Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Rabbi & Writer
“So it’s not necessarily an overnight thing. And the only person, the only person or people who get to decide if a person should be forgiven, are the ones harmed.”
Season two of The Confessional is coming very, very soon. In the meantime, I invited my good friend Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on the show to offer a different perspective on repentance and forgiveness.
Danya is the author of seven books including most recently Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): Welcome to The Confessional. We are between seasons and I thought it would be really helpful for me if I had one or two people come on between seasons to help me think through some of the issues that came up in the previous season. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg 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. She was named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of ten rabbis to watch. And she’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Time, Newsweek, and she regularly contributes to The Washington Post. And she also just happens to be a wonderful and super smart friend of mine. So welcome, Rabbi. Thanks for joining me.
Danya Ruttenberg (DR): Thank you for having me.
NBW: So here is what I have sort of been struggling with and I’m hoping you can help me out with. And it’s the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation, which has come up in a lot of the episodes from season one. And the thing I’m struggling with is I feel like on one hand, there’s a lot of things on social media where people are being called out and are being called to account for things that they’ve said in the past or things that they’ve done and usually, you know, for good reason. And yet, I don’t know what path there is for people to be welcomed back into a community after they’ve erred. And what does forgiveness look like in those situations? So on one hand, I have my sort of religious ideals about forgiveness and reconciliation. On the other hand, I have this world in which people have seldom been held to account for the harm that they’ve done in people’s lives and in institutions. And now they are being held to account. But I don’t know how to reconcile these two things. So I’m hoping that you might just bring some of your knowledge and wisdom to bear on that question for me.
DR: I would be glad to. You know, we do have a path in Judaism. I’m Jewish. That’s my, that’s my home base. And we spend a lot of time thinking about this in my tradition. So if it’s helpful, maybe we can start with, you know, sort of the traditional framework. And the sort of steps that Maimonides in particular, really important Medieval philosopher, Torah commentator, legal mind had laid out in that or articulated from from earlier sources. And then we can sort of think about what that might look like in our world today.
NBW: That sounds very sexy. Let’s do it.
DR: OK. So Maimonides, amazing 12th century thinker went through the Talmud, which is in itself trying to understand how to bring the Torah, the five books of Moses, into our lives, our daily lives for their time. And, you know, it’s just it’s a masterful, masterful text as he goes through and basically in laws of repentance goes through five steps that a person needs to take in order to have fully repented. And this is relevant, you know, for a lot of technical Jewish reasons, but also to be a human being. The steps are, number one, confession, articulating clearly what harm was caused and ideally publicly. And I after reading him closely and thinking about it for a while, I think I feel really strongly that the confession should be at least as public as the harm itself was. So if somebody says something terrible in a staff meeting, then the public articulation of harm should be at least two, you know, on the staff slack or at the next meeting or, you know, at least owning it there. If it happens on Twitter or in a closed Facebook group or wherever, like it needs to be at least that public. But if you did something more private and you want to hold yourself accountable and ask for accountability, you can confess more publicly.
DR: And we’re not an apology yet. Just like, I’m starting to understand the harm that I caused. This thing I said was racist and I’m starting to figure out that it was racist and harmful for the following reasons. Da da da da da, right? Own the harm. Step two is beginning the work of transformation. And in Maimonides’ day, that would have involved — and it can for our world too, right? — prayer, supplication, calling out, maybe changing your location if you need to get out of a toxic space. Maybe it involves changing your name as a symbolic way of saying I’m different now. In our world now, like therapy, rehab, education, reading books. You know, there are all sorts of ways you can begin to try to change from the person who did that harm. Step two. Step three, step three and four are kind of together. They’re all the same name together. Is amends first and then apology.
NBW: Oh wow!
NBW: Fascinating. OK. Keep going.
DR: So amends is like, you know, did I step on your foot. I need to pay your medical bill and maybe a little more money to for your suffering and for the fact that you were an Olympic mar-, an Olympic track athlete and your career is ruined. Or maybe.
NBW: Some kind of restitution
DR: Some kind of restitution. Right. Something that I can do to make it right. Now, obviously, what that restitution looks like depends on how serious the harm was. An apology, where you have to in the end, Maimonides is a very, very victim centered. Right. The language he uses is you have to appease the victim. So it’s not about, like, I checked it off the list, i don’t know why you’re still mad. It’s like, we’re tending to the person who was harmed and their needs and their feelings and their concerns. And we’re not necessarily presuming forgiveness. Forgiveness is like a whole other thing. We’re only talking about the work on the person who did harm and the victim in some cases, you know, if it’s a really petty thing they are encouraged to forgive. If it was something a harm that could never be really healed, they may never be required to forgive. But the person who did the harmful thing is obligated to try to make the victim feel, you know, appeased, pacified, better, as healed as possible. And the sources don’t talk about this, but I think there’s an understanding that since it’s so victim centric, like if it’s going to harm the victim for you to show up and be, you know, you need to be thinking about their needs, not your own.
NBW: Yeah, well, that’s the same in AA.
NBW: We seek to make amends, except when to do so would injure the person or other people.
DR: Right. And I think AA is the only other place I found that talks about this. And I think it’s so important. And then the last stage, the like, how you know you’ve made complete repentance is when you have the opportunity to do the same hurtful thing, harmful thing again, and you make a different choice. And it and, you know, and this happens organically because you’ve been doing this transformation work this whole time. Right. You’ve been in therapy. You’ve been doing the reading. You’ve been, you know, whatever holding yourself to account, asking other people. Right. This public confession is like asking people to help you do this work. And so by the time and you know, you don’t do the repentance work, of course, you’ll find yourself in some variation in the same situation again. But then when that moment comes up, you’re already different. And so you’re making different kinds of changes because you understand what it caused, and it matters.
NBW: OK. OK. So given that, that’s fascinating, especially the fact that the apology comes later, like after you some of the work has started, I find that really interesting. And because of that, I’m wondering, how do you respond when somebody has a moment where they’re sort of called out on something and they just immediately apologized? How does that feel to you as somebody who’s studied these steps?
DR: I mean, I think it depends on what the thing is and how the apology goes. I mean, you know, there’s really no one size fits all. And I think these stages of harm, sometimes those stages of repentance sometimes can take years and sometimes can all happen within a five minute period. Right. So much of you know, in the public confession and acknowledgment of harm and the apology can be wrapped up together. Yes. I tweeted that, you know, terrible thing in 2009. And, you know, I didn’t know any better. And now I’ve learned so. And I’m really sorry. And. And here’s the donation I’m going to make to, you know, the appropriate nonprofit to help support this work, because I really you know, it’s important to me that this work to, you know, and from now on, I’m going to commit to da da da, like if that can all … like there’s room for that. But then we need to see that so, like, let’s say somebody gets called out for being ableist, like let’s say they made fun of somebody who is disabled or, you know, in a totally theoretical. And then they say, oh, I really understand, I’m really educating myself and I’m donating money. And then you see in their Twitter that they’re still using ableist slurs after they’ve, right, that, look, you see that nothing’s changed. Whereas somebody who then in their personal and public and whatever other professional life is becoming more of an advocate and more of an ally and is making choices that reflect that they actually learned and heard and got what they did was destructive. So it’s not necessarily an overnight thing. And the only person or people who get to decide if a person should be forgiven are the ones harmed. So if we’re in this theoretical scenario, like a, you know, able bodied people who are, like you said, she was sorry, what’s the problem?
DR: Like you, not my call.
DR: You know, like, I am not the one who gets to decide if this is a good apology or not, nobody, you know what I mean?
NBW: Yeah, interesting.
DR: So listening to the people who are person or people who are the ones who are harmed is so important.
NBW: OK. Tell me how you see these steps as being helpful in our society in this moment right now. Where do you see that man, if this was applied, I feel like we would have a better outcome.
DR: Mm hmm. I mean, I see it all over the place. I’ve become a bit of an evangelist about this, and I, you know. What’s the work of repentance, as Maimonides articulates, is about is about doing everything in one’s power to understand the harm caused and do as much work is as possible to repair the harm. And, you know, I see it like in people’s interpersonal lives, right, interpersonal relationships. […] Also, I should note that from Maimonides accepting the consequences of behavior is part of the work of repentance. So if someone who is humbly saying, I understand that there may be implications for what I did. And does that mean we banish them forever? No, not necessarily. Like the people who are, have done real repentance. It’s clear because you see in their actions again and again and again that they get what they did hurt people, and they don’t want to be a person who hurts people. And you see it in their choices, in their language again and again and again.
NBW: Yeah, I feel like I’ve seen that in the people who have come on the podcast, because a huge part of it is how are you a different person now?
NBW: What did you learn?
NBW: How are you a different person? How do you move through the world in a different way than you do than the person who did this thing, you know?
NBW: I love that the focus of what you’re saying is so much on the actual harm. Because to me, in doing this work, I keep trying to say to myself and to others that we can, as Luther said, call a thing what it is like, name the actual harm. Right. But also, that does not mean that we dismiss the humanity of the person who like that’s not the totality of who they are.
NBW: Because so often, it feels like to allow for somebody to be multifaceted and not just the perpetrator of some kind of harm. It feels perilously close to saying the harm wasn’t harmful. And I guess I keep wanting to go, it’s not either or.
NBW: Like, we we can we can name the harm and called to account for the harm and also have compassion for the fact that this person has a much bigger, fuller story to their life than they can fit in 160 characters, and that there can be compassion for the factors that led them to this.
NBW: So what what’s the role of compassion as you see it and experience it in Judaism?
DR: I mean, compassion is vitally important, obviously. And, you know, I think this is, again, where the sort of the the Jewish orientation is is a little different. You know, we see it, all too often people kind of conflate like, oh, if you if you say that I did a bad thing, then you’re saying you’re saying I’m a bad person. And, you know, I think they’re, you know, I think a lot of reasons why that’s become a trope in our culture. But, you know, I am not a racist. It’s like, we just said, you know, we just said you did a racist thing. We didn’t say that’s who you are. And Judaism is very clear that we’re talking about the things you say and the things you do. And it’s not some statement on your deep, essential being.
NBW: Yeah, there’s not an ontological reality to it.
DR: Right. Right.
DR: You know, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says, you know, if you believe you can harm believe that you can heal and Judaism says like we can, there’s always, the gates of repentance are always open, it says in the Talmud, like, you can always do this work. And. And if somebody does something harmful and their response to rebuke, to being told that they screwed up is to double down is to get defensive is to not want to listen, is to yell about cancel cultures is to what, you know, whatever.
DR: Then how we engage them as a community and how whether or not we think they’re safe to have in our spaces or whatever is going to be very different than if somebody is listening and says, okay, I hear this. I need to go away and think quietly about this for a minute versus like I did oh, oh? You know, there’s always a path to repentance. And if someone is doggedly determined not to take responsibility for their actions, then how we relate to them is necessarily different.
NBW: That’s right. I think that’s right. You know, I heard somebody pray a prayer a couple of weeks ago that said like what would this country look like if every single person had some kind of repentance?
NBW: Everybody. Right. And I just went, oh, my God, that that sounds like the most beautiful thing I can imagine, because to me, there’s hope to it in a way that doubling down on our stories of ourselves and always always seeing ourselves as the victim of something and that is never a perpetrator of anything or always seeing this other group as as the scapegoat for all of the harm. Whatever like sort of maintaining that I have a hard time seeing where the hope is. But to say repentance is available for all of us – and harm may be just in our interpersonal lives, like, you can be somebody who experienced a ton of systemic oppression. And so your you know, your repentance won’t have to do with the same thing as mine as somebody who’s benefited from those systems. But they’re still gonna be interpersonal things that we can sort of go through a process of making right. And so to me, there’s just hope in that idea of this is available to anyone at any time. That feels super hopeful to me.
DR: Yeah. And I think, you know, the gates of repentance are always open. And our culture, American culture in particular really struggles with this. When we think about our national character and the refusal to look, you know, step one is really reckoning with the harm that was caused.
NBW: Which we’ve never done.
DR: No, like the, you know, genocide and land theft of indigenous people or the enslavement of of black people. Like, a many different systems that have been set up since then. I mean, you know, but like the national character is this sort of like la la we haven’t heard it. Everything’s fine. That happened a long time ago. Why are you still mad? And like, that’s the setting.
NBW: There’s no hope. There’s no hope. There is no hope for any of the mess until that work is done. I mean, we have to rend our fucking clothing. Like there has never been a truth and reconciliation commission. And so it’s hard to know where the true hope is if as a country, that process has never been undertaken and not only has that never been undertaken, it was sort of propped up by theology.
NBW: Was propped up by going, oh, this is God’s will, which I mean, you want something to run deep into the psyche of people and make it really hard to dig out the toxin, convince them it’s God’s will.
DR: Right. Right. And, you know, I listen. This is the national work we need to do. And I would argue that I actually have more hope about this now than I did two months ago.
NBW: For sure. I feel that.
DR: I mean, I just read, you know, there are a couple of cities now that have reparations plans underway.
DR: Is it enough? Is it the right thing? You know, I don’t know. But like today in the news, a town in North Carolina just announced that they’re just. So is it enough, no, but we’re having this conversation like maybe it’s not enough and.
NBW: But there’s hope in that kind of thing.
NBW: I mean, it would be it would be interesting to outline using these steps. What would it look like as a country to go through that process that you just lined out?
DR: Yeah. I’m writing a book about that. Yeah.
NBW: Oh, very convenient. Do you have a title yet?
DR: We have a working title. Unrepentant: What America needs to learn about making amends or repairing harm?
NBW: Oh wow.
DR: Something like that. But it’s really going to be going into the personal and what harm is in the public space? Can institutions repair, do repair work? Can a country do repair work? And I think the answer is yes. Like everybody can. The principles work on every level. And we need to be really both thoughtful and unsparing when we when we consider what that looks like.
NBW: Beautiful. Well, rabbi, thank you for this. I’m so excited to put this out into the world. It’s really, it’s really helpful. And I’m so excited that you’re writing about it. And I look forward to that coming out. And let me know so we can promote the hell out of it.
DR: Yes, please. Yay! Well, thank you for doing this work. It’s so, so good for the universe.
NBW: Thank you. All right. Blessings.