Can people really change?

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 6 January 2020

This week psychologist Christopher Dean, who designed the Healthy Identity Intervention course, emphasised the limitations of the UK’s main deradicalization programme for terror offenders. He said that it is impossible to be certain that offenders will have changed upon completion of the programme.

Healthy Identity Intervention involves the offender attending repeated sessions with a psychologist, who encourages them to talk about their motivations, beliefs, identity and relationships with wider society in a plight to help them think deeply about what they really want from life. In the best case scenario, the offender voluntarily abandons extremism and violence by reducing their identification with a particular group, cause or ideology.

The Healthy Identity Intervention programme has been criticised before for its generic approach, assuming that offenders emerge from a set of common denominators. Yet we know that people can descend into extremism in many different ways and at different speeds. A more effective response to offenders would take into account to what extent their triggers for extremism were theological, psychological or social, and would therefore enable deradicalization to focus on the individual’s needs and agenda.

It is inconclusive as to whether the programme has been successful or not, as it has been used on a relatively small numbers of offenders However, former prison governor and professor of criminology Ian Acheson wrote after the London Bridge terror attack on 29 November, that the scheme seems unlikely to sway those who believe they have divine permission to commit acts of terror.


Usman Khan, who stabbed two people to death in the recent attack, had been jailed eight years ago for setting up a terrorism training camp. He attended the Healthy Identity Intervention course and had appeared to be responding to rehabilitation by the time of his release in December 2018.

Christopher Dean stated  “People can get more reassured and confident about change and progress that people are making, but I think we have to be very careful about saying someone has totally changed or has been cured, I don’t think you can ever be sure.”

The question arises…Can people change? Or are we set in our ways as long as we live?

As we embark on a new decade, there is a natural transitional moment. Many of us use this time to reflect and set resolutions as we embark on a journey of major behavioural change. But statistics show that only 9.2% of people are successful in keeping their new years resolutions. Worse still, when we don’t succeed we often feel terrible about ourselves and regress. So, is it even worth trying, when we can never be sure that change is possible?

This week in our biblical narrative we encounter the final part in the trilogy of the Joseph story. It begins dramatically as Judah approaches Joseph. Judah, still leading his brothers, begs and pleads with Joseph, for he knows he cannot return home to Jacob without Benjamin, his favourite son.

Although Judah’s leadership role amongst his brothers appears to be similar, it is as if Judah himself has completely changed– once responsible for the loss of Jacob’s favourites son, he is now the saviour of another, he has come full circle, a new man. Through the narrative of the Joseph story, and the case study of Judah, the rabbis demonstrate a steadfast belief that people can change.

We began our journey with Judah two weeks ago, when we read that he devised a plan to sell his brother into slavery. Although his actions saved Joseph’s life, Judah was instrumental in sending him to a fate unknown.

Midrash on this passage extrapolates that Judah’s actions resulted in his father, Jacob, being set against him for the rest of his life. According to this midrash Judah would also suffer the wrath of God, because God believed Judah had deceived his father. God declared ‘You have no children and therefore you do not know the pain of losing children. When you take a wife you shall bury your sons so that you know this pain.’

We read two weeks ago that just as God predicted, Judah bore sons; Er, Onan and Shelah. Er became married to Tamar and then perished. Then according to Israelite law, Tamar was given to his brother Onan, who also perished.

Although we, the reader, know that it is in fact God who has killed two of Judah’s sons, Judah does not. He believes that Tamar is a ‘lethal woman’ whose sexual partners are deemed to die. So, Judah wrongs Tamar, not giving her to his youngest son, Shelah and sending her out to live as a widow in her father’s house, unable to remarry.

Tamar devises a plan to outsmart Judah and secure her own future. Standing on the side of the road covered in a veil, Tamar waits for Judah to return from a sheep shearing festival. Judah propositions her, giving her his seal and staff as a pledge. When rumour begins to circulate that Tamar is pregnant, Judah commands she be burnt to death in order to protect his honour.

But Tamar is ready. She sends his identifying pledge to him, stating that the owner of this pledge is the father. At this Judah realises what he has done. He publicly announces Tamar’s innocence. He states the truth ‘she is more in the right than I…’

According to the Rabbis, this confession marks the beginning of Judah’s transformation into the man we are greeted with this week. Midrash Tanhuma talks of how Judah’s confession spurs a whole stream of other events to happen, such as Reuben also confessing for his affair with Jacob’s concubine. Apparently, when Reuben heard what Judah had said He rose and said; ‘I too have violated my father’s bed.’

Midrash tells us that the change in Judah is so great that God believes he should  become our namesake. Next week, in our final encounter with this character, when the brothers get their deathbed blessing, Jacob tells Judah, ‘You shall be your brother’s praise’. It is for this reason that we are not as a people called Reubenites, or Simeonites, or even Josephites, but instead Yehudi’s – Jews.

We carry Judah’s name with us, the name of repentance, of change, of becoming better. Inherently as a people, we know that people can change.

On the first shabbat of this new year, we look forward with a clean slate to a fresh start. So how can we change more like Judah, who managed to transform his life significantly and did not fail to stick to resolutions?

Psychologists say we are more likely to adapt our behaviours if we don’t try to change overnight, or expect to see complete transformation in an unrealistic timeframe. Instead we need to commit to a gradual process of small meaningful changes that progress over time. We also need to set intrinsic goals, ones that reflect our own aspirations and not those of others. People are more able to stick to the goals they set if they have set their own mind to it.

As a new decade stretches in front of us, we are given the opportunity to ask ourselves, what is driving our change? Are we doing it for ourselves or for somebody else? Are we doing it because we want to, or because we think we should?

This secular new year may we break down our goals into manageable steps so that we can find sustainable ways to keep them. May we anticipate setbacks so as to not be hard on ourselves when we don’t reach certain milestones with ease. And may we be proud of ourselves, and the small steps of progress we make at every moment.