What makes people change?

What is it that makes people change? People do change, after all. Change is a foundational principle of our religion. We call it teshuvah: turning, repenting. Although we Jews hold fast to few dogmas, we know that people can make mistakes and correct them. We know that people can be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Without this belief, our religion would be meaningless and our lives devoid of hope.

So what is it that makes people change? In this week’s parasha, Emor, God gives the Israelites a framework for repentance. They will have rest-days and festivals. They will come together on Yom Kippur and present an offering of food in the Temple. But repentance can’t be limited to only one day a year. Week after week, the Israelites must bring offerings of bread and oil to burn on the altar.

Today, it is hard to imagine how these rituals might have brought about meaningful change. We are too far removed from a Temple-centred agrarian society to imagine the spiritual significance of priests sacrificing grain on an altar. But, to those who practised it, this must have been a meaningful experience. They set aside time for worship and brought their only source of income – the harvest and livestock on which they depended for a living – then watched their offerings publicly go up in flames. Perhaps this itself was enough to make people reconsider their lives and commit to acting differently.

In the parallel haftarah, Nehemiah, the Jews throw dust on their heads, separate themselves off and wear sackcloth. They fast and cry. This was how they repented after the return from the Great Exile, when the First Temple had been destroyed. It is a spiritual world that seems so strange and yet so familiar, and we feel a sense of how that ancient cult of Temple priests evolved into the religion we practise today.

Today, we offer up prayers; we take time to reflect in silence or recite ancient meditations. To the Temple cultists, our approaches to changing ourselves might look as bizarre as their rituals appear to us. That’s because they can’t see what’s going on behind our penitentiary words: that, with them, we are examining ourselves and finding ways to be better people. These songs and silences prompt us to repair relations with people we’ve wronged, and adjust our views and actions. At least, we hope they do.

We believe that people change, but it’s hard to put that faith into practice. I have watched with some concern as news has unfolded around political scandals over the last week, both of Amber Rudd stepping down as Home Secretary for her racist policies and the beginnings of expulsions of Labour Party members accused of antisemitism. There can be absolutely no doubt that there is no place for antisemitism, anti-Black discrimination or xenophobic feeling in our public sphere. Everybody who has drawn attention to it has done the right thing. Their campaigns have been wholly legitimate.

But what comes out of them leaving their ministerial posts or their political parties? Have their views changed? Have the political forces that engendered racism been challenged? Or have we got rid of certain people from the public eye so that we can pretend that issues of bigotry are confined to individuals, rather than something we all, collectively, need to address? It seems like we have ruled out the possibility that people can change. By removing them, it seems we assume that Amber Rudd and Labour Party antisemites cannot change. And it seems we assume that we, ourselves, do not need to change. The Jewish principle of teshuvah is made obsolete.

This leaves me wondering: is there an alternative? Is there a way to encourage people to change their bigoted views that can have a lasting impact? This week, I watched a documentary, called ‘Keep Quiet’, about the Hungarian neo-Nazi Csanad Szegedi. He was a leader of the feared far-right party Jobbik, heading up their racist street army. He was celebrated by white supremacists across the world when he won a seat in the European Parliament to promote Holocaust denial, racist conspiracy theories, and anti-immigration policies.

And then something shocking happened. His grandmother informed him that she was Jewish. She had survived Auschwitz. Her daughter, his mother, was also Jewish. In Orthodox religious law, he, too, was Jewish. These revelations forced him to embark on a journey of self-discovery that dramatically changed him.

Only a few days after his Jewish status leaked to the press, Szegedi called up his local rabbi, Boruch Oberlander, a Chabad Lubavitcher, originally from New York, whose parents were Shoah survivors. Although Szegedi was very much the star of the documentary, it was his rabbi, Oberlander, who really stood out to me. Nobody else was willing to engage with Szegedi. Oberlander’s own congregants and funders actively discouraged him from meeting with the neo-Nazi. But Oberlander believed, against all evidence, and against what everyone else was saying, that Szegedi could change. He told the filmmakers that he saw Szegedi as a Jew and believed that every Jew deserved a chance at repentance.

Rabbi Oberlander opened up that space for Szegedi to become someone new. He met with him weekly, then bi-weekly. Over a period of years, he introduced him to the principles of Judaism, educated him about life under the Nazis, and showed him the compassion we would expect of a Jew. Szegedi resigned his membership of Jobbik. He bought up all the copies of his own fascist book he could find, and burnt them. He got circumcised. He began davening daily. And he publicly renounced his racist views. At each stage, Rabbi Oberlander encouraged him, saying: “You’re not done yet. You still have more repenting to do. You still can go further.” And Szegedi believed in that encouragement.

This is a totally different model of engaging bigotry to the one we have seen in British politics. It is one of patience and compassion. It builds from the assumption that people with unpalatable views are on a journey, and that they can be transformed with enough kindness, encouragement and care. It is a model that appeals to me on a deeply spiritual level.

As Jews, we have, by necessity, become hardened to antisemitism, but we should not become so hard that we forget our core values: that all people are created with a spark of the Divine; that the world is perfectible; and that we are tasked as a people to show what a world rooted in ethics might look like. Although it may seem politically unrealistic, it is religiously necessary that we engage people in uncomfortable conversations. The appeal of racism is that it offers easy answers. Our response, therefore, must be a willingness to pose hard questions, and listen sensitively to the answers.

Just as the Temple priests of old knew that repentance was not something that could be done as a one off by one person, but needed to be done constantly by everyone, Britain as a nation must also be willing to engage in teshuvah. We as a nation must face up to our country’s horrible past. Antisemitism owes its origins to the Crusades, where Jews were treated as a fifth column, and physically attacked as stand-in representatives of Palestine that the knights sought out to conquer for Christianity. Tropes of Jew hatred are part of Britain’s class system, where Jews were used by monarchs as pawns for collecting taxes, and for directing the hatred of the masses when rebellion was in the air.

Similarly, anti-Black racism comes out of Britain’s colonial history. Black people were taken from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves and forced to work on plantations. Britain called over its subjects from the colonies to help rebuild it after the war, often taking on menial jobs and living in squalid conditions. That is why the Windrush generation are here, and that is why they are being oppressed as they are.

If we really want to rid our world of the scourge of racism, Szegedi’s story will not be enough. All of us need to examine the racism in our own hearts and throughout our society. We need to create a culture where everyone is willing to learn, develop, and be better people than they have been. We also all need to learn from Rabbi Oberlander’s example: to be more willing to engage with people who have objectionable views, and patiently believe in their capacity to change. If we can meet the world with compassion and self-reflection, we may be able to restore hope.

Shabbat shalom.

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I gave this sermon on Friday 4th May at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. The day before, the country had gone to the polls in local elections, where racism and antisemitism were live issues.

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