Sur­prised by God: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love Religion

  • Review
By – October 25, 2011

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.

Julie Pelc Adler is a rab­bi and a co-edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Join­ing the Sis­ter­hood: Young Jew­ish Women Write Their Lives (State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2003). She is the assis­tant direc­tor of the Kals­man Insti­tute on Judaism and Health at HUC in Los Ange­les and also teach­es under­grad­u­ate cours­es in the Lit­er­a­ture and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Depart­ment at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish University.

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