Saturday, January 21, 2012

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

By Julie Salamon 
New York, Workman, 2003
183 pages     Spiritual

Maimonides was a twelfth-century rabbi, physician, philosopher, and scholar, who in the words of author Julie Salamon tried to reconcile faith and reason. He is often known as Rambam. He wrote about charity a great deal and developed an eight step plan for charitable giving. Salaman has created a meditation on each step or rung on this ladder of giving in her eloquent little book, Rambam’s Ladder.

This is what she says of the steps:
“I call the first of the eight steps on the ladder Reluctance: To give begrudgingly. At this level Maimonides says the person gives with a frowning countenance.
The second step is Proportion: To give less to the poor than is proper, but to do so cheerfully.
The third step is Solicitation: To hand money to the poor after being asked.
The fourth is Shame: To hand money to the poor before being asked, but risk making the recipient feel shame.
The fifth is Boundaries: To give to someone you don't know, but allow your name to be known.
The sixth is Corruption: To give to someone you know, but who doesn't know from whom he is receiving help.
The seventh is Anonymity: To give to someone you don't know, and to do so anonymously.
And the eighth and final step is Responsibility: 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.”

Salamon talks about how charity and philanthropy intertwine and are personalized by the individuals doing the giving. “You could say that charity addresses an immediate need and philanthropy addresses the problem that causes the need.”

Throughout Rambam’s Ladder, we are reminded again and again of the paradoxes that guide our giving and our receiving. She says that this ladder of giving is “subtle and complicated—like goodness itself.”  I was intrigued by research she identified that studied the giving habits of a group of people. The subjects were asked to keep track of every act of giving they did over a span of a year. The researchers called it “caring behavior.” It included all the usual things, gifts to religious organizations and other causes. But it also went far beyond common financial giving; it included giving help to family and friends, donating blood, participating in walk-a-thons, volunteering, helping a neighbor. The expanded notion of giving also included emotional support offered to family, friends, and others in need. It included things like walking a neighbor's dog or taking in their mail. The researchers concluded that “far from being a negligent society, America is an intensely caring commonwealth.” If you look at your personal giving from that expanded perspective, the amount of giving is phenomenal.

At the same time, she cites occasions when she personally felt ambiguous about giving, or when those around her expressed reluctance about giving, or put parameters around their giving.  Woven throughout her discussion are her reflections on her relationship with a homeless man who spends his time in her neighborhood. Her developing relationship with him mirrors her personal feelings about helping him. As she discusses each step on the ladder of giving, readers can find where their giving fits, what moves them to give, and why they sometimes choose not to give, even if they are able. 

The book was written shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, and examples of giving that came as an outgrowth of that horrific event are interspersed throughout the book. Salamon says: “If I’d learned anything from my excursion up and down Rambam’s Ladder, it was that empathy couldn’t be mandated, and that charity shouldn’t be thought of as a sacrifice. Goodness can’t be willed into being. . .But it can be instilled.”

The two women who clean my house call upon me for help on occasion; they take small loans from me against future work. I am happy to do this for them because I know that they have very little and a $20 advance will make their lives much better. Carl, who lives with them, has never borrowed money from me, but last week, he called me and said that he had some trouble and could he borrow $20 until he got his social security. I said, “Of course,” and he walked over to our house to get the money. Yesterday when I delivered the women home after cleaning my house, he came out of their apartment to return my money. By allowing him to pay me back, I was fulfilling one of the steps of Rambam’s Ladder, the maintenance of dignity.

At Christmas time, I was amused and touched when they brought me a gift of onions and potatoes—food that they had received at a holiday food giveaway. I am sure that my receiving that gift was not in the plans of the charity who handed out the food, but I knew it was important to my friends that I receive a gift from them. I accepted it graciously. They also brought a hand-knit cap and a pair of mittens from another charity give-away. It was a gift for my baby granddaughter. Charity is a two-way street. We give and we receive.

In the Beautitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12) it says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Rambam’s Ladder expands upon that notion of mercy and helps the reader discern at what rung on the ladder of mercy they find their greatest satisfaction. It also explains why sometimes our charitable nature takes us to the top, and why other times we are on the bottom rung. 

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