"Nobody is owed forgiveness"

An interview with Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Like a lot of us, I spent a fair portion of the pandemic — and the election year that overlapped with it — in a constant, low-to-high grade state of stress and anger. I was scared about the virus, and furious about politics and white nationalism, and really fucking pissed about all of the ways we were failing to protect and care about one another as a society. We’re just beginning to process the collective trauma of this past year and a half, but I also fear that the (understandable!) eagerness to return the previous status quo is eclipsing some of that very necessary processing work.

It doesn’t have to happen right now, all at once, but unless we start to think about the true parameters of the rupture — and what sort of work is necessary for repair — little trauma geysers are going to start erupting all over your life and community without warning, if they’re not already doing so. To think through some of these questions, I wanted to talk to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, whose thinking on forgiveness and repentance has at once challenged and soothed me over these past months.

Ruttenberg has written many books, and her latest, On Repentence: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, is coming out in 2022. She also has a fantastic Substack called “Life is a Sacred Text” — you can subscribe here. (I also love following her on Twitter for some general wisdom amidst the noise of the rest of the site.)

Can you tell us a little about who you are, how you arrived at this place in your life, and why you like to think and write about the things that you do? [I know this is super broad, so take it wherever feels right!] 

I’m a rabbi.  I didn’t grow up particularly religiously observant (like, I had a bat mitzvah, we did Passover seders, not so much beyond that), and I considered myself an atheist into and through most of college. It took me a long time (and most of a Religious Studies degree) before I got the memo that 2000 years of nuanced theology wasn’t actually about a dude in the sky with anger management issues and a set of dice in his hand--and a bit longer after that to figure out that, actually, Judaism was a pretty amazing framework for connecting with the sacred and learning how to understand our obligations to each other and the world.  So that was a whole weird path (I wrote a book about it), and somehow, to my great surprise, it led me to rabbinical school after a few years as a freelance writer. 

Since my ordination 13 years ago, I’ve worked on campus, I’ve done educational design, and have worked for a couple of social justice orgs. Now I’m thrilled to serve as Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, part of an awesome team of folks doing grassroots work and changing policy towards safety, rights and freedom (especially for women, children and families.)  I’ve been writing op-eds and books on religion and culture and social justice for a long time at this point.   

I’ve been interested in ideas of forgiveness for some time — what it means to authentically seek it, the pressure and power to grant it. You often evoke the concept and work of tshuvah as part of your larger framework for thinking through these questions. Some readers will be familiar with this, but can you explain tshuvah and why you think it’s such a useful concept, especially when we’re thinking about societal harms, whether related to colonalism, slavery, or #MeToo? 

The basic idea is this: tshuvah, in Judaism, is often translated as “repentance,” but it really means “to return,” like to get back on the path from where you strayed.  Our focus is not so much on whether or not the victim forgives as whether the perpetrator does the work of repair and transformation.  This involves owning fully the harm caused (ideally publicly); doing the work to change (Therapy? Education? Rehab? Something else?); amends; apology (a real one, not something your publicist wrote); and, lastly, making different choices next time.  Our thinking about where forgiveness might fit in with all of this is pretty nuanced, but the bottom line is that we don’t even open that conversation if the person who caused harm hasn’t done all of the things I just mentioned, and we’re pretty clear that the only person that can forgive the perpetrator is the actual victim--not the offender’s fans, not society at large, etc. 

So this already is a much, much higher bar than what our culture generally offers.  I’ll note here that a lot of the people who have been allegedly cancelled are making pretty good paychecks these days, don’t seem to be suffering for being called out, and definitely have not done all of the stages of repentance work I’ve outlined above.  (Also!  Part of sincere repentance work involves accepting the consequences of your actions, so sincere penitents wouldn’t be doing that kind of whining in the first place.)  We let people off the hook so quickly.  If we applied a much more stringent bar for harm, saying: accountability looks like seeing you actually do the work--that would change the conversation in a lot of ways.  And, in fact, people who have caused harm and have actually let that matter, care if they’ve hurt people are pretty easy to spot.  (I wrote about about repentance and #MeToo dudes a while back, if you want the extended dance remix on this.)

In terms of larger structural harm — well, let’s go back to step one, owning the harm caused, and step two, beginning to change. A lot of the work needed around structural racism and other national conversations break down right there.  And so instead of making different choices next time, we keep repeating the same harms of white supremacy and colonialism again and again and again.  There is so much reckoning that hasn’t happened.    

I often hear people say that they will “never forgive [INSERT PERSON IN THEIR LIFE] for voting for Trump.” I find myself holding onto a lot of anger at people who have behaved carelessly during the pandemic, who refused to wear masks, who made everything feel even more miserable.

I realize that there are two strands here, one related to “politics,” generally, and the other related to safe pandemic practices, but I often think of it as tension between individualist and collectivist ethos. How do we find repair, or move forward? How do we resist calls for unity that, as my friend Ashley Ford put it, are actually calls for subservience? 

Again, I want to unhook a few concepts that so often get tangled up in our culture: Forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, justice, accountability.  In my tradition, nobody is owed forgiveness, even to a truly penitent person who has done all the work.  It’s a lot more nuanced than that.  So the minute I hear demands for forgiveness, my spidey senses go way up — someone is feeling entitled, rather than humble and concerned about the harm they have caused, wondering if they have done enough to attend to the needs of the victim.  (Is a demand for forgiveness always abuser behavior?  Not going to be able to do a wide enough scan of cases to think about this in a nuanced way, going to try not to get into absolutes. Is it very often abuser behavior?  Yep, it sure is.) 

Demands for unity or forgiveness from people who have caused harm that do not involve full accountability for harm are not very interesting to me, and most certainly invite us to do a full-on power analysis of the situation: who holds power, what is at stake for whom, and so forth. 

That said, can people who have been hurt do healing work? Yes. Does healing require forgiveness? Nope.  Is forgiveness a byproduct of healing?  Sometimes.  Can a person forgive without reconciliation (that is, returning to being in relationship with the perpetrator of harm)? Yep.  Does so much depend on context? Sure does!  Can there be justice without accountability? I don’t believe so. 

In terms of these massive national reckonings, we have a lot of work to do collectively — which is hard, since America has such a hugely individualist culture.  How can we talk about collective harm caused? How can we get people to see how their individual actions have an impact on the collective?  How can we invite people to reckon with harm in a way that they can hear, that they will move forward into?  And what of this work can we accomplish on what timeline?  It’s so massive, so, so massive, and much of it, I believe, is connected to all of the things we’ve never addressed in this country.  

Honestly, in a lot of ways I follow Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this regard: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”  I believe the work of culture change and understanding can happen, but it may take decades, generations.  What can we do to keep people safe while this is happening?  What systems can we change to be more just, more accessible while this is happening?  How can we help protect and empower those who are most marginalized, most targeted while this is happening?  

What are you praying for right now? 

The same thing I pray for a lot, honestly.  For us to build a world that is safe, equitable and just, together.  To create systems and cultures that are about preventing harm from happening and repairing when it does.  For all of us still here to make it through the rest of this pandemic healthy, safe and whole. 

You can follow Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg here and find her Substack here.

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