Mother’s way
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Mother’s way

Parenting as a spiritual practice

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

Rabbi Danya Rottenberg
Rabbi Danya Rottenberg

For a veteran reader of parenting books, “Nurture the Wow” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg was a refreshing change of pace.

Unlike most of the genre, this book does not offer a how-to strategy for raising obedient or well-adjusted children with a minimum of efficiently placed effort. Instead, its somewhat counterintuitive central thesis is that parenting is not a goal-oriented process at all. Rather than exploring the best ways to get specific results from our children, Ruttenberg reflects on how parenting can make parents themselves more sensitive, open, and truly spiritual people.

Making parenting a spiritual practice in and of itself was critical for Ruttenberg, as her young children made traditional synagogue and community-centered life at first impossible, and then very difficult.

Judaism, however, in general has left the spiritual consequences of being a mother, at home, raising her children unaddressed. In traditional rabbinic society, the work of homemaking and child-rearing was reserved primarily for women, and in light of this overriding and constant responsibility, the rabbis exempted women from time-bound religious obligations, including communal prayer. That blanket exemption left a void. The tradition either assumed a woman to be too busy with her children for her own spiritual development or simply didn’t consider her to begin with.

Ruttenberg discovered that this was not just a Jewish problem. When asked how to balance raising children with personal spirituality, the Dalai Lama punted, responding, “How would I know? I’m a monk!”

Rather than neglecting herself for the sake of her children at a transformative moment in her life, and instead of trying to shoehorn a childfree mode of spiritual involvement into a daily routine that could not accommodate it, Ruttenberg found spiritual expression within her motherhood. Her journey is mostly framed around Jewish sources, though informed deeply by a broad range of writers and anecdotes, and always with direct reference to her own parenting experiences. Again and again, she looks to find ways to be present and mindful in parenting, finding sparks of transcendence in the physical and repetitive work of housekeeping, moments of ecstatic play with a toddler, and experiencing awe as her children grow and develop.

Ruttenberg’s strongest theological statement is about parental love itself. Her analysis begins with Martin Buber’s distinction between an I-It and an I-Thou relationship. The former see the other party as an object to be manipulated for someone’s own ends — for example, seeing a child as something to be sleep-trained so a parent can finally get a full night’s sleep. An I-Thou, relationship, though, is based on empathy and recognizing the essential independence of the other party. Spiritual parenting for Ruttenberg means seeing her children through the I-Thou lens, as challenging as that can be for a guiding authority figure. Spiritual growth happens in the tension between appreciating children as independent beings with their own personalities, desires, and concerns on one hand, and recognizing the strong connections and interdependence — the still needing to get them to bed on time — on the other.

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In traditional Jewish sources, a child’s love and reverence for parents is seen as a model from which he or she one day may build the same relationship with God, and Ruttenberg similarly cites the Hindu teacher Ram Dass and the feminist and spiritual writer Carol Lee Flinders, who seem to see parenting as practice for the ultimate, more meaningful spiritual journeys. But Ruttenberg rejects this approach. Instead, she sees her deeply empathetic maternal love, and the opening up of herself that is necessary to accomplish that love, as a spiritual end in and of itself. Rather than finding God by using the same tools she honed on her children, she found God in her children, and in the unthinkably strong bonds of motherhood that connected her to them. The Buddhist-tinted influence of Rabbi Alan Lew, a mentor of hers, comes through particularly powerfully.

Ruttenberg brings a finely honed feminist critique to her reflections, challenging both texts and traditions even as she uses them to frame her experiences. She notes, for example, that the formal, fixed liturgical service mostly was unavailable to her when she had young children, whether at home or the synagogue. This is ironic, because the rabbis derive the model of that formal service from the biblical Hannah, whose prayer was both spontaneous and a reflection of her innermost feelings at that particular moment. Ruttenberg found fulfillment in being able to articulate and affirm what she was feeling, especially at more difficult times, all while aware that she also was pressing against the “traditional” image of the endlessly patient mother who absorbs all of the stress around her without ever losing her cool.

Ruttenberg gives us an intimate view into the life of a high-achieving, active, and ambitious woman as she navigates motherhood, finding a path that is both deeply traditional and yet all her own. The many anecdotes, points, and suggestions from her own friends and contemporaries within her book’s pages point to the many ways that both parenting and parents are changing rapidly, but with remarkable self-awareness and agency. Any parent who is raising or who has raised younger children will find much to consider and reflect upon.

We can only eagerly wait for the sequel, which will — or at least I hope it will — deal with finding spirituality in raising teenagers. For many, I am sure it cannot come too soon.

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