Books of the Times: ‘Rambam’s Ladder’ Charity Begins at Home, and You Live in the World

A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give
By Julie Salamon
183 pages. Workman. $18.95.

What is Rambam’s Ladder? And why is Julie Salamon writing about it? Rambam’s Ladder, or the Ladder of Charity, is an eight-step program for giving, written in the 12th century by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a k a Rambam, better known as Maimonides, the physician-philosopher-scholar. Ms. Salamon, an arts reporter for The New York Times, is writing about Maimonides because like him she has an unapologetically utopian view of charity. “Giving may begin as a way to make order out of chaos, and turn out to be a transformation,” she writes, noting that Maimonides was concerned with the most “essential giving relationship, between the haves and have-nots” and that he was looking for “something larger than transference of wealth.” He was looking for “the achievement of a just world.”

Ms. Salamon, a former chairwoman of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, working with the homeless, subtitled her book “A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give.” Yes, the world has changed since Maimonides, but “the desire to be good has survived,” she says, “and so has the need to believe that we are righteous.”

No idea was more important to Maimonides in his “obsessive pursuit of righteousness” than considering how to give with “compassion and common sense.” His eight-step program has rungs of descending order, from Responsibility, meaning the gift of self-reliance (proverbially teaching a man to fish), down to Reluctance, which means giving grudgingly, whether giving to a panhandler or doling out corporate gifts that may appear large but are actually self-interested drops in the bucket.

Ms. Salamon puts government giving in the reluctant column. Among the 22 richest nations giving overseas aid, the United States is “the smallest contributor by percentage, although largest in dollar amount.” America “ties charitable giving to military and economic objectives,” she writes, “and complains when its philanthropy does not achieve the desired results.”

Sept. 11, 2001, was the catalyst for Ms. Salamon’s meditation. A child of Holocaust survivors, she was taught that giving was natural. Her father, the only doctor in a poor Appalachian community, treated whole classes of people without charge. As a lifelong volunteer, living one mile from the World Trade Center, she was surprised on 9/11 to find that she had “no urge to give blood, make sandwiches or search for the missing.” Her only concern was maternal, for her children. Out of her own (perfectly natural) reaction and a need to understand new dimensions of evil, she decided to re-examine the whole issue of altruism, talking to people about all degrees of giving and receiving. “We spend a lot of time thinking about why people are bad,” she writes. “Just as perplexing, maybe more perplexing, is why they are good.”

Her utopian views compelled her to prove the truth of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Great Asymmetry” response to 9/11: “Every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness.” Clearly there were many more than 10,000 acts of kindness in the wake of 9/11; but within a year blood supplies were dangerously low, and the economy was in “compassion fatigue.” (Within two years, however, college-age children of 9/11 victims were benefiting from special scholarship funds.)

Ms. Salamon seeks to answer the charity conundrum: “How much to give and to whom?” What is reasonable? She is cheered that Maimonides offered assurance that “reasonableness is always complex.” She cites a dictionary definition of charity as “love of God for humanity, or a love of one’s fellow human beings” and of philanthropy as “a desire to help mankind.” And she notes that charity responds to the “immediate need,” while philanthropy “addresses the problem that causes the need.”

An unlikely understanding of Rambam’s Ladder came to Ms. Salamon in the form of a television documentary about Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, in which Junge recalled a postwar interview with a soldier who had been stationed in a concentration camp. Asked if he ever felt pity for the inmates, the soldier said: “Yes … but I had to overcome it. That was a sacrifice I had to make for the greater cause.” Junge saw this as an example of the individual who has ceded his conscience to the state.

But Ms. Salamon wondered if it was possible “to make conscientiousness a national imperative, to make awareness and empathy the dutiful sacrifice for the greater cause.” Her realistic answer: “Probably not.” She goes on to note: “Goodness can’t be willed into being. But it can be instilled.” She saw the results of instilled goodness in her son’s elementary schoot where on 9/11 children watched from classroom windows as the towers fell. After the United States invasion of Afghanistan, the children raised money for an Afghan school. “For my son/’ she writes, “this wasn’t an act of charity, but a logical transfer from richer to poorer that made far more sense to him than the violence that had upended the world.”

Ladders, or steps, to heaven or perfection are a religious literary tradition, beginning with Jacob’s ladder in Genesis. In utopian hands ladders to heaven become ladders to heaven on earth: a better world.

“Rambam’s Ladder” is small in size but very humbling. It asks readers to judge themselves in the light of altruism. Experts agree that “most people are overly optimistic about themselves,” Ms. Salamon writes. I agree, but with conscientious effort, after reading “Rambam’s Ladder,” I’ve already moved from Reluctance, giving begrudgingly, to Proportion, giving less to the poor than is proper, but doing so cheerfully.

Gail Buckley is the author of “American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm.”


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