The secrets that revealed while translating Jordan Peterson into Hebrew

Published at OLAM KATAN

Dalit Souter

פורסם ב"עולם קטן" | תרגמו מעברית: יאיר קליינבאום ותום שמילוביץ' | צילום: אור רייכהרט

During a protest I took part in organizing in defense of our eroding democracy few years ago, I noticed a group of orthodox jews splitting in half like the parting of the Red Sea.

They were making way for an elderly man sporting a distinguished beard. Daniella Weiss, standing beside me, whispered in awe  "Rabbi Tao" –  Having noticed, I asked, "should this feel like having Dr Jordan Peterson walk up to me?" Weiss always pauses before answering, thought a bit and answered, "Yes". 

Recently I unerathed a striking similarity between Jordan Peterson's Philosophy and the works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1870-1935).

Despite not immersing himself in the vast oral-legalistic traditions of the Jews, Peterson nonetheless was able to show the philosophically minded among contemporary Jews – such as myself, that material-scientific rationalism cannot capture all aspects of reality.

His complex interweaving of material reality, language, and especially the transcendent offered secular Jews a return to their own foundational texts with a newly found philosophical vigor and certainty. 

That being said, I have had the privilege of translating Dr Peterson to Hebrew. 

In translation, a gaze is cast upon words and phrases, and while the translator may search for synonyms, she occasionally stumbles upon true revelations with regards to meaning behind words – which, be the language of use, as may –  affirm the universal notions of the writer.

Dr. Jordan Peterson in Jerusalem

One story for all

Hebrew, originating from a mixture of ancient Semitic languages, ​​has undergone very little fundamental changes in the past 2000 years – and has managed to preserve metaphors and philological features that repeatedly prove Peterson's own deepest intuitions.

His philosophy, arguably, can be framed as an attempt to answer the all encompassing question ”what matters?”.

In “12 rules to life’‘ a chapter is dedicated to this inquiry, which I have mistakenly translated as “what’s important?”. 

By revealing the manner in which fields of knowledge operate and converge towards a unified meta-narrative – Peterson has demonstrated how Mythology, Theology, Modern Classics, and Folklore together with Evolution, Cognitive Sciences, Neurochemistry, Psychology, and philosophy – share a striking common denominator.

He argues that the basic matter of which the universe consists of, are not objects, but Chaos, Order, and Human Consciousness

This leads to a reality which does not merely “exist” but rather continuously forms and reforms, along with consciousness, forming and reforming – to emerge in unisom, engaging in constant flux of mutual influences – How deeply Jewish of him.

Order, being the known and recognizable world, Chaos, where things we know not, reside – lead, naturally enough, to the conclusion of interdependence in which – without order there is no perfection, and without chaos, there is no reflection.

A similiar notion, echoes through Rabbi Kook’s concept of “perfection and reflection" but has only reached full construction through Peterson's epistemological and ontological frameworks.

What Kook was calling spirit, Peterson showed to be matter.        

Naturally enough

Peterson's moral precepts are rooted in his unifying theory.

An evolved consciousness follows laws and rules keeping some form of order while on occasion, conscience may call for disobedience aiming at preserving the foundational spirit by which the now shattered laws and rules were enacted to preserve in the first place. 

This flexible conservation is central not only to his ethics, but also to his understanding of nature and biology. In fact, his faith, and ardent Darwinism, are not contradictory, but rather complementary with his concept of ”Nature”.

For “that which persists”, and the “nature of things”-  consist of the essence of things – of what there is, and both can fall within the functional boundaries of deism as well as darwinism.

I.E – nature is those elements which are conserved. A thing’s inner or innate Identity – those properties that remain constant and persist in the face of outward changes.

Changing constantly, destroying creatures who adapted to previous states and environmental conditions, continuous existence is guaranteed by certain traits which repeatedly pass a cruel test of selection, passed down to in an unbroken chain from the beginning, to this moment.

Given that belief in the sublime has persisted throughout documented human history, it is necessarily a survivalistical "trait" – which makes it real. In addition, nature conserves and copies selected traits – forming an order. Yet, organisms evolve due to small copying errors, mutations, most of which are harmful, so, how can such errors occasionally create new essential traits?.  Again – “perfection and reflection”, or rather in this instance, ‘’reflection and perfection’’.

Naturally enough, this balancing act is featured in Peterson's socio-political thought: honoring and keeping current establishments shouldn’t void revolutionary ideas which may potentially offer life-saving innovations. Conservatives, paramount in maintaining the established, Progressives, challenge and freshen society – without such dynamics the old establishment must surely become degenerate.

Similarly, myths and ancient stories “reproduce” in a process akin to that of natural selection. Only the important one’s are heard and reheard over extended periods of time, due to their ability to convey something of value to generations ahead. They may contain vital, eternal and cross-cultural information, and its repetition echoes that very sentiment. 

The more we tell stories – the more we instantiate society on the principles which underlie them. Persistence – counts, and that which is passed on by all generations – contains something eternal.

His display of Exodus as a foundational archetype befitting any national community aspiring towards freedom, anywhere, anytime is in perfect correlation with the concept of natural selection.

That which persists – is the order. Natural; and therefore of survivalistic value, hence true. At least insofar as we can ascertain truth.

Foundational stories change. Change is chaos awaiting domestication.  The basic narrative remains: transition from slavery to liberty.

Environment changes – The founding of the state of Israel is the same Exodus – only the details differ in accordance with the epoch.

recurrence and difference – is one Hebrew word

Thus, to the most important question of "what matters" – The answer is: seek a balance between Order and Chaos in your consciousness.

And, in Hebrew, this question rephrased – not ‘what’s important (MA HASHUV – as originally published), but rather : "what matters" – MA MESHANE.

Meshane (Matters) is the literal translation of the English – “what recurs/differs – driving itself The semetic root is "Sh.N.H."

Hence, what matters is that which persists, or which is worthy of recurrence.

Yet, Meshane also comes from the word  "li-SHNOT" – Meaning to learn, memorize, and relearn. Describing a state of knowledge worthy of persevering through repetition (=lishmot) but which also consists of change (Shinoi). 

Matters that are Meshane, are those which ensure survival – to the extent of the Biblical commandment "and you shall ponder it day and night".

Only that which repeats itself can conceptually bring forth a law into existence – while surface phenomena perceived by senses are momentary, temporary and transient – they matter not – or as we say – they are Lo (no) Meshane (matters) לא משנה.

Only with persistence is it possible to find medicine and technology and carve out by way of deduction or induction, new knowledge. 

and that which recurs = (Nishna) is the existing and familiar order, which makes life possible.

If everything was surprising we would have never been able to organize our lives or survive.

The root, Sh.N.A, which means  “reoccur”, also has the opposite meaning: SHINUY= "change". A miracle of sorts, it seems that the Hebrew language has understood this question from time immemorial.

Change happens in that which is not constant, The kingdom of Chaos. Change enables evolution , growth, development, improvement. Only humans communicate with the symbols that are words, only humans can step into the desert, stare into the abyss, and germinate new ideas from them both.

Animals do not change of their own accord. Only conscious beings that are able to mediate between order and chaos by the use of words, are able to voluntarily change and be changed. This ability allows humans to preserve order while stepping into chaos, extracting from it a desirable and urgent transformation, possibly one of acute existential nature. man faces a permanent choice: change the action or repeat the action. 

The jews persist in singing the passover hymm “how is this night different to any other night?”, with our knowledge of the root and it’s double meanings, the sentence could also read “why should this night, of any night,repeat itself?”. A story repeats in view of a new generation, the story of our monumental transformation, from slaves to freemen. The SEDER night (literally “night of order”) with its careful question-answer choreography, tells the story of chaos, out of which a new social order emerges. This order was then maintained through the chaos of the diaspora.

The year,  SHANA   in Hebrew (same root)   reoccurs as months rewind from December back to January, and is different at the same time,because in every year we renew ourselves. A common jewish new years’ saying goes: “let the year perish with its curses(everything supposed to change for the better), and let a year start with its blessings(everything worth preserving)”. On the jewish judgment day of Yom kippur, God above determines if we performed enough of a positive change, kept what was worth keeping,and he who does otherwise, is sentenced accordingly.

 A year,and time periods in general, consists of the things we kept and the things we changed.In Hebrew the new year is called literally “head of the year” meaning not only primacy but also the literal head, the seat of consciousness, the tool to properly balance order and chaos. It is also the first of the ten days of Repentance, where the jew practices introspection and reflection in depth – like God – for detriment to what should persist (liSHNot ) and what and who needs to cease to exists- therefore -to change – lehiSHtaNot

This is the secret to existence itself.

This is what matters, what’s important, what makes the difference, and what recurs – with all meaning implied therein.

SHANA TOVA

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