The Golden Ladder of Charity

"We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment, because charity is the sign of a righteous man." Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204

Moses Maimonides - Jewish rabbi, scholar, philosopher and physician. Maimonides was a big thinker, a man whose writings addressed many "heady" issues, including a wrestling match of the harmony and differentiation between two important concepts in his life: Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish theology. For a time, his work dominated Jewish reasoning and had a profound influence on Christian thinkers.

Of most interest to those of us working in the world of charitable and public endeavor 800 years later are Maimonides' thoughts on "tzedakah," the Hebrew term commonly translated as "charity" (although it is based on a root meaning "justice"). He set out a code of charity, called The Golden Ladder, which provides for eight "levels" of giving.

The Golden Ladder - or Rambam's Ladder (Maimonides is sometimes called "Rambam") - provides a guide to the significance of a charitable gift. The further one goes up the ladder, the more virtuous and meaningful the gift.

From the bottom, here are the steps up the Golden Ladder:

7 - Giving unwillingly.

6 - Giving willingly but inadequately.

5 - Giving adequately after being asked.

4 - Giving before being asked.

3 - Giving to an unknown recipient.

2 - Giving anonymously to a known recipient.

1 - Giving anonymously to an unknown recipient.

Highest level of giving - "(To) Anticipate charity by preventing poverty. Assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift of a sum of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and summit of charity's golden ladder."

Paraphrased, this is to say that the greatest "charity" is to give a poor person work (or to loan him the money to start a business) so s/he will no longer have to rely on charity. The giver has not just helped the recipient for the short while, but instead for the rest of his/her life.

How is The Golden Ladder relevant to our thoughts on and practice of philanthropy today? Do the fundraising techniques that we now employ - largely focused on donor benefits (e.g. tax deductibility, perks and prizes, personal recognition and legacy) - really encourage "charity," or are these sales-driven efforts promoting something altogether different? Are there ways to effectively raise the funds we need, while protecting the purity of motive sought on Rambam's Ladder?

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