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Why Won’t They Change?

Why do people reject the influence of others – even the influence of people they know care for them – in serious matters such as health, relationships and religion?

I’ve seen or heard or experienced exactly that, on both sides of the coin, in a few ways:

– A very close friend of mine in a relationship whose possible outcomes are all negative
– Another very close friend who smokes cigarettes despite having quit before and of course knowing all the health problems it can cause
– Having others seek to influence my religious thought and trying too hard to sell me on coming to classes

In a similar vein, this past shabbat I heard a story that a friend experienced and witnessed another one:

– Chabad established itself in a small community where the synagogue was affiliated with the Conservative movement. While men and women sat separately, there was no mechitza (modesty/separation curtain). According to my friend who lived in that community, Chabad tried to impose the mechitza and had their initiative strongly rejected, the community feeling disrespected.

– Yesterday, during the time between the Mincha and Ar’vit prayer services, I sat down with the rest of the congregation for the third meal of Shabbat (aka Seuda Shlishit). Around the time the rabbi started speaking, a lady who’d walked up from the street had entered discussion with one of the female congregants, and some of the men hushed her.

She responded by saying that it was a public space (we were eating outside, and the synagogue was part of the neighbourhood’s town hall), which was true. While that response was immature – she could have just taken note of what most of the congregants were trying to do and respectfully wrapped up the conversation – the reaction was equally ill-considered: some of the men shouted at her and basically told her to be quiet/get lost.

In my humble opinion, the teaching of Rav Tzvi Yehuda would have been appropriate here. The Temple was destroyed due to gratuitous hatred between Jews, and to rebuild it we must first engage in gratuitous love for one another. That’s not free love in the hippie sense of random sex, but seeking another’s wellbeing and caring for them without judging. Applying that to the above situation, the most appropriate response would have been to offer the lady a chair, some food and invite her to participate. If she then declined, it would then be reasonable to ask her to be quiet and/or leave. But the first priority should have been to welcome her warmly.

In my view, the failure of Chabad in the above mentioned story can be explained in the same way. While of course they cared for the community’s wellbeing and were well-intentioned, they needed to first gain the community’s trust by showing their love and respect for the community.

But suppose that they had done that – would they have been successful in influencing the community to add the mechitza? It would then at least have been possible, but it would not be certain. Why not?

Because people don’t like to be told what to do, at least in areas such as religion and health. (In other areas, the discipline of direct response advertising has shown that people do actually do what they’re asked to do.)

So how do you influence people? By leading by example. It won’t be 100% certain that they’ll follow your lead, but by first earning people’s trust by caring gratuitously, and then by showing the right thing to do, some people will be curious to know more about your behaviour and then copy you.

Posted in Judaism.


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