A “Victim-Centered” Approach to Teshuvah

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

Video technology, such as zoom has had many positive impacts on our lives, including our ability to connect with so many people for these services who might not be able to attend otherwise.  Personally, I am also grateful for this technology for the learning that I have been able to do without leaving my study.  I honestly can’t remember if in the days before COVID my rabbinic organization, the CCAR, offered as many online webinars as it does now.  Especially in the weeks leading up to the Yamim Noraim, hundreds of rabbis took advantage of the opportunities provided to us to learn from and with colleagues and from experts in different fields, exploring various current issues and topics about which we might preach and teach during these holy days.

One such presenter, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, writer and scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, shared some new approaches to thinking about repentance.  She spoke about writing her recently published book, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, in the aftermath of the #Me Too revelations.  After engaging in multiple online discussions on the question of repentance, she decided to immerse herself in the writings of the major Jewish authority on repentance, the 12th century rabbinic scholar Moses Maimonides.  Her book applies that guidance to all kinds of situations –interpersonal relationships, public figures, institutions, even nations.

Maimonides’ steps for repentance include:  taking ownership of the wrongdoing, committing to change, making amends, apologizing and, finally, making different choices so as not to repeat that sin again.  Now, Maimonides’ steps for repentance are probably familiar to many of us. What I found different and really thought provoking in Ruttenberg’s book was the focus that she brought to the victim of the hurt.  For repentance to be effective, it must be victim centered.  All of these steps must be less about what it means for the perpetrator, the harm do-er, and more about the impact upon and needs of the victim.  On the one hand, this seems so obvious, and it probably was to Maimonides, but I fear that that focus is lost to most of us today, that we are not taking the needs of the victim of our hurt into account even as we may take on the steps of repentance.

Certainly, we do not see this in most public apologies – think back to the early days of #MeToo with men like Louis C.K. or Bill O’Reilly, who did not take ownership of their actions or acknowledge the hurt they caused.  Did Cleveland Browns Quarterback Deshaun Watson really take the needs of the women into account in his public statement: “I want to say that I am truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation.”

It is not uncommon for some Jews, while sincerely trying to follow the obligations of Yom Kippur, to go up to people they know with the following apology: “If I’ve done anything to hurt you in this past year, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”  Good intentions may be there, but without taking responsibility for their actions or having even an awareness of anything specific they’ve done, it is hardly a step in the process of repentance.

Then, of course there is the “I’m sorry if you were offended” in which the perpetrator takes no responsibility for their actions and, in fact, blames the victim for their hurt feelings.

So what does it actually mean to be “victim centered” in our repentance?

First, we do have to do the internal, personal work of acknowledging and owning what we have done wrong and committing to changing our behavior.  To be done seriously and meaningfully, these processes take reflection and time.

Only after we have done these initial steps in repentance, can we turn to that which ought to involve the one we have harmed:  making amends.

A key teaching on repentance is from the Mishnah, from 2000 years ago: “For sins between one person and another, the observance of Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until one has first appeased the person harmed.”[i]  Maimonides expands on this basic principle: “For instance, [if] one injures another, or curses them or plunders them, or offends them in like matters, [it] is ever not absolved unless they make restitution of what is owed and beg the forgiveness of the other.”[ii] Furthermore, he taught, that if one injures another physically, one “must pay damages on five fronts:  for the injury itself, the pain suffered, the medical costs, the time away from work, and the humiliation.”[iii] One can extrapolate from this premise to all kinds of situations and the different levels of restitution that ought to be made today.

Ultimately, proper restitution must be determined in consultation with the victim of the harm.  What does she need?  What does he require to feel whole?  As Ruttenberg points out, “the focus is the mental and emotional needs of the victim, not the boxes that a perpetrator needs to check in order to be let off the hook.”[iv]

Having realized and taken responsibility for our actions, we may be so anxious to absolve ourselves of our guilt that we lose sight of the needs of the victim, even of his or her readiness to speak with us about the hurt.

While I am not a fan of public apologies offered by public figures, I was curious to see Will Smith’s apology about slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars that was posted online this summer.  He took a few months to process the events before he made this public statement.  In his statement, he did recognize that Rock is not ready to speak with him yet and offered to do so whenever Rock is ready.  I would hope that when and if they do speak, they will reach an understanding regarding steps that Smith can take to make amends.

Smith also apologized to other people who were hurt by his actions, including Rock’s family and other nominees.  When we hurt someone, those who witness that event are also victims; and, we never know when our actions could also trigger something deeper in a witness, bringing up a previous injury.  That is why in some cases, public apologies, especially for a public act, are appropriate (and Maimonides actually encourages public confessions) as long as they do not replace the personal apology and other work of repentance.

“Deciding the correct course of action must always hold the twin poles:” writes Ruttenberg, “the desire to be fully accountable and care and concern for the needs of the victim.  Certainly, we all, when we mess up, want to feel forgiven and absolved.  But real repentance demands that we concentrate not on our own emotional gratification but rather on repairing, to the best of our abilities, the hole in the cosmos that we have created.”[v]

It is only once we have done the initial steps of repentance:  accepted responsibility for our actions, made a commitment to change, and appeased the person we have wronged, that we reach the appropriate moment to apologize.    Without doing that hard work, we cannot really understand the impact of our actions on the victim and repair that hurt.

“.. a true apology must be an interaction that honors the full humanity of the other; it is not transactional”, teaches Ruttenberg.  “There’s a difference between saying you’re sorry because you realize that a thing you did had a bad consequence, and doing so because you really understand that you hurt someone – and that person’s feelings, experience of the world, safety, and self all matter profoundly.

A true apology is about trying to see the human being in front of you, to connect with them and communicate to them, to make it clear – abundantly, absolutely, profoundly clear – that you get it now, and that their feeling better matters to you.  Your apology is a manifestation of genuine remorse.  It demands vulnerability, and it is a natural by-product of all the work of repentance and transformation that you’ve been doing up until this point.”[vi]

That sounds like a pretty tall order.  And with so many bad apologies out there, it can feel pretty overwhelming to figure out how to apologize correctly, remembering that the focus should be “on what the victim receives rather than what the perpetrator puts out.”[vii]

After enduring too many ineffective and even insulting apologies over the years, two Jewish educators, Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman, decided it was time to find a better way.  They took a deep dive into studying Jewish teachings about apologies and overlaid a business model from the 1980s called “SMART” goals, designed to help ground aspirations in reality.[viii]  Note how this model centers on the victim of the hurt:

S – be Specific.  An effective apology must address the action that was hurtful.  “I’m sorry for what happened” doesn’t indicate ownership of behavior or awareness of it.  “I’m sorry I insulted you” does.   If you’re not sure what you did, take the time to ask the person.

M – empathize.  A sincere apology shows empathy for the victim of the harm that we’ve caused.  “I can see where that must have really made you feel lousy.”

A – accountability.  Our words must demonstrate that we are responsible for hurting the person, not that we’re sorry that they are hurt or upset.  This is where the “I” comes in.

R – reflective. We must take the time to be reflective before we apologize so that we actually address the issues of the hurt and commit ourselves to acting differently.

T – true.  Not only do our words have to be sincere, but we have to demonstrate that sincerity through our actions going forward by changing our behavior.

Hopefully, when one follows a SMART apology model and undergoes a process of repentance that is truly victim centered, their apology will be accepted, and they will be forgiven.  While a victim-centered approach also includes never pressuring someone to accept an apology, Ruttenberg does encourage the victim to be open to the sincere penitent:  “Just as we ask the perpetrator to actually see the hurt person in front of them, we could also ask the victim to try to recognize the hard, sincere repentance work that has been done, and to allow it to mean enough to settle accounts.  To see the full human being standing there, a sincere penitent.”[ix]

In the case where someone does not accept an apology, Maimonides teaches that the penitent should return with three friends to ask for pardon again.  If the person still refuses, they should return with those friends up to two more times.  Maimonides doesn’t indicate the reason for the friends.  On the one hand, they will serve as witnesses to the person’s apology.  Ruttenberg points out that as friends, they can offer the person the support that can be of help when making oneself so vulnerable.  They can also give feedback as to the person’s apology, how it might have been heard and suggest steps for improvement.

Sometimes this process does lead to a full reconciliation; in other cases, that’s not possible.  Indeed, there are some sins that may never be pardonable because they cause irreparable harm.  The Talmud offers examples such as slander, because one doesn’t know all the people who heard the remarks; or, a merchant who defrauds with weights and measures, because they can never know all of the people who they cheated to make amends.  We can certainly extrapolate to contemporary situations, especially on social media, where it may be impossible to do full teshuvah.

There may be another approach as well.  One of the Hebrew words for forgiveness is mechilah; it literally means to pardon or to remit a debt.  In a case where full reconciliation isn’t possible, where the hurt party is not willing or able to go back to the way things were before the hurt, they may be able offer mechilah, pardon to the sincere penitent and agree to put the event in the past so that both parties can now move forward with their lives.  Sometimes, that is the best we can do or hope for.

The steps of teshuvah, when done sincerely and with the needs of the person we’ve hurt utmost in our minds, are certainly not easy, but they are possible and can lead to healing for all parties. 

We can start to learn this path, even at a young age.  We teach it to the children in our synagogue.  One of the songs that has become very popular for young children tries to convey a message about sincere repentance.   Since it is sung by a group of children, it doesn’t get into apologizing for specific sins – hopefully, that follows in conversation with parents and siblings afterwards!

It is sung to the melody of Avinu Malkeinu:

I’m sorry for what I did wrong,

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try to be better, no matter whatever

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be.

I’ll try, I’ll try, to do what is right

And be the best that I can be.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’ll try to be caring, more loving and sharing,

Forgive me for what I did wrong!

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be,

I’ll try, I’ll try with all of my might

To do what I know is right.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong…

If we start with the premise of this simple children’s song and then move into SMART apologies, we will go a long way in bringing healing to our relationships and repairing holes we may have created in the cosmos.  May we have the strength, courage and wisdom to do so.

[i] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[ii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9, as translated by Danya Ruttenberg 

[iii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Personal or property injury 1:1 as translated by Danya Ruttenberg

[iv] Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, p. 41

[v] Ibid., p. 68

[vi] Ibid., p. 174 

[vii] Ibid., p. 41

[viii] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better

[ix] Ruttenberg, p. 179

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