Atonement, Forgiveness, and Repentance

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

וְשֶׁבַח גָּדוֹל לַשָּׁב שֶׁיִּתְוַדֶּה בָּרַבִּים וְיוֹדִיעַ פְּשָׁעָיו לָהֶם וּמְגַלֶּה עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּינוֹ לְבֵין חֲבֵרוֹ לַאֲחֵרִים וְאוֹמֵר לָהֶם אָמְנָם חָטָאתִי לִפְלוֹנִי וְעָשִׂיתִי לוֹ כָּךְ וְכָךְ וַהֲרֵינִי הַיּוֹם שָׁב וּמִתְנַחֵם.

The penitent who confesses publicly is praiseworthy, and it is commendable for them to let the public know their iniquities, and to reveal the sins between himself and his neighbor to others, saying to them: "Truly, I have sinned against that person, and I have wronged them thus and such, but, behold me this day, I repent and am remorseful".

(ט) האומר אחטא ואשוב. אחטא ואשוב. אין מספיקין בידו לעשות תשובה. אחטא ויום הכפורים מכפר. אין יום הכפורים מכפר.

עבירות שבין אדם למקום. יום הכפורים מכפר. עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו. אין יום הכפורים מכפר. עד שירצה חברו.

(9) One who says, "I will sin, and then repent, I will sin [again], and then repent," will not receive an opportunity to repent; [for one who says] "I will sin, and Yom Kippur will atone," Yom Kippur will not atone. Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one's neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor.

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).

שיפייס אדם חבירו בערב יום כפור ובו ד"ס:
עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יום הכפורים מכפר עד שיפייסנו ואפילו לא הקניטו אלא בדברים צריך לפייסו ואם אינו מתפייס בראשונה יחזור וילך פעם שניה ושלישית ובכל פעם יקח עמו שלשה אנשים ואם אינו מתפייס בשלשה פעמים אינו זקוק לו

Transgressions between people are not subject to atonement on Yom Kippur unless the offender appeases the offended party. Even if one aggrieved another with words alone, this appeasement is necessary. If one cannot effect appeasement at first, one must return a second and a third time, taking along three people. If the offended party will not be appeased after three visits, one may desist.

אֵי זוֹ הִיא תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. זֶה שֶׁבָּא לְיָדוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁעָבַר בּוֹ וְאֶפְשָׁר בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹתוֹ וּפֵרַשׁ וְלֹא עָשָׂה מִפְּנֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה.

What is complete teshuvah? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin, and they possess the ability to do it, but they separate and do not do it because of teshuvah and not out of fear or lack of strength.