Teshuvah, Jewish Thought, & Abolition

Why do we talk about understandings of harm and forgiveness when we talk about abolition? When we talk about uprooting a carceral system, one that is predicated on holding human beings hostage in boxes, we have to reckon with the reality that that system did not spring up fully formed. It was built on a systematic frame of ideas that was created by human beings. Which means, of course, it can be deconstructed by human beings. Take a moment, when you think through our system of “”justice”” what values around topics like accountability, punishment, criticism, reconciliation, and community exist? Here's a short summary of terms that will appear consistently throughout this source sheet and our conversation:

-Teshuvah: From the root, and literally meaning "return", often translated into English as "repentance". The Jewish notion of repenting cannot be separated from the concept of returning to harm that was done in order to repair it. We cannot separate or obfuscate harm we caused if we are actually intent on healing it. If we can't name what happened, and our part in committing harm, complete repair or healing is impossible.

-Tochekcha: From the root "to be firm" "to stand" "to be right". This is often translated as loving rebuke. We offer Tochekcha to help people see what they have done wrong and encourage them to do better. This is a community responsibility and one of the key ways that we show love to one another. To help each other do better is to show our love and care.

-Heit: Is one of Judaism's many words that are often translated as "sin" but the Hebrew word חטא (heit) means "missing the mark," like in archery. Often times language that is translated to "sin" is highlighting places where we failed to do a good thing, a mitzvah, and instead acted in a way that was harmful. When we miss the mark, we reject the opportunity to complete the piece of G-d's work that was offered to us to do. We could spend a whole year learning about different Jewish notions of wrongdoing, but I offer this as one lens.

-Tzedakah: From the root for "justice". Creating and giving tzedakah is a fundamental tenant of Jewish life. Upon our deaths it is customary to give tzedakah to causes that the person cared about as a way to honor their life. Tzedakah can also be similar to reparations, or helping to solve a harm you caused. If you stole from someone, giving tzedakah will likely be a crucial part of your teshuvah, of your return to name and repair harm. Just as there is no Teshuvah without returning to, and naming clearly, the harm that has been done - the material work of tzedakah is often also necessary.

-Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a complex concept in Judaism, with many different connotations, words, and roots. Forgiveness is not a requirement, or the ultimate goal of Teshuvah. The owness of the work of teshuvah is on the person/people who committed the harm, not on the person/people who was on the receiving end.The goal is to transform ourselves and our actions, and those who have been wronged are not required to forgive. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg puts it well saying,

"In Judaism, you’re not required to forgive someone who hasn’t done sincere, meaningful work of repentance & repair. And then, it’s complicated at best. But the literature is clear that if the harm caused was irreparable, you’re never required to forgive, even if they repent. Also, who can forgive is the person (or people) who were directly harmed."

-Areyvut: From a root meaning "security" or "pledge" and expressing the idea that in a community we are all entangled up with each other. It comes the Talmud in Shavuot 39a, in translation, "all Yisrael (the Jewish community - but one can expand to our other, broader, communities) are accountable and responsible to each other". Our individual transgressions impact the whole world, and as we strive to be in right relationship to each other we are also taking care of our world.

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. Recognize what you did and that it was wrong or hurtful;

2. Feel remorse about your actions;

3. Stop doing harm;

4. Remove the wrongdoing from your thoughts;

5. Resolve never to do it again;

6. Make restitution for damages you caused;

7. Appease the person you hurt;

8. Confess to G!d about your wrongdoing;

9. When faced with the same opportunity again, don't commit harm again. This is how you know teshuvah is complete."

These steps, cited by Rabbi Ruttenberg, are based off of Maimonides' writing. Maimonides, often referred to by the acronym Rambam, was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages.

  • When we think about the priorities of a carceral system, does it help people do any of these steps?
  • What are the goals and values you see on this sheet?
  • What are the goals and values of what you see happening around you?
  • How does this change or not change your approach to abolition and repair?
  • Do prisons help people do this work?
אֵי זוֹ הִיא תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. זֶה שֶׁבָּא לְיָדוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁעָבַר בּוֹ וְאֶפְשָׁר בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹתוֹ וּפֵרַשׁ וְלֹא עָשָׂה מִפְּנֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה. לֹא מִיִּרְאָה וְלֹא מִכִּשְׁלוֹן כֹּחַ. כֵּיצַד. הֲרֵי שֶׁבָּא עַל אִשָּׁה בַּעֲבֵרָה וּלְאַחַר זְמַן נִתְיַחֵד עִמָּהּ וְהוּא עוֹמֵד בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ בָּהּ וּבְכֹחַ גּוּפוֹ וּבַמְּדִינָה שֶׁעָבַר בָּהּ וּפָרַשׁ וְלֹא עָבַר זֶהוּ בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. הוּא שֶׁשְּׁלֹמֹה אָמַר (קהלת יב א) "וּזְכֹר אֶת בּוֹרְאֶיךָ בִּימֵי בְּחוּרֹתֶיךָ". וְאִם לֹא שָׁב אֶלָּא בִּימֵי זִקְנוּתוֹ וּבְעֵת שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת מַה שֶּׁהָיָה עוֹשֶׂה אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּשׁוּבָה מְעֻלָּה מוֹעֶלֶת הִיא לוֹ וּבַעַל תְּשׁוּבָה הוּא. אֲפִלּוּ עָבַר כָּל יָמָיו וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה בְּיוֹם מִיתָתוֹ וּמֵת בִּתְשׁוּבָתוֹ כָּל עֲוֹנוֹתָיו נִמְחָלִין שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (קהלת יב ב) "עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֶחְשַׁךְ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהָאוֹר וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְהַכּוֹכָבִים וְשָׁבוּ הֶעָבִים אַחַר הַגֶּשֶׁם" שֶׁהוּא יוֹם הַמִּיתָה. מִכְּלָל שֶׁאִם זָכַר בּוֹרְאוֹ וְשָׁב קֹדֶם שֶׁיָּמוּת נִסְלַח לוֹ:
What is complete teshuvah? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin, and he possess the ability to do it, but he separates and does not do it because of teshuvah and not out of fear or lack of strength. What is an example? A person who had illicit sex with a woman, and after some time he is alone with her, and he still loves her and possesses his physical power and is in the same country where he committed the sin, but he separates and does not sin – that person is a complete ba’al teshuvah, about whom [King] Solomon said, Remember your Creator in the days of your youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1). And if a person only does teshuvah in the days of old age, when it is not possible to do what he once did, even though this is not the highest teshuvah, it is effective and that person is a ba’al teshuvah. Even if a person sinned all his days and did teshuvah on the day of his death and died in his teshuvah, all his sins are forgiven, as it says, Before the sun is darkened, and the light of the moon and the stars, and the clouds return after the rain (Ecclesiastes 12:2), which is the day of death. This implies that if he remembers his Creator and does teshuvah before he dies, he is forgiven.

וּמַה הִיא הַתְּשׁוּבָה. הוּא שֶׁיַּעֲזֹב הַחוֹטֵא חֶטְאוֹ וִיסִירוֹ מִמַּחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ וְיִגְמֹר בְּלִבּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲשֵׂהוּ עוֹד שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה נה ז) "יַעֲזֹב רָשָׁע דַּרְכּוֹ" וְגוֹ'. וְכֵן יִתְנַחֵם עַל שֶׁעָבַר שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ירמיה לא יט) "כִּי אַחֲרֵי שׁוּבִי נִחַמְתִּי". וְיָעִיד עָלָיו יוֹדֵעַ תַּעֲלוּמוֹת שֶׁלֹּא יָשׁוּב לְזֶה הַחֵטְא לְעוֹלָם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (הושע יד ד) "וְלֹא נֹאמַר עוֹד אֱלֹקֵינוּ לְמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ" וְגוֹ'. וְצָרִיךְ לְהִתְוַדּוֹת בִּשְׂפָתָיו וְלוֹמַר עִנְיָנוֹת אֵלּוּ שֶׁגָּמַר בְּלִבּוֹ:

What is teshuvah? It is when a person abandons the sin that he sinned and removes it from his thoughts and commits in his heart that he will not do it again, as it says, The wicked should abandon his path etc. (Isaiah 55:7). And also that he regrets sinning, as it says, After I returned I regretted (Jeremiah 31:18). And the One Who Knows Hidden Things testifies about him that he will never return to this sin, as it says, And we will no longer call the work of our hands “god” etc. (Hosea 14:4). And he must confess verbally and say these things that he has committed in his heart.
כָּל הַמִּתְוַדֶּה בִּדְבָרִים וְלֹא גָּמַר בְּלִבּוֹ לַעֲזֹב הֲרֵי זֶה דּוֹמֶה לְטוֹבֵל וְשֶׁרֶץ בְּיָדוֹ שֶׁאֵין הַטְּבִילָה מוֹעֶלֶת לוֹ עַד שֶׁיַּשְׁלִיךְ הַשֶּׁרֶץ. וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר וּמוֹדֶה וְעֹזֵב יְרֻחָם. וְצָרִיךְ לִפְרֹט אֶת הַחֵטְא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות לב לא) "אָנָּא חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדלָה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם אֱלֹקֵי זָהָב":
Anyone who confesses verbally and does not commit in his heart to abandon [sin], this is like a person who immerses [in a purity pool] while holding an unclean creature in his hand, so that the bath is not effective until he sends away the unclean creature, and so it says, One who admits and abandons is given mercy (Proverbs 28:13). And he must specify the sin, as it says, This nation has sinned a great sin and made a golden god for themselves (Exodus 32:31).

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. וְכָל הַמִּתְגָּאֶה וְאֵינוֹ מוֹדִיעַ אֶלָּא מְכַסֶּה פְּשָׁעָיו אֵין תְּשׁוּבָתוֹ גְּמוּרָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי כח יג) "מְכַסֶּה פְשָׁעָיו לֹא יַצְלִיחַ". בַּמֶּה דְּבָרִים אֲמוּרִים בַּעֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם

It is very praiseworthy for the penitent to confess in public and disclose his sins to them, and reveal interpersonal sins to others and tell them: “I surely sinned against so-and-so and did such-and-such to him; but today, behold, I return and regret.” But anyone who is prideful and does not disclose, but rather hides his sins – his teshuvah is not complete, as it says, One who covers his transgressions shall not prosper (Proverbs 28:13). What situation are we talking about? Interpersonal sins.

  • How does retranslating "repentance" to "return" impact your understanding of what it means to heal harm?
  • How have you taken on teshuvah in your own life? How have you seen others take it on?
אלא יצער אדם עם הצבור שכן מצינו במשה רבינו שציער עצמו עם הצבור שנאמר (שמות יז, יב) וידי משה כבדים ויקחו אבן וישימו תחתיו וישב עליה וכי לא היה לו למשה כר אחת או כסת אחת לישב עליה אלא כך אמר משה הואיל וישראל שרויין בצער אף אני אהיה עמהם בצער וכל המצער עצמו עם הצבור זוכה ורואה בנחמת צבור

The baraita continues: Rather, a person should be distressed together with the community. As we found with Moses our teacher that he was distressed together with the community, as it is stated during the war with Amalek: “But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat upon it” (Exodus 17:12). But didn’t Moses have one pillow or one cushion to sit upon; why was he forced to sit on a rock? Rather, Moses said as follows: Since the Jewish people are immersed in suffering, I too will be with them in suffering, as much as I am able, although I am not participating in the fighting. The baraita adds: And anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.

  • How does this source think about harm, and the impact of harm?
  • Often in a carceral framework harm lives in between individuals, broken up into individual court cases. How does centering the community's experience of harm change a conversation?
  • What does it mean to really be with each other, accompanying each other, through repair work?

והא תניא שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם ואלו הן תורה ותשובה וגן עדן וגיהנם וכסא הכבוד ובית המקדש ושמו של משיח...

תשובה דכתיב בטרם הרים ילדו וכתיב תשב אנוש עד דכא ותאמר שובו בני אדם...

Wasn’t it taught in a baraita: Seven phenomena were created before the world was created, and they are: Torah, and repentance, and the Garden of Eden, and Gehenna, and the Throne of Glory, and the Temple, and the name of Messiah...

Repentance was created before the world was created, as it is written: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God,” and it is written immediately afterward: “You return man to contrition; and You say: Repent*, children of man” (Psalms 90:2–3)...

*literally: return

  • What does it mean if teshuvah, return and repentance, was created before the world?
  • How does that make our repair work holy?

אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְּשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין אֵין צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִין יְכוֹלִין לַעֲמֹד בּוֹ. כְּלוֹמַר מַעֲלָתָן גְּדוֹלָה מִמַּעֲלַת אֵלּוּ שֶׁלֹּא חָטְאוּ מֵעוֹלָם מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהֵן כּוֹבְשִׁים יִצְרָם יוֹתֵר מֵהֶם:

Our sages say that someone who has done teshuvah is ultimately more righteous, and closer to God, than someone who is righteous without having done teshuvah.

(יח) הוכח - תוכיחהו על מה שעשה ומתוך כך יהיה שלום.

(18) הוכח תוכיח, rebuke him for what he has done and as a result you will restore harmonious relations.

  • In this text the Rashbam is referring to tochekcha, loving rebuke. How does it change our understanding of repairing harm if accountability is critical for building reciprocal and healthy relationships?
  • How does offering tochekcha feel comfortable to you? How does it feel uncomfortable?
  • How can a meaningful relationship with tochekcha unseat some of the frameworks that hold up our carceral system?

(ג) והוכיח אברהם את אבימלך וגו' - אמר רבי יוסי בר חנינא: התוכחת מביאה לידי אהבה, שנאמר (משלי ט): הוכח לחכם ויאהבך. היא דעתיה דרבי יוסי בר חנינא דאמר: כל אהבה שאין עמה תוכחה, אינה אהבה. אמר ריש לקיש: תוכחה מביאה לידי שלום, והוכיח אברהם את אבימלך, היא דעתיה, דאמר: כל שלום שאין עמו תוכחה, אינו שלום.

(3) And Abraham rebuked Avimelech: R. Yosi ben R. Hanina said: Rebuke leads to love, as it says, rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Such indeed is R. Yosi ben Hanina’s view, for he said: Love unaccompanied by rebuke is not love. Resh Lakish said: Rebuke leads to peace; hence, ‘And Abrhaman reproved Avimelech’. Such is his view, for he said: Peace unaccompanied by rebuke is not peace.

  • "Peace unaccompanied by rebuke is not peace". If we are not calling for accountability and repair, there is no real peace. When there is no justice, there is no peace - whatever we are perceiving as peace is not real. How can we use tochekcha to disrupt complicity?
  • "Love unaccompanied by rebuke is not love" - to be in deep and loving relationship with each other, we must be accountable to one another. How does this impact your understanding of relationships and community?