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