“Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes, Turn and Face the Change”: Religion and the Brain

I would like to thank Dr. Mona Fishbane for inspiring this D’var Torah.  Its content draws largely on a talk she gave at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinic Training Institute in 2013.

I’ve been told that rabbis are in the business of tradition; we are about the preservation of authentic Jewish experience, the conservation of Jewish knowledge. That’s half true. Rabbis of necessity are also in the business of change. We insist that Judaism offers us the tool to change our lives for the good, to make our world better. Within every rabbi, and it doesn’t matter whether or not the rabbi is Orthodox, Reform or Conservative, there is dialectical tension between tradition and change. Each day my colleagues and I are confronted by the challenges of when to advocate for change or when to hold the line; when to agree to a departure from the past because it may strengthen tradition, and when to refuse to budge because it will undermine the heritage we revere.

All of us are frequently ambivalent about change. In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, writes of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. When our old friend Popeye says, “I yam what I yam,” he reflects a fixed mindset. When Moses asks God in last week’s Torah portion about the Divine Name, and the Almighty responds, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I shall become what I shall become, we encounter the epitome of a growth mindset. I will evolve, I will change into the future.

Many of us become fixed to keeping things as we know them. We become attached to the way things are, or a vision of the way we want them to be. Buddhism suggests that the attachment to a particular outcome is a source of suffering. Life changes, and we must adapt.  Buddhist monks construct beautiful and intricate sand mandalas so painstakingly, only to destroy them as ritual acceptance of the ephemeral.

In the opening parshiyot of Sefer Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus, Moses, the Israelites, and Pharaoh are all frightened by change. The narrative shows us that closing our hearts can become a habit. Moses accepts his mission to return to Egypt and the upheaval and uncertainty it will cause with the utmost reluctance. The Israelites have been so brutalized by their suffering that they resist the hope of change. Even when liberated from oppression, they remain encumbered by their old habits of fear and subservience. An entire generation of adults raised within the confines of slavery would have to die out before the people could enter the Promised Land. Those conditioned by servitude maintained a victim mentality throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, grumbling along the way about the insecurities of freedom.

Pharaoh is stuck in neutral with his inability to say anything but “no” to the Israelites; he handles his fear of change by his cruel and abusive use of power as a monarch. God deals with Pharaoh through a contest of power in which God wins — but only after Pharaoh is brought low by his own grief with the death of his firstborn son.

Loss has a way of teaching us the limits of our own power, of teaching us humility. Indeed, loss itself represents change, the advent of a new reality, no matter how unwelcome that may be.

Yet even loss cannot teach if we refuse to learn. In the end, Pharaoh isn’t inclined to learn, even with the terrible price he pays. For a brief moment, he appears to change, yet the door to possibility closes just as swiftly as it opens. It is this refusal which causes Egypt’s ruler to pursue the Israelite into the Sea of Reeds only to succumb.

I am often asked why the Torah teaches that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Doesn’t Judaism believe in free will? If God took away Pharaoh’s decision-making ability, does that not call into question Divine fair play? Yet read the text carefully and you will see that at first Pharaoh hardens his own heart time and again. It is only with the advent of the sixth plague that we first encounter the words, “וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק ה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה — And the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh.” (Exodus 9:12).

More than 800 years ago, Maimonides noted this change in verbiage and in his Mishneh Torah had this to say: “A person may commit such numerous sins that the penalty to be exacted from this particular sinner for the sins he committed voluntarily is that repentance shall be withheld from him, and the liberty to turn from his wickedness shall not be granted him” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:3). Without knowing the term, what Maimonides was talking about neuro-science.

Human beings are wired for habit. Our habits are reflected in circuits of neurons in our brain. More than 60 years ago, Dr. Donald Hebb laid the foundation of neuro-psychology by theorizing that, “The neurons which fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more we do something the more we are likely to do it in the future. Everything we do, learn, and experience changes our brains. It is said we are what we eat, but we are also what we do. This is quite sobering. There is no free lunch from a neural standpoint. If you regularly become impatient, angry or anxious, the more likely you will repeat such behaviors in the future. Like the personalities in our Torah portion, we cling to the familiar.

Religions are particular susceptible to an embrace of the past for its own sake, separate and apart from a compelling raison d’etre to maintain any particular practice. In the book of Joshua, for instance, the Israelite men circumcise themselves prior to their entry into the Promised Land with flint knives (ouch!) — despite the fact that the Iron Age offered a more effective alternative (Joshua 5:2-3). The early 20th century English Bible scholar, T.H. Robinson, saw the survival of stone instruments into the Iron Age as an act of religious conservatism.

Fast forward to our time: We really aren’t so very different.  Is it any wonder that a departure from familiar melodies at services or the introduction of new rituals occasions agita among those who venerate custom precisely because it’s comfortable?

But that’s only half the picture. We’re not only wired for habit; we’re also wired for change. In contrast to the rigidity of Neanderthals, who knew only one way to hunt, Homo Sapiens survived and thrived in many different environments precisely because of their ability to adapt and change.

Dr. Mona Fishbane, a friend and teacher who has helped me to understand the linkage between Torah and neuro-science, has taught me about neuro-plasticity, the incredible ability our brains have to change. This brain plasticity can continue throughout our lives — if we nurture it. Neurons can form new connections with other neurons, and neuronal stem cells can give birth to new neurons. Our brains also benefit from an ongoing process of myelination, which allows for speedier and more efficient communication between neurons.

So what facilitates neuro-plasticity? Physical exercise to maximize the flow of blood to our brains; focus; and learning new things. As we age we lose neurons. The creation of new ones can balance the loss. But if we go autopilot, if we do the same old, same old, or become couch potatoes, the ratio of gain to loss becomes negative, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “brain drain.”

To be adaptable requires resilience. Resilience is dealing with life’s adversity by meeting our challenges with openness and a readiness to learn, or as the philosopher Martin Buber once put it, “A readiness to be surprised.” Resilience is not about “bouncing back,” but “bouncing forward” after trauma. It is through vulnerability that we grow from our problems. It is the difference between Moses and Pharaoh.

We are Pharaoh — not in cruelty or wickedness, not in insensitivity to the suffering of others — but in our fear of change, our obstinacy, our anxiety that we might not possess the resilience to bounce forward. Yet as Judaism so often insists, we are given the free will to decide whether or not to swim or tread water, to embrace the plasticity of our brains or cause them to harden into smaller and smaller comfort zones. The story of our ancestors reminds us that we can choose to stay open to the new, to learn from our losses. Like Moses, we, too, can find within ourselves the courage to turn our necks to see the miracles that come our way, ready to be surprised by the new lessons of ancient truths.


Filed under RJL Biography

3 responses to ““Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes, Turn and Face the Change”: Religion and the Brain

  1. Hi Rabbi-
    I really loved this sermon. I have recently shared my own thoughts about Judaism and growth mindset through the lens of my own “Jewish journey.” Here are the slides from my talk in case you are interested: http://www.slideshare.net/edtechworkshop/judaism-the-original-growth-mindset

  2. Rabbi- I really loved this sermon. I recently shared my own thoughts about Judaism and growth mindset through the lens of my own “Jewish journey.” Here is a link to my slides if you are interested: http://www.slideshare.net/edtechworkshop/judaism-the-original-growth-mindset

    • jonathanlubliner

      I enjoyed the way you connected Carol Dweck to Jewish text to your own journey. The slide show revealed a glimpse of the landscape you’ve seen while driving life’s highway. Thanks for sharing, Andrea!

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