Taking Generosity to a Higher Level

Author Finds New Meaning in Centuries-Old Theory About Charity

By Brian Mono

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On September 11, 2001, Julie Salamon threw her sense of altruism aside, gathered up her children and sought out a safe place to hide in her East Side apartment.

For Salamon, a lifelong do-gooder, her human instinct came as a complete surprise. Her sense of shame grew even stronger as she watched her husband’s earnest, but futile, attempts to give blood and volunteer at Ground Zero.

In time, however, the New York Times culture writer found her own way to respond, and her journey is documented in her new book, “Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give” (Workman Publishing).

“This was a book that came out of a shock to my nervous system,” said Salamon, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “Like many people, those attacks [on September 11] caused a reassessment of what I believe and who I am.”

In her book, she recounts how a number of New Yorkers were similarly inspired by the September 11 attacks. They include: Paolo Alavian, an Iranian-born restaurant owner, who prior to the attacks avoided charitable works, but suddenly found himself organizing a benefit for the families of victims; John Rosenwald, a former vice chairman of Bear Stearns, who turned a tragedy into an opportunity, convincing his fellow Wall Street workers to fund a major renovation of the New York University Downtown emergency room, and a group of homeless New Yorkers, who defied expectations on that fateful day by handing out food and drinks to folks fleeing the falling towers.

But the most compelling story Salamon shares with her readers belongs to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a 12th-century physician and philosopher, who developed a theory about charity that the author dubs “Rambam’s ladder,” using the familiar acronym for Maimonides’s name. In Maimonides’s philosophical exposition, the rungs on the ladder stretch from the reluctant donor at the bottom to the one who teaches a poor person to become self-sufficient at the top.

“I’ve probably known about [the ladder] for a long time,” said Salamon, who was reminded of the passage in the Mishna Torah by a friend early on in her research for the project. “It is one of the few places where Maimonides is fairly succinct. It seemed to me a good organizing principle, not so much in writing the book, but in thinking about it.”

Eventually, as Salamon interviewed employees of charities and foundations and gathered data on charitable giving from social scientists, she realized that Rambam’s ladder would be a good structure for her readers as well.

“The goal wasn’t to grade people,” said Salamon, a Reform Jew who belongs to Village Temple in Manhattan. “This is not the point at all. I think in Maimonides’s original ladder the goal was to think of different aspects of giving. We all go up and down the ladder.”

To drive home this point, the author wove her own experiences with David, a local homeless man, into the narrative of the book. She recounts how her experiences with David vary, based on her mood and his own roller-coaster circumstances. “How quickly the ladder can turn into a slide?” she laments at a low point in their relationship.

Despite her own self-criticism, not everyone included in the book was pleased with which chapter they ended up in. One person who was disappointed, Salamon said, was Chip Raymond, president of the Citigroup Foundation, who oversees philanthropy at Citigroup, a major New York bank.

“I was trying to make the point that corporate giving could be seen as reluctant giving,” Salamon said, suggesting ulterior motives like public relations and the Community Reinvestment Act, a federal law that compels banks to help the neighborhoods they serve. “It was really to look at the various motivations for corporate giving, and I think Mr. Raymond took it as an out-and-out criticism, which it wasn’t supposed to be.”

Nevertheless, there are many important questions about charitable giving raised by Salamon’s exploration of Maimonides and contemporary American culture. What are the impulses that drive us to give charity? Why do some of us give more than others? What is the impact of the dollars we give? Who needs our help the most? What is the best way we can help someone in need?

Salamon hopes that by raising these questions, and offering some answers through the teachings of Maimonides, she can inspire her readers to recognize the myriad of opportunities to help that are out there.

“Goodness can’t be willed into being,” Salamon notes toward the conclusion of her book. “But it can be instilled — not by forcing employees to give, or by promising children better grades if they do good deeds, or by spending too much time analyzing whether the tithe should be taken before or after taxes. But simply by opening your eyes.”

Brian Mono is a former special projects editor at the Philadelphia Exponent.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.