Facing reality can be one of the most challenging aspects of a person’s life. But what about forgiveness? Apologizing for a transgression can be difficult and no one enjoys it. But what does it look like and how does it work?
Just ask Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the award-winning author and writer who delivered a combined Judith Plaskow and Thomas Aquinas lecture on women in religion at Manhattan College on Wednesday, March 29.
The subject of the lecture was “On Repentance and Repair: What Maimonides Can (and Can’t) Teach Us About The Structural Change We So Desperately Need,” the college said.
Ruttenberg told The Riverdale Press Plaskow is one of the most important Jewish feminist theologians and thinkers of her generation. She profoundly transformed Judaism. And Jewish feminism is in Rutenberg’s lane.
Plaskow was also the first Jewish feminist who identified herself as a theologian.
Ruttenberg’s work for the past 25 years has been to some degree a focus on Jewish feminism and social justice. She serves as a scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women and they fight for women, children and families to improve their lives. The group also fights for reproductive health and freedom.
Thomas Aquinas himself engaged profoundly with thinkers from Islam and Judaism, and so our speaker this year, who draws on one of Aquinas’ favorite sources (Jewish philosopher and Rabbi Maimonides), is particularly perfect,” Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., chair of religious studies, said in an email.
The religious studies department, provost’s office and Catholic studies department sponsored the lecture, followed by a quick Q&A. The lectures usually take place separately once a year.
Thomas Aquinas was an Italian Catholic priest and one of the greatest scholastic philosophers during the Middle Ages.
After Ruttenberg delivered the combination lecture she described it as “intimidating” because “this is the Plaskow lecture! The Aquinas! That’s a lot!”
“I’m a Jewish feminist, but I’m also a rabbi,” she said. “I use Maimonides at ease because he’s our go-to guy on repentance, and I apply a feminist lens to his work.”
While speaking in a nearly packed room in the Hayden Hall on campus, she examined how the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides — many may know him as Rambam — opined on the idea of forgiveness. Maimonides became one of the notable Torah scholars of the middle ages.
However, the two rabbis part ways when it comes to forgiveness. Ruttenberg challenges his idea to focus less on forgiveness and more on the work of the person who causes the harm and their obligations to continue to gain forgiveness.
“I’m a writer and when I find a question that I get stuck on, I just keep pulling out the threads until I find the answer,” Ruttenberg said. “In my mind, these laws of repentance could be applied not only to our intrapersonal life as it is in Judaism, but to a larger cultural question to institutions and on a national level.”
The author explained to The Press, she realized how much of the framework was missing from our wider culture. When she realized the laws could transform society in profound ways, “it was a book I felt like I had to write.”
In her book, “Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World,” she deals with our culture’s inability to make amends and repair harm.
It is forbidden for a person not to grant a pardon — one should easily forgive and not grow angry. And with this forgiveness, it should be wholehearted, Maimonides believes.
“I’m done putting the work on the victim and done giving them extra labor,” Ruttenberg said. “The people who cause harm have to take responsibility or white supremacist culture has to take responsibility and the white supremacists in government have to take responsibility.”
She said a victim should be allowed to take their time to accept an apology, or not accept the apology at all. Trauma can take a long time to go away — sometimes it might never go away and that is ok.
Asking for forgiveness is not about feeling bad and apologizing. Ruttenberg says there needs to be a transition in a person’s life. There is no time length of a journey, but the “work” needs to be done.
“Think of the city police force, (which) murders and (then) apologizes,” she said. “But (it doesn’t) change the system.”
And no funds are reallocated and nothing is done to prevent the next time such a crime happens, Ruttenberg said.
For example, there can be a not-for-profit organization that releases a perfectly public written apology for something its members did, but doesn’t include all the perpetrators, “including the donors,” she said.
Forgiveness and transformation do not happen overnight. Transformation can be therapy, rehabilitation, a change of friends, or a personal journey. And when you start doing right, the more you realize you shouldn’t do it again.
“Am I thinking does this happen in real life? Oh yes, it does,” Ruttenberg said.
A Christian audience member praised the lecture and enjoyed listening to repentance on a Jewish perspective.
However, she challenged Ruttenberg on the basis of, “you never have to forgive your abuser.”
“If I as a Black person and, as a Black woman in particular, chose not to forgive for whatever reason, I am perceived as the angry Black woman,” the audience member said.
The audience member continued to explain Christian religion. She said they are often taught that if you don’t forgive, God would not forgive you. And knowing that, it wouldl give her a hard time to find peace and difficult for her to go to church and work.
Her question touched upon where to find herself in the midst of the obligation to forgive.
But what Ruttenberg says about not forgiving an abuser, she really means is — you don’t have to but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
“Sometimes it is possible to heal without forgiving,” Ruttenberg said.