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Free Spirit

Danya Ruttenberg spent years wrestling with religion. Today she’s a rabbi.

Jennifer Bleyer
August 27, 2008

Danya Ruttenberg grew up in a mostly non-practicing Jewish family in suburban Chicago, immersed herself as a teenager in the vibrant subcultures of punk rock and political activism, studied religion in college from a detached scholarly distance, and spent much of her twenties flitting amongst bars, art parties, and an eccentric cast of characters in San Francisco. While living there, she became a freelance writer whose work (often about religion) was published in a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, and edited Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press, 2001), an anthology of essays by Jewish women in their twenties and thirties. In the midst of all this, Ruttenberg began a long and deeply personal process of grappling with God and religious observance. It was a path filled with resistance and uncertainty, punctuated by moments of inspiration that eventually led her to embrace the rigors of Jewish learning and practice. This past May, she was ordained as a rabbi.

Ruttenberg, now thirty-three, chronicles her spiritual awakening in her candid and engaging new memoir, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon, 2008). She spoke to Nextbook about overcoming religion’s bad reputation, the radical act of keeping Shabbat, and the potential for a more complicated understanding of God.

What was your motivation for writing this book?

When I was going through intense spiritual searching, I was reading a lot of stories of other people who had gone through this—St. Theresa and all these folks—and began to notice patterns. At the same time, living in commercialized American culture, religion is given a bad name. I think a lot of liberals see religion as this place you go if you’re too scared to think for yourself. “Spirituality” has become this huge product that’s all about self-gratification and feel-good experiences. What I was going through was not fun. It did not always feel good. It was hard work and sometimes really painful. I hadn’t seen a recent book out there that talked about the tough part of spiritual awakening. It’s part of the process that’s missing from our discourse today, because we’re so geared toward instant gratification and averse to pain. That seemed worth articulating in a clear way.

How do you think that religion came to have such a bad name? It’s almost as if “God” is a dirty word, especially among the liberal, intellectual class.

For a lot of us who came of age in the ‘80s, seeing the religious right ascend to power, it became easy to correlate being religious with censoring films and CDs, anti-abortion work, and all this sort of mind control. And for those of us who didn’t get anything more sophisticated in our lackluster religious upbringings, it seemed easy to think of God as this man up in the sky with a thunderbolt who’s going to zap you. Anybody with any power of critical thinking can say, “I’m more sophisticated than that. I don’t really need some pretend mommy or daddy to give me motivation.” If nobody ever told you that history’s understanding of divinity has been much more complex than that, I understand how religion got such a bad name.

Also, the commercialization of spirituality made it this self-indulgent thing that doesn’t have any substance, but is just something people can do to make themselves feel better about their own lives. If you put those two things together, the creepy fundamentalists on one side, and the insipid New Age people on the other, then two or three thousand years of nuanced religious discourse and sophisticated theology goes out the window. Which is a pity, because most of religious history was written by really smart people who ask really smart questions, like some of the same ones we ask: How can there be a God if horrible things happen? And, how do we understand justice?

What was your social experience like as you became more religious?

At the beginning, I had a lot of shame because I’d internalized this notion that sophisticated, intellectual people aren’t religious. After college, I was visiting the East Coast and wound up in Providence. I knocked on the door of one of my old religious studies professors and we went out to lunch. I mentioned that I’d been hanging out in synagogue a little bit, and in this very snide voice he said, “Oh, you’re going to become pious.” I remember feeling embarrassed. I’d been trained to be a good scholar, but you weren’t actually supposed to believe anything about the religion you were studying. For a little while, I tried to keep my practice on the down-low. I’d go out for sushi with friends and just wouldn’t have the shrimp, and wouldn’t say anything about it. Slowly, as I became more committed to my practice and began to understand that this was going to be the priority in my life, it seemed absurd that I would hang around people who didn’t respect what I was doing. Fortunately, my closest friends were always great and very understanding.

The book you edited, and to which I was a contributor—Yentl’s Revenge—had a sort of sassy Jewish rebel tone, filled with young women asserting unconventional Jewish identities. I wonder how that book figures into where you are now?

A lot of the impetus for doing Yentl’s Revenge was a sense that there were people like me who had similar questions and struggles, who were looking to make Judaism their home but hadn’t yet figured out what that home looked like. When I started to call up bookstores to set up gigs, everyone I talked to was a Jewish woman in her twenties who wanted to tell me her story, and was trying to figure out if she could be both Jewish and…whatever the “and” was. I edited the anthology because I was trying to figure out how to integrate all this stuff in my own life. The process of doing the book was the first moment of being able to stake out my own place in Jewish life. In the seven years since then, I’ve discovered that there is actually quite a bit of Jewish life that has a place for me in it. I guess some of it has really just been about perseverance and determination. I kept sticking around until Judaism and I could find the right wavelength.

I enjoyed a certain amount of nostalgia reading about your punk rock coming-of-age—it made me think that maybe we’re a whole hidden scene of former punk girls turned religious seekers. What part of punk have you carried with you, post-adolescence?

When I was hanging around the punk rock kids, there would be moments when the music would take over and the “small Danya” could let go and go into something bigger—maybe the music, maybe something more than that. There was a feeling of immolation and transcendence. As an adult who became interested in spirituality and prayer, that was, in some ways, the place I was trying to return to, that feeling of allowing the small self to fall away and become part of something bigger, which is a central part of spiritual practice.

Your descriptions of beginning to observe Shabbat were really insightful. Referencing a Talmudic idea, you write, “in the World to Come, I suppose, we are more fully ourselves than we are able to be in the current world, where all we seem to do is go and make and rush to achieve.”

In our day and age, asking someone to spend one day off the Blackberry, off email, off TV, off of money, and focusing rather on the fundamental aspects of being a human being—resting, singing, eating meals with friends, having long conversations, taking walks, prayer, doing things that nourish our deepest selves—is radical. It was no surprise to me when, five or six months ago, people—secular non-Jews—started talking about having one night a week that they were going to turn off their Blackberries and not check email. It speaks to this desperation people have gotten to, unable to just be anymore. Being in the present moment can be terrifying. If you’re running around, maybe you don’t notice that you’re angry or terrified. You manage to avoid whatever you’re trying to avoid very successfully. The minute you try to sit still for a whole day, you begin to notice where you are, and that can have frightening implications for the walls you build up. I think we resist that at all costs.

You wrote about hoping early on in your journey that you’d rid yourself of fear and uncertainty through religious illumination. What happened to that?

I was very engaged in this whole notion of enlightenment—the Buddhist tradition has a lot to say about there being one experience that changes everything. I did have one experience during meditation, in the spring of 2000, that changed a lot of things—I had a very visceral, palpable view of the way everything is interconnected. But it didn’t change everything. I was still me on the other side. I think spiritual practice helps me be kinder and gentler with myself, but the existential questions never totally go away. As long as we’re still people, we’re going to have moments of terror and we’re going to be afraid to be lonely. The question is, what context do we put those feelings in, and how do we work through them?

How does Jewish practice contextualize those feelings?

Jewish practice is, in essence, a series of gestures that help realign our focus toward service of the divine. When we pray, perform a mitzvah, say a blessing, or change our behavior in any way, we are remembering: “Oh yeah—God.” We’re remembering on some level, whether or not it’s conscious, that the point of all of this is service, not personal fulfillment. It’s not about me getting everything I want, but rather about me being part of a much bigger, interconnected plane of existence or organism. Call them mindfulness gestures. That’s why the daily practice piece is so important. You meditate, or pray, or keep Shabbat once and nothing changes. But do it often enough and you start to think about it when you’re not even doing the thing.

What do you think the future holds for deeper ideas about God and religion, especially Judaism?

I don’t know. Nobody really knows. Certainly the recent flurry of books on atheism speaks to the fact that a lot of people still haven’t gotten the memo that there is such thing as nuanced religious discourse and different ways of talking about God. There are a lot of people who still see the man up on the mountain with the thunderbolt. I do think that over the last ten years we’ve seen a renewed interest in God among a very specific Jewish set. There’s this passionate, engaged, creative minority of religious Jews our age who are doing independent minyanim, writing, thinking, and doing exciting work. And there’s a schism between them and the sort of next-level superficial Jewish culture expressed as clever T-shirt slogans or snarky comments about what it was like at camp. That’s where Jewish identity is still in its most shallow incarnation. I hope the depth wins out.

Jennifer Bleyer is a New York-based psychotherapist and writer.