The New, Women-Led Theology of Parenting
A pastor and a rabbi talk about kids, poop, and tearing down the patriarchy in institutional religion.
The Bible is a man’s book. It was mostly written by men, for men, and about men. The people who then interpreted the text have also been predominately male.
No wonder there’s not much theology preoccupied with weird-colored poop and the best way to weather tantrums. Throughout history, childcare has largely been considered women’s work—and, by extension, not theologically serious.
Danya Ruttenberg—a Conservative rabbi whose book about parenting came out in April—disagrees. So does Bromleigh McCleneghan, a Chicago-area pastor and the author of a 2012 book about parenting and a forthcoming book about Christians and sex. Both women have made their careers in writing and ministry. But they’re also both moms, and they believe the work they do as parents doesn’t have to remain separate from the work they do as theologians.
I spoke with them about kids, non-traditional families, and theological mansplaining. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bromleigh McCleneghan: Definitely parenting and the work of children. We have our texts that guide our thinking, and we have the rabbis and the teachers throughout the ages who have commented on the primary texts, and we have logical reasoning and philosophy. The tradition hasn’t always known what to do with experience that isn’t mediated through those things, like being in a relationship or having children.
Danya Ruttenberg: The first step for me is always: What in theology is traditionally associated with women? There’s this whole realm of human experience to which our texts are oblivious—they’re not considered important because they’re not on the radar screen of the people who are traditionally writing theology.
McCleneghan: Women’s work with bodies and fluids is not just “not holy,” but profane. Not just “soft,” but really not a part of spiritual life.
Ruttenberg: I went looking for a certain prayer in the Jewish liturgy that you’re supposed to say staying silent and standing. It’s not supposed to be interrupted even if a snake is crawling up your leg.
Not long after my first kid was born, I went trying to find out what Jewish law says about what you do if your kid’s interrupting. And it’s silent. We talk about so many details of so many different arcane things, and nobody, practically, was addressing what to do if your kid is making a fuss or needs you.
I finally found one text that says you should indicate to your child without speaking that they should stop, and if that does not work, you just walk away from the crying child. Clearly there is someone else in the picture who is attending to this child.
Green: The primary sources that both of your traditions draw on are written by and for men. How did you get over this fact—that the traditions both of you have given your lives to ultimately were not created for you?
I relate to the articulations of who God is and the theology that have been done by men in the tradition. I don’t necessarily need to feel goodwill toward these guys who feel like women don’t belong in the story. But I might as well, because they say some really useful things that have shaped who I know God to be.
Ruttenberg: I didn’t grow up religious, and when I became observant in my 20s, I was very much one of these feminists who was like, “I’m going to do all the boys’ stuff twice as good as the boys do.” I’m going to lay my tefillin and wear my tallis. My orientation was very much assuming that the room with all the good stuff was over here, so I wanted to be there.
After I had my first kid, I walked into another room where all of these massive, powerful, transformational things were happening. I figured out that my tradition actually had a lot to teach me about love and the holy and navigating hard feelings, and finding more patience when your patience is used up, and engaging with the “uckiness” of the body. But I had to build a bridge between the things that Martin Buber was saying and the things the Talmud was saying and the lived experience on the ground with small children.
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.
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