03/07/2012 11:14 am ET Updated May 07, 2012

Purim and Taxes: Paying Civilization's Price

The concluding chapter of the Scroll of Esther is three verses long. Two of them, not surprisingly, celebrate the triumphs of the Jews. The other verse reads: "And the king Ahasuerus laid a tax upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea."

What a strange ending to our triumphant story. Why are taxes included in the Megillah's triumphant coda?

The American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote: "taxes are the price of civilization." Judaism recognizes taxes as more than a price; they are a means of sustaining civilization, and they reveal a tremendous amount about societal priorities and values. Money, appropriated for good and ill, is a theme that runs throughout the story and rituals of the Purim holiday: the king's wasteful banquet, Haman's plan, the mitzvah to give alms liberally to the poor, and more. With its theme of venahafokh hu, turning things upside down, Purim challenges us to look at society and see it in new, unexpected ways. Today's debates around taxes are stuck in predictable political patterns. Might insights from Jewish wisdom upend our conventional thinking?

The Talmud offers two different approaches to the levying of communal taxes. Either mamon, or the wealth of the payer, determines how much is paid, or every person pays the same amount, which is called, in talmudic parlance, a nefashot system. From the Talmud alone, it is not entirely clear when to apply the different models. Early commentators make a distinction: In cases where there is an immediate threat, the tax should be levied according to nefashot -- that is, a uniform sum for everyone. In non-life-threatening situations, taxes should levied according to mamon, different amounts according to wealth.

It is unclear from these early sources whether or not mamon means a flat tax, or whether the rate of taxation is actually progressive. A flat tax is generally considered regressive, since it imposes a greater proportional burden on the poor.

The 20th-century legal decisor Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg takes a clear stand on this issue. In his collection of responsa the "Tzitz Eliezer," after which he was known, he asks: "What is the Torah perspective on taxes? Is it a progressive approach, where we tax according to the level of wealth called mamon, or is it uniform, meaning that every resident pays the same tax rate regardless of poverty or wealth?" (2:22 )

Interestingly, in a bold reading of the earlier texts, the Tzitz Eliezer assumes in his question that mamon is progressive. After an in-depth review of halakhic sources, he concludes that nearly all taxes -- for water, road repair, lights, hospitals, social services, nursing homes and more -- are assessed by mamon, which in his interpretation means progressive.

Looking at the U.S. tax system, we might be struck by how some parts of the tax code function as direct opposites of the halakhic model. Recently, Warren Buffett, the world-renowned investor, reported that he was paying a lower federal tax percentage on his vast annual income (16.5 percent overall ) than his middle class office workers (25 percent ). Writing in The New York Times, Buffett noted that, "Since 1992, the IRS has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion -- a staggering $227.4 million on average -- but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent."

According to a recent study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, while the federal tax rate in the United States is progressive overall, low capital-gains and dividends tax rates notwithstanding, state tax systems are almost all regressive. Even beyond the regressive flat tax, in most states, the poor actually pay a higher percent of their income in taxes than wealthy residents do. In New York, for example, the total state tax rate for the lowest income earners is 9.6 percent, while for the top earners it is 7.2 percent. In California, it is 10.2 percent for the very poor versus 7.4 percent for the very rich.

Do Jewish values compel us to work toward change? As an Orthodox Jew, I believe the answer is yes. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in "Halakhic Man": "The halakhah [Jewish law] is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries, but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life."

A careful study of the talmudic and halakhic sources reveals a clear ethic for taxation. It is the Jewish people's responsibility to manifest these authentic Torah values in the world.

The Megillah's ending, "And the king Ahasuerus laid a tax upon the land," might contain an upside-down message of celebration. At the end of this complicated economic saga, we finally see a fair and just tax emerging from this most foolish of kings. Perhaps King Ahasuerus levied a tax whose purpose was not to punish, privilege, score political points or destroy. Rather, the king levied a tax that was equal and fair, across land and sea, and truly in the interests of all the people of the empire. And that was something to celebrate.