A brave thing to do in mainstream journalism (“brave” being a relative concept here) is to publicly confess your faith in God, or to identify with a specific religious tradition in a sincere and enthusiastic manner. There are notable exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, American journalists, Coastal Elite Division, prefer individuality, deep skepticism, impiety, and sometimes even cynicism, to genuine expressions of faith. (Skepticism and piety can, of course, coexist in the same person, as you will see if you read on.)
In my humble opinion (full disclosures coming imminently), David Gregory, the former moderator of Meet the Press, has done a brave thing by writing How’s Your Faith?, a book about his own spiritual journey. I am, by the way, not fond of the word “journey” to describe … really just about anything, including actual physical movements from point A to point B, but Gregory uses it unabashedly, so I’ll cede him the word for purposes of this discussion.
The title of his book comes from a question once put to Gregory, an ex-White House correspondent for NBC, by his sometime-adversary, George W. Bush, who was, of course, entirely comfortable discussing his faith in the open. This book is proof that Gregory is more at ease with the question than almost anyone I know in Washington journalism. He is, however, not entirely at ease with his answers, which is part of what makes How’s Your Faith? so interesting. What makes this book particularly compelling to me is the way in which he wrestles with the demands of Judaism, and with the limitations of a sometimes-spiritually stunted (my words, not his) non-Orthodox American Jewish community; and with the challenges of living with a spouse who both wants to honor her own Christian faith and also raise their children as Jews. (Gregory’s wife, Beth Wilkinson, is in many ways the most interesting character in this book.)
Gregory and I have been discussing these challenges for years—here are my full disclosures—as friends, and as co-founders of a Torah study group led by the Orthodox scholar Erica Brown. (The study group is more or less dormant at the moment, mainly because we’re a tragically scattershot bunch—Judaism, of course, being the exemplar of disorganized religion.) In the conversation posted below, Gregory and I grapple with some of the subjects that have preoccupied us for a long time.
One thing we didn’t do in this conversation is dwell at great length on Gregory’s career, which as many people know, hit a bump when he was forced off Meet the Press last year. A small but fascinating part of the book, which you should read, features a discussion of this episode, but Gregory, taking the teachings of Judaism to heart, resists the temptation to dish on others. Instead, he dishes on himself, discussing, in an unsparing way (too unsparing, in the opinion of this friend) what he perceives to have been his own professional and characterological flaws.
The book has been received well, in part because it is not what people might think it is. Here is an excerpt from Carlos Lozada’s review in the Washington Post:
[W]hen I learned that he had written a book, I suspected it would be another Washington tell-all, dishing on journalistic rivals, slamming the execs who ousted him from Meet the Press, offering Playbook-ready behind-the-scenes tidbits from big interviews.
Instead, How’s Your Faith? is a thoughtful, introspective, and moving account of Gregory’s life, family, and beliefs, including his struggles with his mother’s alcoholism, with interfaith marriage, with anger, with God. Gregory’s television career is an important part of the story—and there are some insider-y moments here—but not an essential part. This is a book for seekers of faith, not fame.
This book is of obvious ecumenical interest, because Gregory’s search is universal. But for me, How’s Your Faith? is most valuable as a diagnostic of what’s working, and what isn’t working, in American Judaism. Here is a brief but illustrative excerpt from our conversation:
Goldberg: One of the distortions in American Jewish life today is over-reliance, or overemphasis, on support for Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust, as the twin pillars of identity, plus a lot of liberal politics framed as tikkun olam [repairing the world]. Are these things that keep people from understanding that they’re not really getting at the core of Judaism?
Gregory: I think a lot of Jews make Israel the centerpiece of their Judaism. It becomes the centerpiece of their Jewish existence and of their faith. I have always felt that that's not for me. Look, I believe that a focus on Israel’s existence, and on remembrance of the Holocaust, are very important, and they go to this question of whether the Jewish people will survive. And as a person of deeper Jewish faith, I now think—even today differently than a year ago—more deeply about the responsibility here, about what am I doing to contribute to the survival of the Jewish people. Am I doing a good enough job myself? Am I doing a good enough job for my family, in teaching my children? Because that's very important to me. As a Jew I recognize the importance of Israel historically, liturgically, its place in our history and in our sacred texts. I fully recognize and appreciate that. I just think that, for me, a sole focus on Israel gets in the way of the pursuit of a relationship with God and a more spiritual existence within Judaism.
Our point, of course, is not that Israel isn’t an important cause for concern for American Jews; it is just that worrying about Israel, loving Israel and criticizing Israel are not sufficient building blocks for a solid American Jewish identity. It’s tremendously important for rabbis, synagogue leaders and communal leaders (AIPAC leaders, too) to read Gregory’s story as a loving critique on the current condition of American Judaism. He’s been thinking hard about this subject, and his insights are acute.
Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and concision.
Jeffrey Goldberg: So, why is the journalism business so anti-spiritual? And when I say anti-spiritual, I don't mean that it's filled with militant, political atheists. I mean that it's just not an industry where you generally find people who are grappling with their own faith. There are notable exceptions to this, but mainly it’s a secular, rigorously non-observant crowd. Is it just because piousness is the enemy of good journalism?
David Gregory: I think it's a question of rational versus irrational thinking. I think that there's a strain in journalism that believes that anyone who surrenders him or herself to faith and to belief necessarily checks reason and rationality at the door. And, you know, I had a reporter recently suggest that when President Bush was expressing great faith that the economy was going to come back, that this was somehow an irrational and faith-based statement.
Goldberg: But what was Bush supposed to say?
Gregory: Right, I mean, it's different than the idea that faith leads him to do certain things. It was his way of saying that the economy was coming back, that’s all. There’s another issue, as well: geography. I think geography plays a role. I mean, just speaking for myself, growing up in Los Angeles, I came from a much more secular, culturally, ethnically Jewish background. I didn't know a lot of people who were wrestling with faith. And as I worked throughout the country in newsrooms, faith was just not a big topic—personal faith was not a big topic. And certainly once I got to the Northeast and into establishment-media circles, this was even more the case.
Goldberg: Can you follow the rules of Judaism and be in journalism? I mean, Judaism tells us very specifically, you can't talk about people in a bad way, right? I mean, lashon hara [malicious gossip, literally, “evil tongue”] is a basic precept.
Gregory: Yes, I think it's possible. I think one of the things Erica Brown taught me early on is that you really shouldn't separate your work life and your professional life in that way. The prohibition against gossip is really more about how you talk about your colleagues, how do you talk about other people. The notion of scrutinizing a politician or a public figure, this doesn’t always amount to gossip, or to speaking badly about them. It means that you are challenging them, which is our job.
Goldberg: But let me turn the dial one more time: In Judaism and other faiths, you're supposed to have a magnanimous view of people—to try to walk in their shoes; try to understand their travails; try not to sit in judgment; and be humble about your own alleged gifts and your own status in the world. So let's just say that there's a candidate for president who has a personal moral failing. What you do in journalism is you go right for the jugular. The goal is to expose and even eradicate, in a kind of way. The Jewish impulse, and the Christian impulse for that matter, is to first approach it humbly—why do you worry about the speck of dust in my eye but not the plank in yours? It’s a forgiving way.
Gregory: I don't think there's any reason in journalism not to approach stories we cover with humility, empathy, compassion, and intellectual openness. I mean, I think those are just important human traits. I don't think that precludes scrutiny, negativity, where it's appropriate. I do think you can still do hard accountability journalism and not get away from certain core spiritual or religious principles.
Goldberg: You recently experienced a bump in your career, and this bump was covered heavily in the media. Do you think you should have been covered with more empathy? Could it have been covered in a different way? Would you now cover someone in your position differently, based on what you learned about the role of gossip and backbiting and all the kind of things that happened in your drama?
Gregory: I just don't want to talk about me in that sense. I'm not going to scrutinize how I was covered. I went through a rough patch; I got scrutiny. I was at the top, you know, I had a big job in media and I'm just not going to start second-guessing how people criticized me or scrutinized me.
Goldberg: Let me ask you a related question, then. Based on what you know now about your faith and what it demands of you, what, if anything, would you have done differently in your journalism career?
Gregory: I think having the courage to stand on your own and say, “This is what I see,” as opposed to feeling very aware of what the conventional wisdom is in the political press, this is important. And not always trying to divine motive, I think is a good thing. You don’t have to make a judgment about everything. Just report it out. This was advice I got from Tom Brokaw, and it was good advice.
Goldberg: One of the things that comes through in the book, and in our own conversations, is that you would like to see American Judaism become more spiritualized. A critic—a Jewish critic—might frame this as, “It sounds like you want American Judaism to be more Christian”—more emphasis on God-talk, less emphasis on law and ritual. What's your diagnosis of the problem of the spirit in American Judaism, and how do you answer the critique that you're basically just trying to place this Christian overlay onto a religion that's actually based in law and not merely in love?
Gregory: For me, the question is, where is God? And my belief is that God is close. And I actually believe at the core of Judaism is God's love for us and the request of us as Jews to love God completely—with our heart, by following His commandments; with our head, by studying and wrestling with His commandments and His laws; and with our hands, by our deeds in the world. And the Jew, in our liturgy and in our sacred texts, seeks God's presence all the time. I mean, the relationship with God is so intimate that Psalm 27 says that, “Even if my mother and father were to abandon me, God would take me in.”
Goldberg: Do you believe in an interventionist God?
Gregory: I don't know. It's something I wrestle with; I don't have the answers, because there's a lot that makes that difficult. You know, perhaps God did intervene up to a certain point. I believe in free will. I certainly think that human beings make decisions for themselves, to do right or to do evil. And I think Moses talks about that: “I've set in front of you blessings and curses.” It's in our parsha [Torah portion] this week. You know, choose life, and what does it mean to choose life? There are lots of ways to do that, and there's ways to choose evil, and human beings have done that as well. Even if God has a plan for the world and for us and for our lives, it doesn't mean that we don't have responsibility and have direct impact on what happens for our lives, as well as the consequences.
What I do believe is that God is close in joy and in pain. As Rabbi David Wolpe said to me once, “God can't prevent bad things from happening, but He can make sure that you're not alone.” And so, you know, in Psalm 27, where the Psalmist writes about seeking God's face—wanting nothing more but to dwell close to God, and that God will take us in even if our parents will abandon us—to me, that's such a great representation of the fact that it's not a Christian overlay. Christianity is different theologically—the personification of God and the absorption of the Holy Spirit into our bodies—and I recognize that, as Jews, we don't believe that, but to me it comes down to, where is God? God is inspiration, somebody who is leading by example, who is inspiring us; who has expectations of us to be holy, to be our best; to love both God, but to love each other and to try and change the world.
Goldberg: So what's wrong with Jews?
Gregory: I don't think there's anything wrong with Jews.
Goldberg: You know what I mean. Here’s an example: [Christopher] Hitchens once told me that one of the reasons he admires Jews is that they're the most atheistic people he's met, which I took as an insult, but that was his shtick.
Gregory: Jews don't have to believe in God.
Goldberg: That’s a separate but related issue: It’s true, when a Jew tells another Jew he doesn’t believe in God, the answer is usually, “So? That’s fine. Whatever.” That’s because there are these cultural and national aspects of Jewishness. But Hitchens was saying is that, especially post-Holocaust, a lot of Jews finally gave up this ridiculous superstitious belief that there's a sky-god who's going to save us. I recognize the truth of his analysis. There are a lot of Jews who are uncomfortable even talking about the idea of God. I remember, I was at 6th and I [a downtown Washington synagogue] last year—a Rosh Hashanah service—and a young woman got up on the bimah and started talking about her relationship with God, and I was instantly sure that she was a convert to Judaism. Later I asked someone, and sure enough she was. I knew it because she was comfortable talking about her personal relationship with God.
So what is that? Why do Jews seem to have more trouble talking about this than, certainly Protestants, certainly Evangelical Protestants.
Gregory: Look, I don't believe it's a Christian overlay to ask the question, “Where is God?” and to seek closeness, and a relationship with God. I think that is such a fundamentally Jewish idea, and I pointed to Psalm 27 as the place where that is so powerful for me, but it's other places—it's all over the place. Psalm 121: “I look to the mountains—from where does my help come? It comes from the Lord, the Creator of heaven and Earth.” Jews are constantly seeking God's closeness and God's example. Now look, I grew up in a way that I think a lot of Jews grow up in America, which is cultural—
Goldberg: You even more so. I mean, you went to that, what is it called?
Gregory: The Synagogue for the Performing Arts. It was actually a very warm place. The point is, these ideas that we’re talking about, these were not things I was focused on because I was really not that educated, to be honest. So I think there are a lot of Jews like me, who grow up without a lot of understanding of what Judaism is, who don't understand the prayer book; who don't understand the service; who don't understand the deeper meaning. Again, I'm talking about myself; this is how I grew up. I think a lot of Jews are like that. So I think it's very easy to simply be Jewish. You know, my Dad talks about that. He was just Jewish, meaning that's just who you are. It's an ethnic thing. It’s what David Wolpe says—there's the family piece and a religious piece. That was the family piece—the cultural trappings of Judaism.
Goldberg: But that's dissipating in America now, don't you think?
Gregory: Well, yeah, but there's still a lot of areas around the country that are Jewish culturally—
Goldberg: I mean, use your family as an example. The ethnic-tribal component is not going to keep your family Jewish.
Gregory: No, but I'm trying to ensure that it does, both through family, through practice, and through my own fidelity to that. So, it's funny, when the ethnic and cultural piece remains strong with me, despite my background and despite my last name and my father changing his name, but for a lot of people it’s still the only part, because a lot of people didn’t grow up with any of the theology.
Goldberg: One of your core points is that many American Jews don't even know what's in Judaism.
Gregory: There are a lot of people who are Jewish—I happen to believe that what's true in my life is true for a lot of people—and who are experiencing a spiritual longing, and they may not know what that is. Maybe it was like it was for me. It was a sense of, “Who am I, what do I believe, how do I live a religious life of meaning? How do I bring meaning—true, deep meaning and purpose—into my life?” And people want to feel the presence of something—something that lifts their spirit. They want to experience transcendence. They would like to be able to sit back and observe a little bit and not always be on the go. So I think there is a spiritual longing, a desire for closeness to God, however people experience God or understand God. There is that spiritual longing. And yes, people then say, “Oh, I have this spiritual longing for more peace and more tranquility in my life, so maybe I'll try yoga. Maybe I'll try Buddhism.” But I would say, have you tried Judaism? Because there's so much there: daily meditation, study of the Torah, study of aspects of the Talmud—I mean, I haven't studied Talmud in great depth and some of it can be—
Goldberg: What did Erica once say? There are 39 books, so let's get going already?
Gregory: I just think that Jews like me, who grow up without a lot of knowledge of the tradition, can't access what's there so easily.
Goldberg: One of the distortions in American Jewish life today is over-reliance, or overemphasis, on support for Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust, as the twin pillars of identity, plus a lot of liberal politics framed as tikkun olam [repairing the world]. Are these things that keep people from understanding that they’re not really getting at the core of Judaism?
Gregory: I think a lot of Jews make Israel the centerpiece of their Judaism. It becomes the centerpiece of their Jewish existence and of their faith. I have always felt that that's not for me. Look, I believe that a focus on Israel’s existence, and on remembrance of the Holocaust, these are very important to me, and they go to this question of whether the Jewish people will survive. And as a person of deeper Jewish faith, I now think—even today differently than a year ago—more deeply about the responsibility here, about what am I doing to contribute to the survival of the Jewish people. Am I doing a good enough job myself? Am I doing a good enough job for my family, in teaching my children? Because that's very important to me. As a Jew I recognize the importance of Israel historically, liturgically, its place in our history and in our sacred texts. I fully recognize and appreciate that. I just think that, for me, a sole focus on Israel gets in the way of the pursuit of a relationship with God and a more spiritual existence within Judaism.
Goldberg: It always bothers me that the biggest non-ultra-Orthodox gathering of Jews in America is the AIPAC convention every year, which is just politics—that's all it is. It has nothing to do with Jewishness. This doesn't seem very healthy to me. It’s not AIPAC’s fault. AIPAC does what it does. But, imagine if you had 15,000 people in the Washington convention center, in a hundred different rooms of the convention center, each studying different texts, or each studying the Jewish laws governing gossip and self-help and humility and ritual. You know what I mean?
Gregory: I think our Jewish leaders, our rabbis and our community leaders, could put more of an emphasis on spiritual growth, and the idea that spiritual growth and transcendence can emerge from ritual practice. And can we grow in relationship with God? I'm a big believer in that. I try to do that. I think it's such a Jewish thing, to grow in relationship with God. And yet I would argue that most Jews, that would not sit well with them.
Goldberg: I want to come back to that, but why do you think the Jewish people should survive? For most of Jewish history, that was never really a question, but there are a lot of Jews, or people who have some Jewish heritage, who obviously don't care one way or the other, right? I mean, there are many people who are products of intermarriages, as you are, who have only the most vestigial connection to Jewishness. What do you say to them?
Gregory: You know, I think the Jewish people are the recipients of great gifts in the world, and have offered great gifts to the world. These gifts have had a profound impact on the development of Western civilization; have had a profound impact on the development of other faith traditions, like Christianity. I think the gift of monotheism of the Jews was a revolutionary concept and one that is kind of the backbone of Western civilization. You know, I think that we are, as Jews throughout history, just kind of fully alive in all of our humanness: flawed and good, but remarkable in our ability to survive. I mean, you and I have talked before about the other peoples of the Bible who have come and gone—who were oppressors and the like—and the Jews have survived. The Jews survived exile and destruction of their temple, to come back to create Israel, and despite facing extermination as a people, we've kept our spirit and kept our traditions alive unapologetically and have contributed, I think, great things to society: to arts, to science, to human understanding, to what my rabbi calls “the human project.”
Goldberg: Do you even need such elaborate reasoning?
Gregory: No, and I’m also trying not to make it more than it is, but I do think it's special. I think we are part of something. I remember Leon Wieseltier saying something to me, “This 4,000-year tradition dropped in my lap. Who am I to let it slip through?” I feel like that.
Goldberg: But in America—a place that doesn't necessarily value history and tradition—that's a hard sell. It’s counter-cultural.
Gregory: I guess. I don't know. I think there's a certain responsibility that I feel more deeply than I did even ten years ago. A certain responsibility to live Jewishly in a sense that redeems our history and helps the Jewish people survive.
Goldberg: Do you think that the state of American Jewry is healthy today? Sorry, I'm making you into a Jewish leader—
Gregory: I'm not a Jewish leader, and I don't want to be seen that way at all. I think we have room to grow and get healthier and to get more connected, to figure out how we deal with, say, people like me—products of interfaith marriage, intermarried to a Christian woman. I think we have to find a way to make our Judaism as relevant as we can be in America in the 21st century. I think we as a community have to be able to speak to younger people, to say that spiritual longing that we all feel at some point can really be met here, can be answered here. And I think that's not always the case in our synagogues or in our communities, that we're able to speak to people. I feel that we don't have to be monolithic as a Jewish community with regard to views on Israel, or politics, or even how politics get involved with social justice. To me, you know, the spiritual path within Judaism, which has an emphasis on not only forging a relationship with God—loving God with all your heart, and might, and soul, but also loving each other, serving each other, good deeds. I was asked recently about salvation, eternal salvation, which is not something that I think about every day, and of course Jews tend to think more about the here and now and good deeds today, to achieve salvation in our own time, especially in the middle of the high holidays that we think about what can we do right now to achieve repentance and to come home.
Goldberg: So where do you want to go with this?
Gregory: As a person?
Goldberg: I think it's fairly rare to find a Jewish person in secular public life—I'm not talking about famous rabbis—but in secular public life who talks openly about these issues. So where do you want to go with it?
Gregory: More than anything, I still am a journalist and I love that, and I'm curious, and I love journalism. I love asking questions. I love extending journalism into this area of my life, and my personal life, and my soul, and I would love to have an opportunity to talk to people who are faith leaders and people of deep faith more about these questions to get the conversation going, because I think a lot of people are interested in hearing the conversation and learning more.
Goldberg: In my experience, secular, successful people sometimes think that people only turn to religion for a crutch. You’re been interested in this spiritual exploration for years though. I know this interest of yours predates the volcanic Meet the Press experience—
Gregory: I mean, I think it's important to point out that I was on this journey and studying and trying to deepen my faith about seven or eight years ago, so this predated Meet the Press, and certainly predated any problems. You know, this question Erica asked me in the book, “Who would you be if you lost it all?"—is not something that I pondered until I lost it all.
Goldberg: You feel like you've actually lost it all?
Gregory: Well, no. I mean, in the sense that Erica asked it: if you lost your title, your platform, your position. I’ve never felt like I lost everything, not at all. But I think what I struggled with a lot was this question of, “Who am I?” And everything that came with having this lofty job and being on television and all that came with that—I think losing that was harder on me than I realized it was going to be. Even in the beginning, I think I went through a more difficult passage, questions of, do I have standing anymore? If I don't do this, do I have friendships anymore? So yes, I mean part of that fall was also a personal difficulty with my own identity.
Goldberg: So it wasn't these troubles that brought you to faith; it was faith that provided a cushion during your troubles.
Gregory: Yes, and not always completely. You know, my faith didn't always hold me in the ways that I hoped it would. But it did steady me, and I think the thing about my faith, as it grows and it deepens, is that I think I realized that you fall, you get back up, you're going to fall again. To me, faith has not been a crutch because I lost my job, but faith has helped me to accept humility as something that's really good for me. Humility is to understand that I'm an underdog against my own weaknesses and that there are a lot of weaknesses.
Goldberg: I know this from the book and I know this from you, that it’s been a bit bumpy trying to integrate Beth—even though she is more than willing to be integrated—into a Jewish home life. She’s happy to have Shabbat for instance, and seders, but she’s experienced barriers to easy entry in your old synagogue, for instance, and I'm wondering, a) What were those barriers—was that just the tribal-ethnic nature of the thing that we have going on?; and b) What would be your diagnosis or your recommendation to a Jewish community that launched a war against intermarriage and has already lost that war?
Gregory: I think as a community we do have to accept reality. I mean, the numbers bear this out. I think it's more than 50 percent since 2000 who are marrying outside the faith. So, it's just a fact. Judaism and the Jewish community have got to seek to be relevant, and I think, in our current synagogue, we try to be really welcoming and appreciative of the sacrifice that non-Jewish spouses are making.
Goldberg: Often giving up their own traditions—
Gregory: —Their own traditions, and I have to say that part of this journey that I talk about in the book is that I don't think I fully appreciated how much Beth was giving up and the sacrifice that she made. I think that I was selfish about it. I think I just didn't think about it, because I wasn't kind of a deeply faithful enough person yet to understand what that is, what that means to give up what she gave up. And so I think that's a starting point. You know, one of the things that Rabbi [Daniel] Zemel at Temple Micah does on Yom Kippur is say, is really express that gratitude for the sacrifice, and he makes this point that it wasn't that long ago that a Jew was someone to be avoided, to be shunned, and for non-Jews to marry a Jew and say, “Yes, I will accept this tradition—”
Goldberg: “Not only will I marry you, I'll even join your tradition.”
Gregory: Right. And Beth didn't want to convert because her own religious background and traditions are too important to her, which I respect, but I think we have to find easier ways in. I think there is a closed, exclusive aspect that, like you said, is more ethnic and tribal. I guess you could say that we’re still looking over our shoulders and protecting ourselves, and so we don't let others in very easily, because there's a sense of, “Why would you want to join this?” We're kind of under fire here. I mean, Hebrew is the language of revelation. It's very difficult for non-Jews; it's difficult for Jews. But that can make a service very difficult. And as Beth has always pointed out, Jews don't proselytize, and they're not actively seeking people to join.
Goldberg: And that strikes her as strange, or counter-productive?
Gregory: Well, certainly strange, because in her upbringing in her New England Methodist church, you were always greeted by a greeter. You know, “Hello! Welcome, so glad to have you here, I'm so-and-so. What's your name?” And so yes, we had an experience at another synagogue in town where Beth was dropping off food for a food drive, and someone very brusquely said, “Yeah just put it over there.” You know, no welcome, no, “Hello! Thank you for dropping that off, that's great.” And there was, generally speaking, there wasn't as much warmth and engagement with her as I think we find at our current synagogue. So I think those are barriers. Look, there's a lot that goes into understanding the significance of a Jewish service. Much of it in Hebrew; what is the flow about? And one of the reasons I love Passover so much is that the redemption story is about how we treat other people, so if we're thinking about Syrian refugees today, we're reminded about what it is to be Jewish, which is to treat the stranger as yourself because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. You know, those are universal principles of humanity and kindness that Beth and I, I think, have successfully fused together—her Christian tradition and my Jewish tradition—and found a very happy medium. But in the other aspects of Jewish solidarity and Jewish peoplehood, it's easy to feel left out.
Goldberg: So just to hone in, your diagnosis of the American Jewish community is that, if it's going to survive, it has to be very consciously open, and actively open to people who are seeking the spirit of Judaism and not just the tribal affiliation?
Gregory: Can I just phrase it differently? Because I'm uncomfortable with the idea of offering diagnosis. I don't feel like I have any standing to do that. That's not false modesty—
Goldberg: I get it, you’re not a rabbi.
Gregory: It's not just that I'm not a rabbi. I don't think of myself as a faith leader of any stripe. As someone who cares about this and who is a seeker, and as someone who is married to a Christian woman, I believe in openness within the Jewish community, and I think that the Jewish community will become even healthier the more we study, the more we seek God on a spiritual path within our faith. I think that can only really deepen us, draw more people—younger Jews—into a life of Jewish meaning. I guess what I'm hoping to have for myself is a life of Jewish meaning, but that can sound kind of vague. I want to live as a Jew with meaning, and I think that everybody seeks that.
Goldberg: By the way, that comes back—I can loop this together in the thing—but that comes back to my point about the ethos of American journalism running counter to that basic religious concept, not just a Jewish concept. That, “be compassionate, because everyone”—we don't really do compassion when people are in trouble. When powerful people are in trouble, certainly.
Gregory: Right, I mean I think that's right, and I don't know if the job of the journalist is necessarily to bring compassion in this sense. If your job is some accountability, or if you are covering someone's point of view politically or the policy decisions they're making, I think the job of the journalist is to challenge, to scrutinize, to hold them accountable, to think about the broader context, and it is to report this person's view in that full context. It doesn't mean that you can't bring openness to wrestling with things—“Well, let me think about where this person is coming from.” You know, maybe it's overtaken by cynicism or skepticism in journalism, and in a lot of cases that's warranted. It doesn't mean that it has to be brought to every situation all the time. But I want to bring this other point, because the other part of this: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live by loving the Lord your God, heeding his commands, and holding fast to him, for thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Isaac and Jacob, to give you to them.” The idea—
Goldberg: It's all there—that's it.
Gregory: Well what I'm saying is, it's not just about following the law. It's about loving God, letting God love you, and holding fast to God—staying close. So this is what I'm saying. This is the core of our sacred text, that prescribes that we listen to God through the text, that we love God, that we love each other, and that we hold fast to Him so that we seek to grow in spirit and in relationship with God. And so I challenge Jews who say, “Oh, that sounds like Christianity to me,” because it comes from right here.
Goldberg: Well, like a lot of things that we think are Christian may actually come from the mother religion of Christianity.
Gregory: Right, but so I think there's medieval scholars who did this. I mean, Leon Wieseltier, early on, gave me a book that I struggle to understand, which is Bahya, The Duties of the Heart. I mean, it's one of the things that I love about Judaism is its emphasis on the duties of the heart: compassion, love. And that to me is Judaism. And by the way, it's not just Judaism, which is why even though I feel very centered in Jewish faith and would like that center to go deeper, I really am inspired by and like to reach out to other faith-traditions for inspiration as well, because I just feel interested in and fortified and inspired by those things.
Goldberg: There's something very American about this book, which is that it’s taking Jewish ideas and your Jewish story to non-Jews and saying you can learn from this, but also you're saying, “I'm learning from other traditions and bringing them back in.”
Gregory: I had a rabbi suggest to me recently, “It's important to be rooted somewhere, and then if you want to reach out to other traditions because they inspire you or they touch you, then that's great. But do you know where you're centered?”
Goldberg: Well that's very important, because that's a beef I have with interfaith work. Most Jews aren't qualified to do interfaith dialogue because they don't have enough faith in and knowledge of their own faith, you know what I mean? It's not that I'm opposed philosophically to people exchanging ideas about their different traditions. It's just that I don't think—and it might be true for the other side, although I don't know—but I don't think they know enough to be interfaith.
Gregory: I agree, and I put myself in that category. I'm still learning Judaism. But I do believe—as this rabbi said to me—wherever you're centered, you can work from that center and reach out. And he said, “If you'd like to talk about having a different center, you can convert, you can do that. That's okay, we can have that conversation. But if you are centered in Judaism, here are some things you should know and seek to practice, and then you can reach out to other things.”
And I do that in terms of daily prayer from the siddur [prayer book] and some of the morning blessings, and try to root myself in Jewish prayer in the morning even as I then turn to Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner, who is a Christian and an author and a theologian. So I like that. So I guess I believe in being centered, but I also am really moved by other traditions. And, you know, this is where Beth has also influenced me and inspired me, so that I not only understand her Christian background, but respect it, and seek to make some of these universal truths a part of our life together with our family, because it's not always easy when you have a non-Jewish spouse and you're trying to be a Jewish family. There's compromise and sacrifice that's involved in that. But I have to say, it’s really worth trying.