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A crucial new lens on repentance, atonement, forgiveness, and repair from harm—from personal transgressions to our culture’s most painful and unresolved issues
American culture focuses on letting go of grudges and redemption narratives instead of the perpetrator’s obligations or recompense for harmed parties. As survivor communities have pointed out, these emphases have too often only caused more harm. But Danya Ruttenberg knew there was a better model, rooted in the work of the medieval philosopher Maimonides.
For Maimonides, upon whose work Ruttenberg elaborates, forgiveness is much less important than the repair work to which the person who caused harm is obligated. The word traditionally translated as repentance really means something more like return, and in this book, returning is a restoration, as much as is possible, to the victim, and, for the perpetrator of harm, a coming back, in humility and intentionality, to behaving as the person we might like to believe we are.
Maimonides laid out five steps: naming and owning harm; starting to change/transformation; restitution and accepting consequences; apology; and making different choices. Applying this lens to both our personal relationships and some of the most significant and painful issues of our day, including systemic racism and the legacy of enslavement, sexual violence and harassment in the wake of #MeToo, and Native American land rights, On Repentance and Repair helps us envision a way forward.
Rooted in traditional Jewish concepts while doggedly accessible and available to people from any, or no, religious background, On Repentance and Repair is a book for anyone who cares about creating a country and culture that is more whole than the one in which we live, and for anyone who has been hurt or who is struggling to take responsibility for their mistakes.
About the Author
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is an award-winning author and writer. She serves as Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Ruttenberg was named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of ten “rabbis to watch;” as one of 21 “faith leaders to watch” by the Center for American Progress; and by The Forward as one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis. She has been a Washington Post Sunday crossword clue (83 Down) and called a “wunderkund of Jewish feminism” by Publishers Weekly. She has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Time, Newsweek, and many other publications, and contributes regularly to The Washington Post and The Forward.
She is the author of seven books, including Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron Books), which was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and PJ Library Parents’ Choice selection; Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press), nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature and a Hadassah Book Club selection.
Before her ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2008, she worked as a freelance writer, and has in the years since also served as rabbi and educator at Tufts and Northwestern Universities, for Hillel International, for the dialogue project Ask Big Questions and Avodah, an organization dedicated to creating leaders for economic justice. She lives in the Chicago area with her spouse and three children.
“A must-read for anyone navigating the work of justice and healing. Rabbi Ruttenberg weaves together stories and insights that prompt big questions for every person who aspires to build bridges and help shape a more just and inclusive nation and world.”
—Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley
“When you read Danya Ruttenberg’s brilliant book, you see with fresh eyes that there is a huge omission in contemporary culture: we don’t have a road map for how someone who’s done harm can change and make amends to others, nor do we discuss why this is necessary for both individual recovery and societal well-being. Ruttenberg fills this gap with a host of examples from recent history, an astute reading of why our existing processes go wrong for both victims and perpetrators, and a wonderful interpretation of Jewish tradition in which there are well-established steps for repenting and repairing. The result is this engrossing book.”
—Rebecca Solnit, author of Orwell’s Roses
“Danya Ruttenberg’s deep thinking and social compassion are a welcome antidote to the toxic individualism pervading our daily lives. On Repentance is a vital contribution to any conversation about how to ethically and empathetically navigate the complex and compressed times we live in.”
—Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her
“Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has waded into the timely and urgent discussion about violence, repair, and forgiveness with clarity, honesty, and a fulsome embrace of the complexity of repentance and reconciliation. Her careful and fine-tuned ability to illuminate the guidance found in the writings of Jewish religious texts—in this instance, those of the medieval philosopher Maimonides—undergirds Ruttenberg’s very modern and impressive blueprint for confronting and engaging the effects of harm and the potential for reconciliation.”
—Sherrilyn Ifill, author of On the Courthouse Lawn