Although the slogan “From each according to their ability” is most often associated with Karl Marx, it comes in fact directly from our Torah. While in principle this ideal should apply to all types of contributions–wisdom, work, wealth–that each family makes toward the good of all, it was most often applied to the readily quantifiable realm of money. For when it came to agricultural leavings for the poor and contributions (tithes) to the Temple, each family’s required minimum contribution was a proportion of its income.
This system of tithes and leavings is akin to the “flat rate” tax. Under the flat rate, each person contributes a fixed percentage of their income. If the rate is 10%, a person earning 100 sheqels would contribute 10 sheqels; a person making 1000 sheqels would contribute 100 sheqels. This is not the same as progressive taxation, under which the person making 1000 sheqels would contribute say, 150 sheqels, representing a higher proportion of their income. While the letter of our law mostly required only a flat-rate (fixed percentage) contribution, our ethical teaching has urged that those with higher incomes ought to give even more.
In our current political climate it is said, “Let the wealthy keep more of their earnings as an incentive for them to produce more.” Remarkably, the opposite theory is applied to the poor: “Take away from the poor in order to boost their incentive to produce more.”
In principle, I support the Connecticut state income tax, in part, because it is one way to make taxation more fair. At the least, those who have higher income will pay about the same percentage of the their income to support social services. In contrast, the sales tax places a relatively heavier burden on lower-income citizens; it is ultimately regressive.
At the level of our shul, it has been noted that the dues structure is not progressive; in fact, it is not even flat-rate (fixed percentage). Rather, all pay the same absolute rate (for singles or couples). Thus, the family earning $30,000 contributes the same dollar amount as the family making $300,000. It is unfortunate that overall those at the lower end of the income scale contribute a significantly higher proportion of their income to the shul than do the more well-off members. While no dues structure can be perfectly fair, it is manifest that the thrust of our ethical tradition demands at least a flat-rate (fixed percentage) system if not a genuinely progressive system.
Support of the Temple as envisioned by our Torah was on the basis of “from each according to their means.” It is for that reason that I applaud the efforts of those BEKI officers and members of the Board of Directors who are working to develop what is by Torah-values a more equitable set of expectations for supporting the shul through a scaled dues structure. This is not an issue that can be quickly and decisively resolved, but the very fact of struggling with it represents an attempt to apply the ideals of Torah practically in our lives and so is to be encouraged as Avodat HaShem, the Service of God.
(c) Jon-Jay Tilsen