A little preview of On Repentance and Repair, for you.
Hey, people. You are my people. I am so grateful for you. And I’m so, so excited to share with you the fruit of many years of work.
Writing ON REPENTANCE AND REPAIR has been a powerful, challenging, personally transformative experience (which is not to say that I’m not still constantly messing up all the time; hey, still human over here). And—in honor of the start of Elul, the month of introspective repentance work leading up to the High Holy Days in Judaism, I’m going to share with y’all a little preview of the book as today’s missive, if that’s OK. A few parts of the Introduction.
There are other parts of the Intro that aren’t in here—the whole Introduction is almost four times as long as this excerpt (which is already pretty long for an email newsletter); there’s a whole thing about why we’re so bad as a culture at repentance, it gets into labor exploitation and why people confuse intention with impact, maybe, and the Civil War and January 6th. Anyway, this is supposed to be embargoed until September 13th, but I wanted to offer you a little look inside. Here’s a lil’ preview of my brand new book, which has been in process since 2018. I so hope that it resonates for you.
What’s Missing When We Seek To Repair Harm
From On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, by Danya Ruttenberg
Kelly’s sister Susan was often angry as a kid, and her parents did little to contain or check her behavior as she was growing up. During their childhood and early adulthood, Susan often abused Kelly verbally and emotionally, and once, when they were in high school, she physically assaulted Kelly. As a result, Kelly distanced herself from Susan, and they have been semi-estranged for years. Since Susan’s divorce, however, Kelly’s parents have increasingly pressured Kelly to forgive her sister, to be more understanding about Susan’s current challenges as a single mother of small children, and to show up as a support during this difficult time. Should Kelly forgive her sister? Should she reenter her life? Does it matter whether or not Susan has apologized for her past actions? What are Susan’s obligations, here? What about their parents’ obligations? What, if anything, is owed to Kelly, and from whom?
Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon expelled all the Jews from Spain in 1492; it was a devastating blow to a robust community that had been on the Iberian Peninsula for over 1,700 years. In 2015, the Spanish Parliament sought to offer redress, inviting descendants of those expelled to apply for Spanish citizenship. However, despite the law’s declaration that Spain welcomed them to “reencounter their origins, opening forever the doors of their homeland of old,” the window for these citizenship applications was only open for four years, and involved an astonishing list of bureaucratic demands, including proof of lineage; a four-hour Spanish language test; and a citizenship test covering various topics of Spanish culture and society. In order to be considered, applicants had to travel to Spain to finalize the application in person with a Spanish notary. In fact, several members of Spanish Parliament noted how onerous these requirements were as the law was being discussed. And, in the end, Spain only approved about 20% of applicants, retroactively implementing new bureaucratic standards for applications out of concern for fraud. Should this law be considered appropriate amends to the descendants of this community? If the window of time was greater, or the red tape less severe, would it be appropriate amends? What else, if anything, might Spain be obligated to do with regards to the descendants of the Jews it had expelled for the crime of being Jewish? Does 21st Spain even owe these descendants anything at all?
The woman who created the gender reveal party—writing up a gathering she held during her first pregnancy in what would become a viral blog post—shared, 11 years later, that she regretted having done so. Part of this was because of the immediate, material harm that was sometimes caused as a result of increasingly outrageous “reveals”—wildfires, accidental deaths—but most of it was, she said, because it added even more cultural emphasis to the sex assigned a baby at birth. She now understands, she shared on Facebook and elsewhere, the way that this can damage trans and non-binary kids, and even limit the gender expression of cisgender kids. What, if anything, should she do now? What could or should her repentance work look like? Do her obligations change if the impact that she caused came from a place of ignorance at the time? If she had no idea that her blog post would create a significant cultural impact?
The challenges surrounding apologies and forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation, amends and atonement invite a lot of questions, and they’re neither simple nor theoretical. They impact the very structure of our criminal justice system. They are ever-present in our rapidly shifting conversation on sexual abuse. They haunt the legacies of every country touched by colonialism and white supremacy, and hang painfully over our intimate bonds, our family and professional relationships, and our communities.
And in the United States, most of the time, we’ve gotten them very, very wrong.
To put it bluntly, American society isn’t very good at doing the work of repentance or repair.
And while we’ve seen an increase in recent years in more public attempts to hold harmdoers to task, there’s still a lot of confusion in the cultural conversation about what that entails. What are we asking of that person? What is the work on them to repair, to whatever extent possible, the harm done? How should we regard them if they have both caused harm and tried to fix? If they have not done any amends work? What does justice look like, what does healing look like, and what are the roles of the victim and the perpetrator in this process? And what, if any, is the role of those who were neither harmed nor perpetrated harm in all of this? There’s still a lot of uncertainty in our social discourse—and even more so when we’re not talking about individuals perpetrating harm, but rather institutions, organizations, or even nations.
However, there does not need to be. In fact, there is a model for meaningfully addressing harm—from the small, daily, intimate sorts of harm that manifest in personal relationships to large, cultural moments—all the way to genocide.
“Addressing harm,” of course, does not mean that every atrocity can be magically fixed, as though it never happened. But in the Jewish tradition—rooted, specifically, in the work of the 12th century philosopher Maimonides—there is a robust and sophisticated system for grappling with everything from embarrassing missteps to horrific propagations of evil, and for doing the work in one’s power to repair and transform. And, I believe, it can be useful for all of us—regardless of background, culture, religion or lack thereof—here, now, today.
We all cause harm sometimes. Maybe it’s intentional, a result of a calculated attempt to gain power, or from a place of anger or spite. Maybe it’s out of carelessness, or ignorance, a reaction to fear, or because we were overwhelmed and dropped some balls. Maybe it’s because we were acting out of our own broken places or trauma, or because, in our attempt to protect some interests, we ran roughshod over others. Maybe it’s because of our smaller role in a larger system. Maybe it’s for one of a myriad of other reasons, or a combination of them.
We have all been harmed. We all nurse stories about the tender places where we have been bumped, cut, battered by others—by people, institutions, or systems. Sometimes, maybe, we have managed to heal completely; sometimes a scar is left behind. Other times, maybe, those places still ache now and again; or hinder us from being able to do things that we once could; or have done immeasurable, even irreparable damage to our lives—or our families, our communities, our heritages.
We also are all bystanders to harm. We read about it in the news; debate it on social media; decide when to say something at work or to a family member; witness social structures that do not deliver on ideals of equity, respect, justice.
And we occupy all of these roles on smaller scales—in our personal relationships, for example—and in larger ones, as members of society, as stakeholders in institutions, as citizens or inhabitants of nations. So it’s critical for all of us to think through the work of repentance, of accountability, of repair and transformation, for a lot of different reasons.
In Judaism, “repentance,” “forgiveness” and “atonement” are very separate categories, and the tradition places the highest emphasis on the work of repentance. Maimonides, in his landmark work Mishneh Torah, codified and developed traditional thinking, itemizing very specific steps to this process—including public confession of harm, a particular approach to amends, and deep transformation work that culminates in changed actions. A sincere, victim-centric apology—potentially with others present to help ensure that everything goes as it should—is certainly part of it, but that’s neither the beginning or the end of the process. And regardless, the focus is on whether the person who has done harm engages deeply around the steps of repentance and repair, not whether forgiveness is granted to them. (Forgiveness is, in fact, a whole other conversation—we’ll get there.) And when this lens is applied to some of the most significant and painful issues of our day, it may just be able to help illuminate the way forward in new ways.
This book started on Twitter. Well, it actually started when a journalist I know emailed me; they were working on a story about what repentance might look like for famous perpetrators of sexual abuse. This was probably about six months after #MeToo had hit, and we were all, as a culture, starting to ask a new set of questions. I replied with some thoughts, the piece came out, only a snippet of what I had shared made it into the article, as these things go. So I decided to tweet out the rest of what I had emailed them, thought maybe it’d be of interest to folks. The thread started with, “I want to distinguish between, ‘repentance,’ ‘forgiveness’ and ‘atonement,’…”
Honestly, I was surprised by the force of people’s responses.
I realized that some of the things that seem obvious to me, as a Jew steeped in my tradition (OK, as a rabbi), are not obvious to everyone. I mean, I grew up in the U.S., and have unconsciously absorbed a lot of the thinking about individualism, self-interest and forgiveness that permeates the conversation here, in probably more ways than I am still aware. But I was also raised connected, at least nominally, to another way of thinking, and my tradition’s teachings on repentance are so foundational that, even as a fairly casual user of Judaism—as I was until my twenties—it was always part of the water I was imbibing. After all, we didn’t go to synagogue very often growing up, but we did make it for the High Holy Days, which is when sermons tend to go in that direction. And as I got more interested in Jewish practice, and eventually made it to rabbinical school, I developed a very soft spot for Maimonides, especially his work on this subject. What can I say? I think his approach to repentance powerfully illuminates the work of taking responsibility for harm.
In any case, the Twitter thread lead to an op-ed which led to a couple of NPR interviews; the thing that was most notable about all of this was the intensity of the energy that came at me every time the topic came up. Everyone had questions—philosophical ones, personal ones, ethical ones, questions about things happening in the news that week or about a story they heard in college that’s stuck with them since. Something about the conversation about repentance, repair, amends and accountability kept landing in this place where people didn’t seem to feel like they knew what to do. Since I’ve started writing and speaking about this stuff, my email and direct messages have filled up with people who have been hurt and told by their teacher, parent, pastor or partner that they should just forgive, that reconciliation is important, or even that they should return to an abusive situation with an open heart. These emotional letters hit home the extent to which American culture emphasizes letting go of grudges and redemption narratives instead of the specific obligations of the perpetrator of harm, or recompense for one who has been harmed, or even traumatized—and the degree to which people are seeking out another model.
I really believe that this other model can offer a new way to navigate personal relationships; to read the news; to participate in the organizations and institutions of which we are part; and to participate in the society in which we live. I hope that you, after reading this book, will have more tools to demand meaningful accountability from yourself and from those around you, and are better equipped to help repair more kinds of harm and focus more meaningfully on the needs of those who have been hurt. I wrote this book because I’m convinced that this approach has the potential to bring real healing and transformation to individuals, to relationships and to communities—and that maybe it can even ripple out beyond that, into the wider cultural conversation and beyond.
This book is for everybody. It is based in Jewish thought, but I am, very intentionally, applying these concepts to secular life and relationships. It’s for Jews and non-Jews, for atheists, agnostics, and theists, for secular people, spiritual people, religious people, and for everybody in-between. We’ve all caused harm, we’ve all been harmed, we’ve all witnessed harm. We are all always growing in our messy, imperfect attempts to do right, to clean up, to repair, to make sense of what’s happened and to figure out where to go from here. This is, I hope, a way in.
Of course, there are some tensions and complexities about the orientation of this book. In many ways it necessarily focuses on perpetrators—it’s about the harm that they have caused, the work that they—that we—must do to find the way back. And I want, more than anything in the world, to show you, to show everyone, that this work is not impossible to do, but it is work, and it can be done (and that we must not be too generous with participation trophies or cookies for people doing the bare minimum.)
And in other ways, of course, any attempt to address harm that does not put the victim(s) of harm and their needs at the center will necessarily come up short. I truly believe that my tradition’s, and Maimonides’ approach is almost always profoundly victim-centric, and I name when I think he’s missed the mark and try to chart another way forward for us. (In some cases, “survivor” may the correct language to describe the person harmed, but since that language choice can both be very personal, sometimes speaking to where a person may be in their own process of recovery from trauma, and since this book addresses a wide range of cases and a wide range of situations, I will use the word “victim” in most cases.)
So I’ve tried to write a victim-centric book on the work of repentance. You can decide for yourself if I managed to live up to the task—but whether or not I’ve succeeded, that’s the work, that should be the work.
Chapter One lays out a broad overview of Maimonides’ steps of repentance. Subsequent chapters will expand on various aspects of them—how to do effective rebuke, the dangers of excessive formalism, the role of the community, and so forth—while looking at the ways in which these principles play out in personal, communal, institutional, and national spheres. In some chapters, Maimonides will feature prominently, as we explore particular dimensions of his, and others’, teachings on the work of repentance. In other chapters, his presence will be much more implicit; you will have, by then, internalized his basic steps, and our emphasis will be on their application in novel contexts.
I’ll name here that I use the word “harm” to describe a wide range of impacts, from fairly resolvable difficulties to great atrocities. Harm is generally used to refer to hurt, injury, or damage of some sort, whether mental, emotional or physical, and may be sustained for a brief amount of time or generations. “Abuse,” on the other hand, is generally defined as unfair, cruel or violent treatment—it is a form of harm, but not all harm is abuse. While it’s not an accident that many of the examples that you’ll find in this book involve notable differentials of power and/or privilege, I refuse to allow for the possibility that harm is only something that can be committed by someone with more power to someone with less power, or different intersections of power. That would deny us all something of our essential humanity, and take away from some of how we can all, as messy people trying to do our best, hurt one another, regardless of our identities, relationship to larger structural forces, or roles. However, power matters—it’s not a neutral conflict if it’s one between a parent and a child, between a male dean and a female student, between a white police officer and an unarmed Black man. What is said or done by the person with less power in that moment cannot be compared in any way to the responsibilities of the party with more power, and it harms us all—it hurts, injures, damages us—as individuals and as a society when we pretend that it can. The work of repentance requires clear-sighted thinking around all of this.
In any case, it’s time to get started. The work of repentance demands curiosity, care, and a willingness to face hard things with bravery and honesty. While we can’t undo the past, we can address the present with integrity, and endeavor to create a future that is so much more whole than anything we could imagine from here. So let us begin.