Fiscal cliff or path of righteousness?

There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.

A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.

The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”

Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.

Jewish communities over the centuries, when they have had judicial autonomy (that is, the opportunity to rule themselves according to Jewish law), set up systems of taxation in order to ensure that the poor and needy were taken care of.

We now live in a time that maximizes the ability to participate in the political process and thereby to be responsible for its effects. This is also a time when the economic crunch hits the most vulnerable among us the hardest. According to a report authored by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, 30.7 million children will be affected by the $2.7 billion in cuts that will be necessary if we shoot ourselves in the face by not reaching a budget agreement. On the other hand, the money that is raised from the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans (from a tax increase that starts only on income earned after the first $250,000) can allow the government to fund the programs that keep hunger at bay, homelessness under control, and allow children to start down a path of education and growth that will develop them as human beings and citizens of this country.

This is the choice we face. The way toward a more perfect union is the path of righteousness and justice. For this reason, we must urge our representatives to back the president’s plan to allow the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to expire. It should be the law because it is just and good.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen is professor of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Literature of the American Jewish University. He is the author of “Justice in the City: An Argument From the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism” and is on the national board of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.