The Wooden, Blue, Big Box

Let’s separate Heidi’s critique of the way halacha works into factual and evaluative claims. The factual claims regard differences between halacha and modern legal systems. Unlike legal systems, halacha is deeply rooted in entrenched traditions and lacks a mechanism for legislating changes, it relies on the intuitions of ordinary practitioners of halacha and it lacks systematic means of enforcement. As a first approximation, Heidi’s factual claims about halacha are indisputable.

Now Heidi’s evaluative claims. Since halacha fails to overcome old traditions, it becomes stale and outdated. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of a mechanism for legislation, which prevents responsiveness even to acute need for reform. Furthermore, in the absence of legislation, halacha remains poorly defined, lacking both precision and consensus. Since it relies on, often flawed, intuitions, it is vulnerable to systemic bias. In fact, since Shimen’s intuition is rooted in what his neighbors do and theirs is rooted in what he does, the outcome is bound to be unstable and variable from place to place. Finally, since halacha is unenforced, it is bound to fray at the margins and to fail to achieve even its own goals.

Interestingly, even knowing nothing about halacha’s successes and failures, we can prove that Heidi’s evaluative claims do not follow analytically from the factual claims. That’s because there is a phenomenon unrelated to halacha that satisfies every one of Heidi’s factual claims about halacha and yet clearly does not suffer from any of the failures predicted by the evaluative claims. I’m talking about language.

Like halacha, any given language is deeply rooted in entrenched practices and lacks a mechanism for legislation. (Yes, some especially enthusiastic countries have National Academies for regulating the local tongue; they’re about as effective as cat-herders.) Like halacha, every language relies on the linguistic intuitions of the masses of speakers of the language and lacks a systematic means of enforcement.

And yet, languages work just fine. They don’t become stale or outdated. Even without the oversight of august academies, they adapt perfectly well to the needs of speakers and writers. Nameless new phenomena magically get names, like googling or crowdsourcing, both of which you can use to generate a list of many more neologisms. The meanings of many words gradually change over time. Some viewers of TV reruns are startled by the stone-age Flintstones having a gay old time, which just proves they’re not woke. In fact, old words, like well and so, are re-purposed to serve pragmatic roles rather than semantic ones. (Well, maybe that point is a bit arcane, so… let’s move on.) Anyway, if you believe that language is static, try your hand at the Canterbury Tales, allegedly written in English.

All those changes are brought about without any visible hand guiding the development of language. We might say that the development of language is the result of human action, but not of human design. Moreover, the humans doing these actions are just regular people speaking and writing intuitively, not fancy experts who’ve researched the rules.

What is remarkable is how competent we are at using our native languages; we know intuitively much more than we realize we know. To appreciate this point, please look right over there at that wooden, blue, big box. Whoa, that sounded weird. You know why? Because everybody knows that it should be “big, blue, wooden box”. The order has to be size, color, material. The beautiful thing about that is that everybody knows it but almost nobody knows that they know it. Intuition works.

Finally, the rules of language aren’t enforced by the state or by any other duly constituted body that can fine or imprison us for breaking the rules. Such enforcement would be something up with which neither you nor me would put. Nevertheless, most people choose to follow the rules well enough to make themselves understood.

In short, language suffers from all of the “flaws” Heidi attributes to halacha – a certain stodginess, vulnerability to the whims of the great unwashed, and the lack of a parliament and a police force – but it still works fine. Note carefully, though, that this just means that these flaws don’t guarantee failure, as Heidi seems to think. It doesn’t mean that they guarantee success.

In fact, as we’ll see in the next post, halacha is different than language in a number of important respects. First of all, what it means for language to work is different than what it means for halacha to work. Furthermore, halacha is codified, studied, adjudicated and socially enforced, all with considerably greater frequency than is the case with language. We’ll see that these differences, as well as the parallels between halacha and language considered above, contribute to halacha’s viability.


Heidi Respects Experts

Since Heidi disagrees with Shimen regarding the substance of morality, it is no surprise that she also disagrees with him about the basis on which ethical and public policy questions should be decided, who should be making such decisions, and how they should be enforced.

First of all, Heidi rejects Shimen’s obedience to tradition when modernity presents better solutions to problems solved sub-optimally by tradition. Policy is best left to experts who master the latest research on the matters at hand. If we wish to avoid harmful foods, the modern study of nutrition offers much more efficient ways of doing so than the rules given in an ancient Torah. If we wish to regulate family life (and it isn’t clear to Heidi that we should), psychologists and sex therapists can tell us how to best realize the human capacity for love and sexual fulfillment. If we wish to protect workers’ rights, arcane Sabbath laws can’t hold a candle to the knowledge amassed by labor lawyers, social workers and economists about the most efficient means to prevent human exploitation. One can multiply such examples by the number of laws in the Shulchan Aruch. The principle is the same each time: reason, not tradition, is the key to a flourishing society.

To be sure, Shimen does leave a role for experts – specifically, rabbis – in resolving certain personal and social dilemmas according to the letter and spirit of halacha. This is small solace to Heidi: these rabbis may know halacha, but what do they know about modern science, about history, about psychology and sociology? What tools do they have at their disposal that might help them respond sensibly and sensitively to those with serious personal problems and what relevant knowledge do they have that would permit them to shape public policy in any reasonably effective way? As far as Heidi can tell, the vast majority of rabbis are both deficient in the relevant bodies of knowledge and so socially inexperienced and naïve that they can be easily manipulated by hangers-on and sycophants with agendas that are transparent to everyone but the rabbis themselves.

Reasoning by experts is, as Heidi sees it, to be preferred not only to tradition but to the half-baked intuitions of non-experts. Shimen, on the other hand, readily agrees that his determination of what is right is shaped by the moral intuitions of those committed to Jewish tradition. But for Heidi, if there’s any worse guide to the healthy functioning of society than tradition, it surely must be intuition. As the psychologist Daniel Kahaneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated in a long series of experiments, intuition is hopelessly sub-optimal for making decisions about anything, let alone moral questions. For example, our intuitive preferences between competing lotteries don’t maximize expected winnings and actually depend, quite absurdly, on how the choices are framed and other irrelevancies. In fact, our errors are systematic – we find patterns in randomness, we give more weight to the most salient evidence than to the most relevant evidence, we cling to our prior beliefs even in the face of strong contrary evidence and so on. Such biases were presumably useful in the early days of human development, when snap decisions, even if only crude ones, were better than nothing. But, Heidi argues, many of the problems we face in modern societies can be better solved using the tools of logic and probability than relying on crude intuitions.

In fact, many of our cognitive biases bear directly on moral decisions: we make snap judgments about people based on largely irrelevant physical characteristics, we ascribe negative personality traits to people who don’t share our opinions (even when we know that they were assigned that opinion as part of a debating exercise), we ascribe our own successes to skill and our failures to luck, we judge out-group members harshly even when the definition of our group is random, such as fans of some sports teams or members of a summer camp color-war team. (In some cases, this is justified: Yankee fans are genuinely insufferable.) Heidi is convinced that if, instead of following their misleading intuitions about such matters, Shimen and Jews like him would take a deep breath and reason about their loyalties, they would surely treat outsiders more fairly.

Heidi’s preference is for the decisions that drive public policy to be made by the best and the brightest rather than by tradition and intuition. But she differs from Shimen on an even more fundamental point. Who shall be responsible for implementing the policies determined by experts to be best? It looks to Heidi as if in Shimen’s world there is no institution at all that assumes this responsibility. No central body legislates, resolves disagreements regarding proper practice or enforces the law.

In the very first recorded halachic dispute 2100 years ago, five consecutive generations of rabbis failed to agree on the procedure for bringing certain sacrifices on festivals.  From that point on, the entire corpus of halachic literature is, as every novice student of halacha knows, an unending series of disputes. What is the proper blessing before eating chocolate? What time should one light Chanukah candles? Should synagogue dues be determined by family size or income? Can cooked food be put on a hot plate on Shabbat? What is the minimum age for a rabbinic judge? Is a brain-dead person with a beating heart considered dead? Does halacha recognize intellectual property rights? Ask a rabbi any of these questions and thousands more like them and the inevitable answer will be “it’s a machlokes”, that is, a matter of rabbinic dispute. This is not (only) because rabbis are particularly argumentative, but rather because halacha lacks a mechanism for resolving disputes, at least for the past 2000 or so years. There is no central body for legislating halacha or for enforcing it.

To Heidi, all this is a sign of a lack of seriousness. Heidi prefers to divide social norms into two types: those that are legislated and enforced and those that are simply not obligatory. But, it seems to her, all social norms in Shimen’s world fail to fit into either category. They are all neither legislated nor enforced and yet somehow regarded as obligatory.

Heidi regards this as a double failure. First, as we saw in previous posts, halacha regards as obligatory constraints and duties in areas that should, in Heidi’s view, be left to personal discretion. Second, and more significantly, halacha fails to adequately address issues that are, for Heidi, essential to the functioning of society.

Let’s stipulate that there are many issues, like criminal law, that Shimen concedes are beyond the capacity of current halacha to deal with. In this regard, halacha is self-evidently not self-contained and takes for granted the presence of an exogenous power that deals with matters beyond its scope. This isn’t what bothers Heidi. Rather, what bothers her is the attitude of Shimen and friends who wish to handle at the communal level certain issues that Heidi believes must be addressed by the state.

Compare, for example, how the problem of poverty is addressed by individual and community charity, on the one hand, and the state welfare system, on the other hand. Halacha requires individuals to set aside 10% of their income for charity but doesn’t specify to whom it should be given. What guarantee is there that all poor people will receive sufficient charity? What grounds are there for supposing that everyone will meet their obligations in the absence of any sanctions? Who will take care of those who belong to poor communities or to no community at all? For Heidi, these are serious defects that can be remedied by having the state redistribute wealth by collecting taxes at the threat of imprisonment and doling out entitlements such as welfare, free health care and unemployment benefits. The state can further advance the cause of social justice through regulation, including rent control, anti-discrimination laws and labor laws, all favored by Heidi as means through which the powerful and wealthy are prevented from exploiting the weak and poor.

Heidi is convinced that it is an ethical failing of Shimen and his friends that their moral world ends at the boundaries of their narrow community. It is a mystery to her that after all the suffering they have seen, they remain almost entirely indifferent to the astonishing ability of the welfare state, guided by the best and brightest experts in the social sciences, to engineer a more perfect society.

In the following posts, we’ll consider whether Heidi’s claims about how Shimen’s community operates are factually correct (spoiler: mostly yes) and whether her optimistic view of the ability of experts and bureaucrats to engineer a more perfect society holds water (take a guess).

Tradition, Tradition

In the first part of this series, we considered how Shimen lives his life – what he considers right and wrong, obligatory and prohibited – and how Heidi’s understanding of right and wrong differs from that of Shimen. In this part of the series, we’ll consider the procedures through which Shimen determines what is right and wrong.

What does Shimen learn from books and what does he learn from actual practice? When does he decide on his own what needs to be done and when does he consult authorities? When does he follow his instincts and when does he use reason? How does he reconcile his religious commitments and his political commitments? In this post, I’ll address these issues as they appear to Shimen, without yet trying to philosophize much about what is really going on under the surface.

Shimen is committed to the traditions of his family and community. If he ever checks the written codes of Jewish law or consults with rabbinic authorities regarding some course of action, he does so only to ascertain the tradition as it is practiced, not to amend it or bypass it. For Shimen, the “community” is a set of concentric circles beginning with his (dead) family, extending to (possibly semi-lapsed) Gerrer chassidim, extending further to others committed to the Jewish way of life; the farther out the circle, the less weight it gets in Shimen’s calculus.

Since every actual set of circumstances is unique, it is often hard to pinpoint a well-defined course of action prescribed by tradition. Each delicate social situation, each complicated financial transaction, each inadvertent mixture of permitted and forbidden foods, each ad hoc action on Shabbat, requires a judgment, often in the spur of the moment. In situations that call mainly for common sense and decency, Shimen’s first instinct is to conjure what his bubbe (grandma) would do. In situations that call for more technical knowledge of halacha, he’d reason through the alternative arguments and then conjure his zeyde (grandpa).

Sometimes matters require consultation. Shimen knows where to look in the books. For most matters, he’d consult the most widely accepted recent codes, the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishnah Berurah. (Despite his suspicion of Litvish intellectual types, he prefers the Aruch Hashulchan’s dry and detached style of ruling to the Mishnah Berurah’s cautious piety.) But what Shimen finds in the books is secondary to what he finds when he looks to his left and to his right in the shtiebel. When the Mishnah Berurah writes, as he often does, that “the common practice is so-and-so but this is wrong”, Shimen reads that as “do so-and-so”.

Sometimes Shimen will seek expert guidance. If he needs to make a particularly important personal decision or needs to resolve a dispute with someone else, he’ll consult someone he trusts, usually a wise rabbi. But the truth is that in such cases, he’s not so much looking for a halachic decision as for good advice, a fair compromise or a bit of reassurance. He will also be interested in what the rabbis he respects have to say on matters of communal policy.

The problem is that the rabbis he respects were almost all murdered. There are but a few rabbis among the survivors whom Shimen regards as worthy of being consulted. He considers most American rabbis worse than useless. Their knowledge is from books, not from a living tradition; they are naïve about the world and more immersed in shallow American culture than they realize; their opinions are either too lenient because they are acculturated or too stringent because they are insecure. In short, they are representative of American Judaism, which for Shimen is nothing but a vulgar and superficial shadow of the authentic Yiddishkeit that he recalls with so much love and so much pain.

The truth is that Shimen’s definition of tradition is not strictly bound by what the books say or what the rabbis say or even what his friends do, but rather by what he regards as the common sense of people deeply immersed in the traditional way of life. Shimen often mentions his friends in the Lodz ghetto who died of starvation because they would not eat non-kosher food and there is no doubt that he too would not eat non-kosher food even if his life depended on it. At the same time, Shimen would eat in the homes of those less observant than he is and drink wine poured for him by Jews who are not identifiably observant, in both cases without contemplating asking embarrassing questions. Shimen doesn’t wear the chassidic clothing he wore before the War; under the circumstances, it would simply feel inauthentic, as if he were pretending that the world of Polish chassidus had not been utterly destroyed. Shimen is more comfortable in the company of men and most of the public events he attends are gender-segregated; yet he finds the stringent customs regarding separation of the sexes that have taken hold among Gerrer chassidim as fair game for mockery. More generally, Shimen, like all his friends in the shtiebel, doesn’t have a need to signal his loyalty to the Jews through extravagant piety; he paid his dues up front. If I might indulge in some trifles, Shimen has no patience for baalei kriah for whom the Torah reading is a tedious exercise in hyper-enunciation. If Shimen only had grandchildren, he’d undoubtedly kiss them in shul and God have mercy on the American Litvak who’d point out to him that the Shulchan Aruch forbids this.

Shimen has no interest in justifying his stringencies or his leniencies or in convincing others to accept them. He’s completely comfortable in his own skin. He has no interest in reforming Judaism. In fact, since for him Judaism is defined by tradition, the very idea of “fixing” it is inherently incoherent to him.

In the coming chapters, we’ll consider how halacha plays out in a world of Shimens. How does the definition of tradition converge in a Keynesian beauty contest in which each person looks to the others to determine what the tradition is? If each person uses their common sense to chip at the margins the way Shimen does, will halacha remain stable? How much power do rabbis really have in Shimen’s world? How does halacha survive in the absence of legislation and enforcement?

Before we dive into these questions, we’ll consider an alternative model for determining right and wrong that, unlike halacha, does depend on legislation and enforcement – Heidi’s world.


Heidi values fairness above all else, in particular above group loyalty. Since she was raised as a Jew, the Jews are the group to which she must not be loyal.

Heidi’s inability to be indifferent about the Jews undermines the fairness to which she aspires. If Heidi were to chance upon the Republic of Freedonia, a democratic country in a bad neighborhood that had policies identical to those of Israel, she’d have nothing but admiration for the citizens of that plucky little country; she wouldn’t be writing letters to the Times denouncing them. If some New Jersey township were hunting for ways to keep pointy-eared American Vulcans with quaint traditions from flooding into their neighborhood and acting like Vulcans, Heidi would be leading demonstrations against the racists. Pointy earlocks, not so much.

More generally, Heidi’s over-enthusiastic pursuit of equality is bound to result in greater inequality. Enthusiasts are drawn to simple solutions and the simplest method for quickly diminishing inequality is to punish winners and reward losers. But, Heidi’s protestations notwithstanding, not every group that fails is virtuous and not every group that succeeds is exploitative. Love for the underdog is, more often than not, love for the least cooperative and most aggressive and dysfunctional cultures.

Apart from undermining the very fairness Heidi wishes to advance, associating failure with virtue and rewarding it is a sure recipe for encouraging it. Rewarding failure drives a race to the bottom in which all sorts of groups prefer to parade real or imagined victimhood than to actually succeed.

But all this is rather benign stuff compared to Amber’s world. If Heidi is self-conscious about her Judaism and tries a bit too hard to demonstrate her neutrality, Amber is – sorry but there’s no more elegant way to say this – a flaming Judeophobe. Amber lives in a Manichean political universe in which individuals are irrevocably assigned either to the Sons of Light or to the Sons of Darkness according to gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, nationality and so on. There are, of course, disagreements about the pecking order regarding individuals belonging to a favored sexual identity but disfavored nationality, or vice-versa. But whatever the fine details of your preferred victimhood hierarchy, one thing must remain sacred if you wish to remain a member in good standing in Amber’s world: by the miracle of some nebulous doctrine called “intersectionality”, you must hate Israel too.

If we hadn’t grown accustomed by now to this bizarre state of affairs, it would strike us as deeply mysterious. Why does Amber, a champion of aggressive sexual ambiguity in all its permutations, identify with gay-lynching Muslims while accusing gay-friendly Israel of pink-washing? Why does Amber, a champion of the weak and downtrodden, identify with a league of large Islamic nation-states that wish to destroy one small Jewish nation-state?

(If you’re thinking that the answer is that Israel is somehow uniquely evil by the usual standards by which countries are judged, please go away and don’t come back. You’re not a serious person and I won’t argue with you.)

We can only begin to entertain the mystery of Amber’s Jew phobia in the context of a broader question. Why have so many different people despised the Jews for so long? As Paul Berman notes, in the Middle Ages, religious Christians hated Jews for rejecting Christianity and in the 19th century secularized Christians hated Jews for engendering Christianity. When racism was acceptable, the Jews were despised as an inferior race and when racism became disreputable, the Jews were despised for being racist. During the heyday of nation-states, the Jews were hated for persisting as minorities in other nations’ states and in the incipient post-nation-state era, Jews are hated for having their own nation-state.

It might be that the Jews are despicable for all these different reasons, but I think there’s a more parsimonious explanation. In a word, the Jews are Messiah-killers. But not that Messiah.

Think about the vibe the world gets from Shimen – and from Israel. It goes something like this: We Jews have our ways. We eat differently, dress differently, pray differently. We’re a tribe with our own hierarchies and we look out for each other. In short, we have our own moral system, including restraints and loyalties. We hold you in contempt for murdering us or, in the best case, remaining indifferent to our murder, but we’re prepared to live and let live. We won’t treat you like family, but we’ll be fair if you’ll be fair. And we’ll live this way for a good long time until Mashiach comes.

Shimen is making a claim: we can live according to our own distinct moral rules and nevertheless be fair with you.

Almost nobody wants to hear that claim. Not those Christians who wish to bring salvation now through universal acceptance of Christ. Not Muslims who wish to bring salvation now through the restoration of the Caliphate. Not racists who wish to bring salvation now by eliminating inferior races. Not enlightened philosophers who wish to bring salvation now through the triumph of reason over religion. Not post-nationalists who wish to bring salvation now through world government. Not Heidis who wish to bring salvation now through freedom from the persistent demands of their former communities. Not Ambers who wish to bring salvation now through liberation from the responsibility of growing up and maintaining civilization.

They all despise Shimen for stubbornly standing in the way of salvation. They all share an interest in denying the very possibility of reconciling particularist traditions and loyalties with fairness to others. The religious and racial supremacists hate Shimen for clinging to his own traditions and loyalties – and for demonstrating that it is possible to do so while being a tolerant human being. For the enlightened ones, the Heidis and the Ambers, who insist that fairness can only be achieved by abandoning particularist commitments, the opposite holds: they can abide, or at least patronize, Muslim supremacists precisely because they don’t presume to be fair; Muslims are playing to win and they say so. But Shimen – and Israel – reject the very foundation of the enlightened worldview: they arrogantly presume to be fair while simultaneously maintaining their own traditions and loyalties. To the enlightened ones, this is an unforgivable heresy.

The impatient can’t maintain their footing for long on the narrow path that runs between the abyss of fire-breathing particularism and the abyss of starry-eyed universalism. And when they slip off, as they must, they can’t resist pulling at the coattails of the Shimens who stick stubbornly to the path – the path that turns and winds and slowly ascends.


This is the final post in Part 1 of four projected parts. The next part will shift from the substantive differences between Shimen and Heidi’s moral systems to the methodological differences. We’ll consider the procedures they each use to determine what is right and what is wrong and the platforms they each use to undertake collective action. In short, how does halacha work and what is Heidi’s alternative.

Saint Amber

Heidi’s world lacks tight-knit communities that generate social capital, a commitment to having children and a willingness to make sacrifices to defend against threats to its security. One might imagine, therefore, that the main threat to Heidi’s world is that it would slowly peter out. But it might not actually play out that way.

Meet Heidi’s daughter, Amber. Amber is a student at Oberlin, majoring in colonial and environmental studies. Her father is not Jewish and she has no substantive connection to Judaism, other than an inherited right to begin remarks hostile to Judaism with the words “As a Jew…”. As a woman, especially one who has chosen an amorphous sexual identity, she regards herself as persecuted by cis-gendered white men.

Amber doesn’t share with Heidi the memory of a real community, of a large and committed family, and of grandparents who can speak of genuine persecution. Heidi’s residual connection with a family and a community is sufficient for her. But Amber needs some other mission to give her life purpose. Amber is a social justice warrior.

Amber doesn’t share Heidi’s rather benign notions of fairness. Heidi believes, inter alia, that harmless activities that people do in the privacy of their own homes are nobody’s business. For Amber, this is entirely inadequate. Amber believes, for example, that everyone has a positive moral obligation to affirm the virtue of sexual activity that Heidi once regarded as taboo and that a failure to do so under certain circumstances should be prosecutable. Amber also believes that euthanasia and abortion should not only be legal but that they are good and that doctors should be obligated to perform them.

It turns out that once Heidi’s “live and let live” principle is deemed passé by the likes of Amber, the door is open to a broad regime of morally-charged dos and don’ts. Heidi’s rather vague aspiration to fashion a new moral world out what she imagines to be rational considerations sometimes leads to Amber’s moral world – a faux religion that makes traditional religion seem benign by comparison.

Let’s consider some of the Commandments in Amber’s religion.

First, whatever sexual taboos Amber has overcome have been sublimated into a bewildering array of food taboos. Amber won’t eat produce unless it’s organic, locally-grown, not genetically modified, and processed by union labor. She’s vegan and avoids trans-fats, nightshades and any dish that suggests cultural appropriation.

Following Heidi, Amber’s concern for the long-term future is focused not on the advancement or preservation of civilization but rather on the preservation of the natural environment. Her concern for the environment, which she regards as threatened by the encroachment of civilization, is fraught with religious symbolism. For Amber, recycling is a system of rituals and shrines (many of which are actually net negatives for the environment) and she regards those who question orthodox views on global warming as deniers or heretics, better condemned and avoided than reasoned with about the evidence. She dismisses out of hand potential solutions to global warming (such as nuclear power or sulfur dioxide pumping) that do not serve the higher purpose of curtailing the spiritual contamination of the world by technological advance.

If this sounds to you like mere crowing about Amber’s hypocrisy or lack of self-awareness, that is not my point. This is the point: developed religions like Judaism serve to subdue the instinct for idolatry and primitive religion, the kind that encourages superstition, self-debasement, seclusion of untouchables and human sacrifice. The process that we are witnessing as we move from Heidi to Amber is primitive religion reasserting itself in the absence of developed religion.

Specifically, Judaism facilitates expiation of sin through relatively harmless means – initially through animal sacrifices (admittedly, not harmless to the animals) and subsequently through private repentance (Hoshea 14:3). Christianity has its own methods, as do other religions, some more harmless than others.

When the communists suppressed developed religion, they reinvented aspects of primitive religion, including ritualized public confession of sins and self-flagellation, re-education in proper doctrine and, for those who failed the final exam, human sacrifice. Amber isn’t there yet, but the same untamed religious instincts appear to be at work. For Amber, the sin of contaminating Mother Earth with her carbon footprint can be easily expiated with symbolic offsets, but the sin of white privilege requires grueling public confessions. Holdouts can be publicly shamed and shunned and sent for diversity and sensitivity training. Amber regards even some consensual sex between white men and women as a form of rape countenanced by the patriarchy, but chooses to overlook the actual rape of European women by Middle Eastern men as the inevitable price of white guilt. Can human sacrifice be far behind?

In short, Heidi’s soft cosmopolitanism might not slowly peter out but rather be replaced by a radicalized version of itself that undercuts the very freedom that is meant to be at its core. Like some overly-enthusiastic baalei teshuva, Amber’s unacknowledged religious tendencies lack the nuance of more experienced and worldly-wise religiously-committed people like Shimen.

In fact, Shimen and the rest of the ex-Gerrer survivors have quite well-developed senses of irony, especially about religion. They aren’t nearly as earnest as the oppressed Amber of Oberlin. But I suppose they can afford it. After all, as Amber will eagerly tell you, they’ve lived the privileged lives of cis-gendered white men.


In this post, we considered how too much freedom can lead to a revolt against freedom. In the next post, we’ll see how too much equality can lead to a revolt against equality.

Fair Heidi

We have seen that fairness, deferral of pleasure and expressions of group solidarity are all necessary for cooperation. But it is just as easy to see that these three are in tension with each other.

If my close compatriot is involved in an altercation with an outsider, loyalty and fairness might pull me in opposite directions. Furthermore, it is plain that requiring deferral of pleasure and conformity to social norms exacts a higher price from some people than for others; some people have idiosyncratic preferences. A sense of fairness inclines us to be solicitous of such preferences, while social norms regarding restraint and loyalty only work, in the ways we described earlier, if their violation is met with disapproval.

On the whole, Judaism tries to find a balance between fairness, on the one hand, and restraint and loyalty, on the other. But, inevitably, some Jews will pull more strongly in the direction of restraint and loyalty and others will pull more strongly in the direction of fairness. As I discovered in the encounter with which I began these essays, Heidi is firmly entrenched in the latter group.

Eventually I’ll get to the pathologies of super-particularistic Jews, but our subject for the moment is Heidi. To put it bluntly, Heidi’s attempt to downgrade restraint and loyalty in favor of some greatly generalized notion of fairness can’t work. Without restraint and loyalty, there can be no fairness. Fairness requires a low discount rate – that we value the future almost as much as we value the present; as we saw above, those who live for today are not reliable long-term partners. Fairness is only possible in a society that values virtue – qualities of character like courage, temperance, prudence and gratitude – that can only be cultivated by a rich system of social norms. Fairness must be rooted in a spirit of generosity that is first learned within the family. The circle of those with whom we interact with special generosity can be gradually expanded, but only if it remains anchored in kinship and shared norms. To love everybody is to love nobody.

Heidi speaks and comprehends only the language of rights. Despite an occasional atavistic pull in their direction, Jewish ethnic and religious solidarity are ideologically offensive to her. She’s also offended at the idea of a society promoting virtue. So long as my behavior doesn’t directly and visibly affect anyone else, Heidi is convinced this isn’t her business and it shouldn’t be any of your business (or, at least, so she says; much more on this in future posts).

It’s obvious that a society of Heidis is not a viable form of Judaism; Heidis have little interest in Jewish continuity. My point here is that it isn’t even a viable way of life. Heidi and her new friends share similar academic and professional backgrounds and, especially, political views. But these similarities are mostly defined by what they are not. Diversity, so central to Heidi’s world, is merely the absence of unifying qualities. Heidi’s crowd is not held together by kinship or ethnicity, or by a shared history, or by a rich system of social norms. It is held together merely by the disdain with which it regards all the shared qualities that it so manifestly lacks.

Shimen can walk into a Gerrer shtiebel anywhere in the world and find people who remember his family, who share friends and acquaintances with him, who speak his dialect, who know what he knows, who understand what he needs, who exchange just the right kinds of stories and jokes with him, who invite him into their homes as a matter of course, and who do business with him on the basis of a handshake and a nod. Heidi can walk into a progressive conclave and find people who share with her a passion for fair trade coffee and a fear of Republicans.

But limited social capital is a small part of the problem with Heidi’s world. Heidi is quite certain that she greatly values the future — that she has a very low discount rate – and she has her profound concern about global warming to prove it. But the rest of Heidi’s lifestyle suggests otherwise.

Like almost all her new friends, Heidi chose not to marry until she was near 40 and chose to have only one child. She regards the family structure that sustained most human societies for millennia as an option no more valid than any other; her admirable compassion for those for whom traditional family life is unsatisfying blinds her to the devastating long-term consequences of low birthrates and the breakdown of the family. What is seen and immediate is more important to Heidi than what is unseen and long-term.

Heidi is a pacifist. She doesn’t identify sufficiently with any country to wish to make sacrifices in its defense; she discounts alarm about evident threats to societies of which she is a member as paranoia and war-mongering. In the short term, her society can withstand military threats based on residual deterrence and the efforts of others, but in the long-term, her society will lack the force and spirit required to withstand the barbarians. Heidi favors economic policies that mitigate inequality in the very short-term, but distort incentives in ways that slow economic growth that would alleviate poverty in the long term. Heidi’s subversion of traditional norms regarding the inception and end of life alleviates distress in the short term, but cheapens life in the long-term.

Heidi’s high discount rate diminishes her society’s prospects and the dimness of these prospects further raise Heidi’s discount rate. Conversely, as Mary Eberstadt explains, religion makes us have more children and having children makes us more religious.

Note also that while Heidi’s society slouches towards oblivion, it isn’t the relatively wealthy and educated like Heidi who will be the first to bear the brunt of the decay. It’s the poor and uneducated who will suffer the most from the disintegration of families and religious communities, who will have the dimmest prospects in a slow-growing economy, and who will fight the wars that Heidi and her fellow social justice warriors won’t.

So, if the consequences of Heidi’s world’s high discount rate and lack of social capital are long-term, how does this play out? What pathologies can we detect already? To answer these questions, we need to meet Heidi’s revenge on humanity and God’s revenge on Heidi: her one and only daughter, Amber.

Morality and Cooperation for Geeks

A society is not viable without cooperation among its members.  We have seen that such cooperation requires adherence to social norms, including those the immediate purpose of which might not be obvious. Let’s make this point more forcefully by considering a formal model of human interaction that abstracts away everything but the barebones issues.

Imagine two spies, Gadi and Palti, working in tandem, who are captured and put in separate interrogation cells. They are each offered the same deal: if you rat out your buddy and he remains silent, you go free and he’ll go to jail for life and never be seen again (and bear in mind that your friend got the same offer). If you both rat, you both get long (but not life) prison sentences; if you both remain silent, you both get short prison sentences.

At first blush, that last part suggests to each of them that nobly remaining silent is the way to go: if they’re both silent, the outcome is better for both of them than if they both rat. But, thinking it through more carefully, Gadi realizes that, while he doesn’t know if Palti will rat or be silent, he – Gadi – is better off ratting either way: if Palti rats, Gadi better rat too or he’ll never be seen again; if Palti is silent, Gadi need only rat to be free as a bird. This reasoning is absolutely compelling; in fact, it’s so compelling that Palti comes to the same conclusion and the two of them have many years in a cell together to discuss whether ratting was the right choice.

We don’t need to be prisoners to face the Prisoners’ Dilemma, as it’s commonly called. The essential elements of the story are that two parties can either cooperate with each other (remaining silent in the case of the Prisoners’ Dilemma) or defect, that the parties must make their choices independently and simultaneously, and that the ordering of preferences for each party is:

<I defect, you cooperate>    is better than

<both cooperate>                  is better than

<both defect>                         is better than

<I cooperate, you defect>.

This comes up in many real-world situations. Buyer and Seller can benefit from a transaction, but each can profit more by cheating at the other’s expense. Two world powers can benefit from an agreement to avoid an arms race, but each can profit more by cheating. In all these cases, a rational player would cheat.

One can extend this reasoning to situations with more than two players. For example, if we all do light fishing in the communal lake, we all have lunch and a lake full of fish; if we all do heavy fishing in the lake, the fish will be depleted faster than they can reproduce and we all have lunch and supper but a dead lake. So, I figure to myself, either enough others will fish heavily to deplete the lake anyway, so I might as well live it up, or enough others will behave, so I can afford to live it up. The chances that my few extra flounders will tip the scales are negligible. Everybody else thinks the same thing and so much for the lake.

How do we get out of this dilemma? It’s apparent that we can because, for example, merchants do make deals all the time without cheating each other.

One possibility is that we are simply altruistic. We each have, as I have been arguing all along, an instinctive moral sense. So, I might not rat out my comrade simply because his well-being and freedom are important to me. This is quite true but, alas, we also have other instincts, and a careful analysis of human behavior suggests that, while altruism is common, it is far from an adequate explanation of observed human cooperation.

A more plausible explanation can easily be intuited by contemplating our friends, Buyer and Seller. It is true that Buyer can make extra profit by taking delivery and then not paying and Seller can make extra profit by shipping counterfeit merchandise. But how many times can they get away with this before nobody will do business with them? Buyers and sellers, who want to stay in business for the long term, care about their reputations; in fact, online market places make this explicit by enabling participants in a transaction to rate the other side. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a one-shot event and hence not a fair representation of typical human interactions, which are ongoing.

To try to capture human interactions with a slightly more realistic model, let’s consider the case of repeated Prisoners’ Dilemmas: we play one round, the players’ choices are revealed and payouts are made, then we play the next round and the next and so on. Each player wants to maximize his payoff over time. What can we say about the behaviors of rational players in this scenario? Are they doomed to cheat as in the one-shot version? Note that, whereas in the one-shot version a player need to choose between two options (cooperate or defect), in the repeated version a player needs to choose from among many possible strategies: always cooperate, always defect, alternate between defecting and cooperating, defect if the other player defected in the previous round and otherwise cooperate, defect only if the other player defected in the previous two rounds, defect six times if the other player defected in the previous round, toss a coin, toss a biased coin, toss a coin if the other player defected in the previous round but otherwise cooperate… You get the idea.

Unlike the one-shot Prisoners’ Dilemma, there is no single strategy that offers a maximal payoff regardless of the other player’s behavior. If the players are limited to strategies that are blind to the other player’s past actions, then always defecting is indeed the optimal strategy. But a player can do better by being responsive to the other player’s past actions. Consider for example a strategy, called tit-for-tat, in which a player defects only if the other player defected in the previous round; in other words, he cooperates in the first round and mimics the other player forever after. If Gadi thinks that Palti is using this strategy, then under most circumstances, Gadi will maximize his own payoff by playing the same strategy (and the same is true from Palti’s perspective). Since tit-for-tat has this property, we say that it is an equilibrium strategy. The nice thing about this strategy is that if both players stick to it, they will cooperate forever.

Note that tit-for-tat is not the only equilibrium strategy. Always defecting is also an equilibrium strategy. So is cooperating until the other player defects and then defecting forever (“grim trigger”). There are many others. But at least cooperation is possible.

Did you notice that little “under most circumstances” I slipped in just before? Let’s get back to that. Assuming my opponent believes I’m playing tit-for-tat, under what circumstances will it actually be optimal for him to cooperate with me as long as I cooperate with him?

The answer is that it depends on how much he values future returns. Suppose Buyer and Seller make a transaction exactly once a day. Assuming no one cheats, each gets one unit of joy from the deal. If they keep this up for, say, a year they’ll each make 365 units of joy. But how much is that unit of joy that Seller is expecting to get a year from now worth to him today? Presumably less than one full unit: if Seller is a live-for-today kind of guy, it’s worth a lot less; if he’s a save-for-tomorrow kind of guy a little less. In the first case, we say that Seller has a high discount rate; in the second case, we say he has a low discount rate.

Here’s the punchline: if and only if Seller has a high discount rate, it might be worth it for him to cheat. It’s easy to see why: he’d rather make a quick buck at my expense today than to make more than that in the future, since he heavily discounts the future. A guy with a high discount rate is a guy you don’t want to do business with.

So, for long-term cooperation we need players with low discount rates who choose a tit-for-tat strategy. But, as legal scholar Eric Posner notes, there’s one more requirement. Let’s call people with discount rates low enough that it pays for them to cooperate the good types; the guys with the high discount rates are the bad types. It’s not enough for Seller to be a good type; he also needs to convince Buyer that he’s a good type so that Buyer will want to do business with him.

In the formal model, as Posner explains, there’s actually a way for Seller to persuade Buyer that he’s a good type and will deliver the goods. Let’s think about those 365 units of joy Buyer and Seller might each get if they do business together. If Seller is a bad type those 364 future units of joy are worth, say, 50 units of joy today; if he’s a good type, they might be worth 250 units of joy today. So, if and only if Seller is a good type, he can afford to give Buyer a gift worth 100 units today in anticipation of getting it back through future business. The gift signals to Buyer that Seller is a good type.

That’s the formal model. In real life, there are numerous ways that people signal that they’re good types. They dress and groom themselves in ways that suggest that they can afford to pay a price in money, time and effort to profit from long-term cooperation. They are polite, as formal as necessary, careful about table manners and generally make a display of their ability to control impulses. Of course, they do this not only in interactions with specific business associates but in interaction with their whole society. Different communities develop different sets of behaviors for this purpose. Members of a community need to demonstrate loyalty to the social norms that have evolved in this way in their community in order to convince others that they are good types who can be depended on to cooperate for the long-term.

In short, the requirements for cooperation in a community are tied to the three moral foundations we considered in previous posts: a preference for fairness (tit-for-tat), the ability to defer pleasure (low discount rates), and loyalty to the community’s traditions (signaling low discount rates).

Okay, this was a tough one. In the next few posts, I hope to repay your patience with some Heidi-baiting.