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A Contemporary Look at Charity, Using Rambam as Guide

After the September 11 attacks, when much of our attention was focused on finding the perpetrators of that evil, journalist Julie Salamon embarked on a quest for goodness. She began grappling with such questions as: How can we best reach out to others? How can we find ways to experience the transformation that comes from a commitment to our community? Are there rules of giving? In seeking answers, she found an unlikely guide: the 12th-century physician and philosopher Maimonides, known to his followers as Rambam. He had struggled with the same questions and came up with some answers-his eight levels of giving, familiar to many of us from Hebrew school. Salamon uses this "Ladder of Charity" as the basis for her new book, Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give (Workman Publishing, $18.95). Salamon, a culture writer for The New York Times, is the author of five previous books, including The Net of Dreams: A Family's Search for a Rightful Place (Random House). That book follows Salamon's parents' journey from a Nazi concentration camp to a new life in southern Ohio and her own upbringing in a town where hers was the only Jewish family.

Q: How can people handle the onslaught of requests for charitable gifts?
A: What I think you have to doand I don't set myself up as an expertis to decide in your mind: What things really mean something to me? What are the things I believe in and feel connected to that I can give to and feel it's accomplishing what I want to accomplish? I really think that you have to filter for yourself. The only way you can do that is to become educated in the things that mean something to you. For one person it may be 20 things, for another it may be two things. You have to organize it the way you do everything else.
Though Maimonides lived in a rural, agrarian society, I read his treatise on the poor and saw the agony he went through trying to put down to the finest point the appropriate way to give. Being righteous, a good person, has never been easy.

Q: How did writing this book change your own outlook?
A: I'm not sure it changed it so much as clarified what was important to me. September 11 was like cold water on my face, [saying]: "It's time to look at your value system and understand where it came from, why it exists and what you are going to do about it." In my case, it's complicated by my background. My parents were Holocaust survivors. I was brought up in a small town in Ohio where my father was the town doctor. He didn't make a lot of money, but he made a good living compared to most of the people in town. It was a beautiful place and people were nice. It's always been that dichotomy for me-between knowing that there was horrible evil in the world, that people could do unspeakable things, and having kind, generous parents and living in a community where people really did watch out for each other. My whole life has been trying to find a balance between feeling cynical about human nature, but also feeling warmly to many people.

My parents were very generous. Here were people who experienced evil directly, yet they still felt it was worthwhile to have children and not to be selfish. They felt a responsibility to a community and to people who had less than they did. That was a really powerful lesson. What I saw in the course of this book was that this process is not as straightforward as I thought. It's easy to want to be a good person, but it's sometimes hard to carry it out. And that's OK. Being human is a complicated business.

Q: Anyone who walks through the downtown of a major city is approached constantly by panhandlers and others asking for money. How can we keep from becoming cynical and insensitive to people in need?
A: If there is one thing I want to accomplish through this book, it is to illuminate that aspect of Maimonides' philosophy which is to give people the benefit of the doubt. Most people who are begging on the street are not doing it because they have a lot of other fabulous options. I don't care how much money you are getting from handouts, it's not that much, it's not pleasant and it's not a good way to live. One of the things I hope will emerge from the book is not that people give handouts to everybody they see, because that may not be the most appropriate way, but that they don't look at that person as scum. What Maimonides is saying, instead of looking at that person and giving an excuse to yourself about not giving and not becoming engaged in their situation, look at that person as a person and ask, "Is there some way I can alleviate this?"

Q: So is your book really about changing one's worldview?
A: In some ways my sweet, gentle, little book is making a radical proposition. It's saying, "Don't be so selfish." There has been a long tradition in this country of charitable work and of helping other people. What has happened in the last 20 years is that wealthy people have become obscenely wealthy, and the balance has gotten out of whack. I do think it requires a change in worldview. I'm not saying everyone needs to wear rags and live in a hovel, but I do think that people have to ask the question What is important to me? Is it buying the next television and the next computer…or is it looking around the world you are living in and thinking about where you fit into the whole scheme? Are you going to wall yourself off from the world or are you going to engage in it?

The Ladder of Charity

"Step by step, rung by rung, all of us can improve ourselves-and the world," writes Julie Salamon in Rambam's Ladder--A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give, published by Workman. Here is her interpretation of Maimonides' "Eight Degrees of Almsgiving":

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.

To give to someone you don't know, and to do so anonymously.

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

To give to someone you don't know, but allow your name to be know.

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

To hand money to the poor after being asked.

To give less to the poor than is proper, but to do so cheerfully.

1/RELUCTANCE To give begrudgingly.

© 2003 Julie Salamon