Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity aand Why It Is Necessary to Give
by Julie Salamon
Workman Publishing, 2003
192 pp., $18.95
Some years ago, after a big promotion at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I was pleased to see that a reserved parking space came with it. On my first day as the proud occupant of this parking-lot perk, I left the office and discovered something else was part of the package: Barry Smith.
Barry was one of Philadelphia’s most skilled and engaging panhandlers, a homeless person with enough savvy and charm to have made the newspaper his very own, highly remunerative shilling ground. He would also become a fellow traveler with me along the ladder of charity described more than eight centuries earlier by the Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides, or Rambam, as he is also known. Rambam’s ladder walks the prospective philanthropist from the lowest to the highest forms of the art, and during my years with Barry we seemed to skip from rung to rung without much of a sense of progress.
In his mid-thirties with a bright smile and a convincing line of patter, Barry had learned to work the front row of the lot for the best handouts and tips in response to his window-washing ministrations. That first night, Barry beat me out of ten bucks.
I tried to help Barry—a high school grad with about a year of college—bringing him clothes, providing money to get cleaned up for job interviews, and ultimately finding him a place in my own newspaper operation. Barry tested as smart and skilled. He knew how to type and did well enough in a tryout as a phone clerk to be offered a job by one of the department managers who worked for me. But Barry never showed up for the drug test, even after it was rescheduled three times.
Finally, I connected Barry with Sister Mary Scullion, a saint of a woman who is also tough as nails. Sister Mary runs Project H.O.M.E., one of the most impressive and respected programs for the disadvantaged in Philadelphia. Ultimately, she got Barry into an effective training and development program that helped him sort out his problems and prepare for the work world.
Since I left Philadelphia five years ago, I’ve not followed up with Sister Mary, and I’m almost afraid now to ask how Barry is doing. But when I look back on my experiences in the light of Julie Salamon’s new book, Rambam’s Ladder, I have to laugh at how disorganized and ineffective my approaches to charity were with Barry Smith.
I’m also struck, however, by how much my own experiences with Barry remind me of the recent evolution of organized charity in the United States: from vague and idealistic good intentions to a view of philanthropy as a social investment expected to provide significant, quantifiable returns for society. The shift comes even as the growth in charitable foundations in the United States soars: almost 60,000 in the year 2000 (up from about 20,000 in 1975), with assets of almost half a trillion dollars, according to author Salamon, a culture writer for the New York Times.
But sometimes the world of philanthropy seems to have lost a bit of its soul in this drive toward effective strategy and organized system. Hence the particular beauty of being reminded by Salamon of the power of Maimonides’ ladder: it provides a way to think about charitable giving that attaches the reader directly to the philosophical and religious, rather than leading the reader away from it. Maimonides’ counsel from the twelfth century is at once pragmatic and spiritual, and Salamon successfully highlights the felt experience of philanthropy.
While Julie Salamon details Rambam’s struggle to find and apply rules for giving—“The poor of one’s own household have priority over the other poor of his city, and the poor of his city have priority over the poor of another city”—she understands and empathizes with Maimonides’ passion for balancing fairness in giving with the effectiveness of charity. She frequently contrasts his work with that of other philosophers—like the contemporary Peter Singer—and their more utilitarian, bloodless approach to philanthropy.
The disappointment of this book is that it misses such a fine opportunity to explore deeply the thinking and teaching of Maimonides, as well as the charitable impulse. Instead, Salamon takes a rather shallow, pop culture approach to her narrative, weaving a series of interviews with contemporary figures into a discussion of the meaning of Maimonides’ work. The interviews—with her cousin Jimmie (himself something of an amateur scholar of the Talmud), a corporate philanthropy executive, her own “Barry Smith” (a New York street person named David), and others—certainly enliven the book, but don’t add much depth.
Her interviews and philosophical musings enable Salamon to create a book with more mass-market appeal, which certainly has value in terms of bringing Rambam’s teachings to a larger audience. But what is missed is a substantive examination of the relationship of Maimonides’ thinking to the foundation culture of our own time.
Philanthropy today too often seems to act like big business in its adoption of strategy, metrics, and targets, and so Salamon could have taken Maimonides’ deeply religious passion for fairness and giving and explored its usefulness as a model for twenty-first-century foundation management. After all, Rambam was wrestling with the exact same challenge we are today: how do you establish a set of rules and protocols for philanthropy without detaching it from the deep Judeo-Christian spirituality that catalyzed it in the first place?
Salamon is a skillful storyteller, but I suspect she could have achieved a finer work had she brought her considerable journalistic capacities to bear on these more serious issues. Most of the power that does reside in the book comes from the words of Maimonides himself. The philosopher artfully stages the ascending rungs of his ladder of charity toward higher levels of benefit and meaning for giver and receiver alike. And in his hierarchy I find some encouragement myself. I can see that, in our own episodic and fumbling way, Barry Smith and I did graduate from the lowest to the highest level of Rambam’s ladder. From “he who gives alms with a frowning countenance” (my first 10 bucks to Barry) to “handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he would have no need to beg from other people”—that is, finally getting Barry ready to go to work, with a little help from good Sister Mary Scullion.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides spoke of eight levels of tzedakah, which translates as “charity” or “equity”:
There are eight levels of tzedakah, one better than the next. A high level, of which none is higher, is where one takes the hand of an Israelite and gives him a gift or loan, or makes a partnership with him, or finds him employment, in order to strengthen him until he needs to ask help of no one.
Below this is one who gives tzedakah to the poor, not knowing to whom he gives, while the poor person does not know from whom he takes.
Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives, and the poor person does not know from whom he takes.
Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.
Below this, one puts into another’s hand before [the latter] asks.
Below this, one gives another after [the latter] asks.
Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner.
Below this, one gives sorrowfully.
Source: The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose, edited by Amy A. Kass.