Restorative Justice and Centering the Victim

Restorative justice is an approach to justice concerned with repairing harm.

Mainstream justice systems focus on retribution, while restorative justice emphasizes repairing what has been damaged, rehabilitating the one who has caused harm and, if appropriate, facilitating reconciliation with their victim and with the community at large. Contemporary restorative justice has roots in aboriginal practices from around the globe. It also echoes ancient Jewish values of justice.

In this text, Howard Zehr, the pioneer of modern Western restorative justice, working with Ali Gohar, explicitly connects restorative justice to Jewish concepts:

“Restorative justice is based upon an old, commonsense understanding of wrongdoing. Although it would be expressed differently in different cultures, this approach is probably common to most traditional societies. For those of us from European background, it is the way many of our ancestors (and perhaps even our parents) understood wrongdoing.

  • Crime is a violation of people and of interpersonal relationships.

  • Violations create obligations.

  • The central obligation is to put right the wrongs.

Underlying this understanding of wrongdoing is an assumption about society: we are all interconnected. In the Hebrew scriptures, this is embedded in the concept of shalom, the vision of living in a sense of “all-rightness” with each other, the creator and the environment. Many cultures, however, have a word that represents this notion of the centrality of relationships: for the Maori, it is communicated by whakappa; for the Navajo, hozho; for many Africans, the Bantu word ubuntu. Although the specific meanings of these words vary, they communicate a similar message: all things are connected to each other in a web of relationships.”

Howard Zehr with Ali Gohar

The Little Book of Restorative Justice

In the twelfth century, Maimonides codified Jewish law in his fourteen-volume magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, with an extensive section on Teshuva, the Jewish laws of repentance. Maimonides stresses relational repair and making things right for the victim as necessary requirements of atonement.

(ט) אֵין הַתְּשׁוּבָה וְלֹא יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפְּרִין אֶלָּא עַל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם כְּגוֹן מִי שֶׁאָכַל דָּבָר אָסוּר אוֹ בָּעַל בְּעִילָה אֲסוּרָה וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן. אֲבָל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ כְּגוֹן הַחוֹבֵל אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ הַמְקַלֵּל חֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ גּוֹזְלוֹ וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן אֵינוֹ נִמְחַל לוֹ לְעוֹלָם עַד שֶׁיִּתֵּן לַחֲבֵרוֹ מַה שֶּׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ וִירַצֵּהוּ. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהֶחֱזִיר לוֹ מָמוֹן שֶׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ צָרִיךְ לְרַצּוֹתוֹ וְלִשְׁאל מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ. אֲפִלּוּ לֹא הִקְנִיט אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אֶלָּא בִּדְבָרִים צָרִיךְ לְפַיְּסוֹ וְלִפְגֹּעַ בּוֹ עַד שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ. לֹא רָצָה חֲבֵרוֹ לִמְחל לוֹ מֵבִיא לוֹ שׁוּרָה שֶׁל שְׁלֹשָׁה בְּנֵי אָדָם מֵרֵעָיו וּפוֹגְעִין בּוֹ וּמְבַקְּשִׁין מִמֶּנּוּ. לֹא נִתְרַצָּה לָהֶן מֵבִיא לוֹ שְׁנִיָּה וּשְׁלִישִׁית. לֹא רָצָה מְנִיחוֹ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ וְזֶה שֶׁלֹּא מָחַל הוּא הַחוֹטֵא. וְאִם הָיָה רַבּוֹ הוֹלֵךְ וּבָא אֲפִלּוּ אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים עַד שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ:

(9) Neither repentance nor the Day of Atonement atone for any save for sins committed between man and God, for instance, one who ate forbidden food, or had forbidden coition and the like; but sins between man and man, for instance, one injures his neighbor, or curses his neighbor or plunders him, or offends him in like matters, is ever not absolved unless he makes restitution of what he owes and begs the forgiveness of his neighbor. And, although he make restitution of the monetory debt, he is obliged to pacify him and to beg his forgiveness. Even he offended not his neighbor in aught save in words, he is obliged to appease him and implore him till he be forgiven by him. If his neighbor refuses a committee of three friends to forgive him, he should bring to implore and beg of him; if he still refuses he should bring a second, even a third committee, and if he remains obstinate, he may leave him to himself and pass on, for the sin then rests upon him who refuses forgiveness. But if it happened to be his master, he should go and come to him for forgiveness even a thousand times till he does forgive him.

In this dialogue with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg frames Maimonides in modern terms:

“Maimonides is very, very victim centered. Right? The language he uses is you have to appease the victim. So it’s not about, like, I checked it off the list, I don’t know why you’re still mad. It’s like, we’re tending to the person who was harmed and their needs and their feelings and their concerns. And we’re not necessarily presuming forgiveness. Forgiveness is like a whole other thing. We’re only talking about the work on the person who did harm and the victim in some cases, you know, if it’s a really petty thing they are encouraged to forgive. If it was something a harm that could never be really healed, they may never be required to forgive. But the person who did the harmful thing is obligated to try to make the victim feel, you know, appeased, pacified, better, as healed as possible. And the sources don’t talk about this, but I think there’s an understanding that since it’s so victim centric, like if it’s going to harm the victim for you to show up and be, you know, you need to be thinking about their needs, not your own.”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

The Confessional


  • What are some of the challenges of centering the victim in a justice process?

  • Is it actually possible to make things “shaleim” --whole, or at peace-- after one person has caused great harm to another? If yes, what might that process entail?

This source sheet aims to pass The Kranjec Test.