From the desk of Rabbi Howald

A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald
The interaction between state law and religious principle asks all of us, each day, to decide what guidance we will follow. When they come into conflict, when Jewish tradition directs us in one direction and government rules and regulations point us in another, how do we resolve the clash between the two systems of regulating and advising our actions? In Christian tradition, some refer to a verse in Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which counsels respect for the governing law of the state: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Do the sages and texts of Jewish tradition agree or disagree with this approach? As residents of the United States and Reform Jews, knowing the answer to this question may inform how we think about state and federal laws we both oppose and support.
Before the people of Israel demanded a king to rule over them, the God of Israel warned them that a mortal sovereign would take their sons as his charioteers and horsemen, and their daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. Even more, the divine prophecy continued, the king will seize your choice fields and a tenth part of your grain and vintage and you will become his slaves. (1 Samuel 8:11-14). The people nevertheless clamored to be like the other nations surrounding them and God reluctantly acceded to their demand for a monarch to govern and lead them. Even during the days of the kings and queens of Israel and Judah, however, the prophets repeatedly dared to challenge the sovereign when greed or lust led him or her astray. In response, the monarchs often asserted their civil authority against the prophetic voice but did not claim that religious law demanded obedience to edicts of the throne at variance with Jewish law.
When Israel lived among the nations, ancient Jewish communities asked their religious authorities if they were obliged to obey the law of foreign empires, particularly about civil matters and taxation. In ruling on this issue, Shmuel, one of the sages of ancient Babylonia, held that “דינא דימלכותא דינא,“ “ dina d’malchuta dina –the law of kingdom is the law.” Jews, he ruled, were therefore required to pay duly levied taxes to the government under whose protection they lived, even if the taxes were calculated in a way different than Jewish law.
This basic ruling, however, did not end the issue. What if the taxes were calculated in an arbitrary way? Then, the Talmud rules, one may refuse to pay, even to the point of trickery or lying. A Jew living in exile should seek the peace of the city in which they live for their own security and protection yet they were not obligated, on that account, to obey laws which placed a discriminatory burden on the Jewish community. In trying to prize a principle from these rulings, later authorities concluded that the universally applicable laws of the state, at least about monetary, civil, and real-estate regulations, were binding on the Jewish community because the people willingly accepted the duly promulgated statutes and ordinances of the sovereign and they offered a valid alternative to Jewish law without violating religious principle.
The doctrine of dina d’malchuta dina , however, does not automatically validate all the laws of the state. To compel obedience as a religious obligation, Jewish law holds the laws must be just, equitable, and applicable to all citizens and residents of the state. Unjust and discriminatory laws, on the other hand, do not create a religious duty and may be passively or actively resisted consistent with other Jewish values. For that reason, most Jewish authorities hold that the rulings of despots and the unfair edicts of even duly selected leaders do not constitute a binding responsibility under Jewish law.
Many in the Christian community interpret their texts in a similar way, concluding that the verse in Romans cited above must be read in the context of other teachings on the law and justice. Perhaps the foundation laid by Jewish law may assist in their interpretation of their tradition. For the Jewish community, however, the doctrine of dina d’malchuta dina , “the law of the state is the law,” does not amount to a blanket endorsement of all rules and regulations issued by the government. As a people, accordingly, we will continue to wrestle with our conscience and our religious principles as we decide which laws we will willingly obey and those we will resist or oppose.
Rabbi Michael Howald