Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has been called “the Twitter rabbi” (@TheRaDR), and I confess, that’s where and how I got to “know” her. I started following her for hot takes on religion, politics, and ethics; within a few weeks I was enthralled by her threads of scriptural exegesis and began “saving” them for future reference (aka, sermon material). It wasn’t long before I was calling her “my” rabbi.
Ruttenberg’s memoir is not only a sensitive, beautifully written chronicle of her youth and young adulthood; it is also the story of a hard-won conversion, a life re-shaped by intellectual and spiritual curiosity and rigor. Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, begins at the first Rosh Hashanah following her bat mitzvah. 13-year-old Ruttenberg is surveying the goings on at her synagogue with a jaded eye. Her stockings and shoes chafe, as does the standing and sitting (“like well-trained dogs”) for different parts of the service. The words in the prayer book she is holding offer “truth claims… too patently absurd to consider.” Moreover, the upscale crowd doesn’t seem any more enthralled than she is. By the end of the service, Ruttenberg is with Marx: religion is an opiate, and she is an atheist.
In high school Ruttenberg dove into what became twin passions: the punk scene and philosophy. Dancing at Medusa (a Chicago all-ages-till-midnight club) until she was totally overcome by the pounding rhythms and had lost all sense of time, Ruttenberg felt both lost in and found by the music and a visceral experience that she continued to chase. She immersed herself in the texts of Sartre, Dostoevsky, Camus, and others, embracing an existentialism that grounded itself in atheism. She experienced the thrill of each new voice while sharpening her own critical faculties and being drawn further into serious study. She took advantage of a summer semester at Cornell in which high school students could take college level classes: Ruttenberg studied philosophy, and with the help of Nietzsche, refined her critique of religionists:
They seemed to view the world with a simplicity that struck me as impossible for anyone whose faculties of reasoning were operative. As far as I could see, intelligent, thinking people were on one side of an unbridgeable divide, and easily manipulated, pious ones were on the other [p. 13].
In high school and college Ruttenberg metaphorically sat at the feet of countless intellectual giants, piecing together her ethical framework, finding her footing as a burgeoning scholar, and ultimately discovering that a major in religious studies was the perfect way to immerse herself in philosophy and history (and anthropology and literature). Then, three weeks into her first semester of college, she learned that her mother had a malignant lump in her breast. Half a continent away from family for the first time, the pain and confusion of this period is palpable. In her junior year Ruttenberg took leave from school to live at home, overseeing her mother’s hospice care and witnessing the horrors and pain of end-stage breast cancer. She writes,
My mother was the first person to teach me that the real action in life happened not in the recesses of my brain, but right out there in front of my eyes. I had to be willing to look, though .
Ruttenberg had indeed looked, and been present for both the pain and, in the end, the utter peace of her mother slipping away. Something remarkable had transpired, and the young woman struggled to understand it. Over the course of the next year, “strange things began to happen.” Ruttenberg began to experience the world in an expansive new way—a near obsession with the moon and the night sky, listening to Tchaikovsky until she wept, colors deeper, corners sharper. She experienced the customary noise of her thoughts giving way to moments of exquisite silence, which slipped away again, even as she tried to understand it. Eventually, Ruttenberg connects these experiences with her memory of dancing at Medusa’s—the experience of being both lost and found. She writes, “My shell had been broken by grief, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I was unguarded enough to perceive a force that, for all its power, is quite subtle in day-to-day existence” . Eventually she will call this force the Divine.
The remainder (the vast majority) of the memoir follows Ruttenberg as she leaves college, takes up residence in San Francisco, forges life-long friendships, travels, and pursues that powerful but subtle force. She recites the mourner’s Kaddish, which takes her into synagogue after synagogue (because of the need for a quorum of ten individuals to pray/ recite it together). Once she is settled in the Bay area, she decides to find a synagogue home. (Her description of some of the “not for me” worship experiences includes a smelly drumming one.) Finding the right match is a critical step in Ruttenberg’s pursuit of God and, eventually, her diligent, frustrating, and undeniable need to create space for her religious practice.
This is the section of the book that evoked in this reader what some have called “holy envy.” Ruttenberg writes of how conversion is often portrayed in media as instantaneous—someone finds Jesus, quits drinking, and changes his life in a matter of days, if not hours. That is not the path that unfolds here. Ruttenberg’s path is long and arduous and involves letting go of things that are not supportive of her newly (and passionately) embraced spiritual practices. There are losses (these include favorite restaurants). But the rightness of her choices is confirmed each time she lets something go so that she might observe sabbath (for example) in a way she can live with. The reader can’t help being filled with wonder and admiration at her resolve.
Ruttenberg’s memoir stops just short of her ordination as a rabbi. (She describes her call as something that will give her no peace until she submits to it. Can’t I just be a journalist who happens to be a religious Jew? she wonders. No, God says.) At the same time, Ruttenberg stresses: “The fulfillment of religious practice is not to go professional. The fulfillment of religious practice is religious practice” . Surprised by God served to prod this somewhat foggy, Covid-time religious professional to take a hard look at her own spiritual practices, and to wonder how she might rekindle a longed-for spark in her own heart and life. When it’s holy, envy can be a good and powerful thing. I’m pretty sure my rabbi would agree with me.
Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007, and is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is a contributor to the RevGals’ book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” (SkyLight Paths Publishing). A native of the Jersey shore and in love with the New England coastline, she longs for the ocean, the smell of salt air, and the music of seagulls.
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