“Philosophy,” Plato once said, “begins in wonder.” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg quotes Plato early in her intelligent, luminous memoir Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. Rabbi Ruttenberg’s moving inquiry into faith is consistently inspired by her ongoing sense of wonder and appreciation for Judaism. She grounds her exploration in story—her story and the stories of our ancestors—and ultimately offers readers a blank page to write their own stories.
It is tempting to summarize Ruttenberg’s book as “Girl Meets God.” But such glibness would miss the point. As Ruttenberg explains, faith is a workaday project that is both personal and communal. Ritual operates in tandem with faith “on multiple planes at once: emotional, physical, theological, familial, social, liturgical.”
For Ruttenberg faith and ritual slowly emerge after her mother’s death and an intense phase of post-college partying in San Francisco during the dot-com era. All the while, Ruttenberg is also searching for a meaningful spiritual life, even if it is punctuated by moments of suffering. “I would discover,” she writes, “that pain and fear were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction even when it was harder.”
I met Rabbi Ruttenberg a few years ago among a group of seekers and skeptics at a Boston community mikveh to help them prepare spiritually for the High Holidays. She noted that although the word “spiritual” means many things to people, it can also be too amorphous for others. She described a period of intense grief during her senior year of college when she took midnight walks which made her world momentarily “softer” and “plugged her into God.”
Daily ritual takes over where reverie leaves off. Ruttenberg remembered, “There was never a moment when I deliberately and consciously decided to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, as an adult child traditionally does for the first eleven months after a parents’ burial.”
During her year of mourning Ruttenberg attended synagogue almost every day to say a prayer of mourning she did not initially understand. Her persistence paid off and she gradually became familiar with daily services.
Na’aseh v’Nishma—we will do and we will understand. It’s the transformative response from the Israelites as Moses reads the Torah for them for the first time at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Ruttenberg’s early religious practice exemplifies Na’aseh v’Nishma. When she consistently does, she is graced with spiritual insights. She lives for those moments and learns how to access them through meditation.
Meditation happens. It happens spontaneously on long walks; it happens during focused episodes seated on a cushion; it happens in a packed synagogue. In her book, Rabbi Ruttenberg recalls a moment in which she becomes so aware of her breath while meditating that her tendinitis painfully flares up. She writes, “For me meditation is about awareness. I don’t push away thoughts. I simply keep on breathing. If I don’t grab on to my thought, they’ll eventually fall away of their own accord.”
Grief often bubbles to the surface. “There are many halls in the King’s palace, and intricate keys to all doors, but the master key is the broken heart,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov—the father of Hasidism.
The group at the mikveh reflected on the Ba’al Shem Tov’s wisdom, but no one was entirely sure what it meant. The woman next to me was quietly crying. Her breath came in fits and starts. “Everyone is broken-hearted in some way,” Rabbi Ruttenberg assured them. “Entering pain in whatever degree we can alleviates true suffering.”
I thought of the Binding of Isaac. On Rosh Hashana we read about his near death experience as a sacrifice to God. One midrash points out that Isaac not only accepted that he would be sacrificed, but on the altar he asks his father to tighten his bindings so escape is impossible. Kierkegaard argues that the story is bearable because in the end Abraham did not believe that God would allow him to sacrifice his son. Although he was seemingly prepared to kill Isaac, Abraham went through the motions with a profound trust that God would do the right thing.
I thought about Kierkegaard’s insight. Is he saying that Abraham had keen intuition? “Intuition is how God talks to us,” Rabbi Ruttenberg told us. “Intuition is the way we navigate into a space that becomes deeper, richer, fuller and bigger.”
She sensed the group’s skepticism about achieving kavanah—intentionality—in a crowded synagogue. How can intuition complement set prayer? How can one create a meaningful space in a crowded row of seats? And how can one experience spiritual solitude in a makeshift sanctuary accommodating an overflow crowd? Personally, I was not convinced any of these things can be achieved. But like Abraham, maybe God wants me to be there, needs me to be there to participate in the conversation.
Rabbi Ruttenberg expounded on the salutary effects of meditation. “For me meditation is the warm up. It gets me to a place where I can pray.” Did that mean that praying is like exercising? “Not exactly. Set prayer in the machzor—the prayer book used on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—pushes us to a place we don’t automatically go to. The service can be a way to start our journey.”
Language is both the most and least effective tool we have for reaching God. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav often went into the woods alone to address God out loud. On the advice of my rabbi, I’ve tried to talk to God a couple of times when my house empties out in the morning. Even though I’m alone I’m self-conscious, as if someone is watching me talk to an imaginary person.
Only grief snaps me out of my uncomfortable awareness of self. A few months ago I was driving home from an evening meeting. My best friend had recently died. Suddenly grief overtook me. I pulled the car over. The soft clicking of my flashers kept time to my wailing. Sometimes I miss my friend so much that I am sure I will never be able to climb out of the void her absence has created in my life.
“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,” says Rabbi Nachman. I like that saying for its intense grouping of joy and sadness, but I never quite understood it until that night in the car. Broken heartedness is the time when we are most open to God in our fragility and vulnerability. “I hate you God,” I screamed. At that moment only those words could serve as my prayer to God.
The Catholic monk Thomas Merton acknowledges the discomfort, even the embarrassment, of going public while praying. Publicly prayer often feels superficial to me. I bow and repeat on cue. Perhaps that is the reason I have not been able to pray for a couple of years. Rabbi Ruttenberg explains that my inability to pray is a valid form of worship. “Bring whatever you’ve got. It opens up the connection. Telling God you can’t pray, you want to pray or even that you are angry with God begins the conversation.”
Man plans and God laughs. So goes the Yiddish saying. After reading Danya Ruttenberg’s memoir, I am convinced that is a cynic’s perception of God. Only a cynic cannot see the wonder of God all around her. “The Gates of Prayer may be closed after Yom Kippur,” Rabbi Ruttenberg pointed out to us, “but the Gates of Weeping are always open.”
And I have a hunch that the Gates of Weeping lead to the backdoor of God’s palace.