selfish thing to convince other people not to take government aid for whatever reason, and then to take as much as you can yourself. So she did live according to her principles, in a way :)
      David on April 22, 2013 at 4:42 pm (Reply)
      I'm no Rand fan but how is it fair to attack to someone for taking her fair share back from the government that took so much from her? Obviously she made her payments to social security (and then some) or she wouldn't have been on the receiving end.
Hillel on April 12, 2013 at 10:08 am (Reply)
"Yet significant percentages of our taxes are used for what could be considered charitable purposes: food stamps, Social Security, housing assistance, and public healthcare, to name a few."

Rabbi Brody, Social Security doesn't belong on this list. Unlike the other items, which help needy people without asking for payment in return (and are therefore charities indeed), Social Security has always been an insurance fund in which you contribute your own money and expect to get it back later.

Social Security isn't charity. Please don't confuse the issues here.
    Shlomo Brody on April 14, 2013 at 4:37 am (Reply)
    Hillel - Thanks for your remarks.
    Yes, social security is largely retirement plan, but also helps others, including the disable. See here and below.
    Nonetheless, you are correct that it is not the best example.

    Many people think of Social Security as just a
    retirement program. Although it is true that most of
    the people receiving Social Security receive retirement
    benefits, many others get Social Security because they are:
    • Disabled; or
    • A spouse or child of someone who gets Social Security; or
    • A spouse or child of a worker who died; or
    • A dependent parent of a worker who died.
    Depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for
    Social Security at any age. In fact, Social Security pays more
    benefits to children than any other government program.
YM Goldstein on April 12, 2013 at 10:29 am (Reply)
Rabbi Brody, I believe that your last point is the key. Giving Tzedukkah is connected with the belief in Hashem and that 10-20% of your income doesn't really belong to you, but is entrusted to you to distribute according to Halacha.
    David on April 22, 2013 at 4:44 pm (Reply)
    What does that have to do with whether our communal taxes that support welfare programs are part of maaser or not?
DF on April 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm (Reply)
You repeatedly refer to "tithing obligations." Jews are not Mormons. There is no tithing obligation. There is a Biblical obligation to tithe produce and animals, but there is no obligation, neither Biblical nor rabbinic, to tithe income. It is merely a good deed.
    Shlomo Brody on April 14, 2013 at 4:39 am (Reply)
    DF: Thanks for your comment. As I wrote, the legal basis for this practice is in dispute, but even if it is a mere good deed, it is a widespread custom to perform this mere good deed, to the point where it is recorded in the Shulchan Aruch and many other sourecs.
      DF on April 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm (Reply)
      I understand. Still, it is not an obligation, and should not be portrayed as such. Simply referring to it as "tithing", without adding on "requirement" or "obligation", etc, works best.
        David on April 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm (Reply)
        Some minhagim approach obligation. This is one of them. If not, how do you explain all the poskim who deal with it as halakha? Under your scheme (to which I am otherwise sympathetic), these opinions would be ludicrous.
Frank on April 14, 2013 at 6:35 am (Reply)
I take exception with the suggestion of Hillel, Social Security be not a charity. In fact, Social Security IS a charity. There is no underlier, that a Social Security payer saves, and that is refunded to him in old age.
The money that goes in to Social Security is given to those who are currently pensioners. The money that current payers will receive when they are pensioners will come from payers in the future. So in a way, it is a Ponzi scheme. The main difference to the usual Ponzi schemes on the free market is that the government will have the mandate to collect the money from future payers. So it won't run out in future, on principle, unlike the free Ponzi schemes. But the actual amount that will be payed out will be decided by the respective government.
So in essence, it IS old age pensions are a charity
ch hoffman on April 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Reply)
there is nothing like self-justification to bring the moral compass full-tilt. Your requirement to give tzedakah is based on your responsibility to the Jewish community - not to the world at large.

to consider your income taxes as tzedaka, you would first have to abandon your connection to and obligation to Klal Yisrael
    David on April 22, 2013 at 5:01 pm (Reply)
    ch, that's not true. All poskim agree that you can give to secular charities mipne darke shalom if nothing else. And we're not even talking about programs that don't help Jews. Also, as the article makes clear, they are only talking about a portion of your maaser obligation. There are formulae given by poskim and not all of your maaser can/should be given to secular charities.
TSvieps on April 17, 2013 at 9:27 pm (Reply)
The discussion brings up a very interesting question that I have wondered about. It seems like the answer is not quite resolved here, but R. Brody thinks the consensus among rabbis would be for 10% of after tax income.

I would like to bring up 2 related questions.

A) If a person is ill and has high medical bills, should these--like taxes--be subtracted from income before what is a fair amount of Tsdaka is calculated according to the 10 to 20% custom (that is almost Halachah)?

B) Insurance to my mind could also be considered a form of Tsdaka...maybe even one at a high level since the receiver is not embarrassed by knowing the giver. What is paid is not expected back by the giver and it mostly all goes to help someone in need who has had a large financial loss. There is an expectation to receive help if one has their own large loss, but in some ways we also have such expectations when we give to community Tsdaka funds...the local Jewish Federation or Community Chest for the wider community.

Looking for comments...Rabbi Brody? Others?
    David on April 22, 2013 at 4:59 pm (Reply)
    As to insurance, of course helping someone else buy insurance would be ts'daka... I must misunderstand your question...

    Further note: not sure if you're aware, but similar to American law, you can and should directly deduct anything spent on your work, including clothes, car, gas, etc. Under Jewish law, that is even if you're a salaried employee of course, not just independent contractor. Your deductions have to be honest of course. If you use your car half and half only take half. If you would've bought one nice suit instead of two, only take one suit off.
David on April 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm (Reply)
Medical bills can't be deducted from income flat out, but when your circumstances get dire and you can't afford the 10% the minhag/halakha takes that into account. The minimum amount of ts'daka for a poor person (including someone who has a high income but requires all of it to save his or her life)is a biblical silver shekel (we use silver dollars nowadays, so something like $20) annually.
David on April 22, 2013 at 4:55 pm (Reply)
This gets into all kinds of politics, but I find it interesting coming from R' Broyde that he recognizes how much waste the welfare state engages in and how little it meets actual needs. This would seem like an argument to return to the system of caring for the poor at the local (or at least state) level. I always had respect and enjoyed R' Broyde until I heard him speak in Los Angeles to an audience of sympaticos where he said that the US was worse than mitsrayim based on a g'mara that noted mitsrayim had nationalized health care (the birth doulas apparently provided by the mitsri government). This meant that Jews (himself included) shouldn't remain living in an evil state like the US if we didn't pass Obamacare. I was hoping it would mean they'd all leave, but instead we got Obamacare. Which makes this question all the more pressing.

On a serious note, I think we can't include our taxes now when it's not our taxes that go to any of these social programs, but debt. Our taxes are a small drop in the bucket of what we spend.

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