Off the Shelf: The road to true repentance

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some of the best books are also the most challenging, especially if they force you to think carefully about how you view the world. Take, for example, “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press). It’s not that I disagree with what she says: in fact, she does a wonderful job explaining the steps we need to take for personal and communal repentance. What’s more difficult is putting all these steps into action and expecting others to do the same. For those of us who grew up in different times and/or are more cynical, it’s hard to believe the world will really change. But that’s the challenge: becoming one of the people who helps make these changes happen.

To understand what Ruttenberg is attempting, it’s necessary to understand the difference between forgiveness and repentance. American culture focuses on forgiveness: if someone apologizes, we are expected to forgive them. In fact, that’s often the first question asked of those who have suffered a tragedy: do you forgive the person who did this to your family? But, as Ruttenberg notes, that emphasis is wrong. Not only should a person have to follow the long, difficult road to true repentance before they should ask for forgiveness, they must come to understand why what they did was wrong and accept responsibility for their actions. They must also recognize that they can’t ask for forgiveness and then expect their lives to return to the way they were before. That’s the most difficult part of what Ruttenberg expects: their lives – just like the lives of the person they harmed – will never be the same. They also have to recognize and accept that they may never be forgiven. 

To show readers how to attain repentance, Ruttenberg uses ideas offered by Moses Maimonides (a 12th century philosopher who also wrote the first Jewish law code, the Mishnah Torah), which she believes can be helpful to everyone, Jewish or not. She notes there are several steps that must be taken before a person should even attempt to ask for forgiveness. The steps include:

  • Naming and owning the harm one has done. That means not making excuses for one’s behavior or refusing to recognize the damage this behavior has done to others. 
  • Starting to change one’s behavior. This means taking steps to understand what was done, and why it was wrong, in order not to make the same mistakes again. 
  • Making restitution and accepting consequences, even if that means confessing to the deed in a court of law, contributing money to help the person harmed regain their prior status or helping others who have been harmed by similar behavior.
  • Apologizing without expecting to be forgiven for the behavior and, even if forgiven, understanding that the person may not want to have their abuser be part of their lives. Plus, even before apologizing, it’s necessary to make certain the person harmed wants to have contact with their abuser because sometimes even talking to that person can cause additional harm.
  • Making different choices so the same thing won’t happen again. It means accepting that real change has to occur and, just as important, understand why those changes are necessary.

Ruttenberg also emphasizes that performing this cycle of repentance does not return the world to what it was before the harm was done. The point is to break the cycle of harm, which affects future actions and also recognizes that the past can never be changed. Anyone who hopes the process will erase what occurred and allow them to continue on the same path has not done the work that Ruttenberg requires. She also notes that even if the victim offers forgiveness, it doesn’t mean they have healed. Healing is a completely different process and one of the reasons why the person may prefer never to have contact with the person who has done her/him harm.

The author offers examples of celebrities and others who have offered facile apologies, but have shown they do not understand the harm they did or changed their behavior. Their defense is not that they did something wrong, but that the problem rests with the other person. The cases of sexual harassment or abuse she discusses also show just how many people have/had no idea, or didn’t care, that their actions were harmful to others. 

Ruttenberg is not only interested in using these ideas of repentance for individuals, but for the larger culture. Her discussions on this topic include the treatment of Native Americans by the United States and Canada, the former institution of slavery in the U.S. and the U.S. criminal justice system. In the latter case, she is looking not to reform the system, but change it so it offers real justice, especially to those without resources. 

The most important lesson of “On Repentance and Repair” is one that Ruttenberg repeats several times and which goes against American/Christian ideas of repentance: atonement does not erase the past. The past can never be changed. What true repentance does is help the person who harmed someone no longer be defined by that action. That can only happen, though, when they have gone through the complete redemption process and changed their behavior. That is the real reason her work is challenging: it takes true determination and understanding to be willing to face what one has done and make the changes necessary, rather than hoping for a shortcut. 

“On Repentance and Repair” was the subject of talks and classes during the past High Holiday season, but reading and studying Ruttenberg’s ideas should not be limited to that time period. Anyone looking to become their best self – and who is willing to face the struggles necessary for that to happen – will find Ruttenberg’s book a good place to start.