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A sincere spiritual seeker’s religious journey

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How's Your Faith?: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey by David Gregory (Simon & Schuster)

David Gregory, a former host of NBC’s Meet the Press, is a sincere spiritual seeker. He grew up in a home where his father was Jewish, but religion did not play a large role. Gregory’s wife, Beth, is a practicing Christian who often goes to church. But he has always identified as Jewish and, before they married, he and wife decided to raise their future children as adherents of only one religious tradition. They agreed on Judaism, but Beth Gregory would remain a Christian. Gregory then realized that he had to further explore his own religious tradition. His new book, How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey, is a readable and accessible account of his search.

“How’s your faith?” is the question that former U.S. president George W. Bush used to ask people, including Gregory, when he was a White House correspondent. Gregory was impressed by the role that religion played in Bush’s life. Bush’s question served as another catalyst for Gregory to deepen his religious commitment.

As a longtime prominent media personality, doors opened for him. Rabbis and Jewish scholars of all kinds, and a number of Christian clergy and scholars, gave generously of their time and wisdom.

Some of the advice that he relays in the book is insightful. Rabbi Abraham Twerski taught him that the sole purpose of the Torah is to refine one’s character. One Christian minister told Gregory that two types of people become spiritual seekers: those who seek God when everything in their lives has fallen apart, and those who have successful careers and then start to wonder, “Now what?” His wife’s pastor, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, encouraged Gregory to “find a spiritual practice that doesn’t feel like you’ve just gone and picked the things that work for you. To ground it in something that is larger than your own preferences.”

Other advice was, to my mind, less impressive. Following the suggestion of one rabbi, he experimented with putting on tefillin every day, but then had a talk with a prominent liberal rabbi who convinced him to stop, arguing that tefillin is not very important and that the practice was likely to result in tension between him and his Christian wife. “You can affirm your Jewish identity without taking on ritual aspects that are not the essence of Judaism,” the rabbi told him. “Judaism is meant to strengthen the family, not create gaps within it.”

Gregory also quotes the lesson that he learned from another liberal rabbi, whose congregation Gregory eventually joined: “We (the Jews) are heirs to an incredible open-minded liberal tradition. Judaism demands that we be idol smashers.” Apparently neither Gregory nor his rabbi realized the contradiction between these two points. Smashing idols is the antithesis of open-minded liberalism. People who smash idols believe that some things are right, and some are wrong. They try to fight the ones that are wrong, not accept them with an open mind.

Gregory ends up ignoring the advice of Pastor Gaines-Cirelli. From the smorgasbord of Jewish practices, he chooses the ones that he feels work for him and that will not cause tension in his intermarriage. (He reports that after he stopped eating pork, his wife remarked, “If you stop eating lobster, I’ll kill you.”) In fact, he found a version of Judaism that would adapt itself to his own family situation. Before Gregory’s son’s bar mitzvah, his rabbi explained the role that the synagogue generally assigned to the Jewish parent of the bar mitzvah boy. When Gregory expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that the child’s Christian mother would be excluded, the rabbi obligingly composed a bracha (blessing) in Hebrew and English, to be recited in synagogue by non-Jewish parents of a bar mitzvah boy.

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Where does Gregory’s search lead him? He sadly admits that “Beth and I may have made it harder for our kids to develop a robust spiritual life.” When he asks his teenage daughter whether she is, as Gregory hopes, committed to raising Jewish children when she marries, she answers that she and her future spouse may have to play “rock-paper-scissors” to decide which religion to raise their children in.

It makes sense that rabbis and Jewish intellectuals responded positively to the spiritual quest of an earnest seeker like Gregory. He tells us that he began his spiritual search with a firm belief both in God and in the idea that closeness to God would be beneficial to him. Yet, despite this promising start and despite his exceptional teachers, he ends up practicing an anemic form of Judaism that he could hardly expect to pass on to the next generation with ease. The reason is obvious: when only one parent is part of the program, and when respect for the non-Jewish parent’s desires is, reasonably enough, a constant inhibiting factor, no realistic way exists to construct a Judaism of idol smashing that unabashedly teaches right from wrong.

Despite all the help he received, he was left basically with what he started with: open-minded liberalism – a fine value that exists in North America more often in gentile circles than Jewish, if only because there are many more gentiles than Jews. I shudder to think of what Jewish life looks like in the tens of thousands of intermarried homes in the U.S. and Canada where the Jewish spouse has neither Gregory’s strong faith in God, nor his sincere desire to pursue spiritual growth.