By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor
The presence of social hierarchies is an almost unavoidable constant. Across cultures, hierarchies are formed based on factors such as age, education, income and ancestry. Along with each hierarchy comes the same question: what are the community obligations of those with privilege in the “elite” groups, especially compared to those in the other groups within the community?
Mishna 1:3 in Tractate Shekalim emphasizes a common responsibility between the kohanim (priests) and the rest of the nation: “Rabbi Yehuda said that ben Bukhri testified in Yavne: Any priest who contributes the half-shekel is not considered a sinner, despite the fact that he is not obligated to do so. Rabbi Yehuda added that Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to ben Bukhri: Not so; rather, any priest who does not contribute the half-shekel is considered a sinner, as they are obligated like all other Jews.”
This portion of Shekalim dictates that priests, like the rest of the nation, are obligated to give an annual half-shekel (coin) donation to the Temple, despite the fact that they often have a different set of obligations and exemptions due to their status as priests.
It is not uncommon for people in privileged positions to avoid contributing to the community. On a corporate level, for example, Amazon paid no federal income taxes in 2018, despite being a company that makes hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Additionally, research by John Guyton, Patrick Langetieg, Daniel Reck, Max Risch and Gabriel Zucman indicates that the top 1% wealthiest Americans are evading approximately 20% of their tax obligations. Upon examination of the actions and inactions of those in positions of power, it is clear that many are shirking their obligations and responsibilities toward the community.
Beyond monetary duties, it is important to also consider the responsibilities of those privileged individuals when it comes to social justice. It is easy for such people to exempt themselves from participating in a fight for social change that they could view as being irrelevant to them. However, we all — regardless of privilege or lack thereof — must understand that injustice for even one community member is also injustice for the community as a whole. Injustice is evidence of a systemic problem within a community, and it is the responsibility of every individual within the community to do what they can to find a solution.
Just as the privileged group in the era of the Temple was held accountable, it is important to hold modern-day groups of privileged individuals responsible for contributing to the wellbeing of the greater community. On a monetary level, the government must ensure that those in economic power make adequate contributions such as taxes, rather than let these individuals exempt themselves simply because of the power that economic privilege grants them. On a social justice level, as Leviticus 19:16 states, we may not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. If we exempt ourselves from communal responsibilities, we also ignore our moral obligations to the world around us.