She is one of 10 “Rabbis to Watch” according to Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She regularly makes the “most influential women rabbis” rolls. She’s been called the sex rabbi, the feminist rabbi. She’s been “Surprised by God” and has shaken up some quarters of the Jewish world with her take on reading ancient texts with 21st-century eyes.
But sitting in a coffee shop near her Evanston home on a recent day that also happens to be her 39th birthday, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg just seems like an intense, passionate young woman with a hearty laugh that she takes many opportunities to employ.
On a frigid day, her warmth radiates; it’s not surprising that students, among others, are drawn to her. With her longish dark hair framing her face and a striking pendant necklace setting off a yellow sweater, she could easily be mistaken for a student herself instead of a rabbi/author/mom who has just dropped off her young children at daycare.
Ruttenberg began making waves in the Jewish world even before she was a rabbi, by editing a 2001 anthology, “Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism” (Seal Press), a collection of essays. She is also the editor of “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” (NYU Press) and in 2008 published a memoir, “Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion” (Beacon Press), a finalist for the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Along with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, she has edited three books for the Jewish Publication Society’s Jewish Choices/Jewish Voices series: “Sex and Intimacy,” “War and National Security” and “Social Justice.”
Ruttenberg was the campus rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel last year and before that served as senior Jewish educator at Tufts University Hillel in Brookline, Mass. Today her title is educational consultant – basically the entire education department, she explains – for Ask Big Questions, a program started by former Northwestern campus Rabbi Josh Feigelson designed to help students on campuses around the country engage with personal and public issues deeply and Jewishly.
The program, sponsored by Hillel nationally, is now on 30 campuses, each of which has four or five student interns who work with Hillel staff members to lead students in discussions about issues as diverse as gun violence and sexuality.
“This is the heart and soul stuff that is supposed to be part of the experience of college but, more and more, isn’t,” Ruttenberg says. “Students are adults, yet they are people in development, trying to figure out who they are, and to articulate clearly their own values, their own understanding of the world, to be able to move from ‘this is what I was taught to believe’ to ‘this is who I am, what I believe.’”
She designs discussion guides around Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but also goes further: On the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school massacre, for instance, students talked about “when do you feel secure?” For a program near spring break time, the discussion turned to drinking and “when do you conform?”
“People really respond to this,” Ruttenberg says. “They are grateful to have a space to talk about their assumptions and values and articulate whatever questions they have. People can tell their personal stories and really be able to hear one another.”
Ruttenberg’s own Jewish story, which she related in her 2008 book, “Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion” (Beacon Press), began in Glencoe, where “we went to services on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, had a Passover seder. We weren’t deeply Jewishly engaged.” Nobody explained why any of it was supposed to be relevant to her life, she says.
“There was this moment when I was 13. It was the Rosh Hashanah after my bat mitzvah,” she says. “I’m in services, watching everybody standing up and sitting down, standing up and sitting down, and they’re talking about how the sky god is only going to like you if you do certain things, and it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I said OK, that’s it, Marx was right. Religion is an opiate of the masses.” She declared herself an atheist.
At Brown University, she “stumbled by accident” into the religious studies department and became interested in the philosophical and literary aspect of religion.
Then, in her junior year, her mother died of cancer.
“We sat shiva and went to say Kaddish because that’s what you do,” she says. “Judaism as a tradition knows how to make these events very meaningful, and when people are going through these events they want that. So I went to say Kaddish and I opened up the siddur and suddenly, after having studied religion academically for several years, I was able to understand what I was looking at. It was like, ohhhh!” – a rising note of dawning understanding.
She had what she describes as “an ongoing series of mystical experiences. Probably in grief, we get broken wide open and you’re open to perceiving stuff that might have been there the whole time but don’t notice until things are different. I became more open to Judaism and was looking for a language to describe the stuff that was happening.”
After college, Ruttenberg moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a freelance writer covering both Jewish and secular subjects – art, gender, sex, religion — for a variety of primarily mainstream publications. Soon after moving, she went “shul shopping” and discovered Congregation Beth Sholom, with the late Rabbi Alan Lew as spiritual leader. A former practitioner of Zen Buddhism, he practiced and taught meditation and had a profound effect on the San Francisco Jewish community – and on Ruttenberg.
“He opened his mouth and it was like, he is the one to sort of explain this to me,” she says. “‘All this stuff is happening to you? Judaism knows about it, there is a language for it, and, P.S., the whole point of this is not to have a whole bunch of groovy experiences – but, rather, to be transformed so you are useful to other people.’ That was a revelation.”
She continued to attend Lew’s meditation practice; eventually, “this still small voice started to talk about rabbinical school, which struck me as preposterous,” she says. “Why would I do something like that? But the still small voice knows what it wants you to do and the still small voice will keep talking until you do it.”
She moved to Los Angeles to attend the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Why Conservative? Although her family had attended a Reform synagogue in Glencoe – “We went there so my mom didn’t have to drive to Sunday school,” she says – she didn’t feel particularly aligned to any movement. And her grandparents were longtime members of a Conservative congregation in Chicago, Anshe Emet Synagogue, so it was “in the family.”
“Philosophically and theologically, the Conservative movement just made the most sense to me,” she says. “Academically, I wanted to be sure that, when I was ordained, I knew my texts.”
In rabbinical school, Ruttenberg says, “I worked through my understanding of G-d, that G-d is within you — but not just — and that in order to do this thing you have to have a practice, and the practice is going to kick your butt sometimes.”
What she calls “being deep in the halachic framework” set the stage for her later work with Judaism, feminism and sexuality.
“There are places where Judaism has been imperfect, shall we say, over the years. Gender and sexuality, for example, are low-hanging fruit. But if you want to tinker with the source code, and hit refresh and make sure your page is going to reload as intended, you have to know something. You can’t just fool around and assume,” she says.
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after ordination but had already done some work with college students after “Yentl’s Revenge” was published and led to many scholar-in-residence type presentations on campuses.
“I really loved working with college students,” she says. “It’s a time when people are so open in their lives – between who you are when you come in at 18 and who you are when you leave at 22, there is so much room for transformation.” The jobs at Tufts and Northwestern followed.
By that time, she was married to Nir, an Israeli mathematician she had met while spending her mandatory year in Israel during rabbinical school. It happened at a famous dance party in Jerusalem that, week after week, drew a cross-section of the population of that city – “Sephardi, Ashkenazi, straight, gay, secular and as religious as would go to a dance party,” she says.
“I love to dance, so I would go by myself,” she relates. “He picked me up on the dance floor.” At first she wasn’t sure she wanted to go out with him – “what do I need with a secular Israeli? He was not what I was looking for, but he was very charming so I said fine, one date. And then, here we are.”
“Here” is Evanston, where Nir is on the faculty at Northwestern and the family tries to maintain a bi-continental lifestyle that lets both extended families have time with sons Shir and Yonatan, visiting Israel every winter, then welcoming Israeli family members in summer.
When Ruttenberg was Northwestern’s campus rabbi, “she had a real impact,” current Hillel executive director Michael Simon says.
“There were quite a few students who found her teaching and her perspective on Judaism compelling and refreshing,” he says. “She has a real passion for teaching and writing and she is very very interested in college students, but also interested in teaching a broad audience of diverse backgrounds and ages.”
In working with students, “she has a knack for trying to see beyond the superficial,” he says. “She connects when people are seeking meaning or are in a challenging place in their lives and are seeking a fresh perspective. For some of our students, she tapped into that in a deep and meaningful way.”
She was particularly helpful, he says, after a tragic incident last year when a Northwestern student studying abroad committed suicide. The student had not been heavily involved with Jewish life on campus but many of her friends and sorority sisters were, according to Simon.
“Danya was really a tremendous presence for her friends,” he says. “She took a counseling role and made a really important difference. She wasn’t here long term but she had some positive moments of tremendous impact.”
Ruttenberg began polishing her feminist creds early on.
“I started identifying as a feminist in high school,” she says, “and by the time I was interested in Judaism on a personal level (I realized) my full personhood was never going to be in question. I was never going to be interested in Jewish expression in which I didn’t count in the minyan, in which I wasn’t considered a person first and a gendered being second. A lot of my thinking and writing has flowed from there.”
Yet there are still times, she admits, “where I am walking along and suddenly go smack into a wall where the tradition understands things in a very different way than I do.”
She remembers that when she wore a tank top while in rabbinical school “a few people made comments right away that I found extremely challenging – you know, ‘oh gee, you better get dressed.’ Well, I’m sorry, in the part of the secular world I come from where we also get to live in the 21st century my shoulder is not a sexual object, it is part of the body.” She laughs heartily at the very idea.
Mostly, though, she has defended against those “walking into a wall” moments by learning Jewish texts thoroughly, “from the inside,” she says.
“It seems like the reasonable approach is to use the halachic tools to simply rewire things slightly if you can,” she says. She has written, for instance, on the mikvah, and says “I was able to — as others have as well — very cleanly and simply reclaim it for myself on feminist terms, with some slight tweaks but without any major reorganization of ritual. When I see something problematic, my first thought is, can this be useful to us in some way?”
She approaches questions of sex and sexuality in much the same way, gravitating to the subject in rabbinical school after working as a sex educator in high school and college.
“There hasn’t been as much work as I would like to see thinking about what it means to look at the Jewish take on sexuality through a 21st-century, queer-friendly modern lens,” she says. And that strikes her as odd, because, she says, “in some ways the tradition is far and ahead of the game over our contemporary secular culture.”
For instance, she notes, “the Talmud forbade marital rape in fifth-century Babylonia.” The last U.S. state to do so didn’t get around to it until 1992. “In some ways Judaism has had the memo, has a lot to teach the wider culture,” she says. “The idea of holiness involved an I-thou connection, not treating people as desiccated bodies. There are things our tradition can teach the broader culture and things the culture can teach our tradition.”
When she teaches workshops about Judaism and sex, she says, she begins by asking students to list “everything they think Judaism teaches about sex. It’s all ‘don’t,’” she says. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t be gay. It’s very negative.”
She tells them that some of what they think Judaism forbids may not be the case.
Of the infamous passage in Leviticus that traditional Jews cite as forbidding same-sex male relationships, Ruttenberg has a different take.
“The problem is not two men being together and in love, the problem is about domination, coercion and assault,” she says. “And the biblical context may be referring to activity in a Canaanite temple, a pagan context. The Talmud echoes this as well, suggesting in one place that the problem is less with the act itself than that it’s a slippery slope that leads to idolatry.”
In the Greco-Roman era, she says, much male same-sex activity took place in bath houses – “and the next thing you know you’re worshipping Zeus. That was the problem.”
The larger question in all of this, she says, is “how do we help bring the new Torah of the 21st century into being while still being thoughtful about not throwing things away unless we are really really sure, unless there’s no other way things can be transformed, and usually they can be. Sometimes that transformation is subtle, sometimes radical.”
Feigelson, the former campus rabbi who founded the Ask Big Questions program, says Ruttenberg’s approach to viewing ancient texts in the context of contemporary life is an exciting one.
“Danya is remarkable for her combination of creativity in thought and writing, her willingness to take personal and professional risks, and her rootedness in Jewish thought and tradition. She is one of the rabbinic artists of our time, someone who inhabits the world of the Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism as she weaves the contemporary world — and often its edges and overlooked people and places — with Torah,” he writes in an email.
Ruttenberg, meanwhile, contemplating feminism in Jewish life, finds there is much to be thankful for – but still much to work toward.
“In some ways, feminism is so sewn into the fabric (of Jewish life) that we don’t even notice,” she says, citing the ordinariness, in liberal Jewish congregations, of seeing the rainbow-colored or fashionably funky tallises — first seen on feminists trying to personalize the mitzvah — on people of all genders. “That is a simple superficial aesthetic thing but in some ways it is profound,” she says.
And then there is the fact that the Reform rabbinical seminary has more female students than males. And naming ceremonies for female babies are now standard in many places. “Yet is it considered as important as a bris?” Ruttenberg asks. “It depends on where you are in the Jewish world.”
In addition, she says, “there are a lot of areas that are not (widely) seen where there are still problems.” One of them is the ongoing question of what type of maternity leave is written into women rabbis’ contracts.
“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “How many op-eds are written about how we need more Jewish babies, what a mitzvah it is to populate the Jewish people, yet there is no sense of taking seriously what is involved in that. The stories I hear from colleagues out in the field are just astonishing.”
Her conclusion on the subject: “In some ways we’ve made tremendous progress and in some ways we still have a lot to do.”
In the end, what transformations would she like to see come to the Jewish world? When she’s asked the question, Ruttenberg laughs, a little hysterically perhaps. So much, so much. “Dismantling the Israeli rabbinate would be a good start,” she jokes.
In the Israel arena, she would like to see more dialogue among American Jews on the subject – “more nuanced, more civil conversations about Israel,” she says, particularly involving what she calls “the day to day realities of life for Palestinians and life for Israelis. There are things any Israeli on the street will say casually about what life is like for the Palestinians and what impact settlements have on long-term chances for peace, whereas if you say it out loud (in the United States) there is still a lot of concern about what can and can’t be said.”
More pointedly, since it’s part of her own field, she would like to see Jewish education revamped.
“I know so many people like me, they get to college and nobody has ever explained (the riches of Judaism) to them. There are a lot of people who don’t know they’re standing next to a door, and the door opens, and right there is this room full of exquisite treasures and they can have as much as they want,” she says.
“And I really see a lot of my rabbinate as taking people by the hand and leading them around the room and showing them the amazing, exquisite gifts from their tradition just waiting for them. And I would love to see more of Jewish education, elementary through adulthood, have people walk out feeling like they own that room.”