Repentance, Forgiveness, Atonement

Photo by Sally Blood

An Interview with Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

I follow a number of religious leaders, from various traditions, on social media, and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s tweets and newsletters have been an ongoing source of spiritual wisdom over the last half decade. We’ve had occasional exchanges in that time, but I welcomed the opportunity to have a deeper conversation with her about her most recent book, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, published by Beacon Press. (Read our review.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ron Hogan: This book grew out of a public discussion on Twitter, in which you began to tease out the distinctions between repentance, forgiveness, and atonement.

Danya Ruttenberg: I guess the first place to start is with the word “repentance.” In Judaism, the word translated as “repentance” is t’shuvah, which means “returning.” Literally, it’s a coming back. It’s about coming back to where you were supposed to be before you strayed: before you wandered off from who you were supposed to be all along.

For us, repentance is really about returning, and about transformation: repairing the harm that we’ve caused, turning into the people that we want to be, and learning how to grow into that.

RH: You make a powerful point of how repentance isn’t just saying you’re sorry and you’re not going to do it again; it’s about landing in the exact same situation you were in before, and making the better choice this time. 

DR: Right. But that doesn’t happen just by sheer force of will. It happens because you’ve gone through the steps that undergird this work. . . . You can’t just cause harm and then make a different choice next time. You have to own the harm that you’ve caused; you have to begin the work of becoming different. What is the thing that you need to do in order to understand the harm that you caused?

Then there are the amends: what does the victim need; what do they want; what will help them feel more whole? And then apology, which comes from this open heart that finally understands because of all of this hard work you’ve been doing in this process. You finally see the other person, and you see them in their fullness. So it’s not, oh, I’m sorry that I did this thing, but, oh, I get what I did, and I don’t want to be a person that causes you pain. And then, by the time you get to the opportunity to cause that same harm again (and there’s always another opportunity; there’s always another chance to act out your anger, to play out your fear of commitment, to reenact White supremacy—whatever the thing is), you have transformed so powerfully and fully that you organically make a different choice, right? You’ve changed. Of course you’re not going to do that.

RH: There’s this cultural tendency, and we see it most notably when famous people screw up, because they’re the ones who get the attention. The culture seems to lean into saying, well, they said they were sorry; then it wipes our hands clean of it. Rather it’d be better to look at things from the victim’s perspective, and ask whether we’ve done anything to mitigate the harm that was done to them.

DR: The question is not what can the harm-doer do to be let off the hook, so we can reinstate power structures and return to the status quo. The question is what does the person, party, or community that was hurt need to care for that hurt person or people, and what needs to happen or change so that harm does not happen again?

And who decides if enough change has happened, what kind of change is needed, or whether the victim’s needs have been taken care of? Not concerned third parties, particularly those who would like to see the status quo return. Who should decide whether their needs have been taken care of is the people who have been hurt.

RH: You talk about repentance being not only a form of radical empathy for other people but also ultimately a form of self-care: in everything you’ve said about return, and in becoming the person that we’re supposed to be.

DR: We are all harm-doers; we have all been harmed; we are all bystanders to harm. We’ve all occupied all of the roles. But when we are the harm-doer, if we are able to say to ourselves: Hey, Self, you made a choice out of a place of brokenness, out of anger, out of ignorance, out of malice, out of some sort of darkness or trauma, or whatever. . . . Something happened, and you were not acting out of the self that you know you want to be, that you can be. What’s going on here?

It can be really, really painful stuff to face, because we all love to have that story of ourselves as the hero, as the good guy, always doing the best. So that defensiveness comes up: no, it wasn’t me. Or even shame, that sense of I didn’t do anything wrong, because if I did anything wrong, that means I am bad. 

We can do harmful things, and that doesn’t mean we are bad people, right? We are always capable of change; we are always capable of growth. . . . There’s literally no downside to doing this work except that it’s hard, and it can be scary. And that’s real, but it doesn’t make it unimportant.

RH: We’ve been talking so far about the individual level of this problem, but you also have a lot to write about social, institutional, and historical harm. One of the things that leapt out at me was this notion that as participants in a society or societal structure, we can be held accountable for the harm that was committed by those who came before us, that we have not actively worked to undo. If we have allowed the harm to stand, we share in that culpability to some degree.

DR: Yes. And that is difficult, sometimes, to face or to figure out how to address. It’s very, very heavy to think about our role in systems and structures that are harmful or oppressive to entire communities or groups of people. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote at one point (and Heschel, I might note, came to the States in the 1930s; the rest of his entire family was murdered in the Holocaust); he wrote, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Even if we personally were not involved in the creation of horrific policy, even if we personally did not do something atrocious, even if our family members did not do something atrocious historically, if we live in a society that benefits from oppressive systems and structures, then we have a responsibility to work to undo that and to fight for a more just, more whole society for everyone. That’s just a fact.

And what that means, what our role and responsibility is . . . you know, everyone has a different place on deck, right? We need all hands on deck, but there’s a lot of deck, so everyone’s got to find their own role in the work, but there’s work to be done.

RH: This is something White Quakers in particular are dealing with. That Quakers in the United States ended slavery is a legend. The truth of the matter is that most White Friends in colonial America were for slavery before they were against it, and we fought about that amongst ourselves for decades.

Those Friends were also just as eager as anyone else to participate in the colonization of North America, and we are grappling with the Society’s role in the enforced enrollment of Indigenous children into Christian boarding schools. You see the same arguments (the claim that that wasn’t us versus the claim that we have an institutional responsibility) playing out within our own community.

DR: If we do not do the work to create a future that is different from the past, we will continue to repeat it.

If we’re talking about White supremacy . . . we went from enslavement to lynching, to redlining and Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and voter suppression. If we don’t do the work of dismantling White supremacy together, then we will continue to manifest White supremacy. And it will take all of us to force our country to engage in confession, owning fully the harms that it has caused.

Imagine if we could let the truth actually come out, and we could open a space for real naming of everything that has happened. . . . We began to have profound conversations about policing and mass incarceration, and those were shut down. But what would happen if we let those threads and other threads come, and start to pull on them for real?

And then we get to . . . amends. What does that look like? What does it look like to not only have a reparations conversation, and not a token one—here, have some money; shut up; go away—but a conversation that’s about repair-ation? The root of “reparation” is “repair,” so what would repair 500 years of disenfranchisement?

RH: What are some of the first steps we can take to become more repentant people?

DR: The hardest part in so many ways is being willing to let go of the story of us as the hero—as the good guy who always does everything right—and to be willing to acknowledge that I am not every choice I make; I am not everything that comes out of my mouth. I’m a person; I’m a human person; I make mistakes; I can clean them up!

The measure of who you are as a person is not whether or not you screw up, because we all screw up. The measure of who you are as a person is what happens next, and how well you take responsibility. And the more you’re willing to own the harm you have caused; see the person who is saying ouch; and see them fully—listen, hear, and not dismiss—then you’ve entered the doorway.

RH: I know you’ve been thinking about these issues for years. In the process of writing this, how did you find your own perspective shifting?

DR: Oh, it’s changed me in so many ways. I’ve become much more self-accountable. It’s really uncomfortable; I’m not going to lie! It has forced me to walk the walk. . . . And my thoughts about what’s possible for our society and our culture have really expanded. I’ve become much more audacious in my thinking about what’s possible for this country, and I’ve become much more abolitionist in my thinking about mass incarceration, and what’s possible for repair and redemption for people who have caused serious harm. I’ve seen what’s possible even for people who have committed very violent acts, given the right care and the right frameworks. I’m not making any sudden moves, but I understand what’s possible now in ways that I didn’t before.

Ron Hogan

Ron Hogan is the audience development specialist at Friends Publishing Corporation. He’s also the author of several books, including Our Endless and Proper Work (Belt Publishing). He is a member of Flushing Meeting in Queens, N.Y.

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