Bookstores are having a tough time deciding how to categorize Julie Salamon’s new book, “Rambam’s Ladder,” a slim but compelling volume on what motivates people to give charity.
Some stores display the book in the Self-Help section, others under Philosophy or Judaica, explains Salamon, who writes on culture for The New York Times.
Her preference? “Just put it out on the table near the entrance,” she laughed during a recent interview.
As she notes in the introduction, the book was prompted by the horror of 9-11, and how people responded to the tragedy. While her husband tried to give blood, she recalled that her “all-consuming desire wasn’t altruistic but maternal — to gather my children close and somehow protect them.”
Later, though, she felt “selfish” about her reaction, and in noting that every major act of evil is “balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness,” she began to explore the variety of ways that people responded with generosity and warmth after the tragedy. She recalled her parents’ Holocaust experiences, admiring their belief in “universal humanity even after they had experienced evil so directly. Growing up with them,” she wrote, “I learned firsthand the essence of charity.”
Salamon incorporated those values into her own life, becoming deeply involved over the years in the work of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, an organization helping the homeless in New York City. As she began work on the book, talking to people involved in various forms of charity and philanthropy, she relates that her “touchstone” turned out to be Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the 12th century philosopher and physician, also known as Maimonides or the Rambam (an acronym of the first letters of his name). His writings on tzedakah, and most famously on the eight levels of giving, from reluctant respondent to helping someone become self-reliant, became the frame, and title, for her book. Each of the eight chapters is named for a rung of the ladder, offering profiles of New Yorkers who responded to 9-11 through a variety of acts of charity, from corporate funding to individual demonstrations of caring.
“I was struck by the many responses,” she said, “and the desire to be generous as a way of achieving righteousness through a connection to others.”
Salamon, a member of the Village Temple, said she came to appreciate the Middle Ages scholar’s method of “approaching a subject from so many different sides, and it felt familiar to me in a Jewish context.” Noting that all literature should be read in the context of its time, she pointed out that Maimonides was controversial, and even despised, in his day for seeking to incorporate rationalism into religious faith. “He tried to apply intellect to belief in God, reconciling faith and reason,” she said, “and in the middle of all that he had compassion” and a strong sense of fairness.
Maimonides writes, for example, that one should not make himself poor to help others, but also that even the poor are commanded to give charity.
Salamon said that the writings of Maimonides helped clarify for her how she approached the whole topic of charitable giving, and in recognizing that people are not always consistent. “How quickly the ladder can turn into a slide,” she observes in the book in describing her change of moods in trying to help a homeless man in her neighborhood.
Are Jews more generous than others? Salamon said she has a feeling that is the case, but not the statistics to prove it.
She came to the conclusion, through her interviews and reflections, that “if you’re really engaged in the process [of tzedakah], you don’t feel guilty, you feel a sense of responsibility.” And she said she found personal answers for how she should conduct her life through Maimonides’ instruction, which she described as “always push yourself to do more.”