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Bonnie K. Goodman
Historian, Librarian, and Journalist

The Jewish community needs to learn Maimonides’ ladder of Tzedakah

A sample of the author’s artwork

From my experience, Jewish organizations are not treating those in need with dignity.

Tzedekeh is mostly about treating those in need with dignity and helping them stand independently as equals. Still, today’s Jewish communal intuitions never let those in financial perils forget where they stand on the social ladder.

This Sunday marks eight months since my mother died, everyone says it gets better with time, but it gets more complicated because it gets further in the mourning cycle. Time is supposed to heal and magically solve all the problems. Especially within the Jewish community, where I was told by one organization I should be over grieving after three months. However, I experienced a real trauma; I first lost my father when I was sixteen, and now my mother, my best friend, and my closest relative. I lost her suddenly and found her dead when I went to check on her at night. I had to watch the emergency services try to resuscitate her, and finally, the funeral home took her out of the house. I still cannot walk into her room or go through her belongings. I have been shattered by it all, but she gave up her life for me, and I promised to keep going and make her proud. Two elements in Judaism get the most airtime tikkun olam, saving the world, and tzedakah, charity. However, in my experience over the last couple of months, the Jewish community knows nothing about real tzedakah.

Thirteenth-century philosopher Moses Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah had a ladder of tzedakah. The highest level involved helping people experiencing poverty to stand on their own with a loan, business partnership, or finding employment. Maimonides distinctly views the eighth level as redemptive tzedakah rather than palliative tzedakah, which serves to help in the moment.

“There are eight levels of providing tzedakah, each one superior to the next…. The supreme level – above which there is no higher one – is one who strengthens the hand of a member of Israel who has fallen on hard times, by granting him a gift or a loan,iii or entering into a partnership with him, or finding him work, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will not have to beg from other people. Concerning such, the Torah says, “[If your brother
being in straits comes under your authority], you are to uphold as a resident alien, that he may live with you” (Lev. 25:35). That means: strengthen him, so that he will not lapse (fall) into poverty.” (Mishne Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14)

• The seventh level is to give tzedakah but with the receiver and the donor knowing where the donation came or went. To give tzedakah anonymously is the highest form of palliative tzedakah because the donor gives only for God to know about it.

• The sixth level is when the donor knows who is giving tzedakah to, but the recipient needs to know who gave it.

• The fifth level, the donor does know to whom they are giving tzedakah, but the receiver knows who is helping.

• The fourth level is when both the donor and recipient are aware of each other, but the donor gives tzedakah before the poor ask for help.

• The third level is when the donor gives the recipient tzedakah after they are asked for help.

• The second level is the donor gives the poor recipient less than they need but does so eagerly.

• The first and lowest level is when the donor begrudgingly gives to people experiencing poverty. It is the lowest form of tzedakah and the most embarrassing.

I believe in the ladder, especially the top rung, but most in the Jewish community seem to never go beyond the bottom two rungs; charity has become an ego booster more than helping others. The Jewish community needs an education because the tzedakah they practice harms those they supposedly help. Tzedakah, coming from the word righteous and justice in the Torah, was meant to help those in immediate need. It is an obligation for all Jews regardless of finances. Tzedakah is one if not the highest-ranking mitzvahs; it is “equal in value to all the other mitzvot [commandments] combined.” Classical Judaism found that tzedakah was equal to a sacrifice in the Temple, with the Book of Proverbs, “The doing of righteousness and justice is preferable to Adonai than the sacrificial offering.” While rabbinical Judaism finds tzedakah is equal to repenting and praying on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it can assure favorable judgments from Hashem for the year.

Since biblical times, rules to help people experiencing poverty among Jews included farmers leaving leftovers among their harvests in the fields for them to pick up. The Torah decrees, “You shall surely open your hand to the poor and the destitute of your land.” While in more modern times, Jewish communal organizations were established to support the poor “to care for the ill, provide for newlywed couples, house travelers, bury the dead, and offer interest-free loans to the needy.” The Torah explains in Deuteronomy 26:12 that each Jew must give 10 percent of their income to tzedakah to the priests as part of the tithe to the temple. Leviticus 19:9-10 says that if they have more, they should give “an additional percentage of their income annually.” However, they should not give more than 5 percent if it will make them need tzedakah. We usually are supposed to provide tzedakah before Shabbat and holidays.

Not embarrassing or humiliating those we give tzedakah is primely important in the Torah and the Talmud. Deuteronomy 15:10 cautions, “Your heart shall not be grieved God is beside him.” Rabbi Eleazar noted, “The reward that is paid for giving charity is directly related to the kindness with which it is given.” Why, if tzedakah is so essential a Jewish obligation, even among the most religious and Jewish institutions, why is there such a disparity in how it is given enthusiastically to institutions but begrudgingly to individuals and when they do? It usually demeans and embarrasses the person they give. However, the Talmud warns, “Do not humiliate a beggar,” and that advice is often not taken seriously in our modern society.

Maimonides viewed the highest ranking of tzedakah as helping those in need stand independently by employment, business investment, or an interest-free loan. The Egyptian Talmud philosopher Rambam was the first to believe employment was a solution. Maimonides was the foremost scholar who sought answers to minimalize embarrassment for those receiving the tzedakah and help them become self-sufficient. Maimonides outlined his ladder of tzedakah in his Mishneh Torah, “Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor.”

Noam Zion, Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute, is the foremost scholar on Maimonides and the business of philanthropy. Zion’s essay, “Maimonides’ Highest Level of Tzedakah: Loans, Jobs and Business Partnerships,” argues whether Maimonides’s Ladder of Tzedekeh, notably its highest level departs from biblical and rabbinical views of tzedakah, which were palliative and maintenance, of if “the highest level is “rehabilitative tzedakah'” and “departs significantly from the earlier stages which provide only palliative care and maintenance subsidies.”

Zion analyzes whether the three elements, business partnerships, loans, or employment, were rehabilitative. According to Maimonides, an interest-free loan is a “mitzvah greater than tzedakah in which the poor has had to ask for support. For the [beneficiary of tzedakah] has already had to descend to the level of having to ask/beg, while the one who received a loan has not had to descend to that level. (Laws of Lenders 1:5). Of the three types “the most desirable tzedakah in the eyes of God” is purchasing elements from someone in need of money or hiring someone in need for a job although the position is not necessary needed. As Maimonides indicated, “There is no higher tzedakah than that poor person working to write, and you give him profit. (Sefer Hasidim #1035) One element that has remained important is attempting to solve poverty by allowing those in need to work and stand on their own. As Zion states, “Maimonides offers the needy employment which appeals to an ancient and modern notion that people should help themselves, not become permanently dependent on largesse. Working is good for the character of the poor as well as their pocketbook.”

Modern Jewish and non-Jewish philosophers concurred with Maimonides’s philosophy of getting people experiencing poverty to be independent and stand on their own. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a nineteenth-century German rabbi, interpreted the command “to strengthen” (Lev. 25:35) the poor economically, to “Make sure that he will be strong. As long as he falls again, he has not been made strong.” Hirsh believed economic partnerships helped the giver work with people experiencing poverty to see them as equals morally and socially, allowing the donor to fulfill their calling in life. Hirsh explains in his Commentary on Torah, Leviticus 25, “To live with you means his development of his life is intertwined with the development of your life.… You must acquire the means and tools necessary to aid him for he is your brother connected to you socially, therefore you must help him, so as to fulfill your calling in life. His life is connected to your life. That is what makes you one people…This is free connection – strong, eternal of mutual help.”

While fourteenth-century philosopher Israel Al-Nakawa of Toledo, Spain, finds loans the highest form of tzedakah because “tzedakah stands forever” (Psalm 112:5), the same money can be used to help many because it gets repaid. Al-Nakawa created his ladder of tzedakah, and at the top rung, he believed the receiver of donations, the Torah scholar-businessman, should be treated with respect according to his honor. Torah scholars should always be treated with honor and helped with tzedakah.

Immanuel Kant and other modern philosophers view Maimonides’ ideal as “the highest religious calling in ethics.” Noam Zion points out, “Maimonides appeals to us moderns as he replaces the public humiliation of begging with an honorable sense of self-worth drawn from employment.” Zion notes, “At most Maimonides is a conceptual breakthrough, but in practice his ideas lay unfulfilled until their application in the 19th – 20th C. But was he even interested in such change?”

In contradiction, Maimonides coincides with twentieth-century Jewry’s belief in tikkun olam. However, so many modern Jews do not practice this philosophy. In Jewish society, the problem is not religious denominations, cultural or religious Jews, but the belief that tzedakah needs to be rewarded. The religious concept differs from the secular charity; charity symbolizes generosity but not a religious obligation or requirement. Jews and non-Jews find that charity is becoming a more selfish act, where the giver wants to feel good and get status from giving rather than ensuring those they give find joy and respect in the help.

Synagogues send a terrible message when they list the names of the donors in synagogue bulletins or weekly emails. At my synagogue, they record the donors for the Shabbat kiddish meals in emails and during announcements on the podium. For synagogues, members’ credit is more important than giving tzedakah. They boast their wealth, resources, power, and connections; however, try getting any individual help, and all you get is a stonewall. Suddenly, they cannot afford to help, do not know anybody else that can help, or just simply cannot, with no reason given.

The proverb it takes a village is about raising a child. However, everything in life takes a village; nobody can be an island alone; there is so much anybody can do by picking up their bootstraps. How do they do it without connections that help them accomplish that? Since my mother’s death, I have felt that despite my accomplishments, I feel I have been begging for a job and a sense of belonging. The more I tout my accomplishments and deservingness, the more I get swatted down, so not only am I grieving, but my self-esteem gets a beating; they say it is easier to hit those already down. All I want is to stand on my own, for a job, help with starting my fine arts business, or a Hebrew free loan, which was promised to my mother on her deathbed practically, any of which would allow me to help myself. The loan had it come through earlier; it might have saved my mother’s life, she had a long-time heart condition, and the worry and begging about money was too much for her heart.

Instead, I have been humiliated and demeaned repeatedly by my local community. The safety nets meant to help in an emergency, such as burying the dead, comes with strings meant to humiliate the living and the dead. If not, I am left with thousands in debt to regain control of my mother’s grave and spare her a lifetime with a gravestone that marks her as poor or indigent, as the organization put it. My mother had done graduate work in biochemistry; she was cultured in literature, music, and movies. She read about history and art, painted, and was an expert in the fiber arts. I learned everything from my mother, who instilled my lifelong love of history and the arts, and this Jewish organization summed her up in one word, which the grammar corrector called discriminatory.

Even before my mother’s death, I faced constant roadblocks. I see nepotism rather than credentials triumph. I live in a wealthy neighborhood of doctors, lawyers, and professionals who have no problem floating their wealth or connections but ask for any networking help. They suddenly do not know anyone and know nothing. At the same time, I have to say thank you, and I appreciate it while they make me feel two inches tall. A situation this past week before Shabbat made me feel the need to speak out about the problems with how the Jewish community approaches tzedakah and that, mostly, they never go beyond Maimonides’ third level.

I should never be in this situation to be that humiliated. I have two degrees from McGill University, the Harvard of the North, one of which is a graduate degree; I have done graduate work at another Canadian university. I have been a top-ranking writer as a journalist and in my academic history writing, written book-length histories, contributed to top reference publications, served as an editor in a popular and influential history magazine, and been cited by scholars, including a well-respected Harvard University professor and a New York Times best-selling book. I am also a gifted artist, a talent my mother said was God-given, and I should never waste it.

In the last few months, I was accepted to a graduate Jewish education program at Hebrew University and given a merit scholarship. I was accepted into another graduate Jewish education program at McGill, where I was offered an entrance scholarship. While another university said, I would be a candidate to apply for a doctorate program in religion, where I would have the opportunity to continue the research that means the most to me. My CV, my body of work, has impressed every professor I encountered; they have shown me respect and treated me like an equal or colleague, the exact opposite of anything I encountered in my Jewish community.

Instead, I feel like the community wants to hold me back; they serve as gatekeepers, not letting me work in their inner circle, although I spent my career lifetime dedicated to studying Judaism; why; because I am not wealthy, nor was my mother? It is certainly not based on my accomplishments, education, and experience. My only explanation is that it is discrimination on circumstance; as soon as you have financial problems, you are not welcome into the country club, and this treatment goes against Jewish law. When I asked one Jewish educator for advice about getting a job, he was honest, the teaching jobs are given to those with connections to the school, to the administration, to other teachers; it is whom you know, not what you know; outsiders rarely have a chance.

My mentor advised me that it could be because I cower and let them step all over me and not respect me because I am afraid to lose their minimal support. It is like be an abused relationship because one is afraid to be alone instead of realizing they deserve better. I do not want to come off as arrogant or standoffish, so I let them treat me that way instead of facing off. Rather, I lose more than I gain by not standing up for myself, especially my self-respect. I am not victimizing myself, even though my experiences are my own; I am confident this type of discrimination and exclusion is equal opportunity; if you are not rich enough, you do not get a place in the community. My difference is I keep pushing, and as with every discriminatory situation, I am perceived as not knowing my place in the social and economic ladder the community created to protect their position in the pecking order shallowly.

One communal worker said crassly that I would never escape my situation. Is it that I could not get out of it, or will the local Jewish community block me from getting out? Is that example our communal organizations and leaders want to display about tzedakah to the broader Jewish community? Society complains about those in financial peril not working, maybe because they will not allow them to work, at least not with dignity. Some within the Jewish community believe dignity, honor, and respect are only for the wealthy. At the same time, those in financial need are rarely given that as Maimonides thought was necessary.

The Jewish community needed a lesson in Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah; he understood that tzedakah needed to be more. It needed to rehabilitate and stop the cycle of poverty rather than perpetuate it and do it all with dignity. As Zion determines, “Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah also strengthens the dignity of the poor,”… which Maimonides outlines in “The Sefer HaHinuch, “The key emphasis is on avoiding the ultimate humiliation of dependence on other human beings.”

Maimonides created the ladder mainly so people experiencing poverty would be treated with respect, as equals, not looked down upon as we do in our modern society. As Zion explains, Maimonides identifies the highest form of tzedakah as the removal of the poor from the identity of the “poor”… by offering a job, a partnership, a gift, or a loan, one becomes a ‘normal’ fellow citizen.” The whole point of the ladder is to abide by “love your fellow as yourself” – Leviticus 19:18) by emphasizing solidarity and empathy.” Zion concludes, “The money is part of an attempt to rehabilitate the status of the stigmatized other, the poor, and make them fully equal fellows, to love them as neighbors, as one loves oneself.” This is a lesson that everyone from rabbis, communal workers, and educators need to know, teach and live by; anything else would be failing to fulfill the most crucial mitzvah for a Jew and to fail as human beings.

Sources

“Charity (Tzedakah): What is Tzedakah?” The Jewish Virtual Library,
Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/what-is-tzedakah

“Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7–14.” Chabad.
https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/45907/jewish/Eight-Levels-of-Charity.htm

Tzedakah 101: Tzedakah is not just about charitable contributions, but about justice and righteousness.” My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzedakah-101/

George Robinson. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals.

Tzedakah in the Jewish Tradition

Noam Zion. Maimonides' Highest Level of Tzedakah: Loans, Jobs, and Business Partnerships. Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives: History and Story, Law and Theology, Anthropology and Psychology. Jan 1, 2013, #https://www.bjpa.org/search-results/publication/15993

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a historian, librarian, journalist, and artist. She has done graduate work in Jewish Education at the Melton Centre of Jewish Education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in Jewish Studies at McGill University. She has a BA in History and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies. Her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.” Ms. Goodman has been researching and writing about antisemitism in North American Jewish History, and she has reported on the current antisemitic climate and anti-Zionism on campus for over 15 years. She is the author of “A Constant Battle: McGill University’s Complicated History of Antisemitism and Now anti-Zionism.” She contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, and her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu where she is a top writer.
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