What Would Rambam Think About Everyone Using His Ladder?

by Robert Lichtman

Thanks to Dawne Bear Novicoff and Adene Sacks who posted their thoughts about the value-added of philanthropic advisors (What Would Rambam Think About DonorsChoose.org?). I am not such an advisor, but I do believe that making significant investment decisions that impact our future is not a DIY activity.

Theirs is a complex argument which they attempted to frame using Rambam’s handy-dandy Tzedakah Ladder. If you don’t know what that is, your philanthropic advisor does. And the extent to which is it applied or misapplied is the issue.

According to the famous hierarchy of giving habits and attitudes developed by Rambam in the 12th century and still hyper-relevant today, the highest form of tzedakah-giving is when one helps a person out of poverty or joblessness with a gift, a loan, or even better, a job. And it would be best if both parties remain unknown to each other to protect personal dignity.

While the ladder is a useful tool, I think we have a problem if anyone, professional advisors or amateur tzedakah donors, use this ladder exclusively and for the wrong jobs. It would be like using a ladder to dig a ditch or to hang a painting. You could do it, but it would be messy, and the outcome poor. Rambam’s hierarchy of giving was designed to help an individual deepen his compassion towards another individual who needs help, to make the donor and recipient partners, even if unknown to each other, in an intensely personal interaction.

But when it comes to individuals responding to communal needs, the situation is different, and so are Rambam’s rules. For example, confidentiality does not trump all, certainly when turning a non-donor into a donor. Rambam codifies a system that depicts a Tzedakah Squad collecting tzedakah from donors in the public square. And if someone refuses to give, or to give enough, the Tzedakah Squad is empowered to isolate the non-giver in jail or to use physical pressure to get him to do the right thing.

Today we put the pressure on a bit differently. We use Donor Recognition to honor donors and to persuade non-donors. Whether we “call cards” or put up plaques or qualify attendance at events based on giving levels, we publicly broadcast that these people are helping others – and that people who are like them should do the same. Instead of Rambam’s prison-pressure we use modern peer pressure, and it works. If that is distasteful to you, then look at it another way. Let’s call it publicly acknowledging people who do the right thing. People have various motivations for giving – To do good, to feel good, to look good. If making generous people look good results in other people doing good, then … it’s all good.

Rambam’s ladder is a tool that allows one individual to connect with another individual. Rambam codified other laws that guide our support of communal needs. But moving beyond the individual and moving beyond the communal we are now in an entirely different era, the era of institutional giving. That means giving not to individuals or to local committees, but to organizations. For organizations that have a mission to help the poor, or support Jewish education, or redeem captive individuals or communities, we can use Rambam’s other non-ladder rules.

But there are issues which Rambam never contemplated, which donors and donor advisors wrestle with, and for which the ladder is clearly unhelpful. Rambam’s ladder leads us nowhere when we need guidance to support efforts to confront Holocaust denial, protect Jewish rights in the workplace, or maintain global networks to report and analyze events that impact on our community. Rambam’s ladder does not support us when we want to aid Jewish families that are falling apart, agunot who are chained to dead marriages, or marginalized youth. Rambam’s ladder falls short of helping us consider how to cure Jewish genetic diseases, give respite to families caring for children with special needs, or provide day care for isolated elderly.

The ladder has its place, but often we need other tools and Rambam acknowledges this; we should, too. The teens in our Iris Teen Tzedakah program know this. When faced with an array of compelling proposals to fund with their own money, they applied Rambam’s ladder to the communal palette of needs and found that the only thing they could fund if they wanted to aspire to the highest level of the ladder was our community’s Jewish Vocational Service. JVS got the funds, but we needed different tools to assess the rest.

So pull out the ladder when you see an individual who needs help. Climb the ladder as high as you can. Then put the ladder away. You may need a different tool for the next tzedakah opportunity that comes along.

Robert Lichtman is the Executive Director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish Identity-Building organization in MetroWest, NJ.