Review and Reflection of “On Repentance and Repair” by Danya Ruttenberg

This is a brand new book, being published in 2022, yet the content of it is timeless. Ruttenberg has identified that we live in a culture that is in great need of repentance and repair. I don’t think this is controversial. The question is how? Ruttenberg looks at one model from Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish philosopher and teacher of the Torah, and applies the teaching to what it might look like for us in the 21st century in America. Overall, I found this book to be very enlightening, healing, and opening the reader to seeing possibilities of repair that are so needed in our society. Ruttenberg presents a model – it’s out job to take that model and apply it. Within the book Ruttenberg applies the model to interpersonal relationships, as well as to institutions, and even to nations. And there are varying levels of healing that she highlights – which offer hope to the reader.

First, I want to just comment on the subtitle of the book – “Making amends in an unapologetic world.” Wow. There’s a lot there just in the subtitle. It’s a recognition of how cold the world is, but also a recognition that we don’t have to be cold in it. This book offers a path for people to experience healing in a world that can often be cruel for the sake of cruelty. There is a better way and Ruttenberg shows us a way.

She starts on page 3 with this statement and a series of important questions:

“To put it bluntly, American society isn’t very good at doing the work of repentance or repair. And though we’ve seen a recent increase in public attempts to hold harmdoers to task, there’s still a lot of confusion in the cultural conversation about what that might entail. What are we asking of the person who has done wrong? What work must they take on in order to repair, to whatever extent possible, the harm that was done? How should we regard them if they have caused harm and tried to fix it? 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 neither harmed nor perpetrated harm in all of this? There’s still a lot of uncertainty in our social discourse on these matters – even more so when we’re not talking about individuals perpetrating harm, but rather institutions, other organizations, or even nations.” (pg. 3). Thus begins her exploration of all these things in the book.

Further in the introduction, Ruttenberg introduces the reader to the Jewish concepts of repentance, forgiveness and atonement – describing how each are different. And she introduces us to Maimonides and his work Mishnah Torah where she will draw on his ideas for modern interpretation and application.

She summarizes Maimonides work as a specific process – “including public confession of harm, a particular approach to making amends, and deep transformational work that culminates in changed actions.” (pg. 4). This is a “victim-centric apology” and focus. It’s about responsibilities of the perpetrator and what they need to do to show that they recognize what they have done, that they are sorry for it, and the steps they will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Forgiveness is a different matter all together in this regard. “The focus is not on whether forgiveness is granted but on whether the person who has done the harm engages deeply in the steps of repentance and repair.” (pg. 5)

Ruttenberg takes an honest look at why this work is so very difficult in an American context. She points the finger towards our focus on individualism. “…our society, as the influential international law scholar Louis Henkin has noted, focuses on rights afforded to individuals, rather than on our obligations to one another, and on limitations to what the government can do to the individual, rather than what the government is required to offer its constituents.” (Pg. 5). This statement alone sets the stage for a deeper understanding of so much of our nation, how we deal with challenges, and why we focus on individuals and their actions without acknowledging the role of systems. Or as Ruttenberg states – “We lack a sense of collective responsibility, a communal ethos or process that might help hold victims’ pain and urge perpetrators to hold themselves accountable.” (Pg. 5-6).

Combine this individualism with what Ruttenberg says is a “hyper-capitalist ethos.” (Pg. 6). “…our culture’s thirst for instant gratification feeds the desire to resolve challenges quickly, to privilege immediate catharsis over the hard, painstaking work of process and transformation.” (Pg. 6). She hits the nail on the head with this. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about horror caused by mass shootings or personal abuses suffered. We’d rather just offer thoughts and prayers and move on instead of dealing with the actual problem. “The point to note here is that ‘self-interest’ is for those with power, and it disincentivizes the work of repentance.” (Pg. 7)

Next Ruttenberg says that “Another salient thread long woven into our national fabric of thinking about repentance is a watered-down, secularized distortion of Protestant thinking that has infused American culture.” (pg. 7). Of course she’s talking about the culture twisting Martin Luther’s sola fide – faith alone. There are no works necessary for salvation. And this becomes a huge emphasis on forgiving and forgiveness. But it comes at a cost. Ruttenberg talks about how the focus on forgiveness, “had results that its originators did not intend.” (Pg. 8). And she talks about how it has cost accountability and incentive for perpetrators to seek repentance and repair. She cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer in labeling all of this as “cheap grace.” (Pg. 8).

This leads to a fourth threat that Ruttenberg identifies as why our culture struggles with repentance and repair – “Another thread in the American privileging of forgiveness over repentance has to do with how theology was used in the service of power in the wake of the Civil War. Shortly after the conflict ended, northern white clergy began preaching forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity with white southerners, at the expense of justice, or even safety, for Black Americans, whether newly emancipated or already free.” (Pg. 9). This becomes extremely important when we look at repentance and repair in relation to institutions and nations and how so many have gotten off the hook of the hard work of repentance. Systems are designed to protect themselves and maintain the status quo. The problem is that when status quo systems are abusive, there needs to be transformational change, not just empty gestures. Or as Ruttenberg says, “…even those who commit horrific wrongs can be forgiven with no effort on their part.” (Pg. 11). That becomes the believed consequence of an over emphasis on forgiveness without transformation. In the historical context in which the author brought up, she says, “Calling for forgiveness and unity, without looking too hard at the atrocities in the South and those who committed them, enabled the white leaders of the North to move forward after the war without disrupting the status quo and the role they enjoyed within it.” (Pg. 11). And that’s all just in the introduction.

Chapter one turns to an overview of Maimonides process of repentance and what Ruttenberg says in the chapter title – “What might be possible.” (pg. 21). In introducing this, she reminds us that “According to Maimonides, a person doesn’t just get to mess up, mumble, ‘Sorry,’ and get on with it. They’re not entitled to forgiveness if they haven’t done the work of repair…Fixing damage involves taking specific steps.” (pg. 23). I think this is really important. There have been far too many people who have suffered from this and it has a long term damage on people. In essence, when someone does damage to someone else, there needs to be effort done to provide healing – not as a source of punishment, but as a way to actively move towards wholeness. Shalom underlies this. Shalom is the Jewish concept of wholeness and completeness. It’s what God has always been up to. It’s not about punishment for the sake of expanding pain to the perpetrator. It’s about seeking ways to move towards shalom wholeness.

Ruttenberg then goes into great detail about that process.

Step 1 – Naming and Owning Harm. “Confession…the person doing this work has to actually comprehend the harm they have caused. A person can’t repent if they don’t understand why the thing that happened is actually a big deal – why the person who has been hurt is actually hurt.” (Pg. 26-7)

Step 2 – Starting to Change. “…true repentance happens at the moment when a person comes into a situation similar to one in which they had perviously committed harm, and this time, do it right.” (Pg. 32)

Step 3 – Restitution and Accepting Consequences. “True repentance begins when the perpetrator confesses to a harmful action, perhaps publicly, and initiates the process of becoming someone who does not perpetuate this harm – thus investing in the prevention of future victims.” (Pg. 36-7). “Maimonides is clear…that one who injures another physically must pay damages on five fronts: for the injury itself, the pain suffered, the medical costs, the time away from work, and the humiliation.” (Pg. 38-9)

Step 4 – Apology. “…the focus here is on what the victim receives rather than what the perpetrator puts out. Even after a person has made ‘restitution of monetary debt, they are obliged to pacify [the person harmed] and to beg their forgiveness…The focus is on the mental and emotional state of the victim, not the boxes that a perpetrator needs to check in order to be let off the hook.” (Pg. 41)

Step 5 – Making Different Choices. “…when faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, [the perpetrator must] make a better choice.” (Pg. 43)

Chapter two turns to repentance in personal relationships. The key to this can be summed up in one quote: “The reason to do repentance work is not because you are BAD BAD BAD until you DO THESE THINGS but because we should care about each other, about taking care of each other, making sure we’re all OK. Taking seriously that I might have hurt you – even inadvertently! even because I wasn’t at my best! – is an act of love and care.” (Pg. 58). Again, this goes back to what shalom is all about. The focus isn’t on what’s missing, but rather on how we become whole.

Chapter three is about harm in the public square. This is about public figures and actions that are very public in nature. They need to be addressed publicly as well. There are two key points in this chapter. First, “If you want to be different, you must not only face the truth of who you are but also make yourself vulnerable, expose your weaknesses, and ask for help in making different choices. Public confession demands being specific about the harm that you’ve caused. And it helps you become accountable not just to specific individuals but to the community at large.” (Pg. 84).

The other point highlighted in this chapter is especially important in our culture and greatly misunderstood. It’s as if we have things backwards. “But all too often in our culture today, the public confession, sometimes written by a frazzled publicist and deployed by a public figure, is used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, as if the confession should suffice, without the work of repair or transformation, to bring this figure back into the fabric of society. And if this doesn’t happen right away, the person might protest the lack of immediate forgiveness: ‘I SAID I was SORRY!'” (Pg. 88). Throughout this chapter, Ruttenberg gives a variety of examples of public apology that has worked and gone very badly. The examples are helpful.

Chapter four moves up the scale from individuals to institutions and how they are to do the work of repentance. As you might suspect, the more people are involved, like in an institution, the harder the work is. And Ruttenberg gives plenty of examples again of institutions who get at least some of it right, and examples of those who don’t. The author also talks about what is called institutional betrayal – when trust has been violated. For institutions, it starts with truth telling and confronting that truth. “Acknowledgement of harm, apology, reparations, and investigation that can determine what went wrong, making it possible to avoid the same mistake in the future – that’s it. That’s the work of repentance, right there.” (Pg. 107).

Chapter five moves us up even further to national repentance. This is a difficult one for so many Americans. Especially when many Americans have a belief that the nation is special or exceptional. Yet there is a history of less than exceptional systemic behavior that we have not even begun to acknowledge or deal with. Fortunately Ruttenberg doesn’t leave us without hope. She gives two examples of nations that have done the work of repentance. Mind you, it’s not perfect or complete, but it’s a start in the right direction. Those two examples are Germany after Nazism and South Africa after Apartheid.

The key here is best summed up this way by Ruttenberg – “The larger the scale of harm…the more critical the first step of repentance is.” (Pg. 116) That is acknowledging what happened and the harm that was caused. Along with this acknowledgement comes with what actually changes. “…it is impossible to become different when systemic injustices are continuing to be perpetuated.” (Pg. 136). Saying sorry without a change means that it will continue and happen again. A current modern day example would be how we deal with mass shootings. We offer “thoughts and prayers” and then do absolutely nothing to change any system whatsoever, ensuring that yet another mass shooting will happen. Are we really sorry for these things occurring when we willfully take no action to change the systems that allow them to continue?

Chapter six moves the reader to systems – in this case the justice system in the US. Ruttenberg goes right in to it citing the glaring statistic – “The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world; our country holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite representing only about 5 percent of the world’s population.” (Pg. 143). She goes on to talk about how the system “works” which includes plea bargains that end up causing more harm than good. “The system as it stands now does not, apparently, want the repentance work of incarcerated or formally incarcerated people. It sets up a myriad of obstacles to it.” (Pg. 148). I would argue that is accurate because our justice system isn’t based on rehabilitation, but rather punishment.

She goes on to talk about three types of ways the justice system could be reformed to allow for repentance:

1. Restorative justice in which the focus is on repairing the harm.

2. Transformative justice which focuses on “how individual justice and collective change are necessarily intertwined.” (Pg. 150)

3. Community accountability which is about “addressing harm outside the framework of policing and incarceration.” (pg. 150)

After all of that focus on repentance, Ruttenberg turns her attention to forgiveness in Chapter seven. Going back to the Jewish roots of the idea of this book, she connects forgiveness to “the Hebrew word for ‘gift.’ It’s a present that is offered, something that is granted to someone freely, without, necessarily, a conversation about whether or not they have earned it.” (Pg. 170). That distinction is important to everything that Ruttenberg has been arguing. Repentance is focused on what the perpetrator has done and how they are working on being transformed and trying to repair the damage they have done to a victim. Forgiveness is not expected in that work. Some people just won’t ever offer it. But when it is offered, it is a gift.

She then goes on to talk about different types of forgiveness. She makes a good first point with this – “Forced and coerced forgiveness is not only toxic – it can be lethal.” (Pg. 171). This is reference to abuse cases.

One type of forgiveness is transactional – “It has the connotation of relinquishing a claim against an offender.” (Pg. 171). Another type of forgiveness is more emotion based. “It looks with a compassionate eye at the penitent perpetrator and sees their humanity and vulnerability, recognizes that, even if they have caused great harm, they are worthy of empathy and mercy.” (Pg. 172) Regardless of which type, the point here is that forgiveness is letting go so you can move on with life.

One of the really important points that Ruttenberg makes in this chapter is about who forgiveness is demanded of when a great harm is done. “…the families of those killed by police are ‘asked to grant forgiveness to someone who has not asked for it but [are] really being asked to absolve the system – the institution of the police, and maybe the state as a whole – that produced the individual shooter.’ The request for forgiveness is, functionally, a request to not name an injustice as an injustice; it is a request that the families of victims not demand amends, recourse, or the kind of systemic change that might prevent the same kind of harm in the future.” (Pg. 183). “When the victims are primarily white, the question simply doesn’t come up.” (Pg. 182)

And lastly, Ruttenberg turns to atonement. “…at-one-ment – implying a reconciliation or unification between human beings and the divine from whom they had been estranged.” (Pg. 192). In theological terms, “It’s a purification. A wiping clean. A sort of spiritual disinfectant.” (Pg. 192). Ruttenberg gives some history of this – going back to the origins of the scapegoat, where all the sins of the people are symbolically put on an animal and the animal is either sent out of the town, or killed. “…atonement is, in the framework of my tradition, something that happens in connection with the divine.” (Pg. 200).

Overall, this book is really good at looking at various ways to view harm, repentance, and repair. I appreciated the victim-centered approach. Likewise, I also appreciate the underlying foundation of Shalom that runs through the entire argument. It’s always about bringing wholeness and completeness to relationships – whether those relationships are individual, institutional, national, systemic or anything else. There can be no shalom, or wholeness, or peace, when abuse is left as an open wound or there is an attempt to cover that wound quickly and move on. And Ruttenberg has offered a model for us to follow. It’s not easy of course. But the impact, as she has shown, can truly be transformative and restorative. And that’s what Shalom is really about.


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