On Danya Ruttenberg’s “On Repentance and Repair”

Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi and the scholar-in-residence for the National Council of Jewish Women, is an ethical influencer on Twitter. Her new book got its start on that social media platform during the #MeToo movement, when her tweets about distinguishing between repentance and forgiveness struck a chord with those who were trying to figure out what happens after perpetrators are publicly named as such. 

On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World is, not surprisingly, a perfect read for the Days of Awe. But rather than simply focusing on repairing relationships in preparation for Yom Kippur, this book is a primer for repairing all sorts of cultural harm. Rather than a seasonally-specific resource, it is a year-round social justice guide for Jews and non-Jews alike. 

The primary source for Ruttenberg’s wisdom on repentance derives from Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish commentator also known as Ramban. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides outlined 5 steps for the process of repentance: owning the harm, beginning to change, making amends, apologizing, and making different choices. 

Ruttenberg wittily acknowledges that the sometimes woman-unfriendly Maimonides might seem to be an unlikely resource for contemporary social justice movements. As she puts it in a precious parenthetical, “Do I wish Maimonides could do repentance work for some of his writings about women, among other things? Sure. But that’s outside of the scope of the book.” 

Refusing to throw the baby out with the feminist bathwater, Ruttenberg convincingly argues that Maimonides 5-step plan is just what the doctor ordered for our individualist, capitalist culture. Such a culture too often multiplies harm by expecting victims to forgive perpetrators who haven’t really copped to their crimes. Fetishizing forgiveness puts the onus on the victim and implicitly Christianizes the repentance process. Maimonides’s process for repentance is an antidote to our current “overemphasis on forgiveness and underemphasis on repair.” 

Throughout the book, Ruttenberg smartly explores the paradox that a focus on the perpetrator’s authentic repentance is actually a way to remain victim-centric. Those who do harm need to fully understand and be accountable for their actions. If they try to wriggle out of responsibility, then the victim is gaslighted; if they name and own their destructive ways, the victim’s experience is validated. Making amends should not be a PR stunt but rather an attempt to meet a victim’s needs and to help them heal. 

And crucially, Ruttenberg, following Rambam, recognizes that repentance is “for not only repairing harm but for becoming the kind of person who will not cause harm in the future.” 

The brilliance of On Repentance and Repair is that it brings Maimonides’s Jewish lens to bear on harm that is not only interpersonal, but also public, institutional, and national in nature. Ruttenberg points out that the slimy faux apologies offered by many famous men during the height of the #MeToo movement “were a master class in how to fail” at taking responsibility and fully owning the harm that one has done. Likewise, she takes organizations to task for too often not employing “institutional courage” after they have been guilty of “institutional betrayal.” 

Ruttenberg discusses the admittedly imperfect but nonetheless meaningful attempts that both Germany and South Africa have made to repent for the irreparable national atrocities of the Shoah and apartheid. She then cites the U.S. as a case study for how refusing to do the hard work of repentance ensures that patterns of harm repeat themselves, albeit in different form. “The United States, for example, has never reckoned deeply with its enslavement of people of African descent, so the country continues to find opportunities to commit the same sins of white supremacy again and again and again: from slavery to lynchings, from Jim Crow to redlining, from mass incarceration to voter suppression.” 

In restorative justice movements, Ruttenberg hears echoes of Maimonides. Alert to the potential abuses and failures of restorative justice, she nonetheless views that interactional process as an improvement over a criminal justice system that features “cynical deal making rather than a nuanced reckoning with harm and its impact.” Ruttenberg convincingly argues that the inhumanity of our prison system and its lack of opportunities for authentic repentance and transformation set up many to do more harm when they emerge from it. Ultimately, our so-called justice system renders “the victim beside the point” and actually works to create future victims! 

Ultimately, this book is a call for transformative action. On Repentance and Repair is equal parts justified outrage, astute analysis, and profound hope. Ruttenberg’s faith in the work of repentance is matched by her belief that “if someone causes harm that is irreparable, there is no obligation to forgive.” Reading this book during the Days of Awe is, perhaps paradoxically, a reminder that the work of Yom Kippur needs to be done 365 days a year and not by Jews only. 

Helene Meyers is the author of Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition. She can be found on Twitter @helene_meyers and at https://helenemeyers.com/