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Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give

Why are people good?  Why is it necessary to give?  

The book is structured by a generosity hierarchy developed by a 12th century scholar, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon.  The author interviews people and reflects on the insights shared by Maimonides.

Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give

Julie Salamon, influenced by the events of September 11, muses on the question, why people are good.  As she pondered, her touchstone became a "twelfth-century physician, philosopher and scholar, who spent much of his life trying to reconcile faith and reason.  He was Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known best by his Greek name, Maimonides." "Rambam" is an anachronim for his name.

She writes: "He was born in 1135 and lived . . . through terrible disruption and exile, and yet carried on, not just to live his life but also to produce philosophical works brimming with humanity and hope.  His pursuit of fairness was dogged as his desire to transcend his own traumatic experiences and to encourage people to find their better selves."

Salamon is attracted to his eight-step program for giving in which he explores "how to give with compassion and common sense."  He calls it a "ladder" which serves as an easy metaphor to describe the difference between "giving . . . and then there is giving."

The ladder begins with the lowest value to giving and climbs to the highest.  In each short chapter of the book, the author explores these levels reflecting on her own experiences and the writings and research of others.  As Solomon wrestles with the "ladder" she writes about her experience of relating to and giving to a homeless man.  Her story further reveals the complexity of giving.  

The Levels The lowest level is "reluctance" and proceeds eventually to the highest which is "responsibility."  

1 -- Reluctance :To give begrudgingly.

The reluctant giver is
". . . the person who gives with the hand but not the heart.. . . The problem wasn't that I was unwilling to give, but that I didn't want to relinquish control of my gift.  I wanted to make sure it was being used in the way I wanted it to be used."

The reader is cautioned to not dismiss the reluctant giver.  ". . . giving by self-interest should not be instinctively dismissed as unworthy.  Even the frowning giver, sourpuss that he is, grabs a toehold on Rambam's ladder."

2 -- Proportion: To give less to the poor than is proper, but to do so cheerfully.

People often ponder about "What is the proper amount to give? . . . The biblical injunction is to tithe. .  . do you calculate from gross or net, before or after taxes . . . some suggest we should tithe our disposable income . . . (however) One man's essential spending is another's luxury."

People want rules for giving.  To find a percentage or a number to use for giving ". . . provides an illusion of control . . . can reduce the pressure by offering certainty.  Yet there is no certainty.  Like the boundaries of love and hate, charity's borders keep shifting . . . by the time Maimonides is finished offering instructions on how the poor should be treated charity has gone well beyond the tithe to become an intrinsic part of life."

Solomon reflects, ". . . Most people agonize far more about acquiring than giving:  Think of the amount of time you spend immersed in catalogs; compare that to the attention you pay to your charitable donations."

3 -- Solicitation: To hand money to the poor after being asked.

Many give because they are asked to give.  "Rambam praised those who encourage others to give: 'He who presses others to give alms and moves them to act thus, his reward is greater than the reward of him who gives alms himself.'

The author lifts up at least three reasons to solicit others to give:

First, asking others to give is a way to teach them to give.  People are not naturally altruistic.   Maimonides wrote, "Do not imagine that character is determined at birth.  We have been given free will.  Any persons can become as righteous a Moses, or as wicked as Jereboam.  We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly."  To ask them is a way to urge them on the road to greater generosity.

Second, ". . . in modern philanthropy it helps to have a mediator between those with money and those who need it."

Third, ". . . passion comes from awareness. . . learning about the person in need (will) urge the benefactor toward involvement, toward a place where he wouldn't have to be asked."

4 -- Shame: To hand money to the poor before being asked, but risk making the recipient feel shame.

"In 1949, The New York Times made a significant change in its annual "Neediest Cases" campaign . . . the newspaper stopped distinguishing between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor.

"''What a bleak world it would be if we helped only those who were thoroughly blameless!' writes an editorialist, explaining the change in policy. 'A good many of us make our own bad lunch, and we suppose that some of the people represented in the Neediest Cases would not be in trouble now if they had managed their lives differently.'"

They believe that ". . . there should be more shame attached to poverty, not less. . . Gertrude Himmelfarb writes, "Relief, being impersonal and legal, destroys any sense of morality.  The donor [the taxpayer] resents his involuntary contribution, and the recipient feels no gratitude for what he gets as a matter of right, which, in any case, he feels to be insufficient."

Others see that charity with strings that produces shame becomes personal and is ". . . most dangerous to the recipient when a gift is used as leverage."

Respect wards off shame. ". . . take those moments when you can make someone's day or situation a little better without having an ulterior motive."

5 - Boundaries: To give to someone you don't know, but allow your name to be known.

This chapter identifies the various boundaries people use to determine to whom they shall give what.  Why does it matter?

Where does a person draw the line in giving?
- "How can I give my money to people who aren't even citizens when we have plenty of real Americans who need help?"
- "A poor man who is one's relative has priority over all others."
- "It is important to help poor people from outside your community, even potential enemies . . . such righteous behavior is necessary 'for the sake of the ways of peace."
- How can the "'absolute affluent" (Those able to buy basic necessities of life and still have money left over for luxuries.) allow others to remain in "absolute poverty" (A condition of life characterized by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy) when they have the "opportunity to do something about the situation?. . . (Isn't) by failing to help the absolute poor the absolutely affluent are engaging in a kind of genocide?" -- Peter Singer
- "What motivates me are transformations, little ones and big ones, anything I do that can make something a little different, a little better." -- Marine Pillsbury  
- The boundaries for giving are narrow, and charity occurs one-to-one . . . Justice (rather than charity) to me is give if you can, take if you need -- not only money, but whatever it is you have something of."  - Misha Avramoff

6 - Corruption: To give to someone you know, but who doesn't know from whom he is receiving help.

This chapter recognizes corruption.  Solomon relates stories of leaders in charitable organizations who became self-serving and corrupt.  She gives examples of how money given to help people was diverted and misused.  

Melissa Berman's job is to help wealthy philanthropically wise people to make good choices in their charitable giving.  In order to overcome their fear of corruption she advises givers to treat giving as they would investing or buying a house. "Do research, think about what you're trying to accomplish, understand how much time and money you want to devote, above all, learn about the middlemen: Will they deliver on their promises?"

The essential charity dilemma is this: "Can you trust that the money you give away is going to be well used?  For many people, the discomfort surrounding this matter is an enormous barrier, and may be enough to stop them from giving at all.  In time, though, they may find that willful isolation is a corruption of the human exchange, and a lonely one at that."

7 -- Anonymity: To give to someone you don't know and to do so anonymously.

The author wrestles with anonymous giving.  She notes the circumstance in Maimonides' life time is different than the contemporary.  In ancient times, "anonymity was the most fool-proof way to protect the pact with God.  The giving goes beyond human relationships, avoids hurt feelings and eliminates praise.  In ancient times, achieving righteousness was the goal of alms-giving -- not a tax deduction, not personal aggrandizement or psychological well-being, not even identification with the fate of another.  Righteousness would be its own reward."

Why do people want to be anonymous? Doesn't anonymity depersonalize the process?    In fact, doesn't anonymity remove people form human contact? While difficult to find anonymous givers who were willing to be interviewed, she was able to interview a few and draw some observations.  Solomon concludes anonymous givers "often operate secretly to protect themselves from further solicitation or to hide from family members and friends who may not approve of the organization they are supporting. . . desire anonymity for self-protection . . . (is) pragmatic. . . "If you're a philanthropist, people suck up to you. . . why be put into that position?"

In this chapter there is the story about how anonymous, homeless people became givers of care for victims of 9/11.  "They were offering water, help . . . glad to be part of something, to be doing something."  The result was for that short period of time they experienced quiet joy.  

Solomon reflects, "Is that what giving can be, then, a way of involving ourselves in the process of being alive -- or borrowing Angier's expression, of making our brains light up with quiet joy?"

8 -- Responsibility: At the top of the ladder is the gift of self-reliance.  To hand someone a gift or a loan, or to enter into a partnership with him, or to find work for him, so that he will never have to beg again.

Giving in such a way that the recipient becomes a partner is the ultimate desire of most givers.  There are those who say mis-guided do gooders who give a blanket to a homeless street person. .  is tantamount to killing him. . . you are enabling people to not be responsible for their basic necessities."

Julie Salomon reflects on what she learned from her excursion up and down Rambam's Ladder: "I had finally come to accept the paradox that may be part of my act of giving. . . Why some people give and others do not becomes a biographical detail of great importance, a significant landmark in the mapping of character.

". . . empathy couldn't be mandated, and that charity shouldn't be thought of as a sacrifice.  Goodness can't be willing into being.

"But it can be instilled . . . by simply opening your eyes and paying attention, by not letting those 'spectacular incidents of evil" . . . eclipse the less dramatic but profound acts of goodness that take place every day.  

". . . the building material for every step of Rambam's Ladder is conscientiousness -- and consciousness.  Anonymity, self-sufficiency, absence of reluctance, not inflicting shame: All of these ideas mandate an awareness of our common humanity.  They remind us that in the end we are not measured by what we have, but by what we give to another."

Reviewers Comments:

In my first reading of the book, I was stuck on the idea of ladder as though there are codified levels of giving and that one ought to strive toward the highest rung of the ladder.  

In the second reading, I came to an appreciation of the honest struggle Julie Salomon shares with all of those who would like to consider themselves as generous but struggle to do so.  Rambam's ladder gives structure to her struggle but certainly doesn't resolve it.

I found myself on every rung of the ladder.  I am a reluctant giver.  I do give because someone asks me.  I fear that generosity shown for one particular entity will put me on the list of many others.  While I see value in anonymity, I have learned that for a pastor to encourage his/her own anonymity and those of others may serve a personal, pious form of humility and a desire to avoid becoming judgmental, but public testimony of giving serves to call forth greater generosity by others.  Ultimately, I would hope that my giving will bring others to a fuller and more abundant life and that recipients will become more responsible.

Through it all, I take comfort in the position that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners, that I can never claim my motivation is ever pure and righteous and is always mixed.  As a result, we can be cheered by giving from whatever for the assurance that even though the motive may appear to be very self-serving, even the most self-serving gift contains some element of heartfelt generosity and care for others.

Rambam's Ladder thus serves as a helpful reflection on the mixed motives behind giving and the need to continually encourage, invite and teach generosity as a response to God's call to serve.

--Jerry Hoffman



Julie Salamon is a culture writer for The New York Times.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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