The tradition has a lot to teach parents in the thick of these young years. And parents have a lot to teach the tradition, and we can take their wisdom seriously.
Green: What’s the right way to give credence to the difference of a woman’s experience?
Ruttenberg: When I was younger, I really assumed all the good stuff was on the boys’ side. As I went along, I started to understand that there is a lot of wisdom all over the place.
I think people of all genders can find spiritual gratification in making challah, and I think people of all genders can find spiritual gratification in wearing a prayer shawl. And there are times when a critique is necessary, like with mikvah. There are some traditionally misogynistic undertones in the way it’s been framed and deployed throughout history. Yet, to throw out the baby with the bathwater didn’t feel right either, because it is actually probably the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever experienced. I think we can do feminist work to grapple with and reclaim, on our own terms, some of the more problematic aspects of Judaism for women.
McCleneghan: I guess I think of women’s work in the history of the church being this sort of supportive, serving role—which is good and important, but one that can and should be done by people of all genders.
I never thought that my first book would be on parenthood and children. When I became a parent, I just had this newish way of being in the world. I had this real, clear sense that this was a part of the work I was here to do just as much as the formal requirements of my calling to ministry.
But we all kind of worry: Once you start writing about or working with these issues, you’re never going to get [to stop]. Now that you’ve admitted you like children, you may have to work with them forever.
Green: Let’s talk about that—were you all nervous getting into these areas? Were you worried you’d be branded as the “parenthood rabbi” or the “parenthood minister”?
Ruttenberg: No. My book actually started when one day the question popped into my head, “I wonder how many theologians throughout history have been mothers?” The answer is, of course, almost none.
What I have experienced since I started working on this project, though, is no small amount of mansplaining—typically from older, male colleagues who think it’s so cute that I want to do a “mommy thing.” They’ll say, “Oh, you should use this one lines from Proverbs about educating the child!”
And I sort of smile and say, “Actually, the book is more about how you know the self when mothers have traditionally not been allowed to have a self in the first place.”
McCleneghan: In one of the first writing workshops I went to for clergy, the leader was an established clergyman who had written lots and lots of books. When we asked about how you balance all the responsibilities of church and family and writing, he was sort of like, “Well, I have a wife.” For the young women writers who were in the room, we were all sort of like, “Oh. Thanks. I guess we need to get a wife.”