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Another feminist rabbi: Danya Ruttenberg gets religion

Surprised by GodWhen she was a teenager, Danya Ruttenberg was an atheist who enjoyed going to punk shows and reading existentialist philosophy. Now, she’s a rabbi who compares her relationship with God to “an intimate marriage”. Her new memoir, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, tells the story of this transformation. In this interview, she talks about her commitment to service and explains the difference between fundamentalism and thoughtful faith.

So, how does it feel to believe in God?

Danya Ruttenberg: How does it feel? Glorious. Safe. Not always comfortable, though. There are a lot of things that I might want, a lot of ways that I might want to take the easy route but, according to my understanding of the Divine and my relationship to God, those things might not be what I need, or what God needs of me. I’m forced to grow and push myself out of the simple answers to learn how to do better, to be better. The move from atheism to faith feels like the move from a place that was frightening and in which I was utterly alone to one in which I am interconnected and embraced on this level that’s impossible to articulate (what with the Divine being beyond words and all). Despite the horrible ways that we humans may abuse and misuse our free will, it now seems clear to me that beyond that, there’s a profound holiness (a Someone or Something—pick your metaphor) waiting patiently for us to tune in and get on the sweet, sweet channel that will help us learn how to shift from people who want to be gratified into people who want to serve.

Your undergraduate degree is in religious studies, so you actually knew a lot about religion before you began to practice a religion. Have you found your academic background to be a help or a hindrance to your faith?

DR: For me personally, I find it to be a help. Blind, uncritical adherence was never my bag of chips—and frankly, I think that’s true of quite a lot of people, many more than non-religious folks often assume. Fundamentalist thinking makes up a very, very small percentage of religious thinking; Jewish textual history is nothing if not 2000 years of critical thinking, of looking for problems and inconsistencies in our texts!

In my case, I came into Jewish practice having already heard that—for example—most contemporary scholars posit at least four distinct authors (or schools of authorship) to the Torah. That doesn’t mean that I don’t regard the Torah as a holy text, or understand God’s Revelation on Sinai (as described in Exodus 19 and 20) as true on some level. One may be describing a historical reality, and the other a deeper, metaphoric or spiritual reality. Paul Ricoeur talks about a “second naiveté”, the ability to see sacred text’s holiness shining through even after learning the historical bits. There’s historical truth, which I don’t discount at all, and there is, co-existing with it, a deeper truth about what it is to be a person and what it is to live your life in alignment with the sacred.

As a religious person, whether or not Abraham the patriarch was a historical figure is irrelevant to me—I’m more interested in what I have to learn from the stories that the Torah tells about him. And yet, finding out that, say, many Psalms borrow their structure from Canaanite poetry (and learning what that structure is and in what ways the Psalms are similar to and different from the Canaanite versions…, etc.)—well, that’s just cool, and that deepens my understanding of and appreciation them. Of course there was inter-cultural mingling, of course nothing happens in a vacuum! That doesn’t mean the result isn’t valuable.

It should be noted that in my rabbinic program—as with seminaries of Christian friends—they teach scholarly history as part of the deal. Scholarship and faith are far from mutually exclusive, and if you’re going to care about these texts and live your life by them, why wouldn’t you want to know what contemporary researchers are learning about them? Faith isn’t something so brittle that it breaks every time a new archaeological discovery is made that might challenge a religious reading of a text—if it can’t handle those small challenges, it certainly can’t stand up to the serious questions that every theology engages.

While I was reading your memoir, I found myself wanting to know more about the process of ordination. But, when I got to the end, I understood your reluctance to make that experience the climax of your narrative. In your memoir, you suggest that “going pro” isn’t the only legitimate response to a spiritual awakening. Did you feel a special responsibility to make your story accessible to people of faith who might not become clergy?

DR: Absolutely. There are plenty of wonderful spiritual memoirs out there about entering the monastery, becoming clergy, and so forth. Until I applied to rabbinical school, though, (which I did around the point that the story told in Surprised By God was ending, i.e., where the reader sees me last in the narrative) I was a lay Jew trying to figure out how to integrate religious practice into the rest of my life. This is a book about the ways that taking on a spiritual practice changes us all. My quoting of other thinkers and bringing in examples of similar issues in other faiths was my way of making it abundantly clear that this is a process with which everyone struggles, and though my time in rabbinical school was amazing—really transformative—that’s a much less universal experience, and I didn’t want readers to get off of the universal tip, to stop implicitly reading this book as about being about them as well.

The role of women in religion is a contentious issue in a number of faith traditions. I know that not all Jewish communities embrace the idea of women rabbis, but have you found that most of the people you’ve encountered have been supportive? How many women rabbis are there?

DR: I’m not sure how many women rabbis there are total in the world, but we’ve been ordained in America in a mainstream way (there have been a few incredible renegades here and there throughout history) since 1972, and since 1985 in my denomination. So there are quite a few already out there, and many more each year! Most people are totally supportive; it’s not a shocking or unusual thing in the circles in which I travel. (Actually, it’s a very mundane thing in my own circles—“oh, look, another feminist rabbi, how boring.”) There are still folks who don’t embrace the idea, but overwhelmingly, the mark has already been made on American Jewish life. We’re here, and these days there are more and more out queer rabbis, trans rabbis, rabbis of various racial and cultural backgrounds, and so forth. The stereotype of the old white guy with the long beard doesn’t really mesh with the reality today. (Of course, I know some brilliant bearded, older, male rabbis—they just don’t have the monopoly on rabbinic representation anymore!)

Has becoming a rabbi changed your life? Has it changed your faith or your practice?

DR: Yes.

Oh, you wanted a longer answer? OK: The process of becoming clergy has deepened my faith and given it a heft that I couldn’t have imagined before. It’s taught me lessons in humility and in understanding myself as an instrument of service to others. It’s altered my relationship with God, transforming it from something kind of like a passionate lovesickness and more like an intimate marriage. My practice has changed and shifted and grown as I have, sometimes causing me to be stricter than I thought I would be in my practice, sometimes more lenient than I thought I would ever be. I’ve also learned a bit about the symbolic role that the rabbi plays to so many people, and how powerful that is, and how important it is to handle that perception with care. It’s a lot, but it’s amazing. I feel humbled and grateful every day.

August 15, 2008 | Permalink

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