On the high holiday of Yom Kippur, Jews ask to be forgiven for their transgressions against God. The transgressions against humans can only be forgiven by those humans against whom they were committed.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and her book. Credit: Submitted

That process and purpose for personal forgiveness is the focus of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s new book On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. It was awarded the prestigious Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice Award from the 72nd National Jewish Book Awards.

Although the book by Ruttenberg, an Evanston resident and Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, might start with a premise from Yom Kippur, its message goes far beyond any particular religious perspective. It is a thought-provoking commentary on creating a healthy, sensitive and just society.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Could you help us understand the title: On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World?

The work of repairing harm is significant – and it is largely or entirely incumbent upon the harm-doer to undertake. In my tradition, in Judaism, we have a process for helping to do that work and we call it repentance. But it’s not about just feeling bad; it’s about doing the work of accountability, of transformation, and of amends and healing.

We live in a world that focuses on pushing forgiveness as the greatest ideal. In our culture, we so often see victims of harm pressured to forgive their harm-doer without asking the harm-doer to have done anything to care for the person they hurt, or for an institution to care for the community it harmed.

Often, we push forgiveness on the victim. Our apologies are cursory and superficial; they are not true apologies. Ultimately, forced forgiveness without asking anything of the perpetrator is a way to reinforce the existing status quo and structures of power.

What inspired you to write this book?

In 2017, #MeToo broke and we heard the public statements from many famous men acknowledging that they had, in fact, caused harm – and how terrible being named is for them, for their jobs and for their families. They almost never mentioned the people that they hurt. Public discourse focused on what the next step would be for them.

People started asking me this question directly, and I put out some of my thinking in a Twitter thread, laying out how the steps of repairing harm look in my tradition. The idea was: Here are some things we could look for to know if they were really doing the work to take responsibility.

I was unprepared for the response to the thread – and the many, many questions that erupted from it. In our forgiveness-centric society, the idea that the labor was incumbent on the perpetrator to take accountability – and not on the victim to forgive – was profoundly countercultural and revolutionary to a lot of people.

That’s when I began to realize that a Jewish model used in interpersonal and family situations could be applied to larger cultural issues or institutional harm or systemic harm.

You say victims shouldn’t be guilted into forgiving their offenders. What part does the victim have in repair?

We need to center on the victims and their needs. Our job is to take care of the victims and make sure they are getting what they need to heal. Their work is to heal and to take care of themselves. Harm-doers might apologize but if they haven’t gone through the deep emotional process to change, that apology doesn’t mean much.

But even if the person who apologizes has done the deep work of repentance, and has begun to become a different person, the harmed person doesn’t owe them forgiveness. The victim doesn’t owe emotional labor to the harm-doer; repentance and forgiveness are separate tracks. That doesn’t mean that people should be petty and lord their woundedness over a sincere penitent, but when we’re talking about serious harm, traumatic harm, the considerations are different.

Harmed people can heal without forgiving and can give themselves permission not to forgive and just heal. Sometimes, people need to hear that they’re allowed to not forgive.

In the book, you suggest that saying, “I’m sorry,” even when it is sincere, is not enough. The one who has offended or who is the perpetrator needs to go through a process. Who guides or decides what that means and that process?

In Judaism the steps are these:

  1. Confession; fully naming and owning the harm – ideally publicly, but at least to those impacted and those who witnessed.
  2. Starting to change, so you don’t do the harm again.
  3. Amends to the harmed party. 
  4. Apology.
  5. Making different choices, which is an organic outcome of all the growing and changing that has been happening. 

I argue in the book that all of these steps are actually profoundly victim-centric.  A confession, for example, is an end to gaslighting – the victim hears, finally, the truth of their experience confirmed in ways that can be profoundly healing. It’s taking accountability. And it’s the beginning of the perpetrator’s journey of learning and transformation – of creating a future with more healing instead of more harm.

What might people who aren’t Jewish learn from the book?

I wrote this book very intentionally for everybody: people who are Jewish and not Jewish; people who believe in God, people who don’t, and people who just don’t know; people of every background.

I have come to believe that undertaking the process of repentance and repair is a profound and transformative practice for not only healing interpersonal relationships, but also for addressing harm in our larger cultural situations. It is a way to transform institutions that cause harm and can also actually be a road map for facing and meeting – and possibly even healing, to whatever degree possible – the horrors caused by nations.

You have a life in Evanston with everyday activities, interests and some conflicts like the rest of us. How does being a rabbi and thinking about the topics of this book affect what you do?

The work of repentance has become a very, very deep spiritual practice for me. It permeates every aspect of my life. I am constantly trying to do the work to take responsibility for mess-ups in my own personal life with the people I love. And in work situations too, I try hard to do no harm and try my best to own it when I fail, which is often enough.

And I try to teach my children that you don’t just say you’re sorry when you hurt someone. The first question you must ask the person you hurt is: Are you OK? Then you ask: What do you need? After that: What do you want? We focus on the harmed party and their needs. We care for them. And only then do you talk about being sorry.  But always first, you check that the person is OK.

For people who want forgiveness, they need to admit they did something wrong. What if people don’t or can’t admit they did anything wrong?

I believe with my full heart that this process works. But how we get everyone in such diverse and polarize societies into the process, I do not yet know.

Cissy Lacks

Cissy Lacks is a writer, photographer and retired teacher who writes theater reviews for the Evanston RoundTable. Bio information is at cissylacks.com. She can be reached at cissy@evanstonroundtable.com.

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  1. Love the theme of Dania’s book. Congratulations, Dania!
    Cissy, Thanks for the summary and the Q&A!

    It is so true that “Often we push forgiveness on the victim. Our apologies are cursory and superficial”. In the little bit of Hindu tradition that I know of, there is the concept of “penance”, which is somewhat prescriptive and specific on what one should one do when one wrongs someone or something. It may be things like fasting or going up on a specific pilgrimage up a mountain temple etc. etc. Often I wonder if these sort of “self-punishment” in addition to the apology to the victim is better for the victim as well as for the perpetrator and for society in general.

    Thank you!

  2. In my preparation for High Holidays last fall, I read Danya Ruttenberg’s excellent book and now, the intelligent interview by Cissy Lacks. The review prepares the reader for serious work. The book is a challenging moral demand rarely articulated because of the nature of the constraints of the High Holiday pulpit.
    Thank you.