Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg discusses how motherhood has impacted her religious practices and expanded her spritual expression in The New York Times:
When I was a rabbinical student and then a new rabbi, I wrote and spoke often about the importance of regular spiritual practice. Fixed discipline, I said, could hold you in your attempts to connect with the sacred.
Then I became a mother, and my prayer life tanked. The liturgy just wasn’t the same solace it used to be, and I couldn’t figure out how to force myself back into the old practice. I felt like a failure, a fraud with a dirty secret: the rabbi who couldn’t figure out how to pray.
Yet I should have expected that my spirituality would be different, given how many other things had changed. It wasn’t just me, either. I started to realize this wasn’t uncommon. My mother always said that she never believed in God until she had children, for example, and it turned out that some of my rabbi-mom friends were in a similar boat, confessing in whispers that holding a sleeping child felt much more like worship than reading psalms most days.
Religious literature does not always reflect these experiences, at least in my tradition. Jewish law suggests that you shouldn’t hold a child during prayer, lest she disturb your concentration; that you shouldn’t kiss your children in synagogue, to help you learn that no love compares to love of God; that if your child is crying, you should indicate to the child — without speaking — to stop crying, and if that doesn’t work, you should walk away from her so that her crying does not disturb your prayer. Another source reminds fathers not to hold a diapered child before afternoon prayers, lest he become soiled and miss the start of services.
There is a not-very-implicit assumption that someone else, somewhere, is in charge of the sticky, cuddly, needy, emotional little humans who evidently impede a person’s ability to live a life of spiritual service. Spirituality and young children are placed in opposing, incompatible spheres. Women, in particular, are relegated, along with the children, away from wherever it is that they are keeping a connection with the transcendent. People actively engaged in parenting are not wanted there.
The idea that loving and caring for children could be a core, crucial, even transformative aspect of a religious life is totally absent from this tradition. Some churches and synagogues make efforts to be “family-friendly,” offering toys in the back corner of the worship space, baby sitting, or separate children’s services in a different room. I both applaud these efforts and make pretty ample use of them. But they do perpetuate this notion that grown-up prayer — the “real” spiritual life — is something that happens only when the kinder are otherwise occupied. Not with them, or — dare I suggest it — through them.
The philosopher Sara Ruddick talks about “maternal thinking,” the ways in which caring for small children gives rise to a unique kind of intellectual and emotional flexibility and responsiveness. She suggests that doing this work changes how you engage the world in useful and important ways. I wonder what would happen if the experiences, issues and questions that come out of parenting were taken seriously in our thinking about prayer, theology and religious practice?
Now, as a parent, I find plenty of space for prayer. Sometimes my practice is traditional: singing with my children, saying words of liturgy to them and to God, as well as prayer in the conventional sense.
But just as often, my prayer — offered up with intentionality to the divine — involves deep contemplation of my 1-year-old’s ear. Radical amazement, if you will, or a hallelujah. Sometimes it can be found in just being present with my children, in snuggles or smiles or games or fielding questions from my older son. Sometimes I manifest it in a tiny cry — “help!” — barely perceptible even to me, when my kids’ needs are too big and overwhelming, or even just when they are being normally rambunctious despite the fact that Mommy didn’t sleep so well last night.
There is enough room in our spiritual expressions not only for all of the love we feel for our families, but also for the hectic, distracted chaos that so often defines parenting small children — if we are willing to expand our understanding of what religious expression is, and can be.
Danya Ruttenberg is a rabbi, author of the Sami Rohr Prize-nominated Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, and editor of The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism and four other anthologies. Follow her on Twitter at @TheRaDR.