Need should eradicate greed

By Robert Golbert, February 17, 2011

Earlier this month, London's mayor, Boris Johnson, urged the capital's super-rich to "give a lot more" after receiving their multi-million pound bonuses. "We want them to make money, we want them to generate jobs and growth… but they've also got to understand that they could make a much, much bigger contribution", he said.

The mayor blamed the 50p tax rate for the lack of generosity: "because people feel they are paying more and more of their income in taxation, they somehow felt they'd made their contribution."

The Jewish view on the relationship between taxation and charitable giving is complex. The Bible stipulates giving ten per cent of one's income (hence the expression "tithe", meaning one-tenth) and to help the "stranger, the orphan and the widow" (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). The Bible also commands that the corners of one's field and any fruit left on the vine after harvesting must be left for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10). The Talmud instructs Jews to give at least 10 per cent of their annual net income to charity (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, 7:5).

Judaism has always recognised the need to finance governmental functions and the idea that taxation benefits the population as a whole, including the Jewish community.

Jewish communities throughout the ages had a wide variety of taxation systems (income, wealth, property, poll tax) and tax grades (progressive, proportional or regressive). However, there is no one tax or tax system that is dictated by Jewish law.

Jewish tradition says givers benefit more than recipients

The Jewish scholar Maimonides wrote that the taxation scheme of one's country must be adhered to as long as it is objective and fair. Judaism, therefore, recognises the need for a fair, just and objective system of imposing and collecting taxes and, where such a scheme exists, requires compliance with it.

But what about businesses or the wealthy giving more than that required by the government, as the mayor is asking and as implied in David Cameron's vision of the Big Society?

Reaching out to those in need has always been a central tenet of Judaism. The Hebrew word "tzedakah" has traditionally been roughly translated as meaning "charity". However, the literal meaning of the word is "justice" - so giving charity is an act of justice.

Judaism believes that all people, no matter how poor, have a legal right to food, clothing and shelter and it is therefore unjust and even illegal for Jews who are more fortunate not to give to those in need.

In Judaism, 10 per cent of annual net income is considered the minimum obligation to give, and one is certainly encouraged to give more, although not to the point of becoming needy oneself or otherwise having to neglect other aspects of one's life.

But does charity always have to refer to giving financially to those in need? Are there other ways that businesses or individuals can contribute to society?

In his seminal book of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides describes eight levels of tzedakah, the highest of which is to help someone become self-supporting.

This could include giving the person a job or helping them start their own business. Not only does this help the person in need but he or she can then employ others, and so on.

Another aspect of giving is that of one's time and particular talents. The Talmud says: "Greater than one who does a good deed is one who causes others to do good deeds" (Baba Batra 9a).

If one wants to make a greater contribution to society than simply paying taxes or writing a cheque, one can become more involved in the community.

It is always possible to volunteer in a communal or civic organisation and mobilise the efforts of others as well. Businesses, too, can support communal or charitable organisations not just financially but by encouraging volunteerism among their staff.

According to Jewish tradition, the benefits of giving are so great that the giver benefits even more than the recipient. In other words, giving doesn't have to be a one-way street. If you or your business support your community, your community will support you and all of society benefits. Giving thus becomes a win-win situation for all those involved.

Robert Golbert is director of projects and marketing for the Jewish Association for Business Ethics

Last updated: 11:03am, February 17 2011