This Shabbat, the Shabbat before the onset of Passover, is commonly referred to as “Shabbat Ha-Gadol.” Shabbat Ha-Gadol means “The Great or Big Sabbath,” and it is given this name because on this Shabbat we announce the impending arrival of the paradigmatic Jewish holiday. If I may, I’d like to suggest a third, new possible way to understand “Shabbat Ha-Gadol:” I want this to be a Sabbath of big ideas. I want to share with you this morning a Big Idea – which, I think, is actually not so big, or at least not so new – but, nevertheless, one that I want us to consider during this time leading up to Passover, and during the holiday, and after. I want to present the idea today, in the hopes of inviting a meaningful conversation about it with you in the days and weeks to come. So here is my Big Idea: Born Again Judaism.
You’ve all, I’m sure, heard of “Born Again Christians,” folks who, at some point in their life, fervently and wholeheartedly recommit themselves to Christian faith and practice. They call it being “born again” because it is meant to be a total spiritual transformation of one’s life.
In a similar way, I propose that each of us become “Born Again Jews.” I propose that each of us, though perhaps born a Jew by chance, remake ourselves as a Jew by choice, a Jew of our conscious making who is dedicated to a full, embodied, and thoughtful Jewish life.
First, a little history. Many of us might bristle at the notion of being Born Again. There is a good theological reason for this: The concept was first outlined by the 18th Century Anglican minister John Wesley in his sermon, “A New Birth.” Wesley argued that a person “comes into the world spiritually dead,” filled only with selfish drives and animalistic appetites. The only way to overcome the imperfection of our physical birth is to have a spiritual re-birth, which involves not only the ritual of baptism, but also the transformation of one’s orientation to life. Wesley preached that one must transform his love of the world “into a love of God, pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind.” Jews disagree, and rightly so, with the premise of this argument: we do not believe that human beings are born sinful, and therefore, we ought not need to undergo a spiritual rebirth to escape the wickedness of our physical birth. The Jewish tradition teaches that there is nothing inherently wrong with our nature, so we do not need radical transformations.
And yet the concept of being Born Again is actually deeply Jewish. According to the Talmud, when a non-Jew converts to Judaism, from the moment he or she emerges from the mikveh, he or she is considered to be born again. “Ger she-nit’gayer k’katan sh’nolad damei / A non-Jew who converts is like a newborn baby.” In other words, a person who is not biologically Jewish is, by virtue of the conversion, adopted into the family of the Jewish people, and is considered one of our children. That is why, for example, a convert is called up to the Torah as Ploni ben Avraham Avinu V’Sarah Imeinu, So-and-So, the son of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother. The conversion has made him or her, at least from a legal point of view, a new person, with a new set of parents, and a new family.
By the way, this is not simply theoretical. A woman named Catherine, who recently converted, wrote:
“After the mikveh, I felt newborn and vulnerable. In some sense, I was this new entity, but I was an adult. This wasn’t just another transition, like graduating from college – my soul and my life were transforming. The range of my emotions mirrored the depth and breadth of this experience for me…I felt protective, a little defensive, and a lot scared. I also felt centered, on course, at peace.”
Conversion to Judaism is such a serious business for precisely this reason – and it is one reason why many in the Orthodox world are reluctant to accept converts – because conversion is supposed to be more than just the adoption of a new set of beliefs and practices, it is meant to be a radical transformation of one’s very essence, a new birth, in which one emerges a totally new person, with a new heart, and a new spirit.
It is, of course, different from the Christian conception of rebirth because there is nothing wrong, Jewishly, with being a non-Jew, and there is no fundamental spiritual imperfection that can only be rectified through conversion. But it is similar in the sense that one is (at least theoretically) committing, at conversion, to alter the very essence of their being.
In working with converts, I began wishing that Judaism asked Jews by Birth to undergo conversion in their adult years precisely for this reason. There is something in the process of conversion that inspires converts to feel transformed and reborn into the Jewish people. As such, Jews-by-Choice are frequently the most committed and engaged Jews. That’s why I want each of us to seriously consider this: we Jews by Birth converting to Judaism, becoming Jews by Choice. Becoming Born Again Jews.
So is there anything in the Jewish tradition that suggests all Jews, even those born Jewish, ought to be Born Again?
According to the 20th century Hassidic luminary Rabbi Sholom Noach Berzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, the Exodus from Egypt constituted a mass conversion of the Jewish people. The Exodus is when the Jewish people became the Jewish people. God says in Exodus chapter 6, “v’lakahti et’khem li l’am v’hayiti lakhem l’Elohim, I will take you [out of Egypt], and you will be my people, and I will be your God.” In other words, before the Exodus, the Israelites were not yet God’s Chosen People and God was not yet Israel’s God. Of course, God already had a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the relationship of God and the Jewish people – as a people – and the special mission of the Jewish people to bring godliness, righteousness, and justice into the world, only begins when the Israelites join together and march out of Egypt into the great and unknown wilderness toward the Promised Land. Therefore, says the Slonimer Rebbe, “v’hayta az b’hinat geirut l’khol k’lal Yisrael,” the Exodus was a kind of conversion for the whole people of Israel.
Now, recall that at the Seder, we recite the phrase, “B’khol dor va-dor hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yotzei mi-mitzrayim / In each and every generation, a person must see him or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt.” Each of us is personally obligated, in our lives, to relive the Exodus, to encounter it anew. In other words, if the Exodus is a New Birth, each of us must also be Born Again in order to fully experience it. The Slonimer reminds us that despite the fact that we may have been born Jewish, “yesh b’hinat geirut she-n’hiyeh yehudi b’etzem,” we also must be Born Again so that we may be more fundamentally, on every level, essentially – Jewish. The New Jewish Birth, which occurred on that first Passover, was not a one-time event, and was not only national in character. In every generation we all must individually experience it.
Each of us, when we commemorate the Exodus, is invited to be Born Again as our ancestors were. As the New Jewish Birth of the Exodus was about consciously and wholeheartedly choosing to follow God, so too will our New Birth involve committing to be in relationship with the Holy One. As being Born Again was the precondition for the Israelites to receive the Torah, so too will our being Born Again enable us to take Torah more fully into our lives. As the generation of the Exodus was reborn into the mission of bringing goodness, righteousness, and justice into the world, so too will our new birth be about recommitting ourselves to those holy tasks.
At the same time, it is import to acknowledge that the New Birth of the Exodus was not only the initiation of something new, but also the casting off of the old. Our ancestors were born slaves to Pharaoh, but at the Exodus, they re-birthed themselves as servants of God. They could only do this if they left Pharaoh behind. In addition to initiating a new relationship with God, the Exodus was about casting aside the old relationship with Pharaoh.
A brief aside to remind us that no metaphor is perfect: The Exodus is similar to a traditional Jewish conversion in the sense that, just as the Exodus could not have happened if the Israelites did not first leave behind Pharaoh and Egypt, one cannot convert to Judaism without first leaving behind his or her old faith tradition. It is unique, though, in a very important way: as mentioned above, converts do not leave behind something bad in order to adopt something good; they simply leave behind an old faith tradition in order to take on a different one. In the Exodus, though, the Jews had to leave behind the bad: Pharaoh, slavery, and the narrowness of Egypt.
Born Again Judaism, modeled as it is more on the Exodus than on traditional conversion, involves not only leaving behind our old approach to Jewish commitment, but also leaving behind our negativity. This is not, as in Christianity, a cure for original sin; nor is it a cure for any sin, for that matter. It is an opportunity to commit to leaving behind our damaging behaviors and overpowering our bad habits. In order to be free, and in order to become God’s people, the Israelites had to let go of Pharaoh; they had to cast off all that enslaved, bound, and held back. And for us, the Exodus symbolizes the fact that we are, all of us, held captive by some Pharaoh, trapped in some Egypt. We all have something that, despite our best efforts, we feel we cannot break free from.
By birthing ourselves anew, according to the Slonimer, “yakhol yehudi l’higa’el mi-kol matzav sh’hu nimtza, v’afilu b’heyoto m’shuka b’mem-tet sha’arei tum’ah / a Jew can redeem himself from all negativity. And even if he has sunken to a level of most profound impurity, a Jewish rebirth can help lift him out.”
There is much we might spiritually gain by becoming Born Again Jews, for us – especially those of us who were born Jews – to re-convert to Judaism.
So how do we do it? How does a Jew become born again? Since it is, essentially, a conversion to Judaism for Jews, I think we ought to approach the process the same way a Jew by Choice does. So ask yourself:
“Am I prepared to believe in and serve the God of Israel, to the exclusion of all other powers that I serve?”
“Am I prepared to leave behind non-Jewish practices and/or casual non-observance of Judaism?”
“Am I prepared, to the best of my ability, to accept the responsibility for fulfilling the Torah’s commandments?”
“Am I prepared, to the best of my ability, to participate in the Jewish mission to repair the world, to help those who are disadvantaged, to bestow compassion, and to pursue justice?”
And, as with a potential convert, if the answer to all the above is “yes,” then without hesitation we ought to bring ourselves to a mikveh, immerse, and emerge a newly born Jew.
As we approach Passover, then, I invite each of us to think about the possibility of a New Jewish Birth. As we clean, meditate on cleaning our souls. As we prepare for the Seder, reflect on establishing the order of a new Jewish life. As we tell of the Exodus, consider what freedom being a Born Again Jew might afford you. As we lift up the matzah and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” testify to the commitment being a Born Again Jew will inspire within you to fully ensure that all who are hungry are able to eat.
I’ll be taking a trip to the mikveh on Friday in the hopes of being Born Again this Passover. Are you coming with me?