Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is known for infusing social commentary with Judaic tenets. In her latest work of nonfiction, she takes on a timely topic: amends and repentance. It’s not just timely because of the High Holidays; it’s also befitting of social occurrences like #MeToo, systemic racism and the question of reparations, “callout” culture, and the current contentious political climate. She posits that America has never been great at making amends or repairing wrongdoings, a fact that has seeped into every part of our culture.
Ruttenberg uses the Laws of Repentance that Maimonides, or Rambam, set forth. Maimonides believed that someone cannot merely apologize for a wrongdoing and expect a resolution. A person is not entitled to forgiveness if they have not done repair work — and even if they have put in that work, they may still not be entitled to forgiveness. The Laws of Repentance are comprised of several steps:
Step One: Naming and Owning Harm
Step Two: Starting to Change
Step Three: Restitution and Accepting Consequences
Step Four: Apology
Step Five: Making Different Choices
Ruttenberg goes on to explore all five steps using current events and social issues, illustrating how each works. She makes clear that though the book’s ideas are rooted in Jewish thought, this is a book for every reader, of any and every faith or the absence thereof. “We’ve all caused harm, we’ve all been harmed, we’ve all witnessed harm,” Ruttenberg writes. “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 into the work.”
Interpersonal harm, systemic injustices, institutional wrongdoings, and the justice system are just some of the broad areas that Ruttenberg explores. She discusses various harmful actions and the steps one can take to examine oneself and one’s culture in pursuit of action, change, and amends. While Ruttenberg’s book turns a keen and analytic eye toward social justice issues, it really shines when it turns back to Jewish thought and law. Because the rabbi mines heavy topics, it’s easy to feel stuck when reading. But here as in life, one must keep going and do the work. The only way out, in other words, is through.
Despite her complex, even academic, approach, Ruttenberg has written an accessible, timely text of what it means to make amends, take part in true repair work, and seek forgiveness. She cuts through the rhetoricals and hypotheticals to offer real, concrete guidance on what must be done to heal and move forward from wrongdoing.
Jaime Herndon is a medical writer who also writes about parenting and pop culture in her spare time. Her writing can be seen on Kveller, Undark, Book Riot, and more. When she’s not working or homeschooling, she’s at work on an essay collection.