How to transcend baby poop to become a spiritual parent

In her long-awaited new book, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says connecting to compassion is a muscle parents can train — with a little help from some childlike wonder

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of 'Nurturing the Wow' (courtesy)
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of 'Nurturing the Wow' (courtesy)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is no stranger to mulling over the big things in life. In her day job as Educational Director at the Hillel International initiative Ask Big Questions she gets paid to ponder such imponderables as for whom are we responsible? And when does one conform versus taking a stand?

But it’s the mundane things in life, like a toddler’s tantrum or being elbow deep in infant poop, that form the essence of Ruttenberg’s ponderings in her new spiritual-seeking book.

Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting” is not just another religiously slanted parenting how-to, rather it is a frank and honest meditation on parenthood that draws its wisdom from a disparate range of traditions and sources.

“You don’t have to identify as someone who is spiritual to have these powerful moments of transcendence and unity… There are a lot of ways in, and our children are one of them,” Ruttenberg said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

Ruttenberg came to notice a decade ago when she injected an unvarnished voice into Jewish spirituality with her meditations on a transformative personal journey from youthful hedonism to connecting to the great beyond. She wrote openly and honestly about how “2,000 years of nuanced theology gets that being a person is hard and it’s inevitably going to be hard sometimes” in the much-lauded book, “Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion.”

As a young “rock star” rabbi, freshly ordained in the Conservative movement and seeking to spread the word on spiritual transcendence, she was named to a handful of “rabbis to watch” lists.

But seven years ago, now married to a secular Israeli math professor and a new mother to their first son, Ruttenberg suddenly found herself disconnected from the spiritual practice that had once been so essential.

At first dismayed, it was while in the trenches of parenthood and digging deep into an endless well of doodoo and diapers, that she found further enlightenment — and the subject of her new book.

Now a mother of three, with Nomi, her five-month-old baby girl an ever-present companion (when not with the nanny), Ruttenberg is currently spreading this touching and most practical Torah in speaking tours and promotional stops, from Limmud UK to a podcast near you.

While spending a sabbatical year in Jerusalem, Ruttenberg stopped by the Jerusalem offices of The Times of Israel for a chat with Jewish World editor Amanda Borschel-Dan, herself a mother of six.

Cover of 'Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting' (courtesy)
Cover of ‘Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting’ (courtesy)

Why did you feel qualified to write about parenting when your oldest child is only, what, 6?

Seven. Certainly it’s not a parenting book. As I’m sure my children would be happy to tell you, I don’t know anything about raising children. I’m muddling my way through just like everybody else is.

But I’ve spent basically my entire adult life thinking about spiritual experience and spiritual practice and spiritual transformation. And for a while after my first son was born, I felt this intense sense of dislocation… something wasn’t computing in the way that it had in the 10 years leading up to rabbinical school, and [during] rabbinical school and ordination… something wasn’t clicking… the starter wouldn’t spark…

The lightbulb moment came when I understood I was having a whole other set of powerful transformative, I would say spiritual experiences, with and through my son that weren’t part of the official public practice as I had grown to understand it through my practice and my training as a rabbi.

The Conservative movement began ordaining women rabbis in 1985, and the Reform movement earlier, in 1972. There has already been a generation of female rabbis, many of whom were mothers, but the melding of this rabbinical role, spirituality and being a religious leader, along with parenting from a feminine perspective, hasn’t really been delved into.

So the book’s genesis started as I was driving, and my mind was unusually blank for a working mom, and the question popped into my head about how many theologians throughout history have been mothers. And the answer is almost none, because the handful of women in any tradition that have been doing theology were monastics with a room of one’s own.

So you have this new generation of women, the handful of women who were given keys to what has traditionally been a male sphere, and I think there were so many other things to do and so many other places to put one’s energy both in terms of experiencing practice and thinking theology, and reexamining halacha, Jewish law. All of these things, there’s so much to do that [spiritual parenting] wasn’t something that people were focusing on.

I imagine that rabbinics, like journalism, is quite a macho sphere. That even if you are this woman mother rabbi, that at least in the past, you wouldn’t have wanted to emphasize that.

‘There was this whole transformative realm of human experience that I didn’t see addressed by my tradition in the way that I’d wished it had, and there were all of these ripe questions waiting to be examined’

Absolutely. I think there was a lot of that. Of trying to downplay the labor taking place at home in order to be taken serious when one is doing work in the public. And now, at least for me, this felt like an urgent question — maybe because people had already covered so much of the territory in front of me — but there was this whole transformative realm of human experience that I didn’t see addressed by my tradition in the way that I’d wished it had, and there were all of these ripe questions waiting to be examined.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav perhaps didn’t delve into baby poop as much as you did, but I have a feeling that you’re finding the spiritual in the mundane, just as your predecessors have.

I mean, this too is Torah, right. Judaism has certainly covered how do you deal with the mundane; how do you make sense of that moment when you’re about to have a really painful emotion that is coming up, and you have to figure out how to move through the world; how do you navigate feelings of transcendence.

All of these things, our tradition has said a lot on, and so one of the pieces of this book is about bringing that wisdom to an audience that might not have it directly in their hands. But what the tradition hasn’t done is connected it explicitly to the labor of raising children.

I take Buber, I take Rebbe Nachman, and I try to build that bridge to the chaos of people’s everyday lives with small children.

You also take Rumi, you take Adrienne Rich, you take novelists from all over. I found it really intriguing that you drew from so many disparate sources into this very grounded yet incredibly spiritual work that you’ve put together. How did you pick and choose?

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. 'I mean, this too is Torah, right?' (courtesy)
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. ‘I mean, this too is Torah, right?’ (courtesy)

I’ve never been very good at staying in any box particularly, intellectually, and I’ve always read widely. In terms of other spiritual traditions, the dead friends on my book shelf span all manner of places and so I was just trying to figure out who had something that they could teach me about staying up all night, about feeling like one is stretched to one’s last nerve with kids.

I was looking both to people who have written deeply about motherhood and also people who just had something to say about what it means to be a person in the world.

There are a whole lot of parenting blogs, and there’s also a whole lot of backlash to these parenting blogs. You are incredibly forthright in your writing and very honest about the less desirable sides of parenting alongside the Hallmark card side of it as well. That’s really brave and I wonder if you’ve already felt some of this backlash from the Mommy Guard.

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t part of me that was a little nervous about how many different kinds of judgments I’m going to get about my parenting style, about you know, the way that I admit that it’s not all easy fun, walks in the park and smelling the roses.

There is that, and if you do the work well, then you’re going to be able to experience the park in a more glorious way and you’re also going to be able to be more present and less melting down yourself when a tantrum hits.

I have six kids, the oldest is 12 and the youngest is three, and yes, patience gets thinned out. There are times when, as you wrote in the book, with my kids, if they were not so cute, they would be dead. And you write about this very honestly.

‘Not everything is fair game for the public dissection table. But… I feel a responsibility as a writer to tell the truth’

Not everything is fair game for the public dissection table. But… I feel a responsibility as a writer to tell the truth.

I’m not capable of writing the book that’s like “parenting is spiritual because it’s magical and you feel warm and fuzzy at every moment.” That’s not anybody’s lived reality. And if I’m going to admit that it’s not yours, I have to cop to the way that it’s not mine…

We’re human beings and so of course all of our buttons are going to get pushed, and we’re going to get frustrated and we’re going to get bored and all of that. But all of this spiritual practice stuff works a certain kind of muscle. And the more you can find that place of compassion for one minute today, maybe you’ll find it two minutes tomorrow, and it’ll get easier and easier to get there. And the more you can find that space of wonder and radical amazement when you really want to say, “Come on, we have to go, I said we were late, stop playing with the stick,” it gets easier and easier to find that place all over again.

It doesn’t mean to indulge your children all the time.

Oh God no… But I’ve found that the fight about putting down the stick and going, “Wow that’s so amazing. What else can you do with it?” and then the kid is happy and happily zigs into the car, it takes about the same amount of time. And so you can choose if you want to have those extra seven minutes be about a fight about the stick, or whether you want to have a moment of delight and laughter.

You also talked about your trouble praying after giving birth. And as a feminist, one side of me totally recoiled and said, “No, how can she admit to something like this?! We’re supposed to be superwomen! How can you do that?” But on the other hand, it was very true for you.

Motherhood brought a new set of challenges to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's prayer practice. (courtesy)
Motherhood brought a new set of challenges to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s prayer practice. (courtesy)

Yes, so in addition to all of the parents who are going to judge me for my bad parenting, now I also have all of my colleagues who are going to judge me for being a bad rabbi, I’m sure.

But the truth is that, again, if you can’t tell the truth, then what are you doing? This was the thing that was hardest for me to admit, but how do I talk about prayer and parenting if I don’t talk about my feelings of shame that I was this bad rabbi that wasn’t putting on her teffilin anymore.

But being able to say it out loud actually opened something up and made space for me to go and have a different kind of experience.

What I came to eventually understand is that it wasn’t a logistical thing. I could find 10 minutes to daven [pray]. It was a psychic thing about my relationship to this practice.

And it’s since writing that chapter and since Nomi was born that there are times that it really really feels like the thing that I need to be doing is going back to my traditional davening practice. And there are times that I give myself space for spontaneous prayer, where other ways of connecting feel like they need to be at the forefront. And I just try my hardest to listen to the internal cues.

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