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Surprised by God

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion
by Danya Ruttenberg
Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008
256 pages
Reviewed by Karen L. Erlichman

When I received Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, I devoured it like a delicious feast. Ruttenberg is best known for her first book, Yentl’s Revenge: the Next Wave of Jewish Feminism,  a volume of essays by young Jewish feminists. Surprised by God is an extraordinary follow-up, written entirely by Ruttenberg, in which she shares the unexpected adventures of her spiritual journey, including the death of her mother, her discovery of meditation, more religious observance, and ultimately to rabbinical school.

Ruttenberg punctuates the story of her own spiritual journey with wise guidance from spiritual leaders from a variety of faith traditions, including Henri Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, and Rabbi Arthur Green as well as several direct references to the usefulness of spiritual direction as a resource on the seeking path. The book’s first chapter starts as far back as her bat mitzvah (age 13) and her budding sense of identity as a Jewish young woman, questioning proscribed gender roles and religious beliefs. She writes: "Gender roles, gender identity, choices about who to date, and physical appearance all seemed to be infinitely mutable, playgrounds to explore rather than assumptions to take for granted" (73).

She describes rituals of friendship and self expression during adolescence and young adulthood, which lead her down surprising roads toward a personal and unexpected experience of Mystery. International travel, yoga, and the death of her mother all became doorways to the Divine: "The God of the Torah, I had begun to discover, was the luminous God that I had already met" (87).

For example, while traveling in Spain, Ruttenberg met a man in a café who insisted that she travel to El Escorial, a small town north of Madrid. Much to her surprise, she accepted his offer to pay for the ticket and follow his suggestion. She describes her unexpected encounter with God:

"I find it difficult to explain what happened next. I breathed deeper and deeper into the tree and suddenly I could absolutely, completely see my consciousness in the tree, and then see the tree’s consciousness—whatever that means—somehow in my own mind and body … there was only one consciousness, and it was mine and the tree’s and the bird’s and bigger than all of us and it was God’s." 120

Surprised by God describes the spiritual journey of a young woman from a particular generation at this moment in history. Ruttenberg integrates a feminist sensibility with Jewish tradition and ritual, bringing a fresh and authentic voice to old and new questions. Spiritual directors who work with people from diverse faith traditions and age groups will find this book an invaluable resource for themselves and their directees.

Karen Lee Erlichman, MSS, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in San Francisco, California, USA, where she provides psychotherapy and spiritual direction. Her writing has appeared in Tikkun and online at Interfaith Family. She is the Bay area Director of Jewish Mosaic: the National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

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