Rabbi I Have a Problem

Can a person ever really change?

An Orthodox, and a Reform, tackle issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question: Rosh Hoshanah offers us the hope of teshuvah and a new beginning. But from your experience, do people ever really change?

Rabbi Brawer:  I don’t know to what extent it is possible to change one’s very nature. But it is certainly possible to change one’s behaviour. 

Much has been written about the benefits of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and how it empowers one to, quite literally, rewire the brain and change negative behaviour patterns. CBT, as its name implies, is focused, not on the underlying cause of the undesired behaviour, but rather on practical strategies to amend or eradicate its expression. 
The distinction between nature and behaviour is crucial to understanding the meaning and scope of teshuvah.

In the classical Chasidic work, the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), introduces his model of the ideal individual, called beinuni, meaning the “inbetweener”. What is striking about the beinuni, is that while to all outward appearances his behaviour is impeccable, beneath the surface he struggles mightily to overcome his baser instincts. He is the inbetweener because he is neither wicked nor righteous (in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s religious taxonomy, righteous — tzaddik — is reserved for an individual impervious to ordinary human temptations). 

The beinuni, controls his thought, speech and action so that they conform to the highest religious and ethical standards, while at the same time he has no control over his inner nature. So, for example, he might possess a ferocious temper, which through years of dedicated struggle he is able to hold in check, yet the inner struggle may never diminish. 

The beinuni is a religious and ethical role model because he represents all that a human is capable of. Rabbi Shneur Zalman denies that it is possible, or even desirable, to change one’s nature. The best a human can hope for is, through disciplined behaviour, to map on a “second nature” of good habits.

Teshuvah does not ask of one to alter their inner state. It asks only that one’s behaviours conform to acceptable standards. While this can require much effort, it is not beyond the range of the possible.

One can be too ambitious when setting out a plan to change. Rather than focusing on changing all one’s negative behaviours at once, it is wiser to focus on one or two areas that require attention in the year ahead. The consistent repetition of this process each Yom Kippur, along with disciplined follow-up in the ensuing weeks and months, will bear cumulative fruit. 

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain:  You have hit the nail on the head. The whole point of Rosh Hashannah is that we emerge different in some form. Realistically, very few of us are going to change character, but we can alter how we behave in little ways that can still have an impact.

This might be smiling at colleagues when we go to work (and family before leaving home), or giving way to another car at a crossroads. Both take seconds, but can make us feel better and others happier.

It might involve a religious change, varying from taking on an extra ritual (havdalah, building a succah, attending a study session) to determining to read a Jewish book every other month.

This is not wishful thinking but based on two examples. One was myself. I had been thinking for some time how awful it was seeing congregants lingering on in pain when their end was inevitable and they did not wish to continue living anymore.

During a silent section of the Yom Kippur service I was leading, I suddenly thought: “I am about to give a sermon to everyone else about forging new paths; I ought to follow my own advice”. 

The next day I contacted Dignity in Dying (which campaigns for assisted death to be legal for the terminally ill who wish it), joined as a member and am now vice-chair.

The other example is that I was walking down Maidenhead High Street when I saw a member of the shul and my jaw dropped. He was around 35 years old and had had thick black hair when I had seen him three weeks ago at the High Holy Days. Now he was completely grey. 

He had black hair when I had seen him before. Now he was completely grey

I do not normally comment on personal appearances, but the difference was so dramatic that I did so. “I can’t help noticing your hair colour has changed very rapidly,” I said, as tactfully as I could. “Is that a family trait?” 

“No,” he replied, “it was your sermon, rabbi. You spoke about the pretences we build up and hide behind, and that instead we should be honest about ourselves and about our relationships with others. 

“I went grey when I was in my 20s and was so ashamed that I’ve been dyeing it ever since. But after your words, I decided to accept who I am and what I look like. I now feel much more comfortable with myself.”

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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