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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Headshot

What Is More Virtuous? Paying Taxes or Giving Charity?

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David Axelrod was manhandled across cyberspace for tweeting an attack against Republican donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson on the morning of 9/11. Let's be charitable here and forgive Axelrod his breech of etiquette given that campaigns become so intense you can easily get carried away without meaning to. Whatever the case, Axelrod was reacting to a report on The Huffington Post that if Mitt Romney won the election people like the Adelsons could save billions in taxes. The report also said that a repeal of the estate tax could save billions more.

As the Adelsons are arguably the world's foremost supporters of Jewish causes and charities, this raises for a Rabbi who is also a congressional candidate the question of what is a bigger mitzvah: paying taxes or giving charity. Surely even Axelrod, or other critics of the Adelsons, are not suggesting the couple have a problem parting with their money, as they regularly contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. Rather, the argument is that they should be paying higher taxes, and the payment of higher taxes on the part of the super-rich has been a constant campaign theme. Mind you, even Obama and Axelrod have their limits. They are not advocating confiscatory taxation as is, say, France's new President Francois Hollande, whose plans to tax those making more than a million euros per annum at a rate of 75 percent is already leading to an exodus of the rich. No, President Obama wants the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of the year leading to a federal tax rate of 39 percent for those in the highest bracket.

But since America came into being as a protest against unfair taxation, what rate is fair, even for the super-rich? For example, in my home state of New Jersey a millionaire will pay, at present, 35 percent of his income to the Federal government and then nearly 10 percent to the state, and New Jersey was changed by Democrat Jon Corzine to a net income state, meaning you cannot deduct what you pay in federal taxes from your state tax bill. That means about half your income goes to taxation, and that's before real estate tax (in New Jersey it's arguably the highest in the nation), sales tax, and the myriad other taxes we each pay on a daily basis (take a look at your monthly cell phone bill to see if you can even count how many taxes there are). Still we are told that America's taxes ought to be higher. In New Jersey it hasn't worked. People are leaving the state because they're tired of being ripped off. So while we lost a Congressional seat, leading to a terribly bitter Democratic primary here in the 9th district, Florida and Texas, which have no state income tax, added a bunch. When I meet people campaigning, they tell me that taxes are the number one issue for them.

Are American citizens really expected to feel guilty about not paying enough tax? When we see such incredible government waste, should we be eager to fork over more money to see it so much of it squandered?

Take President Obama's trillion dollar stimulus that seemed to have stimulated only greater American resentment at paying taxes. Nearly a trillion dollars was poured down a sinkhole but produced no jobs or greater economic performance. I even remember reading a story after the package passed in February 2008 of a public school that was sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend. The school responded they didn't need the money. They had good facilities and new equipment. No matter. They were told they had to spend the stimulus funds.

I remember being deeply upset. I'm an orthodox Jew. I have a right to educate my children in the Jewish tradition, just as Catholic, Islamic, and Christian parents. I send my kids to a Jewish day school. But not a dollar of my hard-earned tax dollars is allowed to pay a single expense at my children's Yeshivas and Jewish day schools, even for completely secular subjects. Religious parents throughout the country are having fewer children as they struggle to keep up with insanely high taxes and insanely high tuition. Yet here was a school having our tax dollars being shoved down its throat when it didn't want or need the money.

And please, hold the arguments that more money in education means a better education. In my hometown of Englewood the school board spends approximately $23,000 per student, which is about double what the Jewish day schools in the area charge per child. Yet the failure rate in the public schools is much higher than the private schools.

I would much rather see philanthropists like the Adelsons, or Democratic mega-donors like George Soros, have a lower, fairer tax bill and give more money to education, medical research, and private initiatives to support the families of our troops. Charities usually spend their funds a lot more carefully than government and I salute the efforts that President Bush made to create greater synergy between government and faith-based initiatives. Say what you want about George Soros (whom Axelrod neglected to mention would likewise save a bundle on lower taxes) but he has donated hundreds of millions to Eastern European nations struggling to birth new democracies. Likewise, the Adelsons biggest critics never fail to acknowledge the hundreds of millions they have invested in holocaust education, medical research, Jewish education, and support for a tiny fledgling democracy called Israel which just happens to be America's most stalwart ally in a region where America is increasingly despised and loathed.

Why David Axelrod would feel it's such a mitzvah to pay higher and higher taxes is beyond me. The goal is to make taxes fair, equitable, and effective in addressing the nation's needs. And that means controlling spending, not just raising taxes.

And here in America we have an incredibly proud and quite frankly humbling history of massive charitable giving. A few names, I am sure come quickly to your mind as they did me. Andrew Carnegie, for example founded an internationally respected institution of higher learning -- Carnegie Mellon University. He set up at least four entities of giving that are still operating today -- the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY); The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP); the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching(CFAT); The Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs (CCEIA). This was a man who's giving was so monumental and historic that a prehistoric dinosaur was actually named after him -- Diplodocus carnegiei.

J.D. Rockefeller gave countless dollars to promote education at all levels and for all people. He provided major founding to the Spelman College in Atlanta for African-American women in 1884. He created the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 giving nearly $250 million to the foundation -- truly a staggering amount of money for the times -- which focused on public health, medical training, and the arts. It helped to create Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. It also reinforced and expanded the Peking Union Medical College in China into a credible institution of note. As this is not a history lesson I will only mention a few more captains of industry that have left their mark on history and gave selflessly to better the world for all; Simon Guggenheim, and more recently Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Great philanthropy is what we should require of the super-rich rather than confiscatory taxation like the estate tax. This is just a short list of amazing giving and great men and women, but the list of people whose lives have been changed is beyond doubt countless.

Those who want to pay more taxes are welcome to. It's a free country. But all of us need to push ourselves to give a lot more charity. Being forced to pay taxes does not make us more virtuous people. If it did, our founding fathers would have thanked George III for his coercion. But voluntarily giving more charity makes us more righteous, more noble, more caring, and more generous.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the Republican Candidate for Congress in New Jersey's Ninth Congressional District. The international best-selling author of 28 books, his newest work is "Kosher Jesus". Next month he will publish "The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering." His website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com.