Religion & Beliefs
Climbing Rambam’s Ladder
Originally appearing in Zeek’s Fall 2008 issue, a fuller version of this essay may be found in Rabbi Jacob’s new book, There Shall Be No Needy, available now from Jewish Lights. Any Hebrew School teacher and most people who have … Read More
Originally appearing in Zeek’s Fall 2008 issue, a fuller version of this essay may be found in Rabbi Jacob’s new book, There Shall Be No Needy, available now from Jewish Lights.
Any Hebrew School teacher and most people who have survived Hebrew School will tell you that the highest level of tzedakah is giving someone a loan or a job-the Jewish version of teaching a person to fish. Famously, Moses Maimonides (aka "Rambam") laid out eight modes of giving tzedakah, the highest of which involves helping a person toward self-sufficiency. Within the world of Jewish social justice, this text has achieved iconic status. Almost no conversation about Jewish service, philanthropy, or justice work would be complete without some reference to the "highest level of giving."
As this text has gained currency in the Jewish community, it has been translated, retranslated, explained, interpreted, quoted, and misquoted in hundreds of different ways. But what was Maimonides actually saying in his famous text? And what are the implications of this text for the way that we think about Jewish social justice work?
Rambam’s "ladder," as it has come to be called, appears in the section of the Mishneh Torah focused on the laws of tzedakah. In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam distills talmudic legal discussions into an easy-to-navigate legal code, written in simple Hebrew, and intended for Jews who are not learned enough to negotiate the complicated Aramaic discourse of the Talmud, or who are looking for immediate and clear instruction about specific legal issues. Though Rambam does not generally cite his sources, scholars are able to find talmudic precedent for most of the laws included in the Mishneh Torah. The eight levels of tzedakah, however, appear to be Rambam’s own innovation, though he bases some of the types of giving that he discusses on earlier sources.
Every translation is an interpretation, but I offer first what I consider the most basic (and unapologetic) translation of this "eighth level" of tzedakah:
There are eight levels of tzedakah, each higher than the other: The greatest level, above which there is no higher one-is one who strengthens the hand of a Jew who has fallen, and gives him a gift or a loan, or enters into a partnership with him, or finds him work, in order to strengthen his hand to the point that he will not need help from others, and will not ask. About this, the Torah says, "(If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority) You shall uphold him as a ger (resident alien), let him live by your side" (Leviticus 25:35). That is to say-strengthen him so that he does not fall and be in need. (Matanot l’Aniyim 10:7)
In contemporary discourse, the various translations and interpretations of Rambam’s degrees of tzedakah reflect three basic debates about Jewish responsibility, poverty, and tzedakah: Are Jews responsible for caring only for Jews, or for the world as a whole? Who deserves tzedakah? Should tzedakah be preventive or responsive?
Jews and non-Jews
For most contemporary Jews, the most difficult part of Rambam’s teaching is the specification that the highest level of tzedakah involves "strengthening the hand of a Jew." Even though Rambam elsewhere reiterates the talmudic instruction to give tzedakah to non-Jews "mipnei darkhei shalom" (for the sake of peace), he here specifies that the highest level of tzedakah involves helping a Jew toward self-sufficiency.
Liberal translations of the eighth degree of tzedakah tend to respond to this dilemma by omitting the word "Jew." For example:
The highest level of tzedakah, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him to find employment – in a word, by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid. (Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, http://www.mazon.org/What_You_Should_Know/Hunger_and_Judaism/Jewish_Text_Sources.asp)
At the top of the ladder is 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. (Julie Salamon, Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why it is Necessary to Give [New York: Workman Publishing, 2003] 148
On the other hand, more conservative translations/interpretations often emphasize the responsibility to help Jews first. For example, the website for mail-Jewish, a listserv with an Orthodox bent asks, "Please click here to see mail-jewish members who are looking for employment. If you end up being able to help any members of our extended family, that counts as the highest level of Tzedakah." (http://mail-jewish.org/)
The highest level of tzedakah, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the hand of a Jew who has come upon hard times, to give him a present or a loan, or to make a partnership with him or to provide him with work in order to strengthen his hand so that he will not have to become dependent upon others and have to beg money from them. And regarding this it is said "if your brother becomes impoverished. . . you shall strengthen him. . ." That is-you should strengthen him before he falls and needs charity." (Mordechai Becher, Gateway to Judaism New York: Mesorah, 2005 p. 362)
The translations that omit the word "Jew" presumably operate from an assumption that Rambam’s specification of responsibilities toward Jews reflects his own experience as part of a Jewish community that, while generally enjoying close relationships with the greater community, suffered from serious internal poverty. Within the medieval system of mutual benefit societies, each community took care of itself and would be unlikely to focus much attention beyond its own needs. The Jewish experience in America has fundamentally changed the position of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the larger society. In contrast to the past, the American Jewish community is, albeit with significant exceptions, better off than the population as a whole, and in a position to see beyond our own immediate needs.
Translations that eliminate the emphasis on helping Jews may also be noticing Rambam’s choice to quote a verse that refers, at least in passing, to the ger (sojourner). Biblically, the ger was a non-Israelite who, for some reason, left his or her own community to live among the Israelites. Since the institution of conversion did not emerge until much later in Jewish history, the ger could never become a full member of the community, and therefore remained perpetually between ethnic and geographic identities. Because biblical law barred gerim from owning land, this class of people could not easily accumulate wealth and remained largely dependent on landowners for food and monetary support. In quoting a verse commanding support for the ger, as well as the Israelite, Rambam perhaps combines an assumption that Jews certainly should care for the poorest and most vulnerable in their midst, regardless of ethnicity, with an acknowledgment that Jews do have special responsibility for other Jews.
It is notable, then, that the uses of this text aimed at inspiring support for other Jews eliminate the word ger from their translations. Becher leaves points of ellipsis where the mention of the ger would be, thereby rendering the text "if your brother becomes impoverished. . . you shall strengthen him." Since Becher’s book is aimed at those with little Jewish knowledge, this choice may reflect a desire to keep the biblical text simple, rather than any ideological insistence on concentrating tzedakah only on the Jewish community. Still, the omission of the ger reference emphasizes the responsibility to care for the Jewish community, possibly at the expense of others. Similarly, the mail-Jewish request implies that helping any member of the Jewish (or perhaps only Jewish internet) community to find a job constitutes tzedakah at the highest level, possibly without regard for the economic situation of the person in need of a job.
Even more strikingly, a representative of a Jewish endowment fund writes, "The eighth and highest level of giving, wrote Maimonides, is to ‘anticipate charity by preventing poverty’. . . To me, Maimonides’ eighth degree of giving brings to mind an endowment that supports the Jewish community’s financial infrastructure in perpetuity" (Lynn Dashevsky, "The Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts," Berkshire Jewish Voice, April 27-June 4, 2007 http://www.jewishberkshires.org/local_includes/downloads/18941.pdf). One synagogue similarly describes buying Israel bonds as "a unique opportunity to perform the mitzvah of Tzedakah in a manner which our great teacher Maimonides described as "the highest degree." (www.bnaitikvah.org/handbook.html) Here, the "eighth degree" is understood to mean any sort of sustaining gift to the Jewish community, and not only one that responds to an immediate or imminent poverty.
The juxtaposition between Rambam’s focus on supporting Jews and his nod to the non-Jewish gerim reflects the still-present tension within the Jewish world about our relative responsibilities to Jews and non-Jews. There is often a perceived split between those who focus on Jewish issues and those who focus on the issues of the general world. Many see the Federation system and the traditional "defense" organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and American Jewish Congress, as working on Jewish issues, even as these organizations build alliances with many other ethnic and religious communities around shared interests. Self-identified social justice organizations, such as Jewish Funds for Justice, American Jewish World Service, AVODAH, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, are understood to focus on the issues of the non-Jewish world, even as these organizations devote significant attention to the identity formation of young Jews.
Rambam’s seamless transition from concern for Jews to concern about anyone who is vulnerable challenges the tendency to think about our own choices in this regard as an either/or decision about whether to focus on Jews or non-Jews. In essentially equating needy Jews with gerim, Rambam seems to assume that all poor people are in a situation similar to that of the ger-that is, vulnerable, marginal, and entitled to communal support. In our own society, some Jews still find themselves in vulnerable economic positions. In large part, though the gerim in American society are members of other communities, who are marginalized by virtue of race, ethnicity, immigration status, geography, or class. By slipping a mention of the ger into a text that otherwise focuses on Jews, Rambam forces us to think in categories of vulnerability, rather than automatically dividing the world into Jews and non-Jews.
The deserving and undeserving poor
The question of which poor are deserving of our support informs much of American public policy. It also pops up again and again in halakhic discussions of whether to investigate the situation of a person who asks for monetary help, and whether to help someone who may be partially at fault for his or her economic situation.
In his "eighth degree," Rambam does not specify how or why a particular person has fallen into poverty, and he does not recommend giving jobs, loans, or gifts only to individuals who prove themselves worthy. Most contemporary translations and interpretations similarly ignore any distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. Some translations/interpretations, however, understand Rambam primarily as a call for job training. In discussing the need for rehabilitation services for wounded veterans, one right-wing organization comments, "In Jewish tradition, the highest level of tzedakah, charity, is to enable one in need to master or regain skills of self-sufficiency" (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs website). A children’s book summarizes the eighth level as "When someone is taught to take care of him or herself." (Deborah Niederman and Molly Cone, Hello, Hello, Are You There, God? URJ Press, 1999 p. 11)
Perhaps surprisingly, Rambam does not mention job training, but only securing a job. While an expansive definition of "find him a job" might include providing necessary training, translations that focus on job training can be understood as subtly advancing the idea that the poor’s greatest problem is their inability or unwillingness to work. In some cases, of course, job training can launch individuals toward productive, rewarding, and lucrative careers; in too many other cases, job training alone does not guarantee a job, and therefore fails to achieve Rambam’s ideal.
Preventive and responsive tzedakah
How poor is Rambam’s poor person? By citing a verse that speaks of desperate poverty, Rambam suggests that the person in question is very poor indeed. At the same time, this person seems to have "fallen" into poverty-that is, the individual has fallen on hard times but is not part of an entire class of low-income people. Does Rambam intend his advice about tzedakah to apply only to those who have suffered a change in financial status, or would he also argue for society-wide lending, investment, and job creation programs? Since he directs his attention only to the individual sufferer, we can’t know for sure. And at what point should a person offer financial or business help? Does any small business assistance count as tzedakah, or only assistance that comes at a pivotal moment in the life of the business, or that directly keeps a business owner or potential owner out of poverty?
Translations weigh in on these questions primarily through the choice of either the phrase "he will no longer need help" or the phrase "he will not come to need help." The former assumes that the person has already fallen into poverty-or perhaps was born into poverty, while the latter assumes that the person has so far been financially independent, but risks losing this independence.
The Salamon translation quoted above chooses the first option, as does Meir Tamari, a contemporary thinker on Jewish business ethics, whose translation reads, "By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him till he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse" (available at www.myjewishlearning.com). In contrast, an article in the online Jewish Magazine renders the text, "The highest level of tzedakah is he who helps his friend who is experiencing difficult financial times. He either gives him a present, a loan or makes him a partner in order that he should not become poor and dependent on charitable alms. Also included in this level is that [sic] finding for him suitable employment before he becomes poor. Here is the highest level of giving-helping a person maintain himself in order that he should not fall financially and become indigent" (Avi Lazerson "The Eight Levels of Charity" The Jewish Magazine Oct. 2002 www.jewishmag.com). One writer even suggests, "in any situation where a Jew is in need of support of his business, there is an additional mitzvah of tzedakah to purchase from him. Rambam writes that this is the highest level of tzedakah-to help keep a Jew on his feet before he has to come to others for help." (Avi Weinrib, Chicago Community Kollel, http://www.cckollel.org).
The difference between these two approaches is not academic. One approach highlights the perpetually poor-who perhaps have been born into poverty, or who have been poor for a significant amount of time. The other approach focuses on those who generally can support themselves, but by virtue of bad luck, bad weather, bad health, or other circumstances find themselves temporarily struggling. Those who choose this latter translation probably have in mind a well-known midrash on the verse that Rambam cites, which compares helping someone before he or she falls into poverty to keeping a bundle from falling-just as it is easier to keep a bundle from falling off an animal than to pick up the bundle once it has fallen, so too, it is easier to support a person who has not yet fallen into poverty (Sifre, Behar). This midrashic observation may be true, but does not address the reality in which entire families or neighborhoods find themselves in perpetual poverty. To avoid choosing one option entirely over the other, we might say that the ideal would be to prevent extreme poverty. Given our current situation, though, our goal should be to bring as many communities as possible to the point of self-sufficiency, and beyond reliance on emergency support.
What should we do with the Rambam?
As evident from its popularity, this text is extraordinarily important for pushing us beyond simply responding to emergency need. Those of us who write and teach about tzedakah and social justice quote Rambam so frequently because this text is sui generis. Despite his quotations of biblical and talmudic supporting texts, Rambam’s presentation of a taxonomy of tzedakah and of a category of tzedakah aimed at self-sufficiency is clearly an innovation.
Often, this text is taught as support for one or more types of anti-poverty programs, including job training, microlending, or small business assistance. But the text is much more complicated than a single translation might suggest. Within the text, we find the still-relevant tension between prioritizing assistance to Jews or non-Jews, a question about whether we treat people differently according to their financial history, and ambiguity about whether to focus on those in the greatest need or on those who are just now falling into poverty. Rather than gloss over these questions in translation, we might use Rambam as a springboard for discussing these issues. If we tend to focus our money and attention on the Jewish community, the text pushes us to consider our obligations to the most vulnerable among us. If we tend to focus our money and attention on the general community, the text challenges us to think about our responsibilities to our own community. If we believe that people should be able to help themselves, the text asks us to give tzedakah without judgment about whether the recipient is worthy. If we believe that tzedakah recipients have no obligations, the text challenges us to help people stand on their own feet. If we wish to focus our giving on those solely at the bottom of the economic ladder, the text encourages us to help those only beginning to fall into poverty. If we believe that our efforts are best directed only at those on the edge of poverty, the text inspires us to create a society in which no individual or community falls so low that tzedakah, jobs, and loans become ineffective.
An honest look at Rambam’s levels of tzedakah also must recognize the limitations of this text. Though essential for pushing Jewish discourse on poverty relief beyond discussions of direct service, the eighth level does not directly address the causes and responses to systemic poverty.
In Rambam’s scheme, what happens if we find a person a job, but that job only pays minimum wage and therefore leaves the person dependent on emergency food or shelter? What if we offer a first-time home buyer a low mortgage rate, but high foreclosure rates in the neighborhood result in the value of this home dropping below the amount of the mortgage? What if we lend money to help an entrepreneur start a convenience store, and the city subsidizes a big box store to move in next door?
Rambam’s scheme assumes a society in which a job, a loan, or a business partnership is guaranteed to raise an individual out of poverty. Like most of the laws of tzedakah, Rambam’s levels are directed at the individual Jew responding to an individual request for assistance. Outside of an autonomous Jewish society, or a society in which the Jewish community wields significant political power, it is most practical to focus on the tzedakah responsibilities of individuals. But does the situation differ when, as is true in America, the Jewish community has some power to influence political decisions and thereby to promote systemic change?
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, a contemporary Israeli rabbi, has suggested that the commandment of tzedakah should be understood as two separate laws: an obligation for individuals to give tzedakah and an obligation for the state to end poverty. He bases this proposal on the classical division of mitzvot into two categories: h?ovot gavra and h?ovot h?eftza. H?ovot gavra are mitzvot incumbent on individual people-such as the mitzvah to pray or to observe Shabbat or holidays. Every person (or every man in non-egalitarian communities) is equally bound by these mitzvot. In contrast, h?ovot h?eftza are mitzvot occasioned by particular objects. There is no obligation to eat a piece of fruit, but if one does, one recites the appropriate blessing. There is no obligation to grow produce, but if one does so in the land of Israel, one is obligated to separate out the required tithes. Tzedakah, Ariel argues, is a h?ovat gavra insofar as every individual is obligated to give tzedakah even if no poor people are present. When there is no immediate need, each person should put the recommended ten to twenty percent of income into a communal tzedakah fund, to be distributed when the need arises. Even full compliance with this mitzvah will not, however, guarantee an end to poverty. Therefore, says Ariel, tzedakah is also a h?ovot h?eftza in that the appearance of a poor person imposes an obligation on the community to care for the needs of this person. He writes, "Today, economists believe that the state is not able to carry all of this heavy burden that it has taken upon itself. A part of the responsibility has now been passed on to the volunteer sector within the community-in my opinion, this is not the preferred situation (b’dievad). . . citizens should not think themselves exempt from the mitzvah of tzedakah, for as stated, this is also an individual mitzvah. . . [but] only the community is able to do this in a widespread way." In other words, individual members of society can help individuals to get by, to find jobs, or to secure loans. Only the government, though, can establish the preconditions for tzedakah to be effective.
In his levels of tzedakah, Rambam addresses the individual, not the community. Within a society that allows equal access to opportunity, well-paying jobs, and accessible paths to the middle class, the eighth level of tzedakah offers a sufficient response to individual poverty. But in a society in which large systems conspire to maintain poverty and hamper economic mobility, individual solutions only go so far. Rather than ignoring this gap between our own reality and the reality that Rambam addresses, we might allow the eighth level of tzedakah to spur us to consider how to create a society in which self-sufficiency is the norm, and emergency support is the rare exception. This approach will mean cutting through the Jew/non-Jew divide to think about which communities are the most vulnerable, and then changing the systems that maintain these communities in a vulnerable position. In the end, perhaps, we will achieve a world in which individual support, whether through money, jobs, or loans, will be all that is necessary to alleviate periodic suffering.
1] The section in parentheses "If your kinsmen. . . authority" is the beginning of the biblical verse in question. Rambam does not include the whole verse, but could be reasonably certain that his readers would know the context. I have included the full verse for easy reference.
 Ellipses in original
 "Olam Hesed Yibaneh: Hevrah Yisraelit Idialit" in Tzohar 19 (Fall 2003) pp. 23-33
_______ Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Jewish Funds for Justice, a national public foundation dedicated to mobilizing the resources of American Jews to combat the root causes of domestic social and economic injustice. Jill received rabbinic ordination and an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a Wexner Fellow. She is the author of There Shall Be No Needy, available now from Jewish Lights.