This is an excerpt of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, which comes out in paperback on September 12th. Called “A must-read for anyone navigating the work of justice and healing.” by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, it applies Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance to contemporary personal and systemic issues. This is an excerpt from Chapter Four, which addresses institutional repentance.
Most of us are part of many institutions—places of work, our own and/or our children’s schools and universities, houses of worship, co-working spaces, community organizations, sports leagues, social networking websites, the list goes on. And these institutions can and do perpetrate harm. Sometimes, that harm impacts us as individuals—as stakeholders or beneficiaries of those institutions, or as those excluded or hurt by them—and sometimes it can impact our local or national culture.
An employee’s harassment claim is shunted aside by the CEO, senior team and board. A school system disproportionately disciplines and expels Black students. Companies hire suppliers that they know break local wage laws or even commit human rights abuses in order to keep their price point down. An ostensibly feminist co-working space allows transphobic comments by one member against another member to stand. Websites permit antisemitic hashtags to trend, allow vaccine and/or election-related disinformation to be deliberately spread, or refuse to ban white supremacists who repeatedly violate their official terms of service. Some hospitals discriminate against disabled people when rationing care during a deadly pandemic. Some universities were built with the labor of enslaved Black people.
How can and should we think about the work of repentance when the harm being caused is not a single person, but rather a body, made of many actors—some of whom are decision-makers, others of whom are complicit, tasked by their bosses to carry out horrific, unjust or even simply suboptimal orders? What, if anything, changes when those who are in charge today weren’t personally responsible for harm caused in the past? How can we as a society push the organizations that impact our own communities to do better?
What are the obligations—and limits to the obligations—of the individuals in charge, and what can repentance look like when undertaken by an institution?
Dr. Shira Berkovits, president of Sacred Spaces—an organization that helps institutions in the Jewish community “prevent and respond to sexual abuse and other abuses of power,”—noted that a lot of institutions struggle to acknowledge harm caused. “When institutions are most likely to get it right,” she says, “it’s because they’re doing [repentance work] when the harm is happening, and they have great humility–they’re actively seeking advice and trying to get it right.” In terms of reckoning with the past, she says. “I’ve seen language like, ‘We will put [such-and-such measures] in place to prevent this in the future,’ which is not the same as saying, ‘We did wrong.’” Institutions often prefer proactive measures focused on moving forward, she says, over the earlier stages of Maimonides’ repentance work—public acknowledgement of harm, apologies and amends—because, all too often, they believe that “the last step makes you look good and the first steps make you look bad.” However, she noted, “It would be a provocative lens for organizations to understand that doing the first steps [in the work of repentance] makes you look good,” that actually owning the harm caused responsibly can go a long, long way towards not only healing and repair, but also towards institutional responsibility and moral leadership.
An institution is a body made up of many actors: Donors, board members, senior staff, junior staff, and perhaps other stakeholders—members, students and alumni, users, congregants, or others. When harm is caused by an institution, often multiple people make choices about how that claim reported to HR will be handled, or how to word the press release or what to share (or not share) on the website.
When we talk about institutional harm, we need to talk both about the individual obligations of the actors making choices and the obligations of the institution as a whole. If the president of a large organization makes the choice to bury a HR complaint, the institution as a whole is liable—and continues to be liable, even if that president leaves to take a job elsewhere. (That former president would also be obligated to do the work of repentance and repair on an individual, ethical level, in my opinion—but their new organization would not be; the old organization that caused the harm would be, however.)
Note that as we talk about institutional repentance, I want to be clear that the question, “What boxes can an individual perpetrator tick off in order to make it possible for them to return to institutional or communal life?” is the wrong question. An individual who has done real repentance work will, naturally and organically, find their way back because their remorse and efforts to repair will be so evident that victims will not be able to help but feel that this person is on their team. But the decision must come from those most impacted.
We can look at someone like Rabbi Yosef Blau, who, after understanding his complicity in enabling a sexual abuser to continue his work as both a high school principal and youth group leader, has dedicated much of his life and work to helping Orthodox institutions implement policies that decrease the possibility of abuse and creating culture change around believing survivors and refusing to tolerate abuse and abusers. Or at Kelly Clark, a recovering alcoholic who, after becoming a lawyer, was relentlessly transparent about the harm he had caused before sobriety, even posting a “letter of disclosure” on his firm’s website, and blogging his path of transformation. Clark became a champion for abuse victims, representing survivors in lawsuits against institutions like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, and would only take cases if he felt the process could be beneficial or healing to victims. These are people who understand the pain they caused and worked tirelessly to do better—not to complete a checklist so that they can get prestigious institutional appointments back, but because doing the right thing mattered to them.
A victim-centered approach does not ask, “What are the things harmful people need to do so that an institutional ecosystem that depends on them can return to normal?” but, rather, “What do victims need, and are they getting those things?” How would a victim feel about running into her abuser at a conference? Seeing him pop up on a video call? Navigating his presence at the gala dinner of the organization where she works? If he is really doing the work of repentance, he would want, for example, not to re-traumatize her by accident. He would want to give her time and space for healing. And if he had really shown his remorse and his willingness to be different, perhaps she’d be OK with his presence there, and could tell him that herself. But it’s certainly not the call that should be made by an anxious board member who would like to once again utilize a former hero’s talents or a prominent donor’s money.
If they’re really doing the work, it’ll be clear, eventually. Don’t worry about that part, not now.
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:5
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:5
 Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey), “I have a lot of respect and admiration for Anthony Rapp as an actor…” Twitter, October 29, 2017, https://twitter.com/KevinSpacey/status/924848412842971136.
 Neal Justin, “I Think I Have to Leave This Country, Garrison Keillor Says After Firing,” Star Tribune, November 30, 2017, http://www.startribune.com/garrison-keillor-fired-for-improper-behavior/460802703/
 “Matt Lauer’s Public Apology Isn’t Much of An Apology,” Constance Grady, Vox.com, November 30, 2017, accessed 11/13/19: https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/11/30/16719492/matt-lauer-public-apology
 “Mario Batali’s Misconduct Apology Came With A Cinnamon Rolls Recipe,” Jaime Ducharme, Time, Deecmber 16, 2017, accessed 11/13/19: https://time.com/5067633/mario-batali-cinnamon-rolls-apology/