Interview with Danya Ruttenberg
Last week I interviewed one of my new favorite Jewesses with attitude - Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. I recently (finally!) finished her new book, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. I've been reading it slowly - not because it's a slow read but because toddlerhood times two has, shall we say, drastically reduced my time and energy for reading - but I've also enjoyed the opportunity to savor Danya's thoughtful story. I've been following Danya's work for years, since she published Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism, and now that she's moved to Boston, I get to hang with her in person - and force her to sit down for an interview.
JR: So my first question is a big one: most people in their early 30s don't think "Hey, it's about time for me to write a memoir!" How did you decide to write this book?
DR: Really, the idea for the book came first out of the sense that there were certain patterns that I had noticed. I went through a phase of devouring a lot of great religious thinkers--the Mertons and Gandhis and MLKs and St. Teresas and Zen stories and Hasidic parables and Sufi poetry--I mean, I still do, but I was trying to read everybody at a point when I was trying to make sense of everything. Anyway, they all seemed, in some way or another, to be articulating the same kinds of issues and struggles and roadblocks to the process of taking on a spiritual discipline that I was struggling with. A lot of the things that were hard for me seemed to also have been hard for St. Teresa or Rebbe Nachman, and I wanted to talk about that, particularly since there isn't a lot of talk in the contemporary discourse about what's hard about engaging religious practice seriously. I also had some ideas about our particular cultural moment, and how doing this work in America today--with its individualism, its consumerism, its heavy media influence, the way that fundamentalism intersects with these things--is in some ways even harder than it's (possibly) ever been, or at least presents some unique issues. Anyway, I wanted to talk about all these things, and at some point it became clear that the most effective way to do this would be through the lens of my own story--to own where I've been and to offer the reader an insight into why I might think some of what I do. So I didn't set out to write a memoir, it just sort of happened! But the thing with writing is that you have to do the thing that works, and my attempts to shove these ideas into another kind of form just wasn't working.
And I guess I have a pretty interesting story, maybe one that offers a more extreme version of things with which a lot of people deal, like how to integrate the "new" religious practice into one's "old" life without giving up anything essential, how to make sense of faith and God when you've been raised to believe that only stupid sheep believe in God, that sort of thing. So for whatever my own story and life can be useful to others, I've tried to make it available. Plus some gratuitous stories about glitter and rhinestones, 'cause that's just fun.
JR: Makes total sense - personal stories are so powerful, and particularly when talking about something like spiritual practice, which could be very abstract... Your approach definitely works! And I think it's a courageous approach, too, not only because you're putting something very personal out there, but also because you're committing to paper an aspect of your life that (I'm assuming) is always in process. Is there anything in the book you would already want to write/explain/capture differently, if you were writing it today?
DR: It's funny, in some ways the story is very much in process, and God willing always will be, and in other ways, I did try to frame this as the story of a particular time in my life--most of it takes place from about the time I was 18 until the time that I entered rabbinical school. I very intentionally stopped the story before starting rab school, both because I didn't want the decision to "go professional" to take over the story, and because then there was a significant (and, I think, necessary) distance between the life I was living when I was writing and the time about which I was writing.
I'm sure there are little things here and there that I might nuance or emphasize differently if I were writing today, but I think that's true of everything I've ever written, not just the personal stuff. Hopefully, one's thinking and perspective is always evolving, and that will inevitably be reflected in the words one chooses to put on paper--but I've long since developed kind of a "OK, that's done, must move on" attitude about things that have made it to light. On any other road lies madness.
JR: Sounds very healthy! Perfect segue to my next question, which is about spiritual life of a rabbi. How has being a "professional Jew" impacted your spiritual life? (Do you get to have Shabbat on Wednesday?)
DR: It has and it hasn't. Since I'm not a pulpit rabbi, I still have the luxury of having many Shabbatot to myself, and most of the rest of my spiritual practice is really my personal practice, stuff between me and God. On the other hand, there are also lots and lots of Shabbatot in which I'm in charge, and that is a nice but entirely different experience--there's something really lovely about getting to teach Torah, about working as the facilitator for other people's experiences of the Divine and Judaism. Similarly, as much as it's nice to learn for my own personal growth and benefit (and I think every rabbi needs to keep feeding him/herself on the individual level--it's really a necessity for spiritual health), there's something really gratifying and amazing and humbling about getting to learn in order to teach, to teach as a way of learning. I really love that, in a lot of ways, my relationship to Torah has become more communal now that my job is about serving other Jews.
Right now I think I have a pretty great balance figured out, but that will, I'm sure, shift at some point and I'll have to negotiate a new balance then.
JR: My next question is about feminism: Unlike your first book, your new book is not explicitly about feminism (though obviously it's part of you and therefore an implicit part of your story). Can you share a little bit about the place of feminism in your spiritual journey?
DR: Even though the new book isn't explicitly about feminism, I do mention it a bit, and I try, in places, to bring in examples relating to gender and Judaism in order to make a point here and there. In brief, I grew up with taking for granted that the world was and should be my (kosher) oyster in every respect, and that I had full rights and a voice--fortunate to reap the benefits of a generation-plus of hard feminist work by others. In some ways my spiritual journey was influenced by that in very simple ways--what forms of Judaism I was interested in entertaining was limited by the degree to which that form could enable me to have a full voice, to be a full participant and a fully-counted Jew. And it's probably not surprising that I was drawn to a Jewish expression that was traditionally male-centric--my attitude was, why shouldn't women get to have this (whether "this" was Torah study, taking on certain ritual roles, or whatever) if "this" is so great? And, sure enough, there's a lot of great there.
There are two other levels, though. I think my feminism also helped me to engage the sources and the tradition in a way that has less tolerance for some of the misogyny in Jewish tradition and texts, even as I've often been drawn to studying them, engaging them, and trying to figure out where there's something redemptive that can be extracted from the cultural bias--and where, not so much. And on another level, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the way that spiritual disciplines--as overwhelmingly crafted by men in most if not every world religion--reflect questions and issues of male privilege and the luxury of moving through a culture as a subject in a way that might be challenging to even contemporary feminists. I invoke religion scholar Carol Lee Flinders a lot because I think she's got her finger on the crux of this particular issue, and I think it's an important one. In her book At the Root of this Longing she talks about four major tenets of spiritual practice--quell the ego, be silent, remain enclosed so you can do this hard inner work, and resist desire--and how they conflict with feminism's demands to know who you are, find your voice and speak out, take back the night and the streets and the public sphere, and to embrace the body and its desires. I've seen these two models bump into each other many times in my own life, and I think a lot of my work is fueled by the desire to think through this apparent contradiction through the lens of Judaism and the kind of feminism I call home.
JR: What strikes me, too, as particularly feminist about your book is the way that the personal and the political are inextricably linked. It's never "just" a personal story. So what's next for you in thinking through these challenges? What kinds of projects can we look forward to?
DR: Yeah, I think my decision to write this as a memoir was also very much influenced by feminism, too, I forgot to mention that. I think that's part of why writing "objectively" didn't work--for some things, it's vitally important to own your story and perspectives and, implicitly, your limitations--it's not only that "the personal is political" but also that I'm aware that just as my experience as a woman moving through Judaism has drastically impacted my experience of Judaism and God, so too has my experience as someone with economic privilege, and white skin, and various other advantages, disadvantages and lenses. How can I talk about God if I don't talk about the person having such-and-such experience of God? None of us perceive through a perfectly clear lens. Feminism isn't the only corner in which this has been a crucial understanding, but it's one of them, and probably it's what taught me about these ideas in the first place.
In terms of next projects... I've got a book coming out this summer, an anthology on Judaism and sex called The Passionate Torah that I edited, in which all sorts of smart people play around with issues of desire, embodiment, empowerment and the tradition. I'm also co-editing a series of books on various topics of Jewish ethics with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, working on some essays here and there, and musing on what the next mountain is that I'd like to climb in terms of a big writing project. Not like I'll probably get much say in the matter--for me, anyway, projects seem to come find me rather than the other way around.
Thanks for talking with us, Danya, and we look forward to more conversation soon!
If you'd like to hear more about Danya's journey from punk rock to the rabbinate, check out our upcoming Lunch and Learn on December 9 at the Jewish Women's Archive.