By Michell C. Clark
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg resonates with people because she understands the synergy between teaching and listening. While plenty of people log onto social media apps like Twitter with the intention of shouting their own opinions into the void and just as quickly X-ing out of their feeds, Ruttenberg listens with the intention of understanding.
Her path to Judaism was bolstered by her own lived experiences — as a Brown University student, she practiced Jewish mourning rituals when her mother died of breast cancer, and was later ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2008. Since then, the 44-year-old has served as a rabbi and educator at Tufts University, Northwestern University, Hillel International, the dialogue project Ask Big Questions, and Avodah, an organization focused on building leaders for economic justice.
But in 2014, after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Rabbi Ruttenberg was drawn to Twitter as a means of hearing the perspectives of people physically present for the subsequent protests. As she began to listen, process, and engage on Twitter, she began tapping into the platform’s ability to create space for sharing perspective, talking about things that matter, and playing with ideas — from a religious point of view.
Today, Twitter serves as an extension of Ruttenberg’s work as a rabbi, author, and teacher during a time when xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism are on the rise globally. Social media doesn’t always help the problem, either — the communicative nature of platforms like Twitter can inadvertently facilitate niche communities that intensify and increase instances of hate speech — but Rabbi Ruttenberg leverages her platform to acknowledge different perspectives and encourage the exchange of ideas. She drives conversation among her following of over 80,000 people based on current events, personal experiences, and her religious studies. She uses her perspective, which is rooted in Judaism, to offer additional insight in real time, but refrains from positioning her views as absolute truths. While she doesn’t force her views on others, she is resolute when it comes to speaking out against what she perceives to be unjust.
Her work extends offline, too; in 2017, she was arrested for assembling with 18 other rabbis in front of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York City to protest the Trump administration’s travel ban affecting seven Muslim nations, and other policies targeting refugees and immigrants. She and her fellow rabbis marched down Broadway to join hundreds of community members in occupying the streets before being arrested. In a piece for the Washington Post, she described the experience as “profoundly holy,” and inspired by Jewish traditions that implore her to speak out against injustice.
During a recent phone interview, MTV News spoke with the teacher and author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting about why she felt led to engage on social media as an extension of her work, additional perspective that she’s gained from social media, and how she makes space for “radical amazement” in a world that can feel heavy.
MTV News: A lot of people often think that social media and religion are exclusive concepts — how do you see the ways one can impact the other, and vice versa?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: Religion is about conversation and the exchange of ideas. My tradition focuses on debating ideas and hashing it out. Social media is a place to talk about everything. Religion and spirituality are a part of everything. I use social media as a platform to discuss personal aspects of religion such as what I think that prayer is, which might be completely different from what somebody else interprets it to be. Trolls notwithstanding, social media is an incredible space for learning to happen. Nobody has to agree with what I'm saying, but hopefully I can give people a new way to think about something. I hope that what I'm saying resonates with people personally. I hope to give people a new lens for thinking about the world.
MTV News: Social media can be draining, especially when topics such as racism and xenophobia are brought into the discussion. How do you decompress when conversations feel heavy?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: You have to know when to log off. There are different kinds of decompression. I have pretty thick skin, at this point. Trolls will decide that I’m the worst person ever because they don't agree with my stance on something. The nature of who's mad at me for whatever reason varies from day to day. Sometimes you just have to just block and report and go on with your day when things get toxic. Sometimes I will make the decision not to check my mentions for a few days. When it starts to feel like Twitter is depleting me more than giving me anything, it's like time to stay away for a little bit.
MTV News: How do you approach the responsibility of having such a significant following on social media?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: Cheerfully. I have an obligation to be thoughtful and not propagate badness, even unintentionally. My own ignorance is not an excuse. If I say something where my own unconscious biases come into play and I screw up, I feel an obligation to take responsibility. I try to be careful about using quote tweets. Every once in a while somebody is determined to repeatedly be extremely problematic in my space, and it’s tempting to put them on blast. I try not to because I understand that doing so can put someone else in a position where they get a lot of replies that aren’t kind, because people don’t understand that it’s possible to disagree with somebody without being hateful or hurtful.
More than anything, I try to put out useful content. If I'm angry, there's got to be some productivity to how I express that anger. If I feel frustration, where's the call to action? There's enough negativity. We need more people with that kind of focus. It's a really hard time in this country. Despair isn't enough. We need to focus on healing or growing or creating space to have the hard feelings.
MTV News: What additional perspective has social media given you as a religious teacher?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: I wouldn't say that social media has changed my theology dramatically, but having access to so many different voices has given me more perspective. How I think about particular texts has definitely changed because of people who have shown up and expressed things that I hadn’t considered before. My world has changed from me making space in life to hear more voices.
MTV News: How do you use your faith and understanding of the Torah to guide you in conversations and discussions with people of all faiths or spiritualities?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: It's important not to assume that anybody sees the world the same as I do. I teach from a deeply embedded perspective within my tradition. Not everybody believes in God. That's OK. Some people follow different religions. That’s OK, too. There's room for everybody. I try to speak in "I" sentences, such as "Here is how I understand God and there are other ways to understand God." Or, "If this is a word that even resonates with you — maybe it doesn't, but here is how I see it.” I don't have a link on objective reality. I simply offer my perspective.
I'm comparable to an educator. I wouldn't use a bunch of Hebrew words and not explain what they are. I'm not going to reference some Biblical passage without citing it or explaining stories that people are unfamiliar with. I try to be thoughtful about making sure that I'm not using inside baseball language. I'm more interested in what things mean for us as human beings, as opposed to what something means for me as a Jew.
MTV News: How do you use your faith to interpret the current political climate?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: At its root, the Bible is about abuses of power. It’s about what happens when people who come to power, don’t leverage their power in ways rooted in love, and how we're obligated to speak out against those abuses of power. Think about Pharaoh in Egypt, and people such as the midwives and Miriam being civilly disobedient. Think about the prophets calling out the disassociation from what really matters — taking care of other people. We’re commanded to take care of people who don’t have the same level of social access that we do. When you’re a person who has privilege, you have to be mindful of people who don’t. That’s the whole story.
MTV News: How do you remain sure of yourself when writing about topics — such as sex and queer liberation — that are traditionally stigmatized within religious circles?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: My tradition that has fewer taboos around those topics than other traditions of Judaism. I can point you to places in our holy books where we're talking about sex. I can point you to places in other Jewish books that talk about masturbation. It's part of my tradition to recognize that people have bodies, and they do stuff with their bodies. That's part of the story, too.
I think of myself in some ways as a translator. I'm translating a lot of the wisdom from my tradition into language that people today can understand and as it relates to issues that make sense for people today. There's tons of stuff in Judaism about people who are trans, or don't adhere to the gender binary. I simply share what’s already in the room, and make it accessible to the world.
MTV News: You’ve written consistently about the value in the importance of “radical amazement” — finding awe in the situations that we often take for granted. How do you recenter yourself to make space for radical amazement?
Rabbi Ruttenberg: I try to remember that even if everything is terrible, you're still allowed and encouraged to take time to look at the sky, notice the birds, or look at a tree. I have little kids, so there’s a lot of opportunity to let go of the mode of “I thought I told you to do your homework,” and to simply have moments where you think: “You’re amazing. You’re a person, and I made you, and you’re really so cute.” We need to have those moments.
You can be radically amazed by nature and other people. Sometimes you just have to pause and look at somebody you love and say: “You exist, and you’re the best thing, and you have a working pancreas. You’re alive. I’m alive. All the cells in my body that could have gone totally haywire yesterday have decided to work together and allow me to wake up this morning. That’s awesome.” It’s all about perspective. It can get hard, and it’s easy to get burned out. Even if we have a lot of work to do, we should pause and make the space to appreciate that the world is an incredible place.