If you ever wondered why The New York Times is considered home to the best newspaper writing in the country, consider the following introduction from Dana Jennings’ essay “Religion Is Less a Birthright Than a Good Fit,” from last Sunday:
I WAS raised a Protestant in a Rockwellian New Hampshire village that was the proud home to stout, wood-frame churches and Saturday night ham-and-bean suppers.
There were four of us kids, and these days my sister and my middle brother are born-again Christians, and my youngest brother is a Catholic. Me? I’m the Jew.
So begins the story of an editor at the Times who married a Jewish woman in 1981 but didn’t convert until 23 years later. His story is timely, given the recent Pew Forum study that revealed that more than a quarter of adult Americans have left their childhood faith. But it also reinforces our key message about conversion and intermarriage: convert for yourself, not for your partner.
Dana married a Jewish woman, but didn’t adopt her faith. Dana and his wife raised their children Jewish, but he didn’t adopt their faith. Only as he reached his late 40s and “inexplicably became ravenous for wisdom and learning,” did he begin reading books on theology. “I ached for the oxygen of understanding,” he says, and he found his supply in the sacred texts of Judaism.
As far as we know, his decision had little to do with his wife or an encouraging–or pushy–rabbi. It came from his own mid-life existential crisis. When those in the Jewish community push conversion on non-Jewish spouses (or spouses-to-be), they are denying these would-be-Jews the rich experience of questioning and doubt that is at the heart of the Jewish approach to theology and law. If Dana had converted out of a sense of obligation before his marriage, would he have been “moved by a tradition in which we are still in dialogue with our greatest teachers”? Maybe. But I imagine his slow path to conversion allowed him to appreciate more fully the depth of the Jewish tradition. That makes him a better Jew–and a better person.