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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Jared and Pete talk with Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg about the practice of repentance and the pursuit of repair in Judaism based on five steps from the medieval philosopher Maimonides. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What is the Jewish thinking on how to “do” repentance correctly?
  • What can we learn about practicing repentance beyond Christian teaching from the Bible?
  • Who is Maimonides and what does he have to do with repentance?
  • How is repentance built into Judaism’s culture and calendar?
  • What are Maimonides’ five steps toward repentance and repair?
  • What sources are available in Judaism to help people think through complex moral issues?
  • Is there a way back into society for harmdoers? Who gets to make that decision?
  • Why is community important when pursuing repair after harm has been done?
  • What does it mean to make amends after you’ve harmed somebody?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Rabbi Danya you can share.

  • What is the harm? And what is an appropriate amends? Ideally this is in conversation with the victim. We don’t decide for a victim what their amends are. — @TheRaDR
  • The amends have to be what the victim needs, if the victim is there and actively participating in the process. It’s not as though the harm never happened, because the harm is always going to be there. But [amends] can at least work to repair that breach to whatever extent is possible. — @TheRaDR
  • There are some intuitive truths about how to heal, and they involve telling the truth, they involve making amends, they involve knowing that part of the work after you have caused harm is figuring out how you become the kind of person who doesn’t do that harm again. — @TheRaDR
  • I don’t think we can do this work well if we don’t talk about power—who has it, and who doesn’t, and where it sits and how it functions, and how it’s weaponized. — @TheRaDR
  • It is not clear to me that a lot of people who are very, very attached to the power that they hold are going to do their accountability work willingly. — @TheRaDR
  • The way our market is set up disincentivizes the work of those in power to do self-accounting. Because why would they? They would just lose power and money. — @TheRaDR
  • People are absolutely entitled to make moral choices about whose work they support and whose work they don’t support. — @TheRaDR
  • When people are doing the work, it’s clear, and when they’re not, it’s also clear. The only people who can forgive harmdoers are the people who are harmed by them. — @TheRaDR
  • We have to start with the text that we have, and then we extend and make sense of it based on the information we have. It is a living, breathing process of bringing the Torah into our lives today. — @TheRaDR
  • If you have sinned against your friend, Yom Kippur is not gonna do the powerful, profound, extraordinary alchemical work of atoning for you, if you haven’t made things right with the person that you hurt. — @TheRaDR

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

Pete  

[Jaunty intro music] Folks, we have an exciting collaboration with Homebrewed Christianity and we want YOU to be a part of it. Actually, we literally can’t do it without you. 

Jared

We want to know the biggest question, singular, the biggest question you have about God, theology, the Bible—so we made a survey. And as you know, we’re big fans of concrete answers around here, so we’re going to find the best theologians and scholars to answer those questions. 

Pete

The survey closes, folks, on August 30th so don’t miss your chance to obtain absolute certainty, and go to TheOnlyGodOrdainedSurvey.com to submit your question.

Our topic today is On Repentance and Repair, and our guest is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg.

Jared  

Yep! And Danya is a scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. And she actually has a new book out called On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. And I know this is kind of cliche to say, but it’s particularly true here, that it’s a very timely book because of so much happening in the last, I would say, handful of years—social media, and how we talk to each other, and how we offend each other, and how we, you know, repent from that—how we say we’re sorry, apologize, all of that is what we talk about today. So I thought it was very relevant, and from a particularly Jewish perspective was even more refreshing.

Pete  

Yeah. And, you know, I can’t recommend the book enough. It’s, it is timely. It’s really clear and it’s got some ideas that—I guess, Jared, in the Christian world we don’t always think about things the same way that Judaism has thought of things. And there’s wisdom to be found, serious wisdom to be found, that I think goes, well, very much beyond finding Bible verses to sort of…what…”How do we handle this issue today? Well, let’s go to Bible verses.” So.

Jared  

But also still very practical. Very concrete.

Pete  

Very concrete, very practical. And, yeah, just…[sarcastically] it’s almost as if how you act towards other people matters.

Jared  

Exactly.

Pete  

You know, go figure.

Jared  

Alright, let’s talk about repentance and repair.

Danya  

[Clips of Danya from the interview play over jaunty intro music] What is the harm? And what is an appropriate amends? I don’t think we can do this work well if we don’t talk about power. Who has it, who doesn’t, and where it sits and how it functions and how it’s weaponized. The only people who can forgive harmdoers are the people who are harmed by them. When people are doing the work, it’s clear, and when they’re not, it’s also clear. [Jauntry intro music ends]

Pete  

Hello, Danya! Welcome to the podcast!

Danya  

Thank you so much for having me!

Pete  

Yes, it’s great to have you. And yeah, so let’s dive right into our topic for today. Let’s start by just getting to know you a little bit. What drove you to be interested in this topic we’re going to discuss today about repentance and repair?

Danya  

Well, I’ve always been a fan of Maimonides’ work on repentance. And in Judaism, at the High Holy Days, we talk a lot about this work of repentance every year. And it’s really the work of the season. And so every year, we go into it. And every year I spend time thinking about it. And I’ve always had an affinity for teaching and thinking and reading and working on this process. And I got into the process of writing this book shortly after #MeToo broke. A journalist I know wrote to me, they were working on a story about the question of, you know, is there a way back for perpetrators of sexual abuse? The sort of famous people who were just being named right as #MeToo was exploding. You’ve got Louis C.K. and, oh, geez, I don’t even remember. You know, like, it was a list of famous dudes whose names were—right, you know, and, you know, like, what’s—what happens after you get named as a perpetrator? Then what? And we as a culture didn’t seem to know, and so I wrote up a few paragraphs of, you know, kind of my thoughts on this, using the Jewish tradition and our thinking on how to do repentance work and what the steps are, and what the work is for accountability and repair. And, you know, as these things go, you know, my friend used just like a little snippet of what I said in the piece. And when the piece came out, I was like, “You know what? I’ll just tweet out the whole thing that I said, because maybe it’ll be interesting to people. I don’t know.” That’s kind of my relationship with Twitter, you know, here, who wants something? And so I just did a little thread of like, it started, like, “I want to talk about the difference between repentance and atonement and forgiveness” and people went bananas! And it hit me that people in our culture didn’t have a vocabulary for this, and that there wasn’t a way in most people’s worlds to talk about the, “how do you do the work of repairing harm? And what are the steps? And how do we think about the obligations of the harmdoer? And how do we think about the obligations of the person who has been harmed?” (I actually don’t think they have many, if any, obligations.) But what do we do with this? And what are the, what are the steps back? And do we bring somebody back into the public sphere? And do we allow them back into private relationships? And who can forgive the perpetrator? Like, can we forgive Louis C.K.? Turns out the only—I mean, in Jewish law, the only person who can forgive the perpetrator is the victim. So it’s not our job to say when he’s done enough repentance work, right? But then, what does that mean for our culture? How do we navigate that as people who are also affected? Like, his actions impact rape culture, so then what do we do? And so as I started to tease this out, like, in real time on Twitter with people, and then, you know, it sort of turned into an op-ed, and that turned into a couple of conversations on NPR. I kept hitting this point where nobody seemed to know what to do with that thing that happened in college, or this other story in the news, or…conversations kept coming up where people felt like they were at a loss. And I kept coming back to, you know, old Maimonides has these five steps of repentance. And here, let me show you. And I realized that this lens that I had grown up with about healing interpersonal relationships actually works on systemic harm and institutional harm and cultural harm too.

Pete  

Mhmm. Well, I mean, right now I’m bursting with about 40 things I want to talk with you about. I want to back up a little bit, though. It seems that repentance and repair is—is this fair to say?—part of like, a spiritual rhythm for you.

Danya  

Yes.

Pete  

Okay. That’s—that alone is something to think about. Because I’m not sure Jared, if…That never came up in church, right? You know, it’s just, it’s a different way of looking at it. Of course, you have a tradition that deals with this. But uh…

Jared  

Yeah, and maybe could you just say a little more about how within Judaism this is a rhythm? And what does that actually mean?

Danya  

So, in terms of the rhythm, I’ll start at the endpoint. So Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the biggest holiday in Judaism. And it began as the day when we would cleanse the Holy Temple in Jerusalem of ritual impurity, people who had (probably unintentionally) shown up with—You’re not bad and wrong if you come into contact with a corpse, right? Like it’s not a moral judgment…

Danya  

Right, right right. People talk about “pure” and “impure”, it’s not a—people take it as a, we talk about like…I like the translation, “everyday state and elevated state” better because it’s a little bit less loaded. But when you go to the temple, you need to do special things to rid yourself of some “everyday state” stuff. But if you showed up to the temple with the “everyday state” things you might kind of muck up the status of the temple. So it’s this purifying ritual to remove, to kind of wipe clean, this space. And after the temple fell it became a time to wipe yourself clean, your soul clean, your connection with the Divine got refreshed, rebooted, renewed. But you can’t do that if you have, and the way you…if you have been, if you’ve done harm in your relationship with God, this is the time you have to kind of like go make amends with God to get clean. So you know, if I’ve been like, breaking Shabbat in private, just me and God, or I’ve been you know, whatever—my spiritual commitments to the Divine, like this is my time to get right with God, right? To get back and become the person that I’m supposed to be. But if you harm another person, Yom Kippur is not going to do that work until you make it right with the other person. And so, this work of repentance and repair then becomes built into the season. And so Rosh Hashanah, 10 days before Yom Kippur, is the Jewish New Year and so that sort of kickstarts the intensity of the season. And the month before Rosh Hashanah, the whole month of Elul, becomes this time of starting to take stock and be like, “who was I this year? What did I do? Oh geez, I have some work to do.” And you start to—hopefully, if you haven’t been cleaning up your messes all year, which you should be doing, and I hope that I can be making the case for…in my book, I hope I can make a case for repentance work as a regular spiritual practice and not something you just do once a month, you know, once a year that you have like this month, and then intensive 10 days of doing it. But definitely in the Jewish world, like we all do the taking stock stuff and the reaching out stuff, and the sheepish phone calls to people we have hurt, and trying to make things right. You know, that’s part of our culture.

Pete  

Yeah, it’s not a sin or something.

Jared  

Yeah. You mentioned a few times earlier in our discussion, Maimonides, and it seems like that’s central to your perspective on repentance and repair. Particularly, it sounds like he has these five steps. So can you just give us a broad introduction to Maimonides and then maybe walk us through those five steps?

Danya  

So Maimonides was a medieval physician, philosopher, legal genius, and many other things. And his big innovation is that he took a lot of the Jewish insights and wisdom and law that was spread all over the Talmud—which is an amazing, extraordinary, but winding and kind of difficult-to-navigate if you’re not an expert, compendium of rabbinic culture—and he organized it. He kind of you know, instead of like these complicated discussions where people are arguing about what to do, he was like, “Okay, what’s the bottom line? What are you supposed to do?” Because most people—like the scholars are going to study the Talmud, and regular people just need to know what to do. And so he kind of took the “what to do” and organized it in a different way. So part of his reorganization included creating this category called the “Laws of Repentance.” And so suddenly, you have all of these ideas about repentance that are scattered all over the place, and he’s reorganized them. And in his reorganization, he comes up with what I argue are five steps of repentance. It’s actually like 10 chapters of stuff, but I think there are five distinct steps. And they are number one, confession, aka, own what you did, right on it fully, no hedging? No, like, but I really meant well, but it wasn’t that bad, but no, nine my defense, like, just own it. I did it. I said this thing, it was really racist. Like, no, like, I didn’t know any better. Like just, you know, if I had respected women, I never would have treated my employee this way, like just owning it, right, saying it, at least as public as the harm, right? If you said the racist thing in a staff meeting, you need to do the confession, at least in the staff meeting, or on Slack, or, you know, like everybody who’s witness to the harm needs to see the confession. If you posted a bad tweet, you need to post a confession—but it’s praiseworthy to do your confession publicly, because it’s a way of asking for help. It’s accountability. Right? It’s saying, like, “I’m here on my antiracist journey, I need you to sort of compassionately support me as I’m moving through,” or “I’m trying to stay sober…” And so you know, dah dah dah…like it’s a way of telling the community that you’re trying to change, and that you need their help. So step one: confession. 

Danya  

Step two: starting to change. Like [back] then it was like, prayer, supplication, giving alms to the degree you can, exiling yourself from the place of harm. So today that would be you know, dump the friends that are your toxic influence. Is it therapy? Is it rehab? Is it meditation? Is it prayer? Is it calling your sponsor? Is it spiritual direction, right? Like there are all sorts of different ways we can start to do the work. Is it education on antiracism work, right? What is the thing you need to do to start becoming somebody who doesn’t do the thing? I don’t know, what did you do? Right? What needs to happen so that it won’t happen again? So that’s, and it’s ongoing, right, depending on what the thing is and how serious. But it’s presumably going to be going on for a while. But step two: start to change.

Danya  

Step three is amends. So if I stepped on your foot, I need to pay your doctor bill. Do I need to pay for the time you missed when you left, when you had to miss a few days of work? And so you missed a few days of payment and so I need to pay also for your work compensation. Do I need to pay you for your suffering in addition to that, right? In Judaism, there are five categories of harm for a physical impairment. Do I need to donate money to an appropriate organization? Do I need to donate time? Do I need to spend the rest of my life becoming an advocate for systemic change around sexual violence in my community? I mean, what is the harm? And what is an appropriate amends? Ideally this is in conversation with the victim, right? We don’t decide for a victim what their amends are. 

Pete  

Mhmm.

Danya  

Right. The amends have to be what the victim needs, if the victim is there and actively participating in the process. So again, it depends on the harm, but something that will be not rendering—it’s not as though the harm never happened, because the harm is always going to be there. But it is something that can at least work to repair that breach to whatever extent is possible, and then an apology.

Pete  

Can I interject something very quickly?

Danya  

Yeah, of course.

Pete  

Before we get to the list, too. But just to my untrained ear, some of this sounds like Alcoholics Anonymous, right?

Danya  

Mhmm.

Pete  

And so you agree. I love the whole idea of just, listen, “you got to just come clean, what did you do?” and you have to—one of the steps, I forget what step it is, but you go to make amends, you actually go to the people physically, people that you harm through your addiction. So I just, it’s just, it might be a point of contact for people. That’s the only reason I bring it up. Just to mention that there seem to be some—a collective wisdom here, and how to deal with the harm that your actions may have brought to other people and how to repair relationships.

Danya  

As I’ve been working on this, it’s been really interesting to see where some of this work echoes other approaches to repairing harm. AA definitely. You know, and it’s not, you know, there—with everything there’s places where critique, AA has been critiqued in some ways, and is really amazing in some ways, and does things that Maimonides in the 11th century did not address. But AA really fills in some really important gaps. And then other approaches that do other things. Some of the things that happened in Native American tribal courts feel very resonant with Maimonides’ approach to me. You know, and it’s not, because everybody knew everybody else. It’s just because there are, I think, some intuitive truths about how to heal, and they involve telling the truth, they involve making amends, they involve knowing that part of the work after you have caused harm is figuring out how you become the kind of person who doesn’t do that harm again, right?

Danya  

Well I interrupted you. So let’s—the last two of Maimonides’ five steps, we were about to get to the fourth one, you started mentioning apology.

Danya  

Right. So we’ve got confession, we’ve got starting to change, we’ve got amends, and then we finally get to apology. And you might wonder why we haven’t gotten there until now? And the answer is, if you were the person who hadn’t yet really faced down what you did, if you were the person who hadn’t yet begun to do the deep work of changing, or at least starting to change, and really engaging it—that apology is going to come out really different than if you’re the person who has already started to do the work of grappling and engaging and getting what you did. And finally understanding, like really, what the harm is and how it may have impacted the other human being.

Pete  

It’s sort of like the apology that goes like, “I’m sorry if you felt this way.” Right? That’s sort of a cheap apology instead of like…if you’ve gone through the paces of those first three stages, you won’t say that.

Jared  

Well it’s almost a level of empathy when you’ve gone and actually taken the time to truly understand the harm that you’ve caused. And that takes you being responsible for educating yourself making these changes, making the confessions. I feel like it gives time to take responsibility. There’s a depth there of empathy, rather than “I don’t really know exactly what I did or what harm I caused, but I’m gonna say I’m sorry anyway.”

Danya  

Right. Right, exactly. And by the time you get to apology, you’re not saying it because you’re supposed to say it—you say it because it really matters to you that you hurt the other person, and you want to say the words that you can say to try to make it better, right? Because that’s what you’ve got. 

Pete  

Yeah, right.

Danya  

And then we get to the fifth step, which is: making different choices next time. And my rabbi, Rabbi [name] used to say well, “What do you mean next time? How are you ever going to find yourself in the exact same situation as the one where you caused harm?” And then he would sort of pause and chuckle in his little, you know, Brooklyn accent. Then say like, “If you don’t do the work to change, you’re always gonna find yourself back in that same situation!” Whether that’s because you haven’t worked out your anger issues, or because you’re, you know, ambivalent in relationships, or you’re, you know, trying to wield power over people, or, you know, like, whatever it is, you’re just gonna keep unconsciously manifesting that same pattern someplace else. So…

Pete  

Well, I mean, one thing that’s really striking to me and call me Captain Obvious here, but to do what you’re talking about, I’m not trying to cheaply contrast this to Christianity, because Christianity is itself a very diverse phenomenon and people disagree about things all the time. Having said that, this takes a community to do what you’re talking about. And I think, at least Christians in the West, and I’m assuming Jared that you could concur with this—it gets sort of individualistic that you sort of pray to God, and then you do that sort of apology thing, maybe. But it’s…sometimes things are kept a secret and it’s just between me and that person. No, this involves a whole community. And when you do these acts in public, it really makes a difference. And I see that as maybe something that’s missing in certain iterations of the Christian faith.

Jared  

Is there a question in there?

Pete  

No…

Jared  

Just a comment?

Pete  

No. “What do you think of that?” [Laughs]

Danya  

[Chuckles]

Jared  

I love—I love it. This is, I hope gets edited out. But Danya, I love it. Because Pete often will just end with a thought…

Pete  

A thought!

Jared  

And then just leave it there. So I’m glad you didn’t take the bait. You just were like…

Pete  

It’s like you’re supposed to say, “Wow Pete, that’s a great insight.”

Jared  

You’re supposed to say, “Pete, that was, that was so insightful. You’re so wise.” [Laughing]

Danya  

[Laughing]

Pete  

[Laughing]

Danya  

I mean, I was—I thought it was directed at you! I’m like, you know, over here trying to diplomatically stay in my lane.

Pete  

I was doing, I was just doing personal therapy there for a second. But anyway…

Jared  

Well, can I ask a question off of that, then? Because I think the question is, I mean, I would have this question based on what you are both saying, which is how do we do this? Why isn’t this—if I can play kind of the American individualistic card—why is this a communal thing? And you know, you, Danya, have mentioned the public nature of it. And I really appreciate the, kind of the rule of “the confession should be as public as the offense.” And I like that as a general rule. But what makes this communal? And why is that important?

Danya  

It’s communal because we need each other. And because we live in communities, and I think the individualism of America bites us in the tush more than it doesn’t, honestly, in so many ways, but certainly with this. There’s studies that say that basically, countries that have a more communitarian ethos tend to rate higher on empathy scales than countries that have a more individualistic ethos. And when they rate the countries, you know, America is like way over on the individualistic side pretty low on the empathy scale, right? Because we have this mentality of everybody for themselves. And so then when harm happens, we don’t have that sense of, well, we all have to take care of each other. It’s just like, you’re left alone, kind of nursing your wounds and nobody’s going, “Are you okay?” Nobody’s going, “Hey, somebody track down, you know, so and so, they need to come, you know, back and be in relationship with this other person.” And there’s a line from the book, there’s a tribal elder who serves as a judge in a tribal court, who—Judge Joseph Flies Away. And he says that when harm happens, it is—the harmdoer acts like they don’t have any family. Right? Like somebody who causes harm is in this world acting like nobody’s checking up on them, nobody cares about them, nobody gonna care if they are acting like their best selves or they’re not best selves. Right? Nobody’s going to help them grow, nobody cares if they grow, if they thrive, or if they’re, you know, fallen off the path. Right? And certainly the person who has been harmed, you know, if we’re not in a communal space, nobody’s taking care of them. And that sense of accountability, of that image of, you know, kind of like a community of people surrounding both harmdoer and the person who’s harmed, saying, “Hey, wait a second, we need to pause and discuss what happened.” Like, that’s really important. And Maimonides has a whole thing—I mean, it’s from the Talmud—that if you apologize once, and the victim is like not having it, then you have to come back with three people, and apologize again. And if the victim is still not having it, you have to come back with three more people. And you know, and three more people. And it’s, I think, it’s like your accountability team—where those people are like, watching how the apology is going. And they’re like watching body language like, you know, kind of, “Dude, I can’t believe you said it that way. Let’s like do a little postgame dissection of how that went.” Or maybe they’re there to support the victim. Or maybe they’re there to kind of navigate between the two parties and make sure everything’s going smoothly or whatever. But there’s a sense of like, sometimes we need other people to help us navigate really complex situations, we can’t do it alone.

Jared  

Speaking of that, kind of the communal piece of that, I wonder, how do we, you know, manage this in a public sphere? I guess my concern is when we talk about this, and I’m speaking from the Christian tradition, growing up when there’s like this call for repentance and things. Those who—I just think there is a disparity, where really, when you ask someone to apologize more or do repentance better, the people who maybe catch on to that and think, oh, I should do it maybe aren’t actually the people who really need to hear it—because they’re the ones who apologize for taking up space, apologize for speaking, they’re constantly saying I’m sorry (usually women) and they’re, like, over apologizing. And then the people who really need to hear this message are kind of like, “well, I don’t have anything to apologize for.” They’re sort of not empathetic to the ways that they are causing harm. How do we, do you have any ideas on how we can direct this message? You just talked about accountability and having this communal sense of that. How can we do that better, where we’re drawing attention to the places where this needs to happen more, and letting off the hook the people who—not that we should do it less, but I just know, there’s a lot of people who maybe take it to heart in a way that I’m like, actually, I would appreciate if you apologize less, you know, because you don’t need to apologize for existing. So how do we do that? I guess, as a culture, as communities.

Danya  

I don’t think we can do this work well if we don’t talk about power—who has it, and who doesn’t, and where it sits and how it functions, and how it’s weaponized. Right? When…A lot of times when people are pushing for forgiveness, we can look at who has been harmed and who is causing harm, and how comfortable it would be if somebody would forgive and let a harmdoer off the hook, and how nice that would be and how it would maintain the status quo and not challenge the status quo. Right? The, you know, we’re gonna forgive the donor who’s sexually harassed the employee, and then we can keep soliciting funds. Or we’re gonna forgive the cop who shot the unarmed Black motorist so then we don’t have to ask any hard questions about the function of this, you know, policing and the state, right? When, like, you know, we have to talk about power. And we have to push people who have power to accountability. And it’s really just that simple. And it is not clear to me that a lot of people who are very, very attached to the power that they hold are going to do their accountability work willingly.

Pete  

You’ve noticed that too, huh? [Chuckles] You know, tying into this specifically, in your book you mentioned that American society isn’t really very good at doing the work of reparation and repentance. And we’re talking about an individualistic way of thinking of, you know, your place in the world. Could you elaborate more on what might be, I guess, some of the seeds of that in the American experience? Why we don’t look at ourselves truly as a community, but as maybe more individuals that live together that have rights, and we keep impinging on each other’s rights and things like that?

Danya  

Well, I, you know, there are a lot of different seeds. There’s definitely I mean, you know, there’s capitalism, right? The sense of “the one who holds the free market power gets to decide whether or not it is in their self interest to do repentance work or not.” And that sort of misreading, as far as I understand from people who know Adam Smith better than I do. But evidently, it’s a misreading of Adam Smith to go into the sort of “it’s my self interest to union bust and force people to work in unsafe conditions during COVID and make billions of dollars.” Well, they are on starvation wages, right?

Pete  

So I mean, not to be simplistic, but Danya, is that—would you say that, like, greed?

Danya  

[Laughs] Right! I mean, right! 

Pete  

I mean just to give it a name. 

Danya  

The greed ethos of capitalism and the exploitation is certainly a thread here, and that counts, you know, that, and it, but the way our market is set up disincentivizes the work of those in power to do self accounting. Because why would they? Because then they would just lose power and money. And, you know, and we can talk about white supremacy, if you would like. If you want to go there we can.

Jared  

Well, I want to make sure we have time to—I think a big kind of elephant in the room at least for me is, you know, we talked about repentance and repair on kind of one side of the equation. But I’m curious, and maybe this is a little passé now to talk about kind of “cancel culture,” but how do we bring people back into…you started our conversation by asking those questions of like, how and when do we bring people back into the public sphere? And what does it look like then to give them positions again of influence and status again? And when do we—do they need to be relegated? And I just, I think there’s a lot of chatter that’s frankly pretty uninformed about this. Not deeply rooted in a tradition, not having kind of all these ethical principles behind it, but just everyone’s opinion. So I’m just curious how you think through it within this framework.

Danya  

Most of the—so first of all, let’s be clear, most of the people that are allegedly “canceled” are actually thriving financially and professionally, right? And (B) the act of so-called cancellation is mostly just capitalism. Like people, people saying “we are not going to buy your music anymore” is just making a market choice, honestly. So, fine, like “we’re gonna buy this music and not that music,” right? This, Netflix has dropped your thing because you are no longer desirable to the market. Like, that’s actually just capitalism. So people need to calm down. That’s number one. Number two, people are absolutely entitled to make moral choices about whose work they support and whose work they don’t support. And to say that if someone is propagating ideas that they find harmful, that they’re allowed to speak up loudly against that, that is, I think, absolutely fair. Want to make that clear. And we have a path of repentance. When people are doing the work, we know exactly what to look for. Rabbi Yosef Blau was complicit in helping a perpetrator, a horrific perpetrator, go back to work with young adults, with teenagers and kids. And when he understood what he did, he started to dedicate the rest of his life to advocating for safer policies in the Orthodox world, to working to create safer spaces, to fighting for victims rights, right? To create, passing bills for survivors. Like he’s a tireless advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and to creating spaces where there will not be sexual abuse in his community. Survivors know that he is on their side. When you do the work, when you mean it, it’s pretty clear. Louis C.K. on the other hand, you know, issued this apology about how he was “listening and learning from the experience of being named as an abuser” and then, you know, took six or nine months off, and then went straight back into the ego stroking limelight that made it so easy for him to perpetrate harm in the first place. When people are doing the work, it’s clear, and when they’re not, it’s also clear. And, again, the only people who can forgive harmdoers are the people who are harmed by them. So we, the public, to some degree, shouldn’t be weighing in on that. And a victim can harm their abuser, and that also doesn’t mean that they are automatically entitled to a $300,000 or $300 million Netflix contract or whatever, right? Like doing the work of repentance and being entitled to things that most people don’t have because you were once a celebrity are not the same thing. But if Louis C.K. had suddenly decided to dedicate the rest of his career to fighting rape culture, and to empowering women comedians, and to using his platform for amazing things with…you know, and doing it mostly behind the scenes, and then we find out it’s him and, dah dah dah. Like, his relationship with the public would be very different. But those aren’t the choices that he made.

Danya  

So it seems like, just because you mentioned Louis C.K., just to dwell on that for half a second—he went through a process that wasn’t really a process. It was individualistic. I don’t know what he did behind the scenes. But, you know, “I’ll go off here, I’ll take a rest. I’ll take a time out. And then I’ll just come right back.” But the community wasn’t involved. The public was involved because they know who he is. But they’re watching. It’s not a commun—am I right about this?—it’s not a community generated act of repentance and reparation.

Danya  

I mean, what he did—To name it publicly because the harm had a public dimension? That’s appropriate. Did he make everything right with his victims? Did he, you know, do serious amends work? That’s not clear. Right? I do not believe so. And certainly the other side of it, right, the work that he did on the other side made it clear that he had not actually learned a damn thing. So it doesn’t matter.

Pete  

Yeah, yeah. Well, maybe just one thing I’d like to just touch on because I think this is important for a lot of our listeners who are likely somewhere in the Christian world, right? So I think one thing, it’s fascinating, maybe you can expand on this just a little bit—how the strength and wisdom that you’re gaining to deal with things that involve repentance and reparation—that doesn’t come straight from the Bible so to speak. You know, I think, especially for Protestant Christians, the answer is always someplace in a text, but what I’m hearing from you, and again, correct me if this is wrong, is the wisdom. Of course, you know, there’s the long scriptural tradition in Judaism, but you’ve mentioned the Talmud a few times and not the Bible. Right? So and I’m—that is not a criticism! Maybe just elaborate on the source of wisdom in Judaism for thinking through complex moral issues.

Danya  

So little Judaism 101 maybe. So we have the Torah, right? That is definitely our home base. Five books of Moses and then the rest of the Hebrew Bible is what Christians, you know, kind of mostly what Christians call the Old Testament. Though we prefer the Hebrew Bible as a more…

Pete  

…not Christian way of talking about it, right?

Danya  

Yeah, you know, like when you guys say “Old Testament” it implies—it’s a little supersecessionist, I’ll put it that way.

Jared  

Well, and also maybe doesn’t do justice to the fact that it’s different books in different orders and historically…

Danya  

Well right, I mean, you know, there’s that. But I just want to say that you know, Old Testament, even when Christians say “Old Testament” it implies that our books aren’t perfectly fine on their own and exist as an independent tradition. And when Christians say “Hebrew Bible” it gives them a little more dignity, gives Judaism a little more dignity. Anyway, so we have, you know, Torah and Bible and stuff. But then we have the rabbinic tradition, which is really the foundation of Judaism, which is how we read and understand what to do with Torah in our lives, right? Torah says keep Shabbat, but like, what does that mean? What do you do? What do you not do? So then we have the Oral Torah, which is an ancient oral tradition that got written down, codified around 150-200 CE, that’s called the Mishnah. And so the Mishnah says, like, well, here are the 39 categories of things you don’t do on Shabbat. And then you know, buh dah dah dah. And then what we call the Talmud is rabbis figuring out like, okay, well, when it says no plowing, what does that mean? If I drag a bench does that mean I, you know, I didn’t mean to plow, but it made a little furrow. Did I plow or not? And then they fight about whether or not you actually broke Shabbat. And we decide. And then Maimonides is like, well, here’s the answer. Right? And this is how Judaism has evolved. So these are all our holy texts. You know, it’s people [unintelligible] these are all our sacred texts. So we have Yom Kippur in the Torah. And there’s all sorts of stuff. A High Priest confesses his sins onto the goat. And then the Mishnah says Yom Kippur doesn’t work unless the person who, if you have sinned against your friend, Yom Kippur is not going to do the magical atonement. Yom Kippur is not gonna do the powerful, profound, extraordinary alchemical work of atoning for you, if you haven’t made things right with the person that you hurt. So then we’re like, “Oh, okay, well, how do we do…?” You know, and then so then the Talmud elaborates: What does that mean? How do we do it? What does that look like? And then Maimonides collects all of this wisdom and puts it in order. So it’s text! It’s so much text.

Pete  

I mean, a way, can I—a way of putting it, and this is, again, I’m using language that I’m used to here. What I’m hearing is that the wisdom comes from the ongoing living tradition. 

Danya  

Yes.

Pete  

It’s not, it’s not simply codified in Torah as—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so I really need you to respond to this—as times change, as circumstances change, the application of Torah requires an advancement of the tradition so to speak.

Danya  

Yeah. For us, and I think this is something that a lot of Christians struggle to understand, so I’m really grateful for you sort of bringing this, surfacing this—we don’t sort of “do Torah” in isolation. And remember, for us, Jewish practice is mitzvot, is actually doing the commandments. But what does that mean? And what does that do? What are we supposed to do and not do? And what does it look like? Is always evolving. And how we live the beautiful, exquisite, sacred, spiritual practice of mitzvot in our lives today is always, you know, it’s a growing, evolving tradition. And how we understand and interpret what the words of Torah mean is, I mean—the practice of studying Torah, like that’s the core of spiritual practice of Judaism is studying Torah, and interpreting Torah, and reading Torah. And going from the Mishnah to the Talmud to Maimonides to, you know, and I can list all of the (mostly) dudes until recently, but there have been a few women, you know. And then you know, and we say every generation receives the Torah anew. Right? It’s always a, you know, what does, you know, what does a Jewish law say about IVF? Well, okay, well, if we look at this, and dah dah dah and dah dah dah, you know, we have to start with the text that we have, and then we extend and make sense of it based on the information we have. So yeah, it’s—it is a living, breathing process of bringing the Torah into our lives today. And what I hope I’ve done with Maimonides is brought him into the 21st century to make it so that people can see how Maimonides is speaking to our lives, our dilemmas at work, to, you know, some of the greatest intractable problems in our country now. Because I think he’s, I think he’s talking to them, but you wouldn’t see it clearly if you’re just opening up The Mission of Torah, his book. So you need an interpreter. Right?

Jared  

Right. And I think that’s a really wonderful sentiment to end on. Because I think it touches on this deeper issue that, you know, I can’t speak for you, Pete, but I know for me, early on in our studies I would have had that sense that we’re missing something in terms, in the Christian way that we handle our Bible. And I think that’s what’s become clearer and clearer over the years for me is that—is that scaffolding of the living tradition that helps us bring into modern conversation these ancient texts in a way that touches on them without…there’s something very stilted and I would almost say disrespectful to those texts, when we don’t have that scaffolding and we don’t respect the living tradition. So I think it’s a really great thought to end on and something I think a lot of our listeners will be helped by as sort of, how do we do this now in our tradition, in a way that, you know, I would have grown up actually not only not having that, but being very anti-tradition, because it’s always going to be, you know, not as good as just going to the text. Which of course all that means is we just have our interpretation, we’re just not self-aware about it.

Pete  

We’re creating our own mini living tradition in that sense, right.

Jared  

Right, but it doesn’t go back 2,000 years, it goes back like 20 years.

Pete  

It goes back to what I ate last night. 

[Everybody laughing]

Danya  

That’s very important. There’s a lot of [unintelligible].

Jared  

Well, thank you so much, Danya, for coming on, and giving us so much to chew on. And it’s just such a refreshing and different perspective on some of these things that I think for me have been very helpful.

Danya  

Thank you!

Stephanie  

You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you! And well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. And a big thanks to  Joan Gudeman, Fred Fauth, Eileen Cawood, Rob Buckingham, Peter Hack, A. Todd Rivetti, Scott Skiles, John C Bruss, Angela Smith, and Christopher Zenner. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Pete  

Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight, audio engineer Dave Gerhart, creative director Tessa Stultz, marketing director Savannah Locke, and web developer Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening!

[Beep signals start of bloopers]

Pete  

Welcome everyone to this episode of the podcast and our topic today is on repentance and repair. [Sucks air in]

Pete  

And I just sucked air into my lungs.

Jared Byas  

[Laughing hard] You did. Yeah, we gotta do that again.

Pete  

How does that even happen? It’s like my throat has closed up!

Pete  

I know! [Laughs and makes exaggerated sound like a pterodactyl] Pete’s dead! Pete’s dead!

Jared  

It was like a…[Jared imitates sound and laughs]

Jared  

All right. Let’s do it again.

Pete  

Okay, let’s try again. Oh, Dave, whatever you do with this I’m going to kill you. How does that sound? Okay. 

[Beep signals next blooper]

Pete  

Danya, welcome sue our…Well I’m going to start over again because I just forgot—

Jared  

That’s the first time you’ve ever messed up an intro! 

Pete  

I forgot English for a second there…

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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