On Repen­tance And Repair: Mak­ing Amends in an Unapolo­getic World

By – September 23, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions

As chil­dren, we learned that say­ing I’m sor­ry” was a cure-all for any con­flict or argu­ment. The cycle of argue, say sor­ry, and move on” has been our pre­ferred con­flict res­o­lu­tion mod­el, per­pet­u­at­ed in mod­ern times at all rela­tion­ship lev­els. In these past few years, as we have begun to prop­er­ly attend to our emo­tions and reck­on with our painful his­to­ries and back­grounds per­son­al­ly, com­mu­nal­ly, nation­al­ly, and glob­al­ly, and to find a grow­ing need for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and social jus­tice, this cycle feels woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate. And our most recent mod­el of con­flict res­o­lu­tion— can­cel cul­ture— can only car­ry us so far. 

Enter Danya Ruttenberg’s On Repen­tance and Repair: Mak­ing Amends in an Unapolo­getic World. Rut­ten­berg refresh­es old, for­got­ten advice from the twelfth-cen­tu­ry rab­bi Mai­monides, gives an overview of his views on repen­tance in the Jew­ish text the Mish­neh Torah, and offers us a five-step process toward a more whole­some way to repair rela­tion­ship break­downs. She then applies the five steps to exam­ples from all rela­tion­ship lev­els, from inter­per­son­al to glob­al, and dis­cuss­es the impli­ca­tions of this process for our own jus­tice system.