Jewish Views of the “Third Rail” of Texas Politics

Sermon delivered November 24, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Texans are not generally familiar with “The Third Rail.” Having lived in New York for a couple of years, though, I know that the subway system has three rails, one of which is electrified. Touch the third rail, and you die.

The only context in which I’ve heard this phrase in our own State is with reference to a State income tax, often called “the third rail of Texas politics.” The notion goes that, if a politician so much as touches the idea of a State income tax here, he or she “dies,” at least in the political arena.

The fact that merely discussing a State income tax is the only act absolutely forbidden to a Texas politician demonstrates a sad state of affairs.

Fail to provide adequate funding for our children in Texas public schools, throughout a regular session and successively special session, and they got re-elected.

Leave Texas children with inadequate health care, including the highest percentage uninsured in the nation, and they get re-elected.

Make private, insider deals, kept secret from the public, to build a much-needed Trans Texas Corridor, with the contract going to the highest campaign contributors, and they get re-elected.

Publicly agree with a Pastor who says that anybody who doesn’t repent through Jesus Christ is going to hell, and they get re-elected.

But so much as suggest that our State’s most significant needs would most effectively and equitably be funded with a State income tax, and political death is inevitable. Even having the discussion is deemed an unacceptable danger.

Now, I am a Rabbi, not a politician. My thoughts on this matter are inspired by Torah, not political considerations. I carefully decided to offer this sermon after the election, to reduce any suggestion that I would use this sacred pulpit for partisan ends. The matter, though, is not partisan or political. It’s about right and wrong, ethics and spiritual truth.

The Hebrew prophets railed against corruption, not unlike the insider deal to build The Trans Texas Corridor. Nowhere in the Bible do we find any objections to taxation based on wealth.

The laws of Moses and the exhortations of the prophets call upon us to care for the poor and the sick in our midst. The inequalities in Texas public schools and the unequal health care offered to our State’s children would surely raise the prophets’ ire. Discussion of income tax wouldn’t bother them.

Our sages decreed that non-Jews who observe the seven laws of Noah could be counted among the righteous, as much as any Jew. Our faith does not teach that salvation is reserved for adherents of only one religion, just as it also does not teach that income taxes are immoral.

An argument could be made that taxes, per se, are not much discussed in Torah. However, a wide variety of offerings are required of ancient Israelites. Because these donations are mandatory and enforceable, and in no way related to free will, the prescribed gifts of our Israelite ancestors are much like taxes.

These offerings, or biblical taxes, come in a variety of forms. Some require the same modest amount to be paid by each individual. The vast majority of these gifts, though, are based on an individual’s wealth or the measure of income in the biblical period, namely the size of the harvest or the amount of livestock owned. In short, biblical law seems to assume that, for the most part, the critical needs of the community must be disproportionately shouldered by those with the greatest income or wealth.

Excessive taxation is a concern of both Torah and prophets. In particular, the prophetic books harshly criticize kings and priests who enrich themselves through unfair levies imposed upon the people.

I wonder what the prophets would think of taxation in Texas today. Would they approve of high property taxes, which can force folks of modest means to sell their homes? Would they endorse ever-increasing sales taxes, which cause the poor to pay a higher proportion of their income? Would the Torah decree death for anybody who suggested discussion of another way?

I think, instead, of the paschal lamb, the Passover offering which in ancient times represented our people’s freedom. Our ancestors were specifically instructed: One lamb was to be sacrificed per household, unless the family was too poor, or two few in number, to afford or consume a full lamb. In those cases, families could combine and offer a lamb together. More is expected of those with greater wealth and income. Less is required of the poor.

That is the Jewish way.

May it also become the Texas way.