One man’s ‘inequality’ is...

A tax that made everyone an equal partner in the Temple service, irrespective of their sociopolitical class.

A tax that made everyone an equal partner in the Temple service (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
A tax that made everyone an equal partner in the Temple service
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
There was a time, a couple of generations ago, when it was fashionable to portray the Jewish religion as ‘socialist’ – or, conversely, to demonstrate that Socialism, and even Communism, had strong roots in the Torah, especially in the Prophets.
That was when most Jews were left-wing (in a socioeconomic sense). Difficult though it may be for today’s youngsters to imagine, there were many religious socialists – including Catholics and Protestants, but also, and maybe especially, Jews. There were political parties, in the Zionist movement and later in the Knesset, whose names declared them to be both Socialist and religious – even ultra- Orthodox. They saw and felt no contradiction between the two.
Times have changed to the point that it is now fashionable to view Judaism, and especially the Torah, as “capitalist.” After all, scripture and Jewish law not merely recognize, but attach great weight to private property and the rights thereto. Scholarly efforts are now more likely to focus on demonstrating how the Torah favors “small government” rather than the big size and intrusive role that “liberals” (the American term for people on the socioeconomic and political left) demand for the state.
I sometimes wonder what the Almighty makes of this. I would like to hope that he focuses on more important aspects of Jewish thought and practice – and that he just smiles to himself over the endless efforts of his overly bright children to squeeze his Torah into the straitjacket of the reigning zeitgeist, whatever that happens to be.
An excellent, because simple, example of how biblical concepts refuse to match the most modern scriptwriting is to be found in what we know as the Shekalim Torah portion. This short section comprises the opening verses of Ki Tissa and is the first of four special portions that are read in addition to the regular portion over the next several weeks.
These six verses present the requirement to conduct censuses indirectly, by counting coins – half-shekel coins, to be exact – rather than people. That is an interesting and important idea in its own right, but more practical is the fact that this procedure was used not just, or even primarily, for periodic censuses, but was required as an annual ritual, for a very important reason – they needed the money.
“They” were the religious leadership who, in biblical times, were the priests, and they needed funding to enable the Sanctuary to function. Specifically, they needed the money to buy all the public sacrifices that were offered, daily and on Sabbaths and festivals throughout the year. In other words, the coins collected were a tax.
This is where it gets really interesting. The Temple service was funded by public money – but this money came directly from the general public, not via the royal exchequer or any other official public purse. Furthermore, this tax – which was imposed and collected by some form of bureaucratic structure – was earmarked by Jewish law for a specific use.
You can read all the details in the tractate Shekalim devoted to this topic. For our purposes, let’s just note how this law and its application fly in the face of a slew of modern economic dogmas.
First of all, the Temple service was funded by a tax, because it was what we would call today a public service. No Tea Party or libertarian radical could suggest that this service be abolished, or even cut back, or financed by other means – such as donations. 
Furthermore, this tax was dedicated, in the accounting sense of being earmarked – which is a big no-no for experts on fiscal management. On the other hand, it was universal – the tax base was as wide as it could possibly be, encompassing every adult. This is the Holy Grail (pardon the metaphor in this context) of tax experts everywhere.
But not only did everyone pay – everyone paid exactly the same amount. The rules could hardly be clearer. “The rich man shall not exceed, nor shall the poor man fall short of, half a shekel.” That structure is called regressive, because it hits poor people harder than rich ones (because relatively, it is a bigger bite of their income) – and this is the great bugbear of liberals, who demand that taxes be progressive, rising in line with income or wealth. Nor were there any blanket exemptions, whether for the old or infirm, for soldiers on active duty, or for yeshiva (or other) students.
This is surely the very acme of inequality and hence anathema to all liberals, and even most conservatives. Or is it? It achieves the greater goal of making everyone – but everyone – an equal partner in the Temple service, irrespective of their sociopolitical class or views.
Pinchas Landau is an independent economic consultant and analyst