Restorative Justice and The One Who Harms

Restorative justice posits that there isn’t a binary between those who cause harm and those who don’t-- we all cause harm, just at different scales. Restorative justice also assumes that restitution is possible. Even those who have caused grave harm have the potential to engage in the noble work of repair. These values resonate with Jewish concepts of the soul and the power of repentance.

Jewish notions of reckoning and restitution are called teshuva, which means return. As Rav Abraham Issac Kook points out, teshuva implies that all people can return to their innate state of goodness:

"When we forget the essence of our own soul… everything becomes confused and in doubt. The primary teshuva, that which immediately lights the darkness, is when a person returns to themselves, to the root of their soul-- then they will immediately return to God, to the soul of all souls.”

HaRav Kook, Orot HaTeshuva

The daily morning liturgy, based on the rabbinic wisdom of the Talmud, affirms that every person’s soul is pure.

... כִּי מִתְּעַר אוֹמֵר: ״אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה. אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ בִּי, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִיטְּלָהּ מִמֶּנִּי וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לְעָתִיד לָבֹא. כׇּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה בְּקִרְבִּי מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ ...

...When one awakens, he recites:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it into me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You...

The Talmud not only celebrates those who engage in the work of moral repair, Rabbi Abbahu declares that those who cause harm and then work to repair that harm are morally superior to the righteous who have never caused harm.

... דְּאָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב״. ״לָרָחוֹק״ בְּרֵישָׁא, וַהֲדַר ״לַקָּרוֹב״...

...As Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the full-fledged righteous do not stand, as it is stated: “Peace, peace upon him who is far and him who is near.” Peace and greeting is extended first to him who is far, the penitent, and only thereafter is peace extended to him who is near, the full-fledged righteous...

In this poem, Chana Block seems to be speaking of a pregnancy, but the lines may also be read to refer to the future self that we are continuously birthing. When we've harmed someone badly enough, we can feel defined by the damage we've done. This poem speaks to the way that our actions create the people we will become-- and that we might choose to be in service of one possible future over another.

"There's a future loose in my body and I

am its servant:

carrying wood, fetching water."

Chana Bloch, A Future


  • When we cause harm to others, what prevents us from attempting to repair that harm?
  • How might we help normalize repairing harm?
  • What supports might empower people to repair the harm they cause?

This source sheet aims to pass The Kranjec Test.