Mishnah: ‘Public funds are collected by two and distributed by three’

Matt Rourke AP Joseph Malloy III, left, and John Dodds, right, with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project demonstrated as Sen. Bob … Continued

Matt Rourke


Joseph Malloy III, left, and John Dodds, right, with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project demonstrated as Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., center, speaks during a news conference at the 30th Street Station on Nov. 26, 2012, in Philadelphia. Casey announce a planned Joint Economic Committee hearing on the impending “fiscal cliff” of massive tax hikes and spending cuts to take effect in January if Congress doesn’t head them off. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In recent weeks while visiting Latin America, I found myself reading about the “fiscal cliff.” I arrived in a country where people were taking to the streets to demand their government confront, yet again, an inflation rate they experienced as many times the government’s published number. Far from home, I heard rhetoric about the irreconcilable divisions between parties and points of view in the United States with a deep skepticism. We have much more in common than we care sometimes to admit. Americans live with a level of stability and transparency that few enjoy. We are ill-served by rhetoric of division that squanders the energies we need in order to do what America has always done at its best – to provide more opportunity for more people to have a better life and the dignity to choose it.

Jewish tradition emphasizes the need for a community to provide for the welfare of all of its citizens and to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are cared for and given adequate opportunities to overcome their challenges. However, also explicit in Jewish tradition is an appreciation of how complicated these decisions can be and the need for compromise in order to fulfill shared values.

Ten simple words of the Mishnah, the primary legal text of Judaism, speak to the current decisions facing our country: “public funds are collected by two and distributed by three.” They are collected by two in order to ensure first, that no one person should have exclusive authority to enforce communally levied financial obligations and two, to ensure honesty. A court of three is required for distribution of public funds because such decisions involve complex and competing demands – some urgent and some longer term, some for the needy and some for the public good.

View Photo Gallery: There has been a lot of talk about the “fiscal cliff.” But what is it? How will it affect your pocketbook? These charts address these questions and will help you understand why lawmakers want to reach a deal on taxes and spending to prevent us from falling off the cliff.

It would have come as no surprise to the rabbis of antiquity that two parties with two platforms would repeatedly and inevitably come to an impasse in how they prioritize the needs of the community. Where three judges serve equally and together, the “partisan” nature of the decision is diffused. Jewish tradition, with its appreciation for the sanctity and complexity of human life, holds that differences of opinion do not show an absence of shared values, but rather attest to the passion and depth to which they are held. Jewish tradition assiduously preserves minority opinions – but it preserves them to a glorified end – their reasoning is engaged in other discussions so the system is strengthened by an argument’s defeat as well as victory.

The Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, guides that courts ought to actively seek – and prefer compromise in – monetary matters, rather than move to judgment. Judaism’s case-based methodology reveals repeatedly that most monetary issues are gray, rather than black and white, and a thoughtful compromise yields greater justice than a determination in favor of one side. Compromise is neither “partial concession” nor even “partial victory,” for either party, but a clear victory for the entire society, including the parties. Compromise allows values underlying decision-making to be reaffirmed for new times and new challenges. Where parties compromise, the people win.

The American tradition of government bears many affinities to the underlying notions of compromise and resolution of civil matters in Judaism. Both traditions have at their center a fundamental respect for the people who share the responsibilities of decision-making and the people on whose behalf decisions are made.

In a two-party system like ours, who comes to be that third decision maker? Can there be a third way where there is no third party? A strong strain in U.S. history demonstrates that the art of compromise itself has been that “third party” in our system that evolves through the creative tension of two competing views.

Locating the capital in Washington was part of a compromise to resolve a crisis between Northern and Southern states regarding debt from the Revolutionary War. The unique bicameral legislature that meets in the Capitol is the result of an early compromise between large and small states regarding legislative representation. Like the preservation of minority opinion in Judaism, the U.S. Senate with equal representation for all states is a legislative body that honors the full diversity of culture and region, rather than mere numbers, and in that way guides government in being responsive to all the people.

Differences of opinion over how strong the federal government ought to be, particularly in resolution of debt and levying of taxes to support national programs, goes back to our country’s founding. As we face the fiscal cliff between an election and an inauguration, we feel the need for compromise strongly. Over the course of our lives, we have all voted for candidates who won and others who lost, but when we walked away from the polls, we expected to wake up the next morning, to have the hospitals and schools open, lights on, contracts made and honored. In monetary matters, the American people view compromise as a victory for our government and our nation, because our treasured values must prevail so that we can address what lies ahead.

Of one thing we have always been clear – when we stand at the precipice of a “fiscal cliff,” we step back, affirm our shared goals and allow compromise to be the third judge.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly
,an international association of Conservative rabbis.

  • WmarkW

    Unfortunately, for too long in America, the ability to compromise consisted of taxing those too young to vote, i.e. run a deficit. They were the third rail of American politics that powered the two party system of joint spending.

    Today’s third party is middle-class wage earners. There’s a party of the investor class; and a party that serves the re-distribution recipients and their advocates (government bureaucrat bloat). What we don’t have is a party primarily advocating for the family that pays taxes and expects nothing back but their return on contribution (Social Security and Medicare).

    They’re the silenced majority that wants curbs on immigration, while the two major parties see that issue as cheap labor, and future voters, respectively. And who watched helplessly while big finance gladly succummed to government pressure to give more home loans to people who had no business buying one.

    The average American needs an advocate.
    That’s the missing third.

  • indyguy3

    Jewish tradition doesn’t include the separation of church and state. This country does. While the care of the poor and vulnerable is vital, it is the job of the religions to do so in the way they see as best. The government has no business in that area. There is no possible compromise on this, if the government is doing it, then the individuals won’t.

  • Openletter2004

    Your use of religion to justify using government to impoverish one group to buy votes from another group is exactly why the Framers of the Constitution separated Government and Religion.

    In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.
    – Thomas Jefferson, to Horatio G Spafford, March 17, 1814

    The problem here is that even your religion defines “charity” as the “voluntary contribution to the welfare of another”.

    There is a grave injustice being perpetrated when someone that works is taxed to provide a better standard of living for someone that doesn’t work. This is especially true when the non-worker deliberately makes themselves unemployable by refusing to accept the paid education that is offered by the TAXPAYERS. Or when they make the personal choice to use drugs and alcohol to the point that they become incapacitated. Or when in addition to refusing the free education, they procreate with abandon because the government will give them ever more money and ever bigger more sumptuous housing.

  • jralger

    “Americans live with a level of stability and transparency that few enjoy. We are ill-served by rhetoric of division that squanders the energies we need in order to do what America has always done at its best – to provide more opportunity for more people to have a better life and the dignity to choose it”

    And yet, we are broke!

    Go figure.

  • peace1968

    “There is a grave injustice being perpetrated when someone that works is taxed to provide a better standard of living for someone that doesn’t work.” That is the typical rhetoric of a basically selfish mind. ” I got mine so you get yours.” “I am not my brother’s keeper.” “I don’t have to help them if they won’t help themselves.” As a social worker for many years I’ve heard them all and fought the hard fight to help people with attitudes like that develop some kind of social conscience. It was a losing battle. I see that kind of thinking will never disappear. It may interest you to know that there are millions of people like me who are desperately seeking any kind of job. There are children and disabled who can’t work. There are millions of kids in inner-city schools who aren’t getting a decent education because year after year funds for education are cut because of thinking like yours. Of course we should help take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. It may surprise you to learn that the poor are not necessarily poor by choice. The unemployed are not always unemployed by choice. And the disabled are not that way by choice either. Would you not help them? Or do you prefer to play God and decide who should or should not be helped? I’d rather see my taxes go to help millions of “undeserving” than continue to line the pockets of the wealthiest, stingiest people in the country. We are not only as stong as our weakest link, we also are only as good as our treatment of our weakest link. We must overcome the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • ohgoodgrief

    Whose religion defines charity as a voluntary contribution? In Judaism, the word commonly translated as charity is “tzedaka”, which literally means “righteousness”. A minimum of 10% and a maximum of 20% of post-tax income is expected to be disrtibuted to causes of the giver’s choice, often the synagogue or support for the poor of the community. This is not because we feel like it, but because we realize that all we have comes from G-d, and we are *expected* to use it to help others.

  • edallan

    “There is a grave injustice being perpetrated when someone that works is taxed to provide a better standard of living for someone that doesn’t work.”

    You are, presumably, referring to workers who are taxed at rates higher than the Walmart heirs, Paris Hilton, and the like, who are functional parasites whose “earnings” are also subsidized by taxpayers who cover much of the costs of health care and food for employees.

  • purpledrank

    “There is no possible compromise on this, if the government is doing it, then the individuals won’t.”

    And odd claim. Is not the government a collaboration of individuals? And do we not, at present, have a welfare state alongside innumerable sources of charity?

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