Q: How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?
A: 30. One to change the bulb and 29 to give contradictory advice to the person changing it.
Q: How many Orthodox Jews?
A: This light bulb has never been changed and never should be!
Q: How many Conservative Jews?
A: Call a committee meeting to decide if men and women can change it together, or if openly gay people can change it at all.
Q: How many Reform rabbis?
A: Don’t worry – anyone can change it whenever and however they want to.
Q: How many Reconstructionists?
A: One to wish they were doing what the Orthodox Jew does, one to wish they were doing what the Reform Jew does, one to wish they were doing what the Renewal Jew does, and one to discuss intellectually what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would have done.
Q: And how many congregants does it take to change a light bulb in the synagogue?
A: Don’t you dare touch it! My family donated that bulb!
People are stubborn about change. Change is really hard. We deny we need the change, procrastinate about making the change, or tell others why they need to change and we don’t.
Woody Guthrie wrote, “If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow.”
I’ll admit I’ve milked my share of dead cows, and I bet many of you have, too. But I’ve been forced many times in my life to rethink something I was sure of. I’m always so impressed by people who are able to do a 180-degree turn on convictions they once had. People who convert to Judaism, for example, change whole belief systems. People who once couldn’t, under any circumstances, accept gay relationships turn and rejoice at a sibling or friend’s gay wedding. People who, years ago, could look me straight in the eye and say “I could never accept a woman rabbi” may be reading this right now and saying, “What was I thinking?”
There’s tremendous discomfort that comes with outgrowing an opinion. Change brings with it an inherent sense of threat, even if it’s change for the better. Change forces us to ask: “What does this mean about who I really am? If I sincerely believed or behaved X way before, and now I’m willing to believe or behave Y, am I the same person? Was I wrong all along?” Change brings with it a kind of disappointment, a kind of loss of the old self who was so sure about things. A kind of grief that what we once believed is now wrong, or obsolete, not useful or even harmful. “I changed my mind” is so much deeper than just changing your clothes. It’s about a shift in core values.
Change is hard, because it’s at once both terrifying and stimulating. It unnerves us at the same time as it excites us. We crave it, and we fear it. Rightfully so. Things were always better back then, when we felt secure in the knowledge that we were right.
We weren’t right about so many things, though. I think the High Holidays are meant to be a kind of kick in the head, the time we ask ourselves not if we can change, but if we will change. It’s a paradox that Judaism can inspire us to change. After all, religion is supposed to be a stabilizing force in the world, the one unchanging value that doesn’t bend with the wind. Judaism is about, in many ways, resistance to change. And yet none of us still sacrifices animals. None of us go to bloodletters instead of doctors. Even haredi Jews use cellphones. Judaism’s own skills of change can be instructive to us: change without loss of self-identity, change without disappearance.
Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Organizations, movement and even synagogues that adapt and grow are those that prosper and survive. The ones left behind stagnate. Their offerings, services and programs are redundant and predictable. So, too, with people.
The High Holidays challenge us not to become redundant and predictable in our own lives. They challenges us to change ourselves so we can change the world.
This column appears in the September 27 print issue of The CJN