Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and why it is Necessary to Give
by Julie Salamon
Workman. 183 pp. $18.95

Unlike most Americans on September 11, 2001, Julie Salamon felt no urge to help the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Instead, she writes here, her first impulse was to shield her own family from the horrors of that day But this made her feel selfish, not least because she had been raised in a home where concern for others was given pride of place.

In an effort to understand her conflicting emotions, Salamon, a culture writer for the New York Times, has now produced a book that examines how and why people give of their time and money. It is presented as a “meditation” on the “eight degrees of almsgiving,” part of the religious code developed in the 12th century by the great Jewish thinker Maimonides (or “Ram-bam,” an acronym of his Hebrew name).

As we learn from Salamon, Maimonides regarded generosity as a virtue that, like other virtues, had to be properly developed and exercised to be of value. To show how this might be done, he drew on both biblical commandments and astute insights into the relationships between donors and recipients to develop a ranking of “almsgiving”—from its least to its most admirable type.

Thus, giving grudgingly—“with a frowning countenance”—Maimonides judges to be the most inferior form, since it is not done willingly. Giving “less than what is proper”—even with a smile—is only slightly better. Waiting to be asked to give is less than praiseworthy because it requires the giver to be courted and acknowledged. By contrast, giving anonymously ranks high, since the giver receives no recognition for his virtue. Giving that eliminates the need for future giving is most praiseworthy of all, since it enables the recipient to avoid having to “beg from other people.”

While professing admiration for these principles, Salamon shows that adhering to them is no simple matter. In a series of chapters looking at each of the rungs of “Rambam’s ladder” and applying it to the workings of philanthropy in the United States today, she finds that most of the donors, fund-raisers, and charities she encounters are stuck somewhere at or near the bottom.

Many Americans, for example, are impelled to give only because of tax deductions, while corporations often give only to foster good public-relations or to advance other business interests. Does that not make them, she wonders, the kind of “grudging donors” that are least worthy in Maimonides’ scheme? Similarly, Salamon contrasts the charitable enthusiasm she finds in some foundations with the professional detachment she finds in others. “Accounting principles,” she laments, too often outweigh compassion in deciding how much help to offer the poor. In other cases, the problem lies not on the disbursing but on the fund-raising end: some charities that rely on outside donors have turned “asking” into a fine art, relying on clever and elaborate tactics to draw in gifts.

As for the beneficiaries of all this largesse, Salamon deplores efforts by donors to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor; this, she maintains, is at odds with Maimonides’ injunction against exposing the needy to “humiliation.” More in keeping with his guidance is assisting “strangers” or the needy in distant locales abroad, rather than confining one’s charity to one’s own schools and religious organizations or to recipients whom one knows personally. But such long-distance philanthropy, Salamon complains, accounts for only a small portion of what Americans give to charity every year.

In discussing gifts designed to help the poor become self-reliant, Salamon recalls her own efforts working with the homeless. Being generous to this population, she acknowledges, is complicated. She is skeptical, for example, that the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a New York City charity where she has volunteered her time, will actually help homeless people enter the workforce. Most of the clients, she writes, are “too strung out, too mentally impaired, too unambitious.”

Salamon also invokes her periodic contacts with a homeless man named David, who has camped out in her neighborhood. After first crossing the street to avoid him, she finds herself becoming increasingly concerned about his well-being. She gives him money and, eventually, a pair of slightly-used sneakers: actions that make her feel “genuinely happy” even though she knows they do nothing to help him rise above his condition.

Indeed, Salamon well recognizes that feeling good can be at odds with doing good: in the case of another homeless man about whom she writes here, gifts that made it easier for him to live on the street also hastened his demise. Yet she resists the conclusion that his benefactors should have tempered their compassion with some consideration of Rambam’s principles of charity. To the contrary, at the end of her book she expresses hope that simple “caring” might assume an even larger role in gift-giving. Today’s American donors, she finds, are not as altruistic as they imagine, lacking not only fidelity to Maimonides’ principles but also an “awareness of our common humanity” and a “conscientiousness” in responding to need wherever it may be found.

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Though Rambam’s Ladder is intended as a personal account and not a careful study of its subject, it is still hard to understand how Salamon could reach this conclusion. In 2002, Americans gave over $200 billion to charities—and far more than that if one factors in the value of volunteer time. This amount greatly exceeds that given in any other country. To be sure, the motivations behind American generosity are often mixed, combining self-interest with the desire to help the needy or improve communities. But whatever else September 11, 2001 demonstrated, it certainly showed that most Americans will instinctively reach for their checkbooks or will travel great distances to help whenever tragedies occur.

As Maimonides understood, however, caring is not the end but only one possible start of generosity. The real challenge lies in extending the boundaries of compassion beyond the natural human impulse of sympathy. His “eight degrees of almsgiving” were aimed at transforming sentiment into purpose, to show how giving could embody righteousness and not just simply express an emotional response to tragedy and need.

That this is difficult goes without saying. But that is the nature of moral codes, which require those who would adhere to them to wrestle with hard choices and, more than occasionally, to fall short. Helping the deserving rather than the undeserving poor may shame or even make matters worse for the latter in the short run, but it could well be more beneficial for all in the end. Sometimes, if gifts are to be made, it may be necessary for corporations to align their philanthropic activities with their business interests, or charities to invest heavily in fund-raising appeals. Nor, finally, is the difficulty of attaining success a sufficient reason for falling back on “caring,” or for not trying to help needy people like David become more self-reliant; the alternative may be much worse.

Giving out of a sense of care or compassion, as Salamon would have us more often do, is certainly simpler, and more immediately gratifying. But giving as a virtue, and as a discipline, is likely to be both more efficacious and more ennobling. So Maimonides suggests, and such, one hopes, will be the wisdom behind the enormous generosity Americans continue to display every year, with or without the stimulus of terrorist attacks.

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