In Print

The art of giving

Rambam's Ladder

By Julian Wise - June 21, 2007

"Rambam's Ladder," by Julie Salamon. Workman Publishing Co. 2003. 165 pages. $18.95.

"Rambam's Ladder" is a penetrating examination of that noblest and diciest of human endeavors: giving. Charity is a prism through which we project our values, prejudices, politics, and emotions. Julie Salamon, a journalist, novelist, and volunteer with the Bowery Residents Committee, a homeless advocacy organization in NYC, uses the teachings of 12th century physician and scholar Maimonedes (nicknamed Rambam) as a touchstone for this philosophical exploration. Throughout the pages we see that philanthropy remains as complicated and delicate an endeavor today as it was in antiquity.

Here on Martha's Vineyard we are surrounded by charitable solicitations. Eighth-graders travel to Washington every spring, hockey teams raise money for ice time, conservation organizations preserve wildlands, Community Services and the hospital maintain the health of the community, the food pantry feeds our hungry, Red Stocking enlivens holidays, Camp Safe Haven provides HIV-positive children with a joyful week, and Hospice tends to us at the ends of our lives. Even a small donation to each of the worthy causes would bankrupt most of us. Yet we have to do our part. Where do we start?

The titular ladder refers to the spiritual stages of giving, beginning with at the lowest rung with overcoming reluctance and reaching its apex with embracing responsibility for our human family. The spirit in which giving is conducted is often more important than the raw dollar amount. Salamon cites her cousin Jimmy, who writes, 'You can kill the soul of a person by giving him an insincere smile while administering your bounty.'

Salamon cites telling statistics: in 2000, 78 percent reported giving to charity with an average amount of $886 per person. Individual giving has held steady at around 1.8 percent of personal income at the turn of the millennium. Yet writing a check often strikes chords of ambivalence in many of us. Is the money really making a difference, or is it merely being tossed into the ravenous maw of bureaucracy? A McKinsey & Company report estimates that charities could free up $100 billion a year by improving their fund-raising techniques and cleaning up their management.

How we go about giving is a reflection of our personal perspectives. Some give to relieve immediate human suffering while others follow the 'teach a man to fish' adage and support more technical, long-term initiatives. For some, giving is a spontaneous, emotional action while others are more calculating. Salamon cites Melissa Berman, director of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit organization established by the Rockefeller family to help wealthy individuals target their giving. Berman believes noble motives must be paired with clear, lucid thinking. 'You can be motivated by a legitimate philanthropic ethical impulse and your giving can still be scattershot and emotional,' she writes.

The latter part of the book loses momentum as Salamon wanders into self-reflection, a process that will only be of interest to fellow wealthy New Yorkers grappling with guilt over their dealings with charismatic panhandlers. Fortunately, the book is only 165 pages long, making it a quick read.

Ultimately, charity is a private endeavor that should be driven by personal ethics and values, rather than external notions of guilt and obligation. Like the best nonfiction, 'Rambam's Ladder' stimulates the reader to take an introspective look within and calculate where they fall on the spectrum of charity.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times.