Exploring Babylon Chapter 7.2
In the previous episode of #ExploringBabylon, I shared a pair of midrashim about Jacob’s Dream (Gen 28:12) from Midrash Tanchuma-Yelammedenu Vayetze 2. In Dream “Version #2,” God blames Jacob’s lack of faith, evidenced by his failure to ascend the ladder, for future oppression of Israel by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome:
…since you did not have faith, your descendants will be oppressed by these four kingdoms with imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186; full citation in previous post)
Version #2 concludes with a promise that the people will be saved due to the practice of pe’ah [corners], i.e., not harvesting one’s fields entirely, but leaving the corners for the poor (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22). Chapter 7.1 noted a few questions that this raises about the relationship between oppression and taxes, on the one hand, and faith, on the other. Here are further thoughts.
Let’s begin with the commandment of pe’ah, and travel backward through the midrashic territory.
1) Pe’ah, we learned, may be compared to withholding tax: “One does not even own one’s income until one has separated out the portion for the poor,” like “taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway” (Jeffrey Spitzer, “Pe’ah: The Corners of Our Fields“). The mitzvah of pe’ah, and the associated attitude toward one’s earnings, is what will save the people from annihilation, according to Dream Version #2.
Biblical and rabbinic text focus a great deal on what individuals owe to the community, particularly to the most vulnerable — and pe’ah is just one of many related mitzvot that we might understand, following Spitzer, as akin to taxation for the public good. But ancient “taxation,” in ancient Jewish views, was something else.
2) The oppression, suffered under four kingdoms in Dream Version #2, encompasses “imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.” These taxes remove wealth from the local community for the needs of empire — be it Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. Removing wealth from subject populations served to support the empire while also reducing the chance of rebellion in the provinces.
Such taxes, imposed from outside, were not viewed in Jewish tradition as commonweal-supporting. In addition, some ancient taxes were specifically designed to be punitive, such as poll-taxes on Jews in the wake of the 1st Century CE rebellion; diverting taxes from the Temple in Jerusalem to instead finance a temple for Jupiter in Rome was seen (and intended) as a particular affront.
3) In Dream Version #2, God announces that the kind of tax-oppression Jews experienced, as subjects of four foreign empires, can be explained by Jacob’s lack of faith and failure to ascend the ladder.
We don’t get Jacob’s side of the story. But we have a small clue in the text that follows the dream. When Jacob awakens, he makes a vow using an “if-then” construction:
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God…and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
— Gen 28:20-22
Most commentators read this, as discussed in “Jacob’s Contract with God,” as conditional only “in the way any contract or agreement is conditional” or as another form of affirming the covenantal relationship God has just announced. But I hear something else.
Jacob, on the road to Haran, has just lost his home and any mundane sense of security. He hopes the sojourn will be temporary but does not yet know for sure and is not assured of future success, or even of shelter ahead. God’s promise is amazing, but Jacob sins by not grasping it.
“For all this they sinned still, and believed not in His wondrous works” (Psalm 78:32), we read in Dream Version #2. “Jacob” has shifted from a patriarch alone on the road to his national persona, which includes us.
We know from later text and tradition that the covenant God established with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebecca, now reiterated with Jacob, obligates us to sharing resources in the ways outlined above, the mitzvah of pe’ah being a prime example. We are meant to acknowledge, all the time, in our thought and in our economic behavior that whatever we have is by the grace of God and not because we’re somehow entitled.
But Jacob, in his vow, sounds very like most of us most of the time: willing enough to give tzedakah, or otherwise contribute to the community, only after our own financial security is assured. This is a luxury denied to many.
And we have a great deal of work to do, as individuals, as communities, and on the national scale in the U.S., to examine what is ours and re-think how “our” stuff is distributed. This holiday of Thanksgiving calls those of us who are not of indigenous descent to carefully examine “ours” in the context of this land and its bounty. We must also look, nationally, at what is “ours” in the context of labor stolen from millions of enslaved people.
This is what I hear in Jacob’s dream. What about you?
When I first encountered the midrash about poll-taxes, I confess my first thought was this was some kind of anachronistic reference to voting rights. For anyone else who may be confused….
“Poll,” meaning “head,” is used in two common, inter-related ways: Poll-taxes, since ancient times, are levied per person, as opposed to taxes on crops (income) or property, and imposed for a variety of reasons; history has seen a number of poll-taxes specifically aimed at Jewish communities. Poll is also used in voting contexts, where each “head” has a say in an election.
These two uses collide in the United States, where poll-taxes — in the sense of taxes on an individual, rather than on income or property — were used as a barrier to the polling place. The 24th Amendment made such use on the federal level unconstitutional in 1964, and subsequent rulings outlawed their use in state elections. Prior to that, poll taxes were used to prevent many people, primarily black citizens of the South, from exercising the right to vote.