When Rabbi Michael Ross was about to become the primary caregiver for his young son, his usual sources of inspiration — Jewish texts — failed to provide answers.
By: Rabbi Michael Ross
Shortly after my son was born on Dec. 15, 2011, I was standing in my home office searching for a book. Like many rabbis, I have a huge library — books of Jewish texts, Jewish history, Jewish culture and even Jewish fiction. My wife, also a rabbi, has an even larger collection. However, on this bleak, wintry morning I realized I was looking in the wrong place.
I had been transformed by my son’s birth. My wife, after three months of maternity leave, was returning to work. I was on the verge of becoming the primary caregiver, the “stay-at-home” parent. When I find myself in a new, transformative situation, I often to turn to my library for comfort, advice, wisdom, insight.
But between our two vast libraries, I could not find a single book or text that referred to the father as the primary caregiver. I would have to blaze this trail on my own. Luckily, I have a handful of friends who are both rabbis and “stay-at-home” dads, and we have been sharing our new insights with each other.
Over the past 17 months as a father, my identity as a rabbi has shifted dramatically.
First, my spirituality has shifted. I once was very clear about my approach to Jewish law and mitzvot. Although I am a Reconstructionist, my approach to obligation was based on traditional values and community norms of behavior. But the Jewish legal texts are very clear about the lens of obligation for a baby’s primary caregiver, traditionally seen as the mother. She is released from all time-bound mitzvot or obligations so that she can care for her child.
I, too have felt, released from time-bound mitzvot such as prayer since the birth of my son. Last fall, when my wife’s mother died, I had to excuse myself from countless minyanim, or prayer quorums, to take care of my son. I have never felt guilty or distressed about missing out on these mitzvot. These prayer moments became times for special father-son bonding walks to parks and playgrounds.
Second, my theology has shifted. I love Chasidic teachings and have developed a clear sense of God as the “Breath of Life,” or as the Sefat Emet calls it, “the inner point,” the nekudat penimit. Before my son, my primary access to holiness was through prayer, meditation and exercise. I had fleeting experiences of godliness in relationships with family members.
Since my son’s birth, I experience holiness and godliness as reliably in my relationship with him as I do anywhere else in my life. As a result, I have developed a second step in my current theology. After an individual locates a sense of holiness, whether through prayer, meditation, yoga or swimming, a second necessary step is to locate holiness in the face of the other.
When I play with my son on our living room floor, I must be fully present. I must listen well; I must communicate my listening to him clearly and continuously. When I do, the holiness I encounter between us is palpable. I term this our “us-ness.” When I am unable to be fully present to his play or his conversation, our “us-ness” is diluted or just disappears altogether.
Additionally, my sources of chiddushim – insights for my talks and sermons have shifted from the external environment of Jewish texts to the internal dynamics of our lives together. I am less interested in pop cultural reference points and much more concerned with the experience of parenting a chattering toddler with intentionality and compassion. The dynamics of that experience have become the essence of my insights and my teachings. This is a new paradigm for men and for male rabbis. The wisdom of this experience feels like new understandings of the essence of Jewish religion — a new Torah of fatherhood is unfolding.
And how has this played out in my home? My son is joyously happy. We play together and read together several times every day. We have developed a sweet, close relationship based on love, trust, companionship and respect. My father and both of my grandfathers were loving, wonderful people, but they did not have the luxury of living with a successful professional as a spouse. I do not think I am a better father; rather, I’m a father who has been given the blessing of time to immerse in the dynamics of the parent-child relationship.
With Father’s Day around the corner, do I have any parenting advice that I would give other parents or future parents? A lot of my parenting skills are based on my intuition. So, if these ideas resonate with your experience, try them on.
- Be present with your child. Be here, now. “Today is the day that God created. Sing and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 116)
- Listen well. Listen with a full, committed sense of presence. Every time you find yourself becoming distracted, return to simply listening. Listen with an open heart. When you find your heart closing, push it open instead. Focus on your “us-ness” with your relationships. How frequently can you sense holiness in that dynamic of your relating to the other?
- Play and read with your child as much as you can, every day. Share your passions with your child by allowing him or her to fall in love with your desire to play or read.
- Sing to your child. Sing with your child. My son has heard Jewish folksongs and Jewish liturgy from both of us every day that we have cared for him. When he is beside himself, or on the edge of a temper tantrum, we often sing to him. The calming nature of song soothes him, and he feels comforted by the presence of our songs.
- Love your child. The love he or she will give you back will flood your life with holiness.
Rabbi Michael Ross is the education director at Am Haskalah in the Lehigh Valley and teaches at Gratz College's Jewish Community High School. He also works with unaffiliated families preparing for Jewish life-cycle events.