Under the Ladder:
A Contemporary Analysis of Maimonides' Tzedakah Levels

While creating strata of tzedakah is remarkably relevant in today's society, there are several components of Maimonides' eight-rung ladder of tzedakah that do not hold their weight in our current cultural context. In this age of institutional giving and high-tech philanthropy, the lines between categories are blurred. If a pop-up for tzedakah appears on your computer screen, does this constitute being asked to give' Have you given anonymously, asking not to be recognized, but still give your name and address along with your credit card number' Does giving money to an organization that provides job training represent the same effort as building a business partnership with someone in need' While technology presents challenges to Maimonides' categories, it is our contemporary philosophical approach to giving that brings into question the relevance of the famed ladder.

Use of Maimonides' ladder, as a measure of our philanthropic work does not succeed in our current cultural context because of the philosophical conflicts with the values of liberal Judaism. Mainly, it can be posited that current philanthropic efforts are valued for the impact they can have, not for the act of giving itself. If the impact of giving were not of primary importance to individual donor's, what could explain the trend of targeted giving and hands-on philanthropy' The difference between Maimonides' approach and the approach of many of today's donors is the purpose of the gift.

The approach that emerges from tradition that is reflected in Maimonides' priorities, displays a deontological approach - based on duty. Within deontological ethics, the motive behind an action and ethical quality of a behavior are the foci of moral evaluation. Maimonides considers how the giver feels about giving and the motives for the action. The halakic system is concerned with the act of the giver, commanding tzedakah from the individual. In philosophical terms, this perspective aligns with Immanuel Kant's methods of moral analysis. According to Kant, moral action is a response to duty, and the motive for the action determines its ethical status. Deontological theories of ethics tell us that the most important aspects of how we ought to live are governed by moral rules that should not be broken, even when breaking them might have better consequences. The converse is true as well, execution of moral acts are the basis for moral living, regardless of the consequences of such acts.

The perspective of many contemporary donors aligns more closely with consequentialism than with deontology. From a consequentialist standpoint, an action is deemed moral if the outcome produced by the action is desirable. Philosopher Shelly Kagan explains,

'There is one and only one factor that has any intrinsic moral significance in determining the status of an act: the goodness of that act's consequences (as compared to the consequences of the alternative acts available to the agent)' (Kagan, 70). Kagan explains that most people are not complete consequentialists, because most people believe that there are several factors with intrinsic moral significance, besides outcome. Specifically, if an act involves doing harm it is forbidden, regardless of the benefit. The 'Robin Hood' scenario is a prime example: while redistribution of wealth from the very rich to the very poor may be a desirable outcome, few citizens would break the law in order to produce this outcome.

Scholar Nancy Ann Davis presents these ideas from a slightly different perspective. According to Davis, 'deontologists believe that the right is not to be defined in terms of the good. In fact, they believe that there is no clear specifiable relations between doing right and doing good' (Singer, 206). Philosopher David O. Brink offers another perspective, 'deontology takes right action to be the primary evaluative notion' (Copp, 381). Brink contrasts the criteria for deontologist with those of consequentialists, 'a consequentialist conception of duty might identify an agent's duty as an action that promotes the good, whereas a consequentialist conception of virtue might identify virtuous dispositions as those with good consequences' (Copp, 381). Based on these presentations, it is evident that Maimonides' emphasis on intention and action places him clearly in the deontological camp. While both the intentions of the giver and the fulfillment of the mitzvah deserve consideration, 21st century philanthropy focuses primarily on the outcome of the gift.

I recently experienced the tension between the right and the good regarding tzedakah that exposed the potential roles of deontological and consequential thinking. As a participant on American Jewish World Service's Rabbinical Student Delegation, I faced a situation where a 'right' act would not produce a good, and yet I was compelled nonetheless. AJWS requires that each participant sign a pledge not to give gifts of any kind to individuals in the host community. Gifts made to individuals can have a variety of negative impacts on the relationship between the host community and the volunteer groups, and can also damage the host community itself.

The relationship between hosts and volunteer is based on mutual care and common purpose. Donation of material goods disrupts the power equilibrium, creating a sense of personal obligation, and possibly an expectation that volunteer groups will bring gifts. One of the purposes of volunteering in distant communities is to attempt to create relationships based on shared humanity and vision for a better world - material gifts can disrupt this dynamic. Another potential negative outcome is that gifts received by individuals that cannot be shared by all citizens can disrupt the dynamics between community members by establishing a situation of relative poverty where one did not previously exist.

While giving gifts might have felt like the proper action, the consequences of gifts would be negative. The clarity of this perspective dissolved for me upon my arrival in rural Mexico. I felt my heartstrings pulled by the needs that I perceived and I did not want to stand by with surplus when others did not have what they needed. Witnessing poverty created a surge of guilt and desire to find instant solutions to systemic problems. Contrary to the rule, and my understanding of its potential impact, I felt compelled to give nonetheless.

I saw that most children walked around barefoot, exposing them to the risks of parasites. I had brought four pairs of shoes with me and my life would hardly have been impacted had I left them all in the small town. When packing to return home, I wanted so badly to leave everything behind: my toothpaste and shampoo, my pens and notebooks and mostly my clothes. Reflecting on criteria that shape Maimonides' ladder, I could have left my bag in the middle of the town and performed a mitzvah on the 7th level. From a deontological perspective, that may have been the right act, regardless of the negative impact on the inhabitants, the volunteers, and the partnership between AJWS and the NGO that hosted us.

The feeling of giving would have been preferable to the feeling of packing-out. The act of giving may have been preferable than the act of returning home with a bag full of clothes that I will hardly use. However, refraining from giving tzedakah in that form at that time was the right thing to do. We must consider that the mitzvah of tzedakah is compromised if the giving damages the recipient. While Maimonides is sensitive to the needs of the recipient, the act of tzedakah is evaluated from the perspective of the giver, based on his intentions.

Contrary to the underlying principles of Maimonides' ladder, Rabbinic tradition does not solely represent a deontological perspective. We find a firm example of concequentialism in the following story. Rabbi Yannai once saw someone giving a silver coin in public to a poor man. 'It would have been better,' he said, 'to give him nothing than to give to him so that he was put to shame' (Hagigah, 5a). While the intention of the giver was probably an attempt to fulfill a mitzvah, the outcome was so negative that Rabbi Yannai explains that it would have been better for the poor man that the giver had not attempted to fulfill the mitzvah in that way at all.

While Maimonides' ladder is a classic text in the cannon of tzedakah education, it presents only one particular perspective. The highest level does consider the effect of the gift, in that it 'strengthens the hand of the poor,' however the act of giving remains the primary focus of the text. Consideration of the consequences of the giving is of central importance to today's donor. Social change is one of the primary considerations of today's donors. The most lauded philanthropists are celebrated because of the efficacy of their projects, not because of their noble intentions. Learning from a variety of Jewish texts on tzedakah is essential to understanding the many perspectives addressed by our tradition.

(Anna Levin Rosen, HUC-JIR Cincinnati)