Not Oprah’s Book Club: Surprised by God

The only Jewish kid I knew growing up in Colorado Springs, CO was a nerdy guy whose mother sued the neighborhood elementary school when she realized we only sang Christmas carols around holiday time (this was in the mid 80s). I felt bad for him, even though I thought it was very brave of his mother. It must have been a pretty alienating childhood.
But then I moved to Barnard and lived in New York City and I was actually the one who sometimes felt alienated from Judaism–the thing that gave the other girls on my hallway an immediate social circle when school started, the thing that made my roommate wait for me to turn on the bathroom light on Saturday mornings, the rich tradition of valuing education, telling moving stories, of doing good for others. I was, to put it plainly, a little jealous.
I felt that again while reading Danya Ruttenberg‘s beautiful memoir, Surprised by God. In it, Ruttenberg, who is still fairly young–though a rabbi, a theologian, and an accomplished writer–traces her own path from atheist Brown undergrad to Rabbinical school student. After a Jewish-ish growing up, she wholeheartedly embraces philosophy and the heady side of religion while in college, but when she loses her mother to a painful cancer, things start to unravel. Moving to the west coast during the dot com boom, she’s introduced into a world of excess, glitter, and individuality. She falls in step–making costumes for the upcoming theme party, scraping by on freelance writing, and getting, well, drunk a lot. But there is just something missing. And before long, she goes seeking for just what that is…
I won’t give away the rest, but I really recommend this book for anyone who has that same inkling (as in, there must be more than this) or has wrestled with organized religion (it doesn’t have to be Judaism). Ruttenberg does a masterful job of weaving in quotations from religion’s greatest thinkers while taking us on her contemporary pilgrimage of sorts. It’s entirely relatable, which in my experience, is unusual for a religious text. It’s young. It’s hip. And it’s still profoundly serious.
The added bonus is that Ruttenberg is a committed feminist, so her gender lens is used throughout. She writes:

…feminism was important to me because it gave me space to be who I needed to be; it, like punk, saved me from having to fear my intelligence or my strength, and it helped me to articulate why I was so repelled by what I perceived to be the pretty girl aspirations of so many of my classmates. Simply put, I wanted more than that.

Join the Conversation

  • Jacqueline

    Thank you for posting this and presenting it in a positive feminist light. I’m often frustrated by the apparent lack of dialog between religion and feminism, and people are often surprised to find out that I am a Christian feminist. Both Christians and feminists find this to be a seemingly irreconcilable contrast, when in fact they don’t have to be. I also feel there is a lot of antagonistism within the feminist community towards religion, so I appreciate you drawing attention to an individual and her story which acknowledges the role of both in her life.

  • aideenjohnston

    Me too Jacqueline! I’m a feminist Christian, and God is the most important thing in my life obv, but feminism comes in a close second. I’m sick of the seemingly irreconcilable gap, I really think when put together they could do wondrous things! There needs to be more of a dialogue, for sure. I’d love to write a book about it! By the way, the best feminist Christian blog is – he’s an evang. Christian but also a feminist gender studies professor and a vegan, and he writes beautifully.

  • Ruchama

    I read Yentl’s Revenge, the Jewish feminist anthology that Ruttenberg edited, and am definitely interested in checking out this book, too.

  • that girl

    Anyone interested in the relationship between Judaism and feminism might also look at Disobedience by Naomi Alderman. It’s about a bisexual woman returning to the Orthodox community in which she grew up.

  • Feminist Review

    Not to nit-pick, but the fuzzy pic could use some work.
    As a self-identified atheist, I found it odd that I was so compelled to read Danya Ruttenberg’s memoir about her life-long journey to Judaism, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. I had read Ruttenberg’s first book, Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism—a collection of young Jewish feminists discussing how to negotiate their faith and their feminism—a few years ago and fell in love with the complexity of the topics that Ruttenberg encouraged each contributor to write about. Those same elements that I loved about Yentl’s Revenge are present on every page of Ruttenberg’s memoir.
    Shall I continue?

  • earthling

    I’m sorry, but I am really annoyed by the idea that if someone feels unfulfilled by life and there is ‘something missing’ then that must be because they are missing religion. It’s completely bogus. From the synopsis it seems the author is reiterating the oft-touted idea that you either live a shallow, hedonistic and ultimately unfulfilling life or you wise up and choose religion and then suddenly your life ‘means’ something. There is also seemingly some strong moral message here i.e. the ‘bad girl’ (drunk etc) versus the ‘good girl’ (religious, and I presume, sober). And what about the mention of ‘individuality’ – since when was that a bad thing? If this means ‘selfishness’ then why does a person need to have religion in order to care about others?
    I’m an atheist/humanist and I am constantly staggered by the ways in which religious people try and make their religious views fit with feminism. It must take an enormous amount of self-delusion. I also reject the idea that life can’t mean anything without a religious framework. I find I have lots of meaning in my life via my relationships and basically caring about people, animals and the environment. I don’t need to believe in an imaginary superbeing in order to do this.
    Note to anyone with the ‘inkling’ that “there must be more than this” – THERE ISN’T. And why, indeed, does there need to be?

  • Ithika

    “It must take an enormous amount of self-delusion.”
    Well, it *is* religion. ;-)
    I was particularly jarred by this remark:
    “she wholeheartedly embraces philosophy and the heady side of religion while in college”
    So she wholeheartedly embraced philosophy by… disregarding a couple thousand years of dedication to critical thought. Some philosophy!

  • Sandra

    The title of this book reminds me of the atheist bus ad campaign recently run in the UK and soon to come to Canada:
    “God probably doesn’t exist. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

  • aideenjohnston

    “Note to anyone with the ‘inkling’ that “there must be more than this” – THERE ISN’T.”
    That’s your opinion, not a fact.
    I personally think there’s a *ridiculous* amount of evidence for the existence of God, but neither of us can prove it either way.

  • Ruchama

    She’s not saying that everybody who feels that something is missing needs to find religion. She’s telling her own story of how she found what she wanted in her life.
    And studying Judaism, especially in rabbinical school, is studying a few thousand years of critical thought.

  • Rebecca_J

    Not meaning to shit on athiests, but most of the ones I’ve met are just as rigid and dogmatic as the religious people they hate.

  • SaynaTheSpiffy

    Thank you so much, earthling. It’s very frustrating to see people insist that they are both religious and feminist while ignoring the fact that much of their religion is strongly anti-feminist. I recently posted a comment asking how people could reconcile their feminist beliefs and the massive amounts of misogyny found in the Bible, Qur’an and Book of Mormon. Someone on this site actually accused me of being a racist for questioning religion. I still never got an answer. These books are very much opposed to the idea of female equality and I honestly want religious feminists how they reconcile the sexism of their religion with their belief in an egalitarian god. I think most people do it by ignoring all the god-ordained sexism (and racism, classism, absurdity, and violence) found in their holy books, or shrugging it off as outdated. I don’t understand how people can be comfortable with having to do that.
    Honestly, I think that the mainstream versions of the dominant religions are holding women back more than anything in the entire world. Does anyone here think that the anti-abortion, anti-contraception movement would be so successful without support from religion? Do you think that Prop. 8 would have passed without religious influence? Do you think that women would still be considered inferior without the fact that religious texts explicitly say so? I’m sure that many women find inspiration from religion and that most believe that their god sees them as equal to men, but the fact is that they are denying that their holy books say otherwise.

  • SaynaTheSpiffy

    “Not meaning to shit on feminists, but most of the ones I’ve met are just as rigid and dogmatic as the people-who-uphold-traditional-gender-roles that they hate.”
    Both feminists and atheists are seen by outsiders as being rigid and dogmatic. To some people, questioning the role of women is basically like questioning or defying the idea of a god. Right now, neither of these groups is willing to shut up. Both feminists and atheists are speaking out and bringing up some ideas that are sometimes unpopular or seem strange to people. And, of course, both groups are stereotyped and misunderstood. I find the “atheists are just pissed off old nerdy white guys” stereotype to be just as irritating as the “feminists are just man-hating lesbian white women.” Both atheism and feminism are very diverse groups and to say “most of them are..” or “the ones I’ve met are…” is just plain ignorant.

  • Ruchama

    Well, since the religion in question in this post is Conservative Judaism:
    Abortion: “Affirming the religious nature of this issue, much of the mainstream Jewish community, including The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has supported laws to maintain the legality and accessibility of abortion.” here
    Contraception: (OK, I can’t find a link for this one, but Judaism allows it, with different branches having different opinions on which methods are OK.)
    Prop 8: “All Americans are entitled to equality under the civil laws of the United States. Marriage being both a religious and a civil status, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism does not support any action by the federal government or by any state or local government that discriminates and denies equal protection of the civil laws to gay and lesbian Americans who seek to have relationships recognized when they fall within the bounds of the civil law. Where the civil law recognizes certain rights and obligations as following from a relationship created under the civil laws, those rights and obligations should not be denied to any two Americans seeking to create such a civil relationship.” here
    These are directly from the website of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
    As for the previous thread, you were the one who posted the link to the list of sexist incidents in the Bible? A huge number of the things on that list were not “do this” commandments, but stories. Several of them (the palace intrigue ones in particular, about David’s family) have always seemed to me to be intended as cautionary tales — showing that, if they’re not careful, even people that start out as pretty good can end up really fucked up.

  • earthling

    I think what Sayna was saying is not about what the various churches’ opinions are on things right now (although that is bad enough in some cases), she was criticising the fact that the holy books on which these religions are based are sexist. Just because some ‘progressive’ institutions are okay with abortion etc doesn’t mean that the books on which their religion is based say the same thing. And fundamentally it is hypocritical to pick and choose what to believe from these holy books. If the book is wrong about abortion, contraception and so forth, why is it not also wrong about the existence of a god?
    There are countless examples of the sexism of holy books, starting with the very story that kicks it all off, i.e. the idea of a woman being made from a man’s rib! Even in the first two books of the old testament, the references to women are mainly about sex and babies (“he took a wife, he went in unto her and she bore him a son” and so forth). Not to mention the phrase “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, which caused the deaths of thousands of women. It gets worse and I could go on – if you don’t believe me read this.
    There’s a section for the Qur’an too. And the book of Mormon.
    Basically there is no arguing that there is sexism in the Bible and other holy books. So, either:
    a) God is sexist; or
    b) Holy books are not the word of god, they are the words of sexist men.
    If a) is true, why would you want to believe in a sexist god? And if b) is true, then there is no reason to believe in the truth of the holy books, and no reason to believe that there is indeed a god. If the men were wrong about women being inferior (among other things!), then perhaps they were wrong about god’s existence too. This added to the absolute dearth of any kind of evidence for there being a god must lead any feminist (and indeed, any rational thinker) to be an atheist.

  • earthling

    It’s not the people that we the atheists hate, Rebecca, it’s the idea of blind faith being a virtue. The idea that it’s good to believe in something without evidence.
    Let me ask you this: if a very skinny, underweight person told you that they strongly believed they were fat, not just fat but obese, and so they denied themselves food to the point that they were starving, what would you say? Would you ‘respect their belief’, or would you conclude they had anorexia, and advise them to go to a psychiatrist to get some help?
    Think about it.

  • earthling

    “I personally think there’s a *ridiculous* amount of evidence for the existence of God, but neither of us can prove it either way.”
    I’m intrigued as to what this ‘ridiculous amount’ of evidence is for the existence of a god. Please, share it with the world!
    By the way:
    The beautiful variety of nature is evidence for the beautiful variety of nature.
    Love is evidence for the existence of love.
    Eyes are evidence for the existence of eyes.
    None are evidence for the existence of a god! And neither do you need to believe in one to enjoy the world.

  • Ruchama

    To begin with, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is not “some progressive organization” — it’s the organization of Conservative Judaism, which is a very mainstream movement.
    And actually, in Genesis Chapter 1, it says, “Man and woman, he created them together.” Eve is in chapter 2. Some translations say that Eve was made from Adam’s side, not his rib. There are some Jewish interpretations that say that the “man and woman, he created them together” verse means that the first human created had both male and female characteristics, and then creating Eve out of Adam’s side was splitting up the male and female parts into two bodies.
    The Bible says almost nothing about abortion. There’s one place, where it’s listing the punishments for various crimes, that it lists the punishment for someone who assaults a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry. That punishment is that he must pay her a certain amount of money. The punishment for murder is death. This pretty clearly puts abortion and murder as two separate crimes. The Talmud not only allows but mandates abortion in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
    As for contraception, again, there is nothing in the Bible directly dealing with contraception. There is a prohibition on “spilling seed.” There’s debate within the Talmud and continuing to the present day about which methods of contraception actually violate that prohibition. (Pretty much everyone agrees that a condom violates it and the Pill does not. I’ve seen arguments for both sides about IUDs.)
    I’ve seen that link before. Like I said, a huge number of those things ARE NOT COMMANDMENTS. They are “how we got here” stories, including stories of people who messed up. As just one example, the story of Lot in Sodom. G-d never tells Lot to offer his daughters — there are angels right there who could have told him what to do, but they didn’t. He made that decision on his own. And the sons from the incest with his daughter are the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites — both people who are definitely considered “not us” in later chapters of the Bible.
    The traditional Jewish belief is that it’s impossible to understand the Torah without having the Oral Law as commentary and interpretation. The Oral Law, in the way it’s usually published, takes up pretty much an entire shelf. How can you say that Jews are picking and choosing which parts to follow if you’re not even looking at everything that’s there in the interpretation? (One analogy that I’ve seen, that seems pretty good, is that the commandments in the Torah are like the constitution, and the Talmud is like the case law and other laws passed — they can’t contradict the Torah, but they expand and explain what it means.)