Book Review: On Repentance and Repair by Danya Ruttenberg

Recently, I read On Repentance and Repair; Making Amends in an Unapologetic World by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and so many things that have been rattling around in my heart and mind have become more clear to me about these important topics. We all come from somewhere and my own experiences with the Christian interpretation of these very same concepts rooted in the Jewish traditions has colored greatly how I look at this topic. I appreciated how much the author returns to the roots of language and delves into the history and the background to establish context and nuance.

Living with a terminal diagnosis has changed the way that I look at relationships in some very profound ways, both positively and negatively. Some of my core struggles throughout my life have been about being betrayed and there is almost nothing more difficult than watching people walk away from a relationship when you need them the most. Just google the term “ghosting” and you’ll see a plethora of writing about how often this happens to those of us who are going through a trauma that is not going to end until we are dead.

And so I look at relationships differently. I am more likely to communicate about how I feel about people I care about, to give grace, and to embrace differences. I’ve never been shy about speaking up when there is injustice or when something isn’t going well; this tendency is only more intense now because of how high the stakes are. So much of what I deal with on a daily basis is literally life and death and that lends an intensity that is often misunderstood (story of my life generally and now even more so). Even more profound is the knowledge that there may not be a next time, another holiday, another chance to connect with someone or to fix what is broken.

And so when it comes to repairing relationships, to repentance and atonement and repairing what is broken, I find myself placing more value on fully resolving what has gone wrong. I also find myself far more sensitive to the nuances of this process and when it has broken down, both on the giving and receiving end, as well as becoming more connected to my own feelings.

One of the clearest explanations of what true repentance looks like comes for me towards the end of the book. Rabbi Ruttenberg describes it this way:

You must own the harm you have caused, you must do the work to change, you must make amends, apologize, and, if the opportunity arises, you must make different choices next time.

Not an easy lift when the harm that has been caused is emotional/intangible and the author deals with some serious issues, not just interpersonal, but also when harm is caused on a national or international scale. The process can look different when applied to individual harm versus institutional harm (and we have a lot of that in this country), but the core principles remain the same. The actual apology piece that is often focused on is truly one of the “easiest” or simplest parts of truly righting a wrong and yet is often the part of the process that is highlighted or emphasized.

And what about forgiveness? Should that be something given openly and often? The author suggests, about forgiveness:

It’s regarded as a universal good, as something we should give, freely, regardless of whether the perpetrator of harm has done the work of repentance, regardless of whether they have fully owned their harm, regardless of whether they have done the work of repair, regardless of whether they have done the work to change.

And here is where my own traditions have often caused harm. To put pressure on a person who has been harmed or to somehow communicate that if one does not offer forgiveness freely regardless of the circumstances, then the receiver of the harm is just as wrong as the perpetrator is often more difficult than the original harm. Yes, holding onto hurt or struggle can often be more harmful you individually, yet there are also different levels of forgiveness, something the author spends some time fleshing out.

My interpretation of the first level is to let the desire to seek revenge go and not to dwell on the violation/hurt, focused clearly first on how the victim handles how the hurt affects them personally. This is something I can get behind because it doesn’t simply wash the hurt/transgression under the rug in favor of acting like everything is fine, something that I’m really bad at anyway. The deeper levels of forgiveness acknowledge that reconciliation efforts are underway or completed, that the perpetrator of the hurt/harm has done the work of repentance.

Another distinction that the author brings forward is the difference between repentance and atonement, which is also tied to some translation differences between the original language of the documents and English. Here’s how the author describes “atonement:”

Atonement is the logical conclusion of the repentance process, and in most cases, doing all of the steps with seriousness and care, walking the path of repair and transformation, is enough to purify your own polluted shrine.

The author delves into how atonements is often conflated with repentance despite the two topics and processes being quite different and I do appreciate how she always brings the reader back to the understanding that this process isn’t focused on other people, but first on ourselves. We pollute our ability to connect with others, to be in intimate relationship, to do this life in community if the work of purifying ourselves is not given its due.

Still so much to unpack with this book and I am sure that it will be something I will be mulling over for some time to come. For now, I am applying these principles in my own life and with my children, who provide many an opportunity to resolve conflicts, both small and large.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: On Repentance and Repair by Danya Ruttenberg

  1. Abigail, this is a wonderful book review. The themes that you have picked up on are very important ones, and I am glad that the author deals with them in depth. These themes have impacted upon my own life too and during my lifetime I have had to look at them in great depth. Like you I have had to look at them from a Christian perspective and to formulate new interpretations of them, the book sounds really good.

    Liked by 1 person

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