On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World

Beacon. Sept. 2022. 256p. ISBN 9780807010518. $25.95. SPIRITUALITY
Rabbi Ruttenberg’s (Surprised by God: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Religion; The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism) latest book, a study of atonement and forgiveness, opens with a content warning: survivors of trauma, assault, racism, ableism, and genocide, take heed; many of the book’s examples of such offenses could be triggering. Readers might recoil from the book’s lumping together of these various violations, but the author’s concern is genuine. This is a work earnestly demonstrating a path to both repentance and repair. The fulcrum upon which the book rests is Judaism and specifically the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides’s systemization of repentance, forgiveness, and atonement. According to Ruttenberg, forgiveness is not possible without the work of repair. And an apology does not necessarily compel a victim’s forgiveness. To the book’s credit, it plainly recognizes that cultural or social systems cannot force repentance or forgiveness since atonement itself is a theological/devotional act, not necessarily an institutional one. Examples of how not to publicly apologize (Louis C.K.; Germany’s reparations over the Holocaust) are easy ones. Missing from Ruttenberg’s book is a fulsome consideration of the Catholic Church’s shameful response to sexual abuse by clergy.
VERDICT Ruttenberg’s book sets out guidelines for full-hearted repentance--the kind of atonement that people should do, but often don’t.
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