Heading into the new year, some, struggling to implement New Year’s resolutions, will pick up the best-seller, The 12 Rules for Life: An Anecdote to Chaos. Jordan Peterson’s rise to fame has evoked strong reactions in different sectors of the Jewish community. So much so that it begs a question, framed in the vernacular of Saturday Night Live, if I may: “Jordan Peterson: Good for the Jews? Bad for the Jews? Discuss!”
The Orthodox community has warmly received Peterson’s work. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks frequently writes about Peterson’s work in The Jewish Press. Yated, a popular Torah magazine, recently summarized Peterson’s 12 rules in their pages. Aish.com, the website of a prominent Jerusalem-based yeshiva features a Peterson video, a nod of approval by a prominent stakeholder in the Orthodox fold.
On the other hand, Peterson resisted bill C-16, Canada’s law mandating the use of new gender pronouns for those in the transgendered community and has taken a very negative stance on many sensibilities that have been called ‘politically correct’. The organized Jewish community, driven by the Torah’s concern for the disenfranchised, values diversity and strives to create an inclusive environment. In fact, as a whole, many Jews naturally recoil from ideas that challenge minority voices.
Comparing the response in different segments of our community is a study in contrasts; favorable mentions versus radio silence. Only one North American Jewish newspaper in print reviewed Peterson’s book in their pages, despite its treatment of character development, ethics and the like. Most telling, the Peterson fans who agreed to be interviewed for this article required complete anonymity, fearing their comments could engender negative repercussions. Clearly, there is diversity of opinion regarding this work. These ideological differences will probably not be resolved any time soon.
A question lurks beyond the controversy, though. Have Peterson’s popular lectures analyzing Genesis or his widely disseminated talks about Divinity and atheism impacted those in the Jewish community? His first lecture on Genesis, posted on YouTube, has been watched by 5 million people. Peterson’s colleague, Conservative Commentator Dave Rubin, has now publicly rejected atheism, influenced, he says, by Peterson and his ideas. Rubin grew up in a Conservative Jewish home. As a teenager, he shed that identity. This year Rubin attended educational services on Yom Kippur. He’s back!
Could Peterson be helping our cause? Is he giving adult Jewish education a shot in the arm? Given that Peterson’s fan base seem to be predominantly male, are there Jewish men in the ranks of his followers who are giving Judaism a second look? I set out to investigate, surveying Facebook pages where Peterson fans meet and putting the word out via the grapevine. Some interesting stories surfaced.
Several years ago, Moshe, not his real name, was a recent graduate of the day school system in Vancouver. Talented in the arts, Moshe heralded from an Orthodox home. Now in university, the Faculty of Theatre steeped him in the ideologies that characterize those in his field. Several factors drew him away from his former religious lifestyle, most primarily a serious relationship with a Jewish woman in his program. She shared a love of theatre, not a love of Judaism. He stepped away from that lifestyle although maintained the ruse, not formally admitting that he was on a new page. That relationship continued for years. Over that time, life became chaotic. The relationship was rocky. He gained 30 pounds. Unhappy, he was constantly lying to his parents. He concedes, “I lost myself.”
It was then that he became aware of the unrest about Bill C-16 and Peterson’s strong opposition to it. Involved in the student union, Moshe supported it’s stance on the issue. As time went by, though, he became more curious about what Peterson was actually saying. Peterson has posted hundreds of hours of his talks. Moshe began listening and functionally audited two years of coursework from Peterson’s University of Toronto course “Maps of Meaning.”
Certain ideas rang true: “I really connected to Peterson’s premise that everything that you do matters, that if you will live this way it will have a ripple effect.” Moshe decided to make changes. He took the Peterson meme to heart: clean your room! Formerly messy, Moshe went through his things, deciding to live differently. He also broke up with his girlfriend. Then he took on a very challenging project that would advance his career. Moshe reflects, “Peterson’s ideas came when I needed to hear him.” Moshe got on a new track.
In terms of his life now, Moshe reflects that while a career in performance throws a curveball to anybody committed to halacha (Jewish law), he has reinvigorated his commitment, describing himself as a fully believing Jew. He resolves to bring that lifestyle with him into the future. He credits Peterson with strengthening his belief: “I know [Judaism] is true in a different sense than before.” Peterson is unanimously unpopular with the other students in his program. Moshe defends Peterson’s ideas when the subject comes up, returning the favour, given the benefit he got from Peterson’s material. Moshe states simply, “his work has changed my life.”
Another story: A young man we will call Eli was immersed in the Toronto arts community, fully aligned with its left-wing ideology. Eli stumbled on Peterson’s lectures by accident. He started listening. He reflected, “His talks made me appreciate the importance of religion for society and the individual… How it provides a structure.” Eli saw that a degree of discipline was lacking in his life. He could see the value of delaying gratification and using religious ritual to achieve that end. Formerly ‘left’, Eli found himself, with the influence of Peterson, appreciating ideas from both ends of the spectrum. By his late 20s, he was starting to doubt how he had been thinking about the world. The thought occurred to him, “maybe I’m not right about everything I’ve been thinking since my teenage years? Maybe other people are right about some things?”
Aside from the content he was hearing, the modality was new. He liked listening to conversations that ran up to three hours. He began tuning in to Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro and others. There were moments of insight and a growing recognition about the value of the Hebrew Bible. He states, “there are lessons in the stories that have been passed on for so long. They are useful and worthy of study.”
Eli’s shift was gradual. After a few years, he began volunteering in the Jewish community. Then a big step: Eli found an Orthodox roommate, interested now to kosher his kitchen. He has since become active in the downtown Jewish scene. He dates Jewish women and feels ready to marry and start a family. His last girlfriend was not Jewish. Now his priorities have shifted. He credits Peterson for triggering this transition, one that ultimately helped him find a place in this community.
Interestingly, the people who volunteered to be interviewed were all men and most were on the artistic spectrum. One case especially bears mentioning. For Aaron (not his real name), Peterson’s work was relevant for professional reasons. Aaron is an artist and illustrator who has worked on best-selling books and films. He is troubled by his field which, in his words, “transmits meaning to a modern population that is trying to avoid it at all costs, through all the distractions the West can muster as an obstacle.”
Coming upon the work of Peterson, the ideas presented resonated as something sorely needed. Said Aaron, “unfortunately, too many in my field are from the atheistic perspective and secularly driven.” He added, “I have to admit this is my foundation. I was educated in a very scientific and objective way. Scientific realism has done a doozy on the art world and the artworld hasn’t done its duty to push back.”
Aaron read Peterson’s watershed text, Maps of Meaning: The Infrastructure of Belief, which took him on a deep dive into the world of meaning. Referring to his profession, Aaron states:
it is too focused on sleek, dynamic, momentarily impactful art, rather than something one can sit with and allow the meaning of the art to penetrate your soul over time. The aim is to give you something that can immediately catch your attention but holding it thoughtfully is not the goal.
Aaron is troubled about the degree to which children are influenced by the movies and art that he has a hand creating. He describes the work as vacuous.
My hope is to change the field…. As an artist, I think we are the tip of the spear when it comes to where the culture ends up moving towards but we have dropped that responsibility, something else Peterson talks about. We have become mere worker bees, not the creative’s the society needs.
Up until that point, Aaron had begun a “philosophical journey” which had had him reading intensively over the 10 years prior, making up for lost time. As a Russian Jew, he was raised without a Jewish education. In a myriad of ways, Peterson’s material struck him as expressing a uniquely Jewish perspective, though. Aaron had read Heschel and other Jewish thinkers but Peterson’s text triggered Aaron to delve into additional sources, moving through Maimonides two-volume set as well as Johnson’s “History of the Jews,” Herman Cohen’s “Religion of Reason,” among others.
Aaron has taken to writing essays to consolidate his thinking. One essay he shared considers superficiality, pandemic in a culture that reveres the visual, as violating the second commandment, which prohibits idolatry. It’s clear that Peterson’s work and input has had a deepening effect on Aaron, springboarding his scholarship and compelling additional Jewish inquiry.
So what’s the answer? Jordan Peterson: “Good for the Jews? Bad for the Jews?”
Perhaps his material is not unlike the Torah, itself. Full of depth, lots to get triggered by and worthy of contemplation as it may take you further afield, whether you start as friend or foe of the ideas he espouses. The operative word, as always for Jews, is “Discuss!” Lots to talk about. We can sit with our ambivalence and continue the conversation.