After Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg became a mother for the first time, she found herself trying to make sense of this profound life-changing experience that we call parenthood.
"With parenthood you have this whole set of absolutely transformative experiences, but it has not been informed by how we talk about what prayer is or what God is or what spirituality is," she said. Because Judaism and Jewish thought, which had sustained her for so many years, seemed at first out of touch with her new role as parent, full of sleepless nights, tantrums, and mounds of laundry.
And that was when a light bulb went off in her head. "I started wondering how many theologians throughout history have been mothers?"
Of course Ruttenberg already knew the answer to that question. "The answer is very few. While many of the men writing theology have been fathers, they have not been engaged in taking care of children," she said.
In her new book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron Books), Ruttenberg, a Chicago-based rabbi, returns once again to the treasures of Judaism that had sustained her for so long and shows how they can "illuminate the work of parenting -- the love, the drudgery, the exasperation, all of it."
Because Nurture the Wow, which reads like a parenting guide grounded in Jewish thought and wisdom as told by a friend who is in the midst of it herself, goes so far as to say that the act of parenthood is nothing less than an act of spirituality.
"I went looking for ways to speak to my exhausted, crazy-making, blissful, confusing experience of being a mother and I came to the conclusion that parenting can be a legitimate spiritual practice in its own right. It can change who you are and how you are in the world," she said.
Ruttenberg, who has been named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of 10 "rabbis to watch" and one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis, is also the author of Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon Press), and the editor of numerous anthologies.
She received her rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, and is currently Director of Education for Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel International, and a rabbinic consultant to Hillel International.
She and her husband, a professor at Northwestern University, have three children ages 7, 4 and 7 months. Currently on sabbatical in Israel, they will return to the Chicago area over the summer.
With "Nurture the Wow," Ruttenberg foresees her primary audience as parents of young children those who are in the thick of the crazy years. "Hopefully, I've given them a framework and ways to think about what they're going through in a more thoughtful way so that they have a few extra resources when the tantrum starts," she said. But she also hopes anyone "inside the Jewish conversation" also picks up her book.
"I think of what I'm doing as feminist theology," she said. "I want to talk to them about what it means if we take parents of all genders and take their experiences seriously and incorporate that into our conversation about what Judaism is."
Because Ruttenberg feels that raising children -- and everything that goes with it, from the profound to the mundane and everything in between (including moments of despair) -- is just as spiritually enlightening as the most zenful meditation practice. "Individual parents need to understand their parenting as a spiritual practice and we need to shift our culture in how we think about it," said Ruttenberg. "Because if you go deep enough in your parenting it will take you everywhere. The transcendent love that you feel for your child can take you to the doorway of the holy. It will take you all the way."
Abigail Pickus is a Chicago-based writer and editor.