12 Rules for Life: a review of Jordan Peterson’s book

My guest post over at Sarah Hoyt’s blog.





Non-Jews who attend Jewish Sabbath and especially High Holiday services in synagogue often comment on their interminable character.

In contrast, Jewish ceremonies for life cycle events tend to be short and to the point. (Bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs in liberal synagogues, are a special case: the bar mitzvah boy simply is given a role of honor in a pre-existing long prayer service.) A Jewish marriage ceremony, for instance, rarely takes more than 15-30 minutes before the festivities start.

Thus also, the formal religious part of a Jewish burial does not last very long. Typically, most of the time is dedicated to hespedim (eulogies) of the deceased, usually by family members, close friends, or colleagues.

Burial customs may differ between communities: for instance, while coffins are the norm in most Diaspora communities, in Israel only simple shrouds are used. (Men are often buried in their prayer shawls.) The central parts, however, are quite universal: burial rather than cremation, kria (rending of the clothes) by immediate relatives and spouse, the recitation of certain psalms, mourners assisting in filling in the grave, and the request by the rabbi or head of the burial society for forgiveness from the deceased for any slights, however unintentional.

One prayer, however, is so thoroughly associated with Jewish mourning that it has nearly become a synecdoche for it: the Kaddish (“Sanctification”), or more precisely the version termed “Orphan’s Kaddish” (kaddish yetomim) or Mourners’ Kaddish. Remarkably, not only was that prayer not originally intended as a mourner’s prayer, but it does not contain a single reference to death or the hereafter. [*] Moreover, it is not even in Hebrew (except for a single phrase at the end) but in Aramaic, the lingua franca in the Middle East two millennia ago.  It was, hence, a prayer meant to be understood by all who recited it, including those whose Hebrew had become a little rusty. [The mind wonders, if it should therefore today be recited in the lingua franca of our time, namely, English?]

Versions of the Kaddish prayer occur throughout synagogue services. A short version (the “half-kaddish”) is used to demarcate sections; a longer version (“full kaddish”) was originally used to end the service, though a “coda” of additional prayers has been added later. The “Rabbis’ Kaddish”, which invokes blessings over scholars, is used to mark the end of a study session and, in the synagogue, after readings from the Talmud (Mishna and/or Gemara). At the end of the service, if any mourners are present, the Orphans’ Kaddish is recited.

This is its text rendered in English.


Magnified and Hallowed be His great Name

In the world that He created by His word

And may His kingdom come

In our lives, and in our days, and in the lives of all the House of Israel

Speedily and in our days

And let us say, “Amen”

May His great Name be blessed forever and for the ages of ages

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, 

Extolled, adorned, adored, and lauded 

Be the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He

Even as He is above and beyond all blessings, hymns, laudations, and consolations

That are uttered in the world

And let us say, “Amen”

May there come great peace from Heaven 

Upon us and upon all His people Israel

And let us say, “Amen”


He Who makes peace on High

May He bring peace upon us

And upon all Israel

[And upon all the world]

And let us say: Amen 


“Even as He is beyond”: yes, one of our most central prayers says G-d is beyond, and hence beyond the need form, the prayers of us mere mortals. Does that mean our prayers are futile? Of course not—but they are for our sake, not for His.

Let me leave the last word to Maurice Ravel. And may the memory of D. daughter of A. be blessed.


[*] There is another prayer, El Male Rachamim/G-d full of mercy, that explicitly references these and asks G-d to admit the soul of the deceased into His presence and to bind it in the bond of [everlasting] life.

Rabbi Akiva, “The cold equations”, and “The gods of the copybook headings”

There is a Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia 62b, reference via http://www.dvar.org.il/the-obligation-of-self-sacrifice) concerning the hypothetical of two men in the desert, of which only one has a water flask. (Like law school today, the Talmud is big on hypotheticals.) There is not enough water for both to survive, but enough for one.

R’ Ben Petura said that it was better that both should die than that one would see the death of the other. R’ Akiva, however, overrules him, saying that the man with the bottle should drink the water, quoting Leviticus 25:36 ‘Your brother’s life is with you’

Elie Wiesel is reported to have commented on this: “Rabbi Akiva was very hard, very hard on the survivor.”

I was reminded of this while reading the classic, chilling short SF story “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. The first time I read it, I was shaking all over, and it still elicits a strong emotional response whenever I read it.

Briefly, here’s the plot. A survey party on an alien planet sends out a distress message that they are about to die from a plague, and that their supply of vaccine has been destroyed in a natural disaster. The nearest source for the vaccine, a spaceship in hyper transit, sends out a shuttle into normal space to deliver it. The shuttle has a precisely calculated amount of fuel for a one-way trip (the pilot will, nolens volens, have to join the survey party), with a negligible margin for error. After he has left, he discovers a stowaway: a young girl who was hoping to pay a visit to her brother on that planet.

If he leaves her aboard, both they and the seven people awaiting the vaccine will die. There is no way to hand off the vaccine in-flight. The pilot gets on the (presumably hyperspace) radio and runs through all possible options with the mothership, and all conclude that the only ‘solution’ is an extremely unpalatable one: for the girl to be jettisoned into space — for her to die that eight others shall live. Even for the pilot to do the chivalrous thing and sacrifice himself is not an option, because she doesn’t know how to pilot the shuttle and cannot be taught quickly.

The story is a heart-rending one to read precisely because it is devoid of sentimentality. Eric Flint, who has been editing Tom Godwin’s work posthumously for republication, points to the implausibility of the shuttle being sent out with no margin for error on the fuel. And anyone reading this who is not heartless hopes for a ‘deus ex machina’ solution to avoid the heartbreaking end.

But of course, that would have defeated Tom Godwin’s purpose, which as far as I can discern was twofold. First, it was to present a moral dilemma akin to that of R’ Akiva, but with the stakes changed from “one vs one” to “one vs many”.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, to express his view of the Universe as a cold, uncaring place that has no particular interest whether the laws governing it are emotionally comforting to human life. And where nobody can ignore ‘the cold equations’ in the long run, or the Universe will present the bill.[*]

The famous Kipling poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, expresses this latter thought. Its full text can be read here.


A ‘copybook’, I am told, is the British English term for a preprinted book in which elementary school pupils learned penmanship by copying out short phrases — usually pithy proverbs, sayings, or admonitions. Interestingly enough, both Glenn Reynolds (an American law professor better known as the “blogfather” Instapundit) and yours truly (likewise born on the seam line between Boomer and Gen-X) interpreted “copybook headings” as something else, namely column sums on a balance sheet. And passages like these sure admit of such a reading:

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”


Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

“The gods of the copybook headings” or “the cold equations”: They are neither good nor evil. They just are, and we ignore them at our greatest peril. No matter how much those of us of a liberal temperament (some of whom may actually be conservatives by conviction) might like it to be otherwise, the Universe (and human nature) are what they are, not what we would like them to be. And of course, like in science or engineering, for every “cold equation” we know there are ten, or a hundred, that we don’t know.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome…
[*] I note in passing that Godwin’s writings display a fascination with human survival in inhospitable environments. This bio wonders whether this stems from Godwin earning his keep as a surveyor around the Mojave Desert.

Chesterton’s parable of the fence

The British writer G. K. Chesterton is probably best known to the general public as the author of the “Father Brown” series of mysteries. Among English-speaking Catholics, he is also well known as an apologist for their faith. Agree or disagree with his views, friend and foe recognized his intellect.

In one of his apologetic works (“The Thing”, quoted here, and discussed here from a different religious perspective) he coined an interesting parable:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Meaning no disrespect to Chesterton’s splendid prose, allow me to paraphrase and elaborate in plain(er) contemporary English.

Suppose you are walking along a road and see it blocked by a fence. Is your first impulse: “this fence is oppression! We must tear it down!” Chances are you are a left-liberal “progressive” — especially if you flip 180 degrees to “we must keep the fence, and saying otherwise is hate speech!” after being told that the fence was erected by or at the behest of one of your mascot groups.

Is your first impulse rather, on seeing or suspecting that the fence was erected by the state: “down with the state! down with the fence!” Then, if told that the fence was erected because there was a cliff behind it, or quicksand: “it is my dog-given right to drive off a cliff or into quicksand if I choose to do so, and the state has no business making such a fence!” Chances are you’re a doctrinaire big-L Libertarian. (A more sensible libertarian might advocate tearing down the fence but putting up warning signs, saying “proceed at your own risk”.)

Or is your first impulse that the fence is sacred just because it has always been there, and we must not question why? Chances are you are a reactionary.

Or, finally, is your first thought: “Hmm, that fence wasn’t put there overnight by leprechauns. We must find out how that fence came to be and why. It’s quite possible that the fence was built for reasons that are no longer relevant, and that we can safely tear it down; it’s also possible that the fence is still sorely needed. Until we have a straight answer to this question, let’s not mess with it.” That is what it means to be a conservative. Not to be afraid of anything new, not to oppose reform or evolution —  but to go about it cautiously and thoughtfully, and mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  A conservative with libertarian sympathies (like myself) may err on the side of allowing people to make their own mistakes rather than “protecting them against themselves” — but still would not tear down the fence unthinkingly. I might be more rash, if I were alone on a desert island. But in the immortal words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.




Abstraction layers and learning

The other day I heard an interview (in French) with electronic music megastar Jean-Michel Jarre (who is, incidentally, the estranged son of film composer Maurice Jarre and the ex-husband of actress Charlotte Rampling).

Paraphrasing one segment of the interview from memory: “Some people tell me that electronic music is abstract. On the contrary! Especially with analog instruments, it’s visceral, hands-on. I twist this knob or push that pedal, and I immediately hear the sound change in response. It’s classical music that is more abstract! They play off a score, which is an abstract representation of the music.”

Bingo. To borrow a term from information technology, the score is one “abstraction layer” above the music. A jazz music “lead sheet” would be one more abstraction layer above: it specifies the lead melody, the chord progression, and the meter — and the details on how to translate the progression into notes are left to the performer!
The next higher abstraction level is sometimes seen when experienced musicians are jamming together, and all the lead player needs to say is “slow 12/8 blues in G minor”: everybody else knows what to do and fills in the details on the fly, according to their best musical judgment. (Fixed chord progressions like “the blues” as improvisational frameworks are not a recent invention: suffice to mention “La Folia” in Renaissance and Baroque contexts.) An Indian raga is, likewise, a meta-structure for improvisation.

A paradigmatic example of abstraction layers in information technology — one that many readers will be familiar with — are network addresses. Individual network cards have a permanent, unique “MAC address” or “hardware address”, six bytes in hexadecimal notation: something like 4c:33:73:9d:40:42 We do not use such addresses directly to send Email or access web servers though, since everytime a server or even network card would go on the fritz, you’d have to update directories.
So one abstraction layer above that, we have the numerical addresses of the form These can be defined manually on a device, or (this is what happens in most home WiFi networks) assigned using a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) service. You replace a server or swap out a network card? Update the DHCP configuration table, and you’re good to go.
But if you moved to another provider, you’d still have to change addresses. Or you may have so much traffic that you need to deploy multiple servers, and load-balance traffic between them. Which is why we have yet another abstraction layer above that: the more conventional, human-readable addresses like www.pjmedia.com or www.berkeley.edu A domain name server (DNS) keeps track of which name corresponds to which number (or knows which other DNS to ask if it can’t resolve the query from cache), and hence you only need to deal with the “link”: you can leave the concrete details on how to translate this into an actual connection to the “abstraction layers” below.

The above puts me in mind of the laments of a friend of mine (a college lecturer in a humanities subject) about the atrocious writing of his students. Effectively, he says, the students have only learned the English language by imitation: they parrot words and phrases, rely on their spelling checker to fix spellings (sometimes coming up with unintentionally hilarious malapropisms as they do so), and often display a disregard for grammar and syntax that has non-native speakers like myself flabbergasted. The thing is, grammar and syntax are abstraction levels above the words: they can be learned by immersion — but that would have to be by “neural network training” from a very large corpus of high-quality written text. (I frankly didn’t know most of the grammatical rules in English consciously — but could apply them just fine on autopilot, as I’d been a voracious reader from a young age. Only when I found myself needing to explain edits to scientific papers — and of course learned that “it sounds wrong otherwise” is not an acceptable answer to thinking people — did I end up hitting the grammar and usage books.)
Prose style and essay structure are, of course, yet further abstraction levels above. But the problem is much broader than language: at one research institution where I was a guest faculty member, I saw distressing levels of learning by imitation in the lab — newer grad students basically being shown “this is how it goes” by the older ones. Now if this is just a matter of “kickstarting” then this is fine — the real problem was that only a few had any desire to actually understand what they were doing. (This became painfully clear when they attempted to write a paper — which in practice usually boiled down to compiling tables and graphs as required, and the professor or his amanuensis writing the actual paper—or rewriting the sorry excuse for a manuscript so thoroughly as to qualify as writing from scratch.)

Pretty much everybody who lives near a Jewish community has heard of Chabad (a.k.a. the Lubavitch movement): Chabad (חב׳׳ד) is, however, originally the Hebrew acronym for a much broader concept: the three levels of understanding. This is how I see them outside a religious context.
D (ד) stands for the lowest layer: da’at ([factual] “knowledge”)
B (ב) stands for the layer above: bina (“insight”) or, if you like, analytical understanding. That which is required for the higher “abstraction layers” of learning.
Ch (ח) stands for the highest layer: chochma (“wisdom”), or, if you like, synthetic understanding, creativity. The levels of “meta-insight” that allow you to apply the structural principles of that which exists, for creating something new.

Our current educational system effectively sacrifices insight on the altar of creativity (or, worse, the students’ self-esteem) — while at the same time, perversely, ensuring that students only have quite shallow knowlegde by declaring a kind-of war on memorization at exactly the ages children most easily learn by rote. The end products are students that have never progressed beyond some nuts-and-bolts knowledge picked up by imitation—and even that is not to be taken for granted.

The system stunts students while claiming to empower them, and it boosts a brittle, hollow self-esteem that shatters on the first contact with reality. It “creates a desert, and calls it peace.” Or self-esteem, “or something”

Saturday delight, Chanukah edition: Rami Kleinstein, “All your wonders have not yet ceased”

Happy Festival of Lights/Chag urim sameach!
Happy Festival of Dedication/Chag Chanuka sameach

In honor of the holiday, not my usual classical, prog-rock, or electronica fare. but an Israeli pop song that is a paean to this small, weird, and wonderful country: Rami Kleinstein’s “Od lo tamu pela’ich” —”All your wonders have not yet ceased”.

“Ulpan la-inyan” has a pretty accurate translation, which I’m quoting here:

ארצנו הקטנטונת, ארצנו היפה
מולדת בלי כותונת, מולדת יחפה
קבליני אל שירייך, כלה יפהפייה
פתחי לי שערייך אבוא בם אודה יה.

בצל עצי החורש, הרחק מאור חמה
יחדיו נכה פה שורש אל לב האדמה
אל מעיינות הזוהר, אל בארות התום
מולדת ללא תואר וצועני יתום.


Our little land, our beautiful land
Homeland without robes, homeland barefoot
Accept me among your songs, beautiful bride
Open your gates, I’ll come forth and praise G-d.

In the clearing trees’ shade, far from sun’s light
Together shall we plant into the earth’s heart
To the shining springs, to the groundwater wells
Homeland without figure, orphan gypsy.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך
עוד הזמר לו שט
עוד לבי מכה עם ליל
ולוחש לו בלאט:
את לי את האחת
את לי את, אם ובת
את לי את המעט
המעט שנותר.

Your wonders have not ceased
The song has yet to sail
My heart still strokes at night
And whispers in the dark:
You are for me the one
You are for me mother and daughter
You are for me the little,
little that remains.

נביאה בבגדינו את ריח הכפרים
בפעמון ליבנו יכו העדרים,
ישנה דממה רוגעת
וקרן אור יפה,
ולאורה נפסעה ברגל יחפה.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך…

We bring with our clothing the village scent
To our heart’s bell shall the flocks stride
There is a calming silence
And a pretty ray of light,
And to its light we tread barefoot.

Your wonders have not ceased…

And since it’s also the Sabbath, another song by Kleinstein, “Small gifts,” which is an ode to the Sabbath and to the transmission of Jewish heritage:

[Translation by the YouTube poster, with a few slight corrections.]
Another Friday, breathing the air,
Light and shadow are playing “tag” again.
The table is set, childhood photos on the wall,
Processions in white are returning from shul,
And that smell which scratches my heart-
Sneaking in and opening doors
To a small joy,
To the same old song which is being passed along the generations.
Small gifts
Someone has sent me small gifts
Shards of intent, circles of belief
Small gifts
Such as the strength to accept what I lack and what I possess
What more can one ask for?
Another Friday, a balcony, and a newspaper,
The sun, like worries, is slowly being erased,
Simple melodies crawl through the window
and there is no longer any storm which can hide the silence.
To a small joy
To the same old song which is being passed along for generations.

Post-Yom Kippur reflection on intergenerational guilt

During the Yom Kippur service, we repeat many times the “Vidui” (confession) prayer. While reading the commentary in the Artscroll Machzor (AM below), I was struck by the gloss on the line

‘But we and our ancestors have sinned’ (אבל אנחנו ואבותינו חטאנו)
The gloss asks: why are the sins of ancestors mentioned, which we did not commit? And indeed, Leviticus 26:39-40 reads (KJV translation):
And also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away. [But] if they shall confess the iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers…
Now does that mean that the people of Israel today are on the hook in perpetuity for, say, the sin of the Golden Calf? The implications of a “yes” answer for contemporary political reparations debates in the US speak for themselves: are present-day nonblack, non-aboriginal Americans on the hook for slavery abolished in 1865, or for the tragedy of the American Indians? (Actually,  the “reparations” advocates go one step further and expand the “blood guilt” to people whose ancestors weren’t even in the US in those times!)
Closer to home: what does Lev. 26:39-40 imply for the responsibility of present-day Germans for the Shoah and other genocidal and democidal campaigns that happened before the defeat of National Socialism? That is, do people who were born or came of age after these crimes against humanity were committed bear some sort of blood guilt?
As pointed out in AM, the Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 27b) explains that we are punished for our ancestors’ sins only if we approve of their way of life, and especially if we adopt it.
The Moroccan Jewish Torah commentator Rabbi Chaim Ibn-Attar, in his commentary Or haChaim, notes ad loc. Lev. 26:40 that a proper understanding of our ancestors’ sins is often a prerequisite of repentance. Paraphrasing AM, sometimes we accept family or community traditions as a proper way of life because ‘it’s always been done this way and no-one was ever punished.’ Thus we are to ‘confess’ — i.e., acknowledge — such sins of the past.
If true teshuva is achieved (repentance, but literally: “return” [to G-d] or “backtracking” from the evil ways) then the guilt has been washed away.  The Torah describes Amalek as what amounts to the first terrorist (Deut. 25:17-18): the Amalekites avoided combat with the Israelite warriors but lay in ambush and attacked the women, the children, and the elderly. Indeed, Amalek becomes a symbol, or a synecdoche if you like, for mortal enemies of the Jewish people that arise in every generation.
The villain in the book of Esther, Haman, is identified as a descendant of Amalek. But the sages also refer to Shimon and Levi has “having the seed of Amalek in them”, making it clear this is not a matter of biological descent.
And the Talmud (TB Gittin 57b) indeed gives a long list of descendants of evildoers who have now embraced the Torah, including “the descendants of Haman [and hence of Amalek] are now students of Torah in Bnei Brak” (see also TB Sanhedrin 96b). They have made full teshuvah, have fully rejected the poisonous doctrine and practices of Amalek, and hence are cleansed of his guilt.
Summing up: Judaism rejects the concept of intergenerational guilt in the narrow sense. In a broader sense, it does extend the guilt to descendants who continue walking in their ancestors’ ways, but once the descendants make a clean break with those behaviors and attitudes, they also make a clean break with the guilt.