Looking for God in All the Right Places
By JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN
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
Rabbi Ruttenberg recently met with 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
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
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
"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