2016-06-30
Reprinted from SocialAction.com, a member of the Jewz.com network.

Americans hate to pay taxes. Naturally, many of us are quite happy to be receiving a check for several hundred dollars this summer, a result of President Bush's tax rebate plan. But some see this as a manipulative PR move to garner support for tax cuts benefiting primarily the wealthy, while depriving critical social programs of much-needed funds.

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Why not instead use budget surpluses to improve education, increase access to health care, clean up the environment? A growing movement, spearheaded by United for a Fair Economy is encouraging Americans to "reject the rebate" and to redirect those checks to unmet social needs. Not surprisingly, Jews are well represented among the ranks of the "rebate rejecters."

Many of them are doing so because they believe the rebate is socially and economically unjust. Bill Shorr, of Boston, says, "Society has certain collective responsibilities and we meet them by taxation. Tzedakah, justice, dictates that we do what it takes to [make sure] everybody [has] access and opportunities." He plans to donate his rebate towards an organization working to "respond to the bad policy that created the rebate in the first place," such as advocating for reforming the tax system.

Tzedakah, usually translated as charity, is much closer in meaning to "acts of justice." It is one of Judaism's central commandments. In a society where our taxes are gathered to address social needs and institutions, taxes may well be a form of tzedakah. They pay for an enormous variety of government services, from those that benefit all of us (such as maintaining roads and enforcing environmental laws) to those that protect the most powerless groups in our society (such as food stamps and wage and hour laws).

Taxes might even be understood as a form of communal hesed, covenantal care and responsibility. Just as we use our resources within our individual families to meet our various needs, taxes, when fairly apportioned and distributed, extend to include and protect the entire societal family.

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Stacie Garnett, an organizer with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said, "A lot of the Jewish tradition is about supporting the community. I want to put my rebate back into supporting the broadest number of people, especially those who need it, instead of the wealthiest 1%." She is giving part of her rebate to the Fund for Tax Fairness, which organizes for a more equitable tax system. She is doing so because she says "I can't see giving a small percentage of people a huge windfall when the rest of the community would suffer."

Abby Weinberg, Tzedek Organizer at the Shefa Fund, plans to donate what she sees as money she should never have received "for what I think it should have been used for in the first place, economic and social justice and environmental protection. My Jewish identity makes it not [just] a desire to give, but an imperative. Being a Jew makes me aware of my responsibility to my community and that includes everybody."

Jewish tradition has always taken seriously the obligation to support the wider community. Exodus 30:11-12 details God's commandment to the Israelites to each give a half-shekel as part of a census. The Rabbis discuss paying taxes at length in the Talmud, even warning that failure to do so will result in the rains failing, prices rising, and wages and livelihoods being lost (Shabbat 32b). If the paying of taxes is akin to an act of tzedakah, and act of communal responsibility, then so too is "refusing" or redirecting a tax rebate that is better spent on unmet needs.

While many of us may want to donate our rebates, doing so does require some sacrifice. Judy Bolton-Fasman, editor of Jbooks.com, says, "it's very tempting to keep it and pay bills with it. But we really believe that it should be redirected back to people who need it most." She and her husband are donating their rebate to research on Parkinson's, and to Joe Kennedy's Citizens Energy Corporation, which provides assistance to people unable to pay their energy bills. The latter, she wryly offers, is "in honor of Dick Cheney." She describes her donation as "an act of lovingkindness," one that she hopes will teach her two children about the importance of tzedakah.

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Maimonides, perhaps the most well known historical commentator on the Torah, delineated eight levels of tzedakah. They range from the most grudging donations, through increasing degrees of giving, up to the highest level, providing someone with the means to support themselves. The action involved in "rejecting the rebate" is outside this range altogether, and might be seen as a ninth level of tzedakah.

How? Maimonides' eight levels all involve giving from what we already have. But those rejecting the rebate are refusing to accept a benefit they do not feel they deserve. This acknowledges that in a society with great disparities of wealth and profound deprivation, accepting such a benefit when one does not need it is tantamount to taking it from those who do. Rather than giving to charity to address a problem, it seeks to avoid the problem in the first place by not contributing to its cause: in this case, reduced government attention to social problems and needs.

Such a way of viewing tzedakah forces us to go against our immediate individual self-interest. The position of American Jews in American society is unique in Jewish history. We have, on the whole, achieved a high level of prosperity as we have assimilated into American culture. Yet our ethical and spiritual tradition, as we well know, entreats us to do justice, "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Acting against one's immediate economic self-interest cuts against our society's often individualistic cultural mythology. Those Jews, and others, who forego the illusory "benefit" given to them by the Bush administration provide an essential reminder and inspiration to all of us of our responsibilities to our wider family--the community outside our doors.

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