Julie Salamon, Author, 'Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give'

February 4, 2004
Julie Salamon, Author, 'Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give'

Charitable giving is a part of most Americans' lives. According to Independent Sector, 89 percent of U.S. households made a charitable contribution in 2001, giving an average of $1,620, while some 44 percent of adults volunteered time to a nonprofit cause or organization.

Choosing how and where to give is not an easy process. In her 2003 book, Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give, former Wall Street Journal writer Julie Salamon explored the subject through research and interviews with experts in the field as well as her own experience as a resident of Greenwich Village, a mother of two, and a volunteer leader for a community-based organization.

In December, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Salamon about her study of charitable giving, the steps in Rambam's "ladder of charity," and her experiences as a nonprofit board member.

Ms. Salamon, a culture writer and critic for the New York Times, formerly was a reporter and film critic for the Wall Street Journal. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Bazaar, and the New Republic, and she is the author of six books: White Lies, a novel; The Devil's Candy, a study of Hollywood filmmaking gone awry; The Net of Dreams, a family memoir; The Christmas Tree, a novella; and Facing the Wind, a story of a crime and its lingering effects on people.

Salamon earned a B.A. degree from Tufts University and a J.D. degree from New York University Law School. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.

Philanthropy News Digest: How did you come to write Rambam's Ladder?

Julie Salamon: I've always had an interest in philanthropy and charity, but it was never something I thought to write about until September 11. Living in New York, living downtown, I had a ringside seat on the attacks and the huge outpouring of generosity that followed in their wake — not just from New Yorkers, but from the rest of the country and from people around the world. I guess you could say my initial response to the attacks was not very philanthropic; it was self-protective. I wanted to take care of my family and to stay alive.

But a few weeks after the attacks, Susan Bolotin, the editor-in-chief of Workman Publishing, called me up and said that she had been thinking of asking somebody to write a book about charity and philanthropy. I knew Suzie from the board of the Bowery Residents' Committee, and over lunch she asked me whether I knew anything about Maimonides, who was also known as Rambam. I said, "Yes, a little," and added that because the subject of charity and philanthropy in general had been on my mind, it was something I'd be interested in pursuing. At a different point in my life the idea probably wouldn't have appealed to me, but at that moment it hit me like a lightning bolt. I mean, I have a full-time job, but at that moment I thought it would be better in my off-hours to think about philanthropy and charity and what they mean, and have meant, through the ages than to spend my time worrying about the next terrorist attack.

PND: Who was Rambam, or Maimonides, and why was he chosen as an organizing principle for the book?

JS: Maimonides is the Greek name for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, who was also known as Rambam, which is an acronym derived from the letters of his name. He was born in Cordoba, Spain, in the twelfth century, toward the end of what is often referred to as Spain's Golden Age. It was an exciting time characterized by a rich interchange of ideas, as people emerging from the long slumber of the early Middle Ages tried to find some kind of balance between faith and reason. Just the other day, in fact, I met with a friend who is an Aquinas scholar, and he was quite interested in the extent to which Aquinas had been influenced by Maimonides and, in turn, how much Maimonides had been influenced by Alverroes, also known as Ibn Rushd, a prominent Islamic scholar who lived in Cordoba during that period. As a young man, Maimonides and his family had to flee Spain to avoid persecution as its Golden Age ended with the ascension to power of the Muslim ruler Almohades.

Anyway, as a young man Rambam studied medicine and became a doctor, and later he became a rabbi. Now, in Jewish tradition the law develops in a way that's not all that different from our own system: A precedent is established, decisions based on that precedent are made and there's argument, and the law evolves over time. As a rabbi, Maimonides became a controversial scholar because he examined and ultimately rejected a lot of the precepts and interpretation of the Torah that had come before him. In fact, at one point his writings were burned by rabbis who disagreed with his interpretations.

But whether you agree with him or not, his writings are quite interesting. They aren't exactly what I'd call easy —— he wrote a lot and didn't edit any of it, and because it was the twelfth century, his language is unfamiliar to our ears. But having said that, it's amazing how thoroughly he thought things through —— not just charity, but every aspect of life. Recently, for example, I learned from a prominent scholar that Rambam was very interested in institution building. And, of course, he wrote an entire treatise on the poor, which is part of his interpretation of the Torah. It's a very long book, and in the middle of it he boils the concept of charity down to two paragraphs and eight steps.

So, on the one hand, I liked his philosophical approach to the big questions. He looks at an issue, whatever it might be, from many different angles and worries it to death. And the other thing I liked, and found very helpful as a writer, is that he provided a solid framework for thinking about an issue.

Of course, at the beginning I had no idea what form the book was going to take, except that his eight steps were going to be the organizing principle. I also knew I didn't want it to be too long. There are a lot of fairly dense treatises on charity out there, and while many of them are really interesting, after a while you begin to get the feeling that the authors are preaching to the converted. I wanted to write something that could be read by the general public and would be useful to nonprofits and individuals, whether they're involved in nonprofit work or not, but at the same time wouldn't humiliate me in front of a Rambam scholar.

PND: The subtitle of your book is "A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give." Why a meditation?

"...They asked, "Well, what is the book about?" And I said, "It's really a meditation." And that's when it clicked...."

JS: You know, the choice of "meditation" was interesting. We had a big discussion about the book's title — the publisher was worried about using "Rambam" in the title, thinking that people wouldn't know who he was or might narrowly construe the book as an exclusively Jewish book. So we kicked around various titles, including "The Ladder of Giving," which I just didn't like. It felt generic to me. Maybe it would have been a better title, but it didn't feel honest, it didn't seem to capture what the book was about. I wanted to be very clear about that, and so the subtitle became especially important. I can't even remember the original subtitle —— it was something long-winded. But I was talking to the people at Workman about it, and they asked, "Well, what is the book about?" And I said, "It's really a meditation." And that's when it clicked. I think it gives the prospective reader a very good clue as to what they're getting into.

PND: What are the eight steps on Rambam's ladder?

JS: For the book, I have named the steps and described them in language I hope the reader can understand.

I call the first of the eight steps on the ladder Reluctance: To give begrudgingly. At this level Maimonides says the person gives with a frowning countenance.

The second step is Proportion: To give less to the poor than is proper, but to do so cheerfully.

The third step is Solicitation: To hand money to the poor after being asked.

The fourth is Shame: To hand money to the poor before being asked, but risk making the recipient feel shame.

The fifth is Boundaries: To give to someone you don't know, but allow your name to be known.

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

The seventh is Anonymity: To give to someone you don't know, and to do so anonymously.

And the eighth and final step is Responsibility: 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.

The chapters in the book explore each of these steps through interviews and my experiences.

PND: In the book you discuss the distinction between "charity" and "philanthropy," and define the former as an action that addresses an immediate need and the latter as a series of actions that tries to address the source or cause of that need. Why is it important to distinguish between the two?

JS: Well, actually, the distinction between the two is almost erased in Rambam's discussion of giving, or tzedakah, which means justice, the achievement of justice. Rambam argues that the world is inherently out of balance: some people are rich, some people are poor, some people have music, some people don't. And whether you try to address the imbalance itself or the root cause of that imbalance, the impulse behind all giving is to try to achieve a better balance and to raise up people who have nothing.

In other words, whether the giver chooses to go the philanthropic route or the charitable route, it's important that he or she understands why and what he or she is doing. For most people, the charitable route is probably the easier of the two, because it's more immediate and concrete. Whether you volunteer at your kids' school or give to an organization that helps the homeless in your neighborhood, it's tangible; you can see whether your charity is making a difference. But as soon as you start to concern yourself with root causes or with larger global issues, like global warming or AIDS, it become less tangible. There's more of a leap of faith involved.

PND: Do the various steps in the ladder reflect a movement from charity to philanthropy? And if so, does that imply the involvement of intermediaries at the higher levels of the ladder, the ones you've labeled "Anonymity" and "Responsibility"?

JS: That's an interesting way of looking at it. One of the things that, in the emotional fervor of writing the book, I felt strongly was a sense of making my own personal journey, sometimes up the ladder, and sometimes down the ladder. And, metaphorically speaking, the higher one is on the ladder, the broader one's perspective tends to be. But again, for each person it becomes a different exercise.

PND: You spend a fair amount of time in the book discussing the complexities surrounding anonymous giving. On the one hand, you make the point that giving of any kind implies a connection between the giver and the recipient. But on the other hand, giving anonymously severs that connection. Do you address that contradiction in the book?

JS: If you follow to its logical conclusion this notion of the higher steps of the ladder being more about philanthropy than charity, giving automatically becomes more anonymous the more bureaucratic it becomes — and I don't mean bureaucratic in a pejorative sense. In other words, if you give money to, let's say, the Bowery Residents' Committee, the organization whose board I chair, and the wonderful people there take that money and intermingle it with other monies, there certainly is anonymity between donors and the ultimate recipients of those funds. Even if the donor's name is listed in an annual report someplace, the personal connection between the donor and the recipient has been diluted, if not erased.

"...Giving, for Maimonides, is like a journey. And the point of the ladder is to help people to think through the different stages of the journey...."

So it comes back to your reason for giving, and I think Maimonides' point in that regard is more metaphorical and less literal. Giving, in his scheme, is like a journey. And the point of the ladder is to help people to think through the different stages of the journey. The ladder starts the thought process going. It doesn't matter whether you give anonymously or not. The issue is more about how you think about giving as you move from charity to philanthropy and how you grapple with these issues and the end result you're contributing to.

PND: Earlier you described Rambam as someone who came at big issues from different angles and worried them to death. Did you consciously try to do the same thing in the book, or was it a fortunate circumstance that that's the way you usually approach a subject?

JS: Oh, I think that's why I felt a connection to Rambam. His thought process, at least as evidenced in his writings, struck a chord with me because it was so familiar. I mean, if you read the reviews of my last book, Facing the Wind, every review talks about my tendency to digress into other topics. And I think that tendency is related to my family background.

My parents were born in the Carpathian Mountain region of Eastern Europe; they were Holocaust survivors and emigrated to the States after the war. I grew up in southern Ohio, in a poor, rural community. Only five percent of my graduating high school class went to college, and I was the only one who went to college out of state. As a result, I've never had a narrow view of the world. My family traveled a lot, my relatives lived all over the world, and even though I grew up in Adams County, which I loved and where I felt very comfortable, I ended up living in New York City.

Ironically, I find in New York that a lot of people have a somewhat parochial view of the world. It's as if New York is the center of the universe and that excuses people from worrying about the edges of the universe. But I've always known that there are many centers of the universe, and so for me, when I approach a subject, I always have a suspicion that there's a larger context to whatever it is I'm writing about.

PND: Did the use of Rambam as an organizing principle make this a book that appeals to the Jewish community more than other communities? How have the press and readers responded in that regard?

JS: Actually, I'm very happy with the response, which I'd characterize as being quite diverse. Certainly, the Jewish press has been interested in the book, but so has the mainstream press; in fact, some of the longest and most complex discussions I've had have been with non-Jewish journalists. The same is true when I've been on call-in radio shows. Actually, it's funny that you ask that, because I was on the Shmuley Boteach show not too long ago —— he's the rabbi who wrote Kosher Sex —— and he thought I was trying to hide the fact that Maimonides was Jewish, even though I said he was a rabbi on the fifth page. Rabbi Boteach's view of the book was that it was way too secular. So there you have that.

PND: The challenge of satisfying many audiences?

JS: Exactly. My feeling is that you can't satisfy everybody. But just as one can read Thomas Aquinas and get a lot out of it, I think we can all learn from the lessons of Rambam.

PND: You mentioned the Bowery Residents' Committee. Can you tell us a little about it?

JS: The organization was founded in 1973 by a bunch of guys on the Bowery who got together and made a pact to help each other stop drinking. And over time it evolved from this informal group into a nonprofit agency staffed by social workers and professionals.

I got involved with the organization in the mid-'80s. I was married and living downtown with my husband, but I didn't have the encumbrances of a family and was looking to do something charitable in my free time. I had been involved with an organization called Visiting Neighbors and had been paying visits to an elderly woman in the neighborhood, but we had become such good friends that it really didn't feel like charity.

Then, a friend of mine who was volunteering at BRC said, "Why don't you come down and volunteer at the soup kitchen in the senior center?" It sounded like a good idea, and so I did and quickly found the work to be fascinating. Now, some of that was my writerly instinct — the place was full of these colorful characters, old Bowery guys, and a lot of Chinese immigrants, because it was near the border of Chinatown. I'd go on a Saturday, help serve lunch, and then I'd hang around afterward and just talk to people. I tape-recorded a bunch of the conversations, and I think we all enjoyed it. It was pleasurable for the people I interviewed and pleasurable for me.

Eventually, the friend who had invited me said, "Would you be interested in joining the board?" The board at that time was very low-key and mostly comprised of young people. I think the organization's annual budget was about $2 million, and most of that was provided by different government agencies. Then, in the '90s, as New York City began to move aggressively to subcontract a lot of its homeless services to nonprofits, BRC just exploded. Part of the reason was its long-standing emphasis on self-help; funders really responded to that. Today, it's a $25 million agency, and as it has grown it has become increasingly sophisticated in the delivery of its services. We now have a drop-in center, and from there you can go directly into detox or get counseling — a lot of our clients have mental-health issues — and, eventually, into a job-training program; at least that's our hope. We also provide housing for a lot of our clients. We've converted a number of what used to be single-room occupancy hotels into very nice apartments, and we have about eight hundred and fifty clients living in them. They're nicely appointed and have clean bathrooms and little kitchenettes. It's the way people should live.

PND: In the book you describe the reactions of some of your drop-in clients to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Can you tell us about that?

"...As people started coming up from downtown Manhattan covered in soot and debris, our clients got staff to set up chairs on the sidewalk and brought water out and started to hose people off...."

JS: A week or so after September 11, Muzzy Rosenblatt, BRC's incredible executive director, called me and said he thought it was important for the two of us to visit our locations around the city, just to say "hi" and thank staff for the tremendous work they had been doing. While we were driving around, Muzzy told me a story about how on the morning of September 11, Ron Williams, who is the director of our drop-in center, and his staff watched events unfold on television, not knowing quite what to do. But, Ron later told Muzzy, as people started coming up from downtown Manhattan covered in soot and debris, our clients in the center almost immediately began to say, "We have to help, we have to help."

So they got staff to set up chairs on the sidewalk and they brought water out and started to hose people off. Ron told Muzzy it was an incredible transformation —— in a matter of minutes, that group of clients went from being anonymous street people that most of us would pass without a second glance to a team of people who were helping others. In the middle of all that chaos, maybe because they were people used to a chaotic existence, they didn't panic; they got focused. It was a powerful lesson to me, and ever since we've talked about ways we can incorporate that experience, that idea, into our work.

PND: Have you?

JS: We have, in a number of ways. A lot of our clients eventually become members of our staff. It's tricky when people are still in treatment, because you don't want to take advantage of someone who's in a program; you don't want them to feel as if it's a requirement of their treatment. But in most cases, new clients see that a lot of former clients have stepped over to the other side, as it were, and are inspired by that.

On a more practical level, we took over the Palace Hotel — sounds glamorous, right? —— on the Bowery, right above CBGBs, the famous punk-rock club. It was the worst flophouse in the city when we took it over, and most of the people living there were willing to clear out for money or an apartment somewhere else. But there were a number of people on two floors who, despite the horrible living conditions, saw it as their home. And because they weren't BRC clients, the only way we could move them so we could renovate was to provide them with alternative housing. So we renovated the top floor and made these beautiful little apartments with nice lighting and everything. And when they saw the new space, these guys who had been so resistant to moving went, "Whoa, this is great."

The guy running the place said to these guys —— and I don't want to romanticize these characters; some of them are pretty tough cookies —— "If you want to stay, you have to keep the public places clean, the bathrooms have to stay clean, and you can't pile your junk up." And so far, people have been unbelievably responsible. It's like what happened after the city cleaned up the subways a decade ago; they've stayed amazingly clean. Again, I don't want to over-romanticize, but people presented with a change for the better usually will rise to the occasion; we've seen it happen over and over again.

PND: How would you characterize the city's progress in dealing with the problem of homelessness over the past three or four years?

JS: Well, I think it's hard to look at the problem in terms of just three or four years. You have to look at it in terms of the last twenty years. New York experienced a crisis of homelessness in the 1980s. The situation was horrible — horrible in terms of the number of people on the street, horrible in terms of the lack of services, horrible in terms of the attitudes of regular New Yorkers. I remember walking into Grand Central Terminal at the time and being absolutely stunned by the number of people who had nowhere to go; it was heartbreaking. But thanks to actions taken by the city, starting with the Dinkins administration in the early '90s and continuing through Giuliani's two terms, though maybe for different reasons, things have gotten better.

Still, there are an awful lot of people on the street who don't have access to services, or who have access to services but refuse to use them because they're frightened or scared or ashamed. So the overall trend has been positive, but there's an awful lot of work to do. And the high cost of housing and living in this city — which is a serious problem for working-class people as well as the homeless — makes that work even more difficult.

Right now, for example, some of the apartments we're building or renovating are located in formerly seedy neighborhoods that, almost overnight, have become incredibly expensive. Take the Palace. Ten years ago you couldn't pay someone to walk down the Bowery at night; it was an adventure to go to CBGBs. Now the whole neighborhood is a high-rent district; there's even an NYU dorm right behind one of our housing units there. It's a serious problem. We're lucky, unlike a lot of nonprofits that provide services to disadvantaged populations on the Lower East Side; we're locked into long-term leases. But many of those organizations aren't. It's a big issue, and it's only going to become bigger: Are we going to sit back and watch as gentrification of neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Harlem displace large numbers of poor people and the homeless, severing them from services that have been developed for them over a period of decades and dumping them into communities that may not be equipped to handle them?

PND: The idea of tzedakah runs through Rambam's Ladder. Why is it so important?

JS: It's got a lot of importance in Judaism. I was talking about this with my friend the Aquinas scholar, and he was saying that in Aquinas and Christian theology there's an ennoblement of the poor, in that they serve the function of reminding people of the difficulty and hardships of the world. Whereas, at the core of Judaism is the notion of tzedakah, which is more a question of justice. Ultimately, you don't want the poor to exist; you want to raise the poor out of poverty until there are no more poor. And what's interesting to me is how the tzedakah question and the ladder-of-charity question can be read in two ways. There are a number of conservative writers, for example, who see in the ladder of Maimonides an admonition to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, to become more self-sufficient. I think that's probably a harsher reading than Maimonides himself intended.

But ultimately, the notion of tzedakah —— which certainly is not unique to Judaism —— has spilled over into Western culture as a secular value. Today the notion of social justice —— and maybe justice isn't quite the word —— but the desire to have a world where truth and beauty are honored and people aren't hungry informs the activities of most philanthropic organizations, whether they're raising money for the arts, for the homeless, or for anything else.

PND: Thank you.

JS: My pleasure. Thank you.

Rob Johnston, the editor of Philanthropy News Digest, interviewed Julie Salamon in December. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, at mfn@fdncenter.org.