Pope Francis? Meet Maimonides
Count me among the millions of people all over the world who are inspired by Pope Francis's call for all of us to do more for the less fortunate. I'm most inspired by his message because throughout his life, this pope has truly "walked the walk" of charity and has never shied away from getting his hands dirty. In other words, there is no doubt that the intentions and motivations behind his push for more charity and compassion are 100 percent pure.
But that brings us to the suggested methods the pope mentioned in his now much-discussed and -debated "Evangeli Gaudium." The pontiff's harsh critiques of capitalism and his insistence that governments get more involved in the charitable process were the most difficult for free-market devotees to digest. And they were also very difficult for devout members of all faiths who have found true wisdom when it comes to alleviating poverty.
It's important to remember that religious scholars have been grappling with how best to help the poor for millennia. The solution is not so simple as telling people not to be greedy, and Judeo-Christian leaders have known this for a very long time.
(Read more: Pope's sharp words make a wealthy donor hesitate)
And while no one person or faith can claim to have the magic answer to helping all the poor in a lasting and significant way, some have come closer than others.
The best example of that comes from the great Medieval Jewish rabbi, philosopher and physician Moshe ben Maimon, or as he is commonly called, Maimonides (1135-1204).
(Read more: Pope finds a new enemy — capitalism)
Yes, Maimonides was decidedly Jewish. But his background and career could not have been more ecumenical, even by today's standards. His was born in Cordoba, Spain during a time when the Jewish community became vital intermediaries between the Muslim and Christian rulers of the Iberian Peninsula. He later rose to great prominence in Northern Africa as the court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, then to the Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family.
Maimonides also had extensive dealings with Christian leaders throughout his life.
When he wasn't working with Christian and Muslim leaders, making advancements in medicine, or writing commentaries on sacred texts, Maimonides also had time to act as a director of a large family business. And perhaps it was the combination of all these vocations that gave him the best insight to date on how best to help the poor.
And rest assured, that insight is decidedly capitalist.
The key message in Maimonides' essay, "The Eight Levels of Charity," is that the highest level of charity is to give a person a job or even a business loan in a way that both the donor and beneficiary can eventually profit.
"The highest degree of charity, exceeded by none is — in a word — putting the poor man in a place where he can no longer need other people's aid," Maimonides wrote.
For those of you who think this sounds a lot like the proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime," you're right on the money.
But it's also important to note the kind of charity Maimonides considers to be the lowest form of giving, that is the "charity" that is given unwillingly, especially by force.
If that isn't a 12th-century prophecy for coerced taxpayer-funded "welfare," I don't know what is.
The point is, the pope has it right when he says caring more for our fellow human beings will improve the entire human condition. But that caring only be sustained when all parties feel valued as opposed to one side feeling forced to give to charity and the other side being simply identified as the faceless recipients of "goodwill."
Pope Francis has devoted most of his life to making sure he gets so close and personal with the poor that they will never be faceless or one-dimensional. Now, he must follow the wisdom of a Medieval Jewish Rabbi, scholar, physician and merchant to understand how not to underestimate the rich, and those who strive to be rich without forgetting their responsibilities to all.
— By Jake Novak