This week, President Obama revealed his plan to decrease the federal deficit. One of the President’s proposals is to get rid of tax cuts that benefit high-income households, resulting in those people paying more taxes. This idea is based in part on promoting fairness in taxation and adhering to the “Buffett Rule,” which (as succinctly described by the Obama Administration) states that “no household making over $1 million annually should pay a smaller share of its income in taxes than middle class families pay.”(1)
One of the stated goals of the President’s tax reform plan is to help out those less financially fortunate (i.e. the middle class) by making the tax system “fairer, simpler and more progressive.”(2) From the standpoint of American fiscal policy there is certainly much room to debate the prudence of the proposed tax reform and whether the rich should contribute a greater percentage of their wealth to society. From a Torah perspective though, it is clear that the more wealth a person accrues, the greater is his obligation to benefit those in need and society at large.
Halacha dictates that besides for the general mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) incumbent upon every individual, each Jewish community must enact a system of “taxation” to raise money to support the poor and to fund communal needs (e.g. constructing a shul or maintaining roads).(3) The burden of this “tax” was apportioned based on wealth.(4) To support the poor members of the community, each resident was required to give according to his financial means.(5) The same was true of funding communal needs: the wealthy were required to pay more.(6)
The reason for requiring the wealthy to contribute more than others can be understood based on the following Medrash:
אמר דוד לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבון העולם “ישב עולם לפני אלוקים” (תהלים סא:ח), תישר עולמך בשוה העשירים והעניים. אמר לו אם כן “חסד ואמת מן ינצרהו” (שם), אם יהיו כלם עשירים או עניים מי יוכל לעשות חסד
[King] David said to God, “Master of the world, why do You not establish economic equality in Your world? Why must there be those who are rich and those who are poor?” God answered him, “If everyone was poor or everyone was rich, who would perform acts of kindness?”(7)
In other words, the primary reason that God grants wealth to an individual is so that he will give to others. Chessed (kindness) is one of the pillars upon which the world stands.(8) It is one of the primary objectives of creation. Certainly the more one is blessed with wealth, the more he is expected to contribute to society.
Though tzedakah is commonly understood as “charity,” the root of the word is tzedek—righteousness, or strict adherence to the law. The dual connotation signifies both the moral and legal obligations that Jewish law imposes on every individual to give according to his means.(9)
(2) Id. at 45.
(4) Rema, Yoreh Dei’ah § 250(5) (quoting Rashba, Responsa vol. 3, § 380).
(5) Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah § 248(1).
(6) Rema, Choshen Mishpat § 163(3); Bei’ur HaGra, ad loc., § 80.
(7) Medrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim.
(8) Avos 1:2.
(9) See commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Bereishis [Genesis] 15:6; Devarim [Deuteronomy] 15:8.