Credit: Tyler Feder

One Tuesday morning about two years ago, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg was listening to NPR in the car on the way to pick her children up from summer camp. It was in the immediate aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in which a counterprotester had been killed, and Donald Trump had just announced in a press conference at Trump Tower that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

At that moment, Ruttenberg felt the full horror of the events of the weekend. The president of the United States was apparently praising Nazis. This was where we were. Suddenly, everything she looked at seemed intensely, viscerally clear. She could see the faces of the other drivers as they passed by.

She arrived in the camp parking lot a couple of minutes early and, as was her habit, picked up her phone to check Twitter. Over the past three years, since Ferguson, she’d become addicted. It was a way for her to learn what other people were thinking outside her circle of family and friends in Evanston, where she lived, and the wider community of American Jews, where she worked. It was a way to hash out ideas with strangers who were separated by space and time, and who weren’t afraid to call her out for making comments that were stupid or clueless. It was not unlike the Talmud, the immense compendium of centuries of rabbinic opinions and debates about Jewish law that scholars still study and argue over. (Of the 5,000 disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only 50 were ever resolved, at least on the page.) Recently, she’d begun to post verses from the Torah and discuss them, as she’d learned how to do in rabbinical school—her handle, @TheRaDR, is a play off the Jewish tradition of giving rabbis nicknames that combine their titles and their initials—and she’d gathered a small following.

That day, though, she wasn’t thinking of Torah. Or, more accurately, she wasn’t thinking of one passage in particular. Instead she tapped,

“I’m a rabbi.

I believe words have power.

I try to choose mine carefully.

Fuck you, Trump.”

Then she went to pick up her kids.

The tweet went viral: nearly 300,000 likes, 70,000 retweets, and thousands of subtweets praising her for her bravery, criticizing her for using foul language, and questioning whether she was even a real rabbi. (And also a meme of a Hasid in fighting stance with the caption “Jew Jitsu.”) Ruttenberg changed her photo to a conventional headshot so her new followers could see that she was, indeed, a woman, though she preferred the one she’d used before: a snapshot of herself getting arrested the previous winter in New York while protesting the Trump administration’s ban against travel from seven mostly Muslim countries. The next day she shared the op-ed about anti-Semitism and Jewish privilege that she’d been working on for the Washington Post right before camp pickup. She didn’t regret what she’d tweeted but, as she admitted two days later, also on Twitter, “it’s not the thing I would have chosen to become temporarily infamous for.” And then a few hours after that: “Judaism talks about the twin poles of chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (limit-setting). The world needs both.” The rabbi was back at work.

In ancient times, rabbis served their communities less like ministers (comforting the afflicted, raising the funds) and more like constitutional lawyers. They were considered experts in the laws in the Torah; they judged legal disputes, advised their followers, sometimes lectured, and taught the next generation of bright young people—in those days, only young men—what they knew. Like modern lawyers, they were experts at interpreting biblical passages and explaining how they related to situations in everyday life.

Ruttenberg is that kind of rabbi. She’s never had a pulpit, nor has it ever felt like the right thing for her (though, as she notes, life is long). Instead she has Twitter, and she uses it to speak to her 83,000 followers about how Jewish tradition can be used to create a better, more compassionate world, accessible not just to Jews, but to everyone. “She’s doing something very old and very new,” says her friend Laura Jackson. “Or something very old in a very new way.”

“Twitter is the place where she’s most like she is in life,” says a friend.
“Twitter is the place where she’s most like she is in life,” says a friend.Credit: courtesy Danya Ruttenberg

Ruttenberg in person is very similar to Ruttenberg on Twitter. Or, as Jackson puts it, “Twitter is the place where she’s most like she is in life.” She’s passionate and articulate (and will sometimes pause a conversation to look up the exact wording of a biblical passage on her phone; and yes, there is an app for that). She’s also ebullient and funny. When she speaks, she’s in constant motion, gesturing and laughing; her energy is contagious. Jewish tradition is, for her, a storehouse of 5,000 years’ worth of wonders that she wants to share it with everyone. She has one T-shirt that says “You shall not oppress the stranger” (from Leviticus 19:33) and another that says “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh.”

Sometimes she’s whimsical: she can take a single reference in the Book of Exodus to a mysterious and unspecified animal, follow it through a tangle of Talmudic debates and commentary from assorted scholars across several centuries and continents in order to conclude that the animal must have been a rainbow unicorn, and then alight on a single, essential truth, the point of the exercise: “So this amazing thing was created, brought into being and we mostly missed it—calling it a badger or a weasel or a dolphin. Magic all the time that we don’t see, miss completely, forget. What are the exquisite miracles you need to be careful not to miss today?” And then she decorated the thread with rainbow unicorn GIFs and emoji. (This was, incidentally, the thread that made me follow her. Where I grew up, Torah study always took place in the dusty synagogue basement and we had to take it Very Seriously. And now here was someone talking about rainbow unicorn Torah, and here I was reading it on my phone on the el, just another magical part of daily life.)

More often, especially lately, she has been thinking about grief and anger, about immigration, and the best way to conserve one’s energy for the long fight ahead. Twitter for her is like Dumbledore’s Pensieve in the Harry Potter books, a way to store the extra thoughts that are crowding her brain. The great thing about Twitter is that users are able to report on and respond to things in the moment, just as they are happening. This is also what makes it overwhelming. So much is happening, and so much of it is horrible. That is where a Twitter rabbi comes in.

“At this point in history,” she says, “given some very real threats to human safety, it’s like, the force and weight of my tradition are here and have a lot to offer people in terms of understanding what to do, in terms of understanding how to do it, in terms of understanding why, in terms of giving tools to sustain you during the work. My work is really to be like, ‘You guys, look, here’s who needs this tool. Great. Take it. I’ve got a pickax. Who needs a pickax?'”

She has frequently criticized the president and his administration, but since the infamous tweet, she has refrained from profanity. “I own it,” she says. “I meant every word of that tweet. But as a rabbi, you only have one or two times you get to play that card.”

Two weeks ago, the week that began with back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ruttenberg noted that the upcoming Sunday, August 11, was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, which forced the Jews into exile, and everything that’s happened since. It’s observed with fasting and reading from the Book of Lamentations.

“Yes, classically this day is about mourning the atrocities befallen the Jewish people over the last 2000 years,” she tweeted, “but I for one cannot read abt ‘babies & sucklings languishing in the squares of the city’ without thinking of children ripped now from their parents, without care.

“I cannot read, ‘all your enemies Jeer at you; They hiss and gnash their teeth, And cry: “We’ve ruined her! Ah, this is the day we hoped for; We have lived to see it!'” without thinking about white supremacy today.

“No, of course this isn’t the plain meaning of the text. But the pain of now is real. The suffering of now is real.

“How can I read, ‘Alas, priest and prophet are slain In the Sanctuary of the Lord!’ and not think of Pittsburgh, Poway, Emanuel AME in Charleston, the Sikh Temple in WI?

“Or of Sandy Hook? Of Pulse? All the times innocents were slaughtered in the midst of their lives and love?

“‘Prostrate in the streets lie Both young and old. My maidens and youths Are fallen by the sword.’

“This is the suffering and pain of then.

“This is the suffering and pain of now. . . .

“If we can make space to weep, to wail, to lament—to ask the ‘why?’ that has no answer—we allow ourselves to be human during this inhuman time.

“We let the unspeakable touch us; we let it matter.”

Ruttenberg, 44, never expected to be a rabbi. She grew up in Glencoe, in a secularized Jewish community where religious observance was at least as much about buying new holiday clothes as it was about actually showing up at synagogue. Her memoir Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion begins with a revelation: 13-year-old Danya, disgusted by Rosh Hashanah services and the notion of God as an omniscient old man in the clouds, decides that Marx was right about religion being the opiate of the people and declares herself an atheist.

But what Ruttenberg discovers throughout the book is that religion is a way to wake herself up to the world and experience it more intensely and intentionally (one of her favorite words). In her teens and early 20s, she had a series of mystical experiences—while dancing in the mosh pit at the all-ages punk club Medusa’s, while walking home from class, while wandering around at night gazing at the moon—in which she felt her mind go still and what she describes as “a feeling of infinity.” In college, at Brown, she majored in religion, not out of a sense of a calling, but out of curiosity; the night before registration, some of her friends were watching The Last Temptation of Christ, and she signed up for a course on early Christianity so she could understand it. She stayed because she loved the mix of philosophy, anthropology, literature, and history.

When she was a junior in college, her mother died of cancer. The grief devastated her. By then, she had spent nearly two years studying religious systems. But this was her first experience ever following such a system. She sat shiva at home with her family, where friends and neighbors came to offer love and company and food; the love and care may have been mandated by tradition, but that didn’t make it any less real. Jewish tradition also requires that children say the Mourner’s Kaddish for their parents three times a day for the first 11 months after a death. The Mourner’s Kaddish itself must be recited in a synagogue with a quorum of at least nine other adult Jews. Ruttenberg began doing that too, or at least once a week, which was, at the time, as often as she could imagine anyone possibly going to services.

“It was an anchor,” she remembers. “Someplace deep inside, I knew what I needed. I’d sit with my prayer book and I was like, huh, this isn’t dumb. I began to see what the ritual was doing. The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer in praise of God. You stand up [when you say it] so everyone can see who’s hurting. I was forced to affirm light when things were dark. I would go to random synagogues and people would know I was in mourning because I stood up. I started to like it. It was very strange.”

By the end of the period of mourning, Friday-night services had become a habit that persisted after Ruttenberg graduated and moved to San Francisco, where she worked for a publisher and then as a freelance journalist, attended glitter-filled theme dress-up parties, did lots of yoga, and tried to work out her place in the world. After a lengthy period of synagogue shopping, she found her way to Beth Sholom, a small congregation near Golden Gate Park led by Rabbi Alan Lew, who had been a serious Buddhist for 20 years until, as Ruttenberg puts it, “he meditated himself down to his essence and realized he was a Jewish guy named Alan from Brooklyn.”

The first sermon that Ruttenberg heard Lew give was about Moses’s encounter with the burning bush and how it was a metaphor to describe how humans encounter the Divine when they seek it within themselves and how this can be terrifying. (Ruttenberg believes the Divine within humans, the “radio connection to God,” is simple intuition, the “small, still voice” that tells us what we need, though it may not be what we want. Like, for instance, the voice that would, five years later, tell her to leave the life she loved in San Francisco and go to rabbinical school in Los Angeles.)

Lew became her teacher. “What he did,” she says now, “was show me that the words of Torah are stories about us now here today and what we’re afraid of, who we need to become, about what’s possible, about what gets in our way. It’s a pathway in and pathway out. So much of what I have to say is his Torah. His Torah is in my DNA. I don’t know how to look without him.” (Lew died ten years ago. The last time Ruttenberg saw him was right after the publication of Surprised by God. “I was at a book fair,” she remembers, “and there was Rabbi Lew with a huge smile.”)

Around the same time, she began an ongoing 20-year conversation with Jackson, who would eventually go to an Episcopalian seminary, about the relationship between religion and spirituality and social responsibility, and about being a woman navigating a tradition that has, until fairly recently, been dominated by straight cis men and at times openly hostile to anyone who is not. Ruttenberg is part of the Conservative movement—more observant than Reform, more secular than Orthodox—which didn’t ordain its first female rabbi until 1985.

It’s a surprise to some of Ruttenberg’s followers that although she’s progressive in her politics, she’s conservative in her religious practice: what she eats, where and when she prays, why her Twitter signal goes dark for the 25 hours between Friday and Saturday sundown. But her experience saying Kaddish for her mother taught her that religious rituals exist for a reason and that they serve a real purpose, to transform one thing into another. “The structure and the logic of this is meaningful for her,” says Jackson. This structure and logic led Ruttenberg back to God, and now she uses them to make sense of the modern world: gender, sexuality, LGBTQ rights, and climate change, and the mundane bits of everyday life, like what to do when you are praying and your toddler needs to go to the bathroom. As Ruttenberg likes to say (and her followers like to quote), “This, too, is Torah.”

For Ruttenberg, Torah has never been about restriction for restriction’s sake. It’s far more radical than that. “The Torah is functionally a text about liberation and our obligations to set up a liberatory society,” she says. “Many of the prophets are like, ‘Hi, did you read the Torah?’ We have an obligation.”

Ruttenberg speaks to her 83,000 followers about how Jewish tradition can be used to create a more compassionate world.
Ruttenberg speaks to her 83,000 followers about how Jewish tradition can be used to create a more compassionate world.Credit: courtesy Danya Ruttenberg

Ruttenberg attends Saturday-morning services at Minyan Shirat ha-Agam and Lomdim Chavurah, two small lay-led congregations in Evanston. She’s part of the rotation of congregants who take turns performing the “rabbinical” tasks: calling pages, monitoring the Torah reader for mistakes, reading the list of announcements, delivering the d’var Torah, a brief talk on the weekly Torah portion. Ruttenberg’s d’var Torahs are a live version of a Twitter thread: she introduces the text, shares some of the rabbinical and Talmudic commentary, solicits contributions from her audience, and finally draws it all into a synthesis. Later, after Shabbat is over, many of them do, in fact, turn up on Twitter, including the rainbow unicorn drash.

She’s a joyful pray-er. She claps her hands and dances during the celebratory songs and laughs during the Torah reading. (“She’s having too much fun,” a congregant in the back row observed one Shabbat at Shirat ha-Agam.) She clearly loves this. But the small, still voice that told her to become a rabbi in the first place also told her not to take a pulpit or get a PhD and teach in a seminary like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great activist rabbi of the 20th century.

So how does a Twitter rabbi exist in the world? Or rather, how does a rabbi whose main platform is a free website earn a living? “Our running conversation is, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?'” says Rabbi Judy Greenberg, a friend and co-organizer of the Lady Rabbi Pub Nights. Ruttenberg has worked for Hillel, the Jewish organization on college campuses, and for Avodah, a group that sends young Jews to work on community service projects. She’s written many op-eds for the Post and the Atlantic, among other places, and two books, Surprised by God and Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting. She started writing the latter after she began to wonder what theology would look life if were written by someone actively involved in childcare. (Ruttenberg and her husband, an Israeli academic, have three children. They have made the unpleasant discovery that trolls who attack women on Twitter have no compunction about attacking their families, so Ruttenberg has requested that they not be named here.)

This question will remain unresolved, at least for the next six months: Ruttenberg and her family will be living in Israel while her husband is on sabbatical. She hopes to spend her time there volunteering with Encounter, a group that introduces American Jews to Palestinians, and Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli Army veterans who take their fellow Israelis on tours of the Occupied Territories to show them what life there is really like. She believes she has an obligation to be useful wherever she is. She learned from Gandhi that protest is more powerful if it’s tapping into something larger. She has a deep knowledge of 5,000 years of divinely inspired tradition; she can be not just a conduit for that, but a wellspring. But it’s also not just knowledge for its own sake.

“Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of the sages, says if there’s no bread, there’s no Torah, and if there’s no Torah, there’s no bread,” she says. “Like, first we worry about making sure everybody has bread. And then we can talk about Torah.”   v