Way back when I was a normal yeshiva boy playing rabbi, I thought I was right about gay men not really being gay and that they should stop this nonsense and get right with Torah and find a nice Jewish girl. Until one day, when I was invited to speak about “Homosexuality and Jewish Law” at Drexel University in Philadelphia, not realizing that most of the audience was gay. When I was done and had answered all sorts of questions with all sorts of quotes from ancient and early medieval Hebraic and Aramaic source texts, a young man approached me and asked if he could speak with me alone. Of course, I said. So he spoke. And he wept. And he shared. And then I got it. And I held him. I lay in my motel room that night regretting my entire talk and all the pat answers I’d cast about from the sacred texts like confetti. When I got home I reread the texts. And while the words hadn’t changed, their meaning had. Their context had. I had.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
When Judaism and Jewish identity are central to your life, doubting the existence of God can present a significant challenge. That is where I found myself midway through rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College. I knew there were many ways around my doubts: I had learned and even taught about the variety of Jewish beliefs in God, some of which rejected the supernatural. But like most of my colleagues, I believed that no authentic Jewish religious engagement could ignore God.
With that certainty I began my career in the rabbinate. Yet the more I recited the Shema or prayed the Amidah or asked God to heal the sick, the more I felt like a fraud. But how could I even contemplate any other way of working as a rabbi? How could there be any authentic Jewish religious experiences without God? Ultimately, I discovered Humanistic Judaism, where new colleagues taught me that it was far more problematic to serve as a rabbi who rejected the very prayers I was reciting than to show some integrity by saying what I meant and meaning what I said. With that very human “revelation,” I changed my mind, my relationship with Judaism and my career path all at once.
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI
Like much of the progressive Jewish world, I’ve changed my mind about numerous areas of Judaism involving inclusivity. Some readers may not remember the battles over whether women could be credible rabbis, whether queer people could be out and proud in Jewish settings, whether intermarried couples could take an aliyah—oh, wait! That’s still not a thing in many synagogues.
I come from a fairly traditional background, and at each step throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, I battled the pull of tradition inside me while watching the arguments play out in the Jewish community. One Simchat Torah, I debated where to attend services—the “authentic” Orthodox synagogue with dancing outside on the street, or the liberal havurah I had recently joined. I went to the Orthodox shul, and while I was dancing in the women’s circle, a man approached from the men’s circle and handed me a Torah scroll to dance with. My first time holding a Torah! A minute later, the rabbi came over to pull the Torah away.
I knew in an instant that my place was no longer at that shul. The experience of exclusion is so raw and powerful, and it has been wielded against so many Jews and potential allies. For too long we have valued traditional halacha over the lived experiences of human beings. I’m proud that the Reconstructionist congregation I serve is fully inclusive of all Jews and non-Jews in our prayer practices.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
“I have evolved since then,” Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would explain after critiquing students’ work, receiving their revisions and then returning to quibble further. In that spirit, let’s all constantly examine our assumptions and approaches. One example where Jews may still disagree: In the 1990s, when I was ordained, intermarriages were not condoned in mainstream Jewish opinion. Many good folks were turned away, even turned off entirely. I have selectively performed intermarriages (and same-gender unions) all along, but my criteria were once far stricter. Sensitive to controversy in the broader community, and concerned about couples kicking conflicts down the road, I required promises that Judaism be their household’s primary religious flavor and exclusive religious education for any kids they’d raise. Many young beloveds, understandably, weren’t ready to proclaim those particular vows.
After issuing one especially heartbreaking “no,” I realized that this served nobody. I expected couples to check my boxes, when their frames of reference were key. Better to meet others where they are. Today I simply ask, “Will these two, the Jewish people and the world be better served with a ‘yes’?” I’ve evolved. In different ways, so may we all.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Images of the middle school lunchroom flash before my eyes as I read this question. Where should I sit? With which group? Surely this decision will impact my social standing and future in this school, and perhaps the rest of my life!
As an adult I have changed enough to see both the hyperbole and the truthfulness of this feeling. Making new friends and building relationships at any age can be hard or even fraught. How do I know if I’ve found the “right” people, or “my” people? How often have we used a first impression of someone to color our understanding of who they might be? Perhaps that first impression is very positive and we pursue connection and build a relationship, only to discover later that they bring only toxicity and anxiety into our lives. Or perhaps we initially find a person objectionable, but after getting to know them better we develop an appreciation for who they are and the blessings they bring into our lives.
I remember my mother advising me about an unhealthy teenage friendship that was leading me to make some reckless choices. At that stage of my life—and even today—those are important decisions. I’m still grateful she helped me change course and right that wrong.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
Unwillingness to change shows rigidity and arrogance and is diametrically opposed to core teachings of the Torah.
I have changed my mind on various occasions as a result of time passing, new information coming to light, and/or a shift in perspective and reality. One example: While my deep love for our people’s homeland is unwavering, when I was younger I believed that Israel’s victory in 1967 gave it the automatic and unquestionable right to the captured territories. Over time, I’ve come to understand that the Six Day War created profound challenges, including the complicated realities of a decades-long occupation in which neither simply withdrawing nor complete control is feasible.
Another example: Earlier in my career, I believed our priority should be outreach; if only synagogues could design creative enough programming and ease access, our numbers would skyrocket.
Now, having been a pulpit rabbi for nearly two decades, I’ve come to see that only individuals themselves can commit to engagement; synagogues need to emphasize offering meaningful and serious worship experiences, programs and classes to those who already have a connection but may hesitate to participate. My ideas evolved because I have seen firsthand that despite our best efforts, the unaffiliated are not coming to synagogue.
My goal is to remain intellectually rigorous and honest. If God can relent from his anger at the Israelites and thus change his mind, then surely, as I learn more, I hope to do no less.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Up to the age of 28, I was on the path to assimilation in America. I call this my Irving (Greenberg) period.
I was born into an Orthodox immigrant family in Brooklyn, raised to observe all the commandments. Nevertheless, my parents’ great dream was that I would become a success in America. I aspired to be an American academic historian, although, unlike many of my generational peers, I stayed Orthodox. As a PhD student in history at Harvard, I wrote a thesis with no Jewish angle, and in 1961 won a Fulbright lectureship to teach American intellectual hisry at Tel Aviv University. My wife and I moved to Jerusalem with our newly born first child.
There, unexpectedly, I stumbled into the Holocaust, and the subject took over my life. Twice a week I traveled to Tel Aviv to teach. The rest of the time I spent at Yad Vashem reading feverishly, immersed and drowning in accounts of the Shoah. The experience was shattering. I could not reconcile the mass murder, the torture and humiliation of the Jews, with the loving God and moral world order that I had been taught. I could not abide God’s failure to intervene and was revolted by the explanation given by most traditional Orthodox rabbis that the Holocaust was punishment for our sins. On many days, mental images of gas chambers and bodies burning in crematoria blocked my prayers. I was saved from madness by my wife and our growing child, who every day pulled me back into life, and by the daily walk from the depths of Yad Vashem to the bustling renaissance on the streets of Jerusalem.
In the end, when Tel Aviv offered me a job teaching American history, I turned them down, explaining that I had changed my mind. I no longer wanted to be an American academic. I wanted to work for Jewry. I wanted to heal the broken Jewish people. I wanted to teach how the Holocaust and Israel were turning points in Jewish and world history. Religion, ethics and culture had to be transformed to reflect the lessons of the greatest tragedy and greatest redemption of Jewish history.
It took me another decade to figure out a job and a career path that would enable me to be a full-time servant of the Jewish people and Jewish religion.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
I’ve changed my mind on important principles more times than I can remember. Some aspects of the way I live make it easier to change course. One, I am a hopeless addict to deep Talmud study. When you are immersed in Talmudic reasoning, you’re asked to understand four to five competing positions at the same time, and a sixth can unseat all of them. Every day, you see how fragile and changeable and multifaceted your conception of truth is. I have sought the company of people much smarter than me, which is good for humility. And from teaching I’ve learned the truth of the rabbinic maxim that you learn much from your teachers but even more from your students.
Examples? I grew up in racist New York, at the height of conflict between Jewish and Black communities, and told racially insensitive jokes like everybody else. I did a total about-face on that after being chastised by a Haredi rabbi who spat out how small-minded I sounded. I was also for many years a sort of high-profile apologist for the Haredi community, until I realized the truth of a profound maxim I heard Dennis Prager say: “I don’t care what community you belong to as long as you’re ashamed of it.” I’m still an enthusiastic booster most of the time, but stop short at defending what I think is indefensible. Finally, I was educated with something between non-Zionism and anti-Zionism. It took decades of studying and interacting with modern Jewish history before I became clear in both my heart and mind that the establishment of a Jewish state, though far from our messianic dream, was a breathtaking accomplishment that some of us in the Orthodox world had not fully appreciated.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA /Jerusalem
I have changed my mind many times, and I am glad I did. Unwillingness to change shows rigidity and arrogance and is diametrically opposed to core teachings of the Torah. God changes His mind to teach us that lesson (see Genesis 8:21, Exodus 32:14 and Jonah 3:10). We are commanded to emulate God and therefore must learn to yield and regret.
Change is the foundation of the call for teshuvah. To change we have to sometimes forgive ourselves, understanding that we did something wrong but that, in most cases, it is not the end of the world. Instead of denying responsibility or burying ourselves in our mistakes, we acknowledge our errors, correct them and move forward. Over the years I have changed my understanding of the LGBTQ community, the exclusion of women, organ donation, the interaction of halacha and modern life, the balance between learning Torah and working, and many more subjects. Some changes were epiphanies, revolutionary for me and controversial in others’ eyes. Most, though, were a result of reflection on my values and beliefs, examination of the current situation and recalibration of my behavior and attitude.
We cannot remain passive in a dynamic world. In the words of Israeli singer Meir Ariel: “The wagon keeps moving, it doesn’t stop. Jump off it today, two years go by. And look, you’ve been left behind.”
Rabbi Haim Ovadia