On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World
Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts , 2022, £24.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-807-01051-8
Danya Ruttenberg is a rabbi and spiritual teacher from Chicago. She’s the scholar in residence at the progressive National Council of Jewish Women, a prolific writer of articles and books but she is perhaps best known as The Twitter Rabbi. She writes about the mundane bits of everyday life as well as the big issues of the day ‘..with ancient stories serving as mirrors and lights.’ For preachers from any faith tradition, she is an exemplar of how to go about the task of publicly weaving spirituality, tradition, sacred text and life together, especially in spaces outside the physical pulpit.
On Repentance and Repair is Ruttenberg’s eighth book. The structure is logical, the tone chatty, the content a mixture of ancient wisdom and contemporary events. Essentially, this is an extended essay commending the teachings of the twelfth-century philosopher, Maimonides on repentance, forgiveness, and justice, but most of all the hard work of the repair work to which the person who caused the harm is obligated. As an introduction Ruttenberg provides plenty of proof that American culture privileges forgiveness over repentance. This includes a robust critique of ‘a watered down, secularised, distortion of Protestant thinking’ or as Bonhoeffer would have it; ‘cheap grace.’ It is easy enough to see how this can be read across to British culture as well. This has led, she suggests to all the hard emotional work being done by the victim, not the perpetrator.
Maimonides offered five clear steps of a process of repentance and the majority of the book goes through these steps with clear examples from recent events. The space of a book in comparison with the smallness and speed of a sermon means that it is easier to create credible applications of ancient wisdom and convincingly use examples from contemporary culture. However, Ruttenberg is a skilled expert at this, and it is well worth reading this book just to enjoy a craftsperson at their work.
This is my book of 2022 for a different reason. It trashes the advice to just forgive the person who has caused hurt or harm, however hard that might be, or whatever they may have said or done or not said or done, after the harm has been caused, because otherwise you damage your own soul. Instead, it gives tangible and authentic tools to use in preaching and pastoral care which put the real needs of those who have been hurt at the very centre. Not just at the beginning of an incident, or when an incident comes to light but over and over again, particularly when words start to become empty, and regret is all that is offered. Ruttenberg calls her book victim-centric. I prefer to think of it as hurt-centric. Making amends and meaningful accountability is hurt and harm-centred work for individuals, for institutions and for nation states. It is the stuff which builds the stuff for which we hope and of which we preach.
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