“Like punk, philosophy gave me new tools for crafting my life,” writes Ruttenberg in the first chapter of her memoir, which chronicles her journey of religious awakening as she moves through a series of seemingly disparate counter-cultural identities: from an atheist punk rock teenager in the suburbs of Chicago to a Conservative rabbinical student in Los Angeles. Throughout this honest and self-reflective account, Ruttenberg interlaces her thoughts about and gleanings from philosophy, theology, psychology, literature, and religion.
Ruttenberg consistently describes the world based on simplistic dichotomies: when she’s an atheist, she judges the religious world and when she’s religious, she judges atheism. This type of black and white thinking is fairly typical of returnees to Judaism. What she describes, but fails to say, is that her journey through various incarnations of affiliations illustrates the relativity of truth.
Still, this book is a revealing and thought-provoking glimpse inside the mind of a young seeker. It is well-written and accessible to people who are curious about the life of one feminist Jew as she struggles to find community and meaning amidst life’s joys and challenges.
The Surprises Waiting for Everybody
By Danya Ruttenberg
My early 20s, when I was knee-deep in the questions chronicled in Surprised By God, was a time full of struggle and conflict. On one level, I pondered over whether, and to what degree, to keep Shabbat or kashrut, how to make sense of the siddur and how to pray, how to allow Jewish ethics to drive my choices and behavior, or how to live in a relationship with God that felt authentic and full of integrity. But the questions weren’t merely logistical, or ritualistic — they cut to the core of who I was, who I understood myself to be. Not that I was necessarily certain that I wanted to be rearranged on such a primal level.
I certainly didn’t have any insights about why I was feeling so compelled toward — and confused, inconvenienced, and frightened by— my burgeoning relationship to Jewish religious practice, so like any good Jew, I decided to do some reading. I quickly noticed that the great theologians’ struggles — with discipline and integration, with rethinking relationships with family and identity, with making sense of desire and facing down long-buried pain — were startlingly like mine despite apparent differences in era, culture and sensibility. I slowly began to see that the issues with which I was wrestling so furiously were not mine alone, but that, rather, they’re part of what happens when a person enters into the heart of religious practice, open to the possibility that it might have a powerful, lifetransforming impact.
Transformation is never easy and yet so many people wanted to talk about how “waking up” spiritually was a magical, ecstatic experience.
There was magic to my experience, but it was also hard — and while the greats of eras past seemed to recognize this, it struck me that this truth had somehow been shunted aside in the current discourse.
These were the issues that made me think about writing a book; I wanted to talk about the challenges of taking on a religious practice today: how it’s painful or boring, how grief and loss come with spiritual growth, and how, despite this, we do the work so that we might become kinder, softer, more aware of the sacred, and more in tune with God. I wanted to talk about how much more challenging this work is today, when the public conversation is driven on one side by fundamentalism and on the other by a watered-down “spirituality.” What about embracing seemingly contradictory truths from our limited vantage? What about the power of religion to transform not only our individual lives, but the culture as a whole? Why aren’t we asking what the difference is between what we need and what we want? As I began to sketch what eventually became Surprised By God, I felt less that I was delivering great new insights into these questions than opening up an ancient conversation in contemporary language — bringing my friends from my bookshelf into dialogue with the people I knew who were thinking and talking about religious practice today.
It became a memoir by accident; I realized that in order to talk about what happens when a person becomes religious, I had to talk about what happened when I became religious. We all have pieces of the greater puzzle; I couldn’t offer my own to a reader without being honest about what I had learned and how I had learned it.
I’m grateful, honored, and humbled to be a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize. I’m gratified that my efforts are considered to have borne fruit. I hope this recognition inspires more dialogue about what religious practice is and should be. Perhaps then we can decide if we want to perpetuate a culture of easy answers and quick fixes, or if we want to encourage one of deep investment and systemic transformation. Judaism, of course, already contains everything we need, if we are brave enough to claim it.