Taking Comfort in Changing our Mind
In today's society, it can be extremely hard to change your mind and especially to do so publicly. But changing one's mind is both an American virtue and a Jewish ideal. You don't have to "switch sides" or abandon your former position completely; but as great leaders have shown us, thinking in new ways about an important issue can enrich our own lives and bring healing to the world around us.
On June 19, 1918, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. boarded a train.
He was headed home on vacation from his day job as a United States Supreme Court Justice, and he happened to be seated next to a judge named Learned Hand. The younger lawyer knew and respected Holmes and also disagreed with his position on free speech. They struck up a conversation in which Judge Hand respectfully challenged Justice Holmes, who was happy to engage at length about the topic.
The following year, Holmes authored a landmark decision in the case Schenck v. United States. There, he presented the famous hypothetical that we are not free to “falsely [shout] fire in a theatre,” concluding that the First Amendment does not protect speech that creates a “clear and present danger.” Following this ruling, Learned Hand continued to press the issue by correspondence, noting the areas in which they shared nuanced but significant differences. Holmes, to his great credit, listened with an open mind to Judge Hand and others who disagreed with him, and within a few months, Holmes had changed his mind. In November 1919, in Abrams v. United States, Holmes shocked his colleagues by switching sides on the issue, writing with Justice Louis Brandeis a newly-dissenting opinion., 
The Supreme Court has throughout its history been a proud and prominent place where brilliant men and women have changed their minds. For instance, in 1949—thirty years after Justice Holmes changed his mind about free speech—Justice Felix Frankfurter also reversed his own position. The Court decided a case based on a prior precedent, but Justice Frankfurter had come to regret his earlier judgment. He wrote in his dissenting opinion, “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late. Since I now realize that I should have joined the dissenters in the [earlier] case, I shall not compound error by pushing that decision still farther.” In the ensuing decades, judges who have changed their mind have continued to invoke Frankfurter’s now immortal words.
The Supreme Court models an evolutionary approach to thinking, paving the way for America and Americans to follow suit. They set an example for jurists and citizens alike, demonstrating that it is an American virtue to be willing to change one’s mind.
Unsurprisingly, this is also a Jewish value. Judaism is based on dialogue and dissent, and the evolution of our tradition over the centuries has relied upon the flexibility of individuals to change the way they think. The Rabbis of the Talmud set the stage by regularly exhibiting their own openness to change.
One such example is Nehemiah (or Simon) the Amsonite. This early Rabbinic figure was known for his florid interpretations of the inconspicuous Hebrew particle et. But one commandment stumped him: אֶת-יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ תִּירָא, “You shall revere the Eternal your God” (Deut. 6:13). For this mitzvah, he could not bring himself to offer an interpretation of the word et, unable to pursue his normal line of reasoning. His students challenged him: If you can’t interpret this et, what does that mean for all of your previous rulings on the same word? Are they still valid? He insisted they were, offering the pithy reply, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁקִּבַּלְתִּי שְׂכָר עָל הַדְּרִישָׁה כָּךְ אֲנִי מְקַבֵּל שְׂכָר עָל הַפְּרִישָׁה, “Just as I did well by explaining, so have I done well by refraining” (BT Pesachim 22b). In other words, changing your mind doesn’t mean you’re stupid or that you’re wrong about everything. Rather, it means that for the matter at hand, you’ve been persuaded to see things differently.
It’s been my experience that changing my mind provides a feeling of relief, of being able to recognize that something was off but has now been restored. For instance, some of you might remember a sermon I delivered last year about the rights of gun ownership. I attended a symposium at the Center for Practical Bioethics in which dissenting presenters respectfully and thoughtfully shared their views about gun control and gun violence. I was particularly taken by Dr. Lance Stell, whose views about gun control were very different from my own, and I appreciated his ability to compassionately and patiently explain the history of the right to bear arms and its importance in American citizenship. My views on the causes of gun violence did not radically shift, but my mind did change as I deepened my understanding of different opinions on this issue.
For me, changing my mind in such a way is a comfort. I believe that’s why the Hebrew word for “changing one’s mind”—used in this week’s Torah portion among other places—is לְהִנָּחֶם, which literally means “to be comforted” (see Gen. 6:6). We can be at peace with a perspective that once vexed us, welcoming to our own minds a formerly challenging or unsettling idea.
The Torah shows us numerous examples of God’s own mind changing in this way. Take for example a Talmudic midrash about this week’s parashah. We read in the first chapter of Genesis: וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים, “And God made the two great lights.” But the same verse proceeds to refer not to “two great lights” but rather to “the greater light” and “the lesser light.” Rabbi Shimon ben Pazzi tells us a story to explain what happened to the moon, once great but now diminished.
In the midrash, the moon approaches God and says, “Master of the Universe: Is it possible for two kings to utilize the same crown? (How can the sun and I both be given reign over heavens?)” God, impatient with the moon’s criticism, replies, “Go and diminish yourself!”
The moon, not backing down, says to God, “Because I said a correct thing before You I must diminish myself?”
God sees her point and begins to recognize that God’s response had been rushed. God tries several times to mollify the moon, but at every point, she offers a rebuttal. Finally, God sees how hurt the moon is and says, “Bring an atonement (כַּפָּרָה) on My behalf for having diminished the moon!” (BT Chullin 60b). God admits to having made a mistake and ultimately asks for forgiveness.
If God is open to a change of mind, how much the more so each of us.
Of course, just saying it’s good to be open to changing our minds doesn’t make it so. In the book What Have You Changed Your Mind About, Brian Eno outlines the dilemma:
If you’ve spent a long time thinking yourself into a certain intellectual position, you are naturally resistant to letting it go: A lot of work went into it. If it “felt right” to you for whatever complex mesh of personal reasons make an idea “feel right,” then to abandon it isn’t just a question of rationality but also a question of self-esteem. For if that feeling was wrong, how many others might be? How much of the rest of your intellectual world are you going to have to pick apart? And if everyone has watched you thinking your way there and seen you building your city around it, there might also be the simple issue of losing face.
In short, as Eno describes our condition, we may suspect that we’re wrong about something or that we don’t have all the facts or that we would do well to look at things a different way – but part of our identity and often a healthy dose of ego are invested in the opinions we currently hold. It would simply be too uncomfortable to change.
That’s where Judaism can give us a hand, can offer us the permission to see changing our minds as a nechemta, as a comforting experience of both humility and achievement. We can walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and even our God when we admit we were wrong and try to take a different view going forward.
The Rabbis teach in the Talmud: לעולם יהא אדם רך כקָנֶה ואל יהא קשה כאֶרֶז, “A person should always be soft like a reed, and he should not be stiff like a cedar” (Taanit 20b). Flexibility helps us survive, to bend in the current of time and the flow of our community. Without the ability to bend, we’re likely to snap, toppling on account of our rigidness when a bit more humility would have helped us in the long haul.
As the new year begins, let us take to heart with renewed commitment our American and Jewish traditions of flexibility. May we be willing to change our minds, finding the comfort in seeing things a different way. For at least a few of the opinions we hold today, may we find in this shanah tovah—in this good year—a shinui tov—a good change of mind.
 As related by Joanne Freeman on Backstory Radio’s “It Is So Ordered” at 6:35. Available: http://backstoryradio.org/shows/it-is-so-ordered/.
 Cf. Gerald Gunther’s “Learned Hand and the Origins of Modern First Amendment Doctrine.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Feb., 1975), pp. 719-773 at page 732.
 See https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/249/47/case.html.
 G. Edward White writes that “Abrams thus represented a major change in Holmes’ posture in free speech cases” and details the influence of Learned Hand and other jurists on Holmes in his “Justice Holmes and the Modernization of Free Speech Jurisprudence: The Human Dimension,” California Law Review, Vol. 80, Issue 2 (March 1992) pp. 391-467. (Quote on p. 427). Available: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1785&context=californialawreview.
 The new opinion became the dominant one in Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969.
Henslee v. Union Planters Nat. Bank & Trust Co., Available: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/335/595/case.html.
 “Gun Control and the Rights of Citizenship: Who and How Much?”
 Harper Collins, 2009. Introduction.
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