(RNS) — Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins Tuesday (Oct. 4), is a time when Jews beg God to forgive their sins.
But Jews also know God will not forgive their transgressions against their fellow human beings if they have not already completed the work of repentance — naming and owning the harm, offering restitution, apologizing and committing to making different choices moving forward.
In her new book, “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg lays out the Jewish system of repentance as codified by the 12th-century Jewish sage, Moses Maimonides.
This is no dry, theoretical treatise, though. Ruttenberg, a public theologian with over 163,000 Twitter followers, thinks the work of repentance is sadly lacking in American society. Her book is full of present-day examples of people, institutions and nations and the way they have addressed — or failed to address — the damage they’ve done.
Ruttenberg, who serves as scholar-in-residence for the National Council of Jewish Women, says society often expects victims to forgive their perpetrators, regardless of whether those perpetrators have cleaned up their act. Judaism, she points out, has no such expectation. Victims of harm may choose to forgive after being offered an apology.
RNS spoke to Ruttenberg by phone from her home in the Chicago suburbs about her book and why repentance is more important than forgiveness. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
What led you to write about repentance and repair?
After #MeToo broke, a rabbinical student was doing some work around what happens to all these famous men named publicly as abusers. Is there a path back? What does it look like? The student asked me to weigh in. I wrote a couple of paragraphs in an email. I threw the rest of it on Twitter. The thread started with distinguishing between repentance, forgiveness and atonement. I went on to explain the differences between these contexts and how I thought they applied to harm in the public square and what it meant for people who committed significant harm — not just to individuals but implicated larger American cultural questions. I got a lot of follow up questions. I realized people don’t have any good language for repairing harm in American culture. They were so flabbergasted that there might be a system for thinking about harm and the obligations of the harm-doer toward the person harmed. In American culture we run so quickly toward forgiveness. We expect the harmed party will do all this heavy, emotional work with nothing asked of the harm-doer. I had all these threads and before long I had a sweater.
It takes courage to write a book detailing the logic of a 12th-century sage.
I’ve always been a fan of Maimonides’ laws of repentance. I’ve always thought they were very wise — the idea that we own our harm and that the harm-doer has to face up to the damage and deal with it. When I was asked to apply Maimonides to #MeToo, that’s when I realized we could apply his system to larger institutional and national questions. We have something that works. Why not share it with people?
You cite lots of examples, but give me your favorites for repentance done right and done wrong.
The University of Michigan Health System made a decision to rethink how it dealt with medical malpractice. Rather than the traditional method of denying harm and trying to avoid getting sued, they realized they had an ethical obligation to people coming to them for care. They started showing up at the bedside when something went wrong, owning it fully, offering compensation and apologizing. They figured out what went wrong and made sure whoever came through their doors next was going to be safer as a result of taking this harm seriously. The person harmed could then take comfort that nobody else was going to be harmed in this way, and many fewer people sued.
There are many examples of not doing the work. I could talk about Louis C.K. He gave a somewhat narcissistic confession. He took time away but not that much time. He went back into the ego-stroking limelight and decided to take up the identity of a harm-doer and made comedy about hurting people. Instead of taking seriously what he had done, he decided to punch down and punch down again. Louis: Call me. I will be there to show what you’re missing.
You say repentance can be an act of self-care. Explain that.
If you’re causing harm, something’s off with you. You’re not aligned with your integrity, your values, your highest self. This is a chance to say, “Hey self, you’re not acting like the person I know you to be. You’re not listening to the voices inside talking about who you can really be. Are you so stressed out you’re not paying attention to other people? How do you get back to wholeness? The work of teshuva (the Hebrew word for “return” or “repentance”) is an opportunity to grow into the person you could be. That’s an amazing opportunity.
You write that cancel-culture can be a good thing. What do you mean?
A lot of what is called cancel culture is just capitalism, the free market operating as it does — allowing people to say they do not like something for whatever reason. But when we talk about canceling, a lot of what’s at play is that people without power in our society are using a mechanism to indicate something is morally unacceptable or harmful to them. People are allowed to draw boundaries. We are allowed to decide what speakers we want to platform. There are excellent, extraordinary people we can put our support behind. When we have artists like Lizzo, who, when she causes harm, immediately responds and says, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that was an ableist slur in my song. (She had used the word “spaz,” short for “spastic” in a song.) I don’t want to harm people. So I’m going to re-release the song and recommit to not harming people.”
Asking for forgiveness is not always the right step. When should a perpetrator not ask forgiveness?
If it will harm the person who was harmed. Figuring out when that is, is very tricky. We don’t want to rush around and traumatize people who are victimized by us. On the other hand, it can be tempting to let yourself off the hook and not engage in what can be a potentially awkward situation for you.
You say reparations for Black Americans are not enough. What else does the U.S. need to do?
I’m not the right person to determine what needs to happen because I am not directly impacted. But what we need is a wholesale engagement with the confession step. Truth-telling is so vital. A robust process of national truth-telling to echo Archbishop Tutu’s (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) where everybody understands what’s been done to Black Americans, not just enslavement, but everything since. We don’t stop until people find changes of the sort this country has never seen.
You say the Black Lives Matter movement is helping.
The grassroots movement and all the ways it has raised and pushed us to understand and be thinking about policing and incarceration and violence and systemic racism is critical. We had a profound reckoning two years ago, and it didn’t go all the way. The pendulum will keep swinging. White Christian nationalism is very much running the show now. I don’t think we’re done.
Forgiveness is not emphasized in Judaism like in Christianity, where the emphasis is on the obligations of the harm-doer, right?
Philosophically, we emphasize the work of repentance. In reality, the temptation to re-inscribe power is very much there. People will say, “This famous or beloved person has done enough. Can’t we take their money again?” Pressuring people to forgive is convenient, even if we have Maimonides. So there’s theory and practice. There are places where people are doing extraordinary, unbelievable work, and there are places where we still have work to do.