Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: Atonement, Forgiveness, and Repentance
I want to distinguish between "atonement," "forgiveness," and "repentance," which are three different concepts in Judaism. The critical one, in my view, is repentance, where the real work is on the person who has done harm.
There are specific steps to repentance work:
1. Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly)
2. Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn't do harm (which requires a ton of inner work)
3. Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible
4. THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim
5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, continued:
Forgiveness is up to the victim (and the victim alone). Atonement is up to God.
On a human, ethical level there is always a path towards repentance, towards understanding the harm perpetrated and doing the work of repair and restitution, to whatever degree that is possible.
In Judaism, you can do tshuvah/repentance work and even get right with God (be atoned) even if your victim never forgives you. They’re separate processes.
The perpetrator must seek forgiveness genuinely (and repeatedly—three times, to be exact) but the perpetrator being forgiven isn’t a necessary part of their tshuvah/repentance process.
(Tshuvah literally means “return,” like coming back to where you were supposed to be).