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Are labels necessary?

Everyone is judging everyone all of the time, whether it is based on the clothing they wear, the community or place they live, what kind of car they may drive or where they buy their groceries. Judaism is no different when it comes to judging and labeling. Everyone uses labels on a daily basis to decide whether or not they want to move to a certain community, send their kids to certain school or eat at certain people’s house. We, orthodox Jews, love to judge and also hate the judging, but in my mind we kind of need the labels, maybe not to the extreme that they exist, but to me it seems that without labels there would be huge issues.

I have heard so many people say that they just want to be Jewish. I would love to just be Jewish, but so many issues would arise without labels like frum, modern or Chassidic. As much as we love to hate the labels, they do serve a purpose. Though I don’t think the judging serves a purpose, other than as providing entertainment, the labels themselves do serve a very valid purpose.

Imagine for a second that you wanted to erase labels, think of all the problems that could arise.

How would people date if they didn’t know anything about the person’s religious level beyond the fact that they were Jewish? How would these people know if the prospective date kept kosher or kept shabbos without labels? When you say someone keeps kosher you label them in my mind.

What about sending your kids to school? Lets say that you want a modern school, but can’t say such things, so you try and describe what modern orthodoxy is. The problem is everyone has a different opinion as to exactly what constitutes modern orthodoxy. I have many friends who wear black hats that are modern orthodox, and friends who wear “regular clothes” who consider themselves yeshivish. Without these labels, people would spend all of their time trying to get places without saying exactly what they wanted.

It seems as if having labels is like having a necessary evil. We love to hate them and hate to need them, but what would we do without them? Some people cannot be labeled, that’s true, but you can place yourself in favor of a certain label. I wouldn’t know how to properly label myself. I dress and look modern orthodox; I like the yeshivish mussar movement and I have an affinity for chabad, even though I didn’t place myself in one category it was easier than explaining all of my affiliations.

One of the beauties of Judaism is that there is no right way to practice, everyone does their own thing. But how on earth would we be able to categorize these Jews without labels. Or is there really no need for categorizations?

{ 81 comments… add one }
  • Dovid Dobin January 24, 2010, 9:55 PM

    Shomer Shabbos and Shomer Kashrus are not labels, they are factual (or allegedly factual) information. Terms that are used to define levels of observance are utterly worthless and cause more problems than they solve. All labels do is give people a way to judge others with no evidence. Who knows how many singles have ignored potential shiduchim because the term on the resume did not match the expectation, even though the actual person would have?

    • Heshy Fried January 24, 2010, 10:17 PM

      I agree with you but to play devils advocate – shomer shabbos and shomer kasharus aren’t enough when it comes to the dozens of types of schools you can send your kids to – what then?

      • Dovid Dobin January 24, 2010, 10:23 PM

        With schools, it shouldn’t be about labels so much as why those labels are applied. If you’re sending your kid to a school knowing no more than the fact that it’s considered orthodox, you haven’t done your homework.

  • Mark January 24, 2010, 10:27 PM

    Labels are very important otherwise how would we know who uses a white tablecloth or a colored one on Shabbat?

  • oy vey January 24, 2010, 10:51 PM

    My problems with the labels is that people use them as an excuse to exclude other labels and a reason to feel better than others. It’s one thing to understand that people come from different backgrounds and may be at different levels, but it is another thing entirely to look down upon others just because they are different.

    I really hate when people sneer at others because they are different. Like “oh they are sephardic” or “oh that community is just filled with BTs”.

    It makes me sick when people say things like this to my face, especially when they add a “no offense or anything” when obviously they didn’t just offend me, but countless Jews. And they prolong our wait for Moshiach, as well. Not that it stops them.

  • G*3 January 25, 2010, 12:33 AM

    Labels are useful because they allow a single word to stand for a long list of attributes. The corollary is that anyone to whom the label is applied is assumed to have all of those attributes (even though usually no one fits a label perfectly).

    In general, our minds work by comparing things we encounter to archetypes. (Think of an apple. I’ll bet you’re thinking of something red and round, even though some apples are green, or yellow, or sort of triangular.) Labels are archetypes to which we compare people so that we know who we are and how to interact with them.

  • M. January 25, 2010, 12:56 AM

    I agree that labels are an unfortunate reality in our culture.

    To combat this, I try to subvert peoples attempts to ascribe labels to me.

    I swap yarmulka types almost as often as linday lohan gets into trouble, and avoid hallmark clothing getups with as much zeal as one might schlug koporos.

    I befriend black hatters just as I befriend blacks, and try not to associate too much with one group or the other lest I be labeled accordingly. At the same time, I try not to let fear of being labeled influence who and what I want to associate myself with. Doing this requires some craftiness, but in the end of the day I get a satisfaction knowing that anyone’s attempt at labeling me would be futile.

    My ideology is as diverse as my social modus operandi. I tend to feel that contemporary schools of Jewish thought have obscured the essentially rationalist and philosophical core of Judaism as practiced by the rishonim and our forefathers (To get an glimpse of the epistemological approach taken by our forbearers towards Judaism I suggest reading the of Diálogos de amor of Judah Abravanel, Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, Judah Halevi’s Kuzari, Hasdai Crescas’s Ohr Hashem, or the Ramban’s Dispute at Barcelona. All of these writings manifest the truth-seeking and unbiased nature of our people. The tendency of some circles to shut themselves off from the academic, scientific and philosophical pursuits of modern society is not a traditional practice.)

    Are labels inherently bad? I don’t think so. In fact, at time they are good. If there is a bottle filled with radioactive material, I’d sure as hell want that to be labeled radioactive before I touch it (or drink it). Labels lose their value either when (A) they become meaningless or (B) they become useless. In the case of assigning labels to subsections of the frum community, I think they’re meaningless and useless. Those who use them typically obfuscate the true nature of the individual or group they are labeling and in doing so promote artificial divisions within the frum community. These artificial divisions become real when people start using labels as actual characteristics rather than the mere heuristics they are intended to be. This leads to splintering of the community and is terribly unfortunate.

    Imagine if there were no labels, no reform, no conservative, no black hat, no modern orthodox, no litvish, no chasidish: just jewish. Each person would have to treat the other as a human being rather than a member of an artificial linguistically generated clan. This is how it used to be up until a few hundred years ago. This is the future I strive to create for future generations.

    • Jenna January 25, 2010, 12:59 AM

      WOW! That is an amazing piece of writing! who are you??

    • G*3 January 25, 2010, 2:58 AM

      > Those who use them typically obfuscate the true nature of the individual or group they are labeling and in doing so promote artificial divisions within the frum community. These artificial divisions become real when people start using labels as actual characteristics rather than the mere heuristics they are intended to be.

      It’s true that labels come with stereotypes, and it’s true that labels are merely heuristics rather than perfect reflections of reality, but it’s also true that there are real differences between segments of the frum population. Those differences may be small from an outsider’s point of view, but they’re real nonetheless.

      > Imagine if there were no labels, no reform, no conservative, no black hat, no modern orthodox, no litvish, no chasidish: just jewish. Each person would have to treat the other as a human being rather than a member of an artificial linguistically generated clan. This is how it used to be up until a few hundred years ago.

      I doubt that’s true. Even “a few hundred years ago” there were Chassidim, misnagdim, maskilim, the mussar movement, etc. Going further back, there are the differences between Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans and between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Even way back when, there were probably stereotypes associated with each of the different shevatim. People like to divide things into neat categories. It’s how our minds work, part of our pattern-seeking tendencies.

      • Lilly January 25, 2010, 9:38 PM

        The labels/divisions that you describe as having existed between Chassidim and Misnagdim and Sfardim and Ashkenazim are of a completely different nature than those we have today. Think about the time before those groups existed.

  • Mystery Woman January 25, 2010, 9:58 AM

    I agree that labels are not ok when they are used to judge others, or to look down at others. But, on the other hand, they really are very useful. How would I have known to choose one camp over the other, or know which one is suitable for my kid, without the labels?

  • EdibleTorah January 26, 2010, 6:27 PM

    You said: “The problem is everyone has a different opinion as to exactly what constitutes modern orthodoxy.”

    Which I think summarizes nicely why labels are often (not always but not never, either) ineffectual, even among people who think they know what the labels mean. As a “Jew on a journey” (which, actually, we ALL are – another reason labeling falls short sometimes. Just because I hold somewhere in the conservative spectrum this week doesn’t mean I’m going to stay there for long) I have had the “what are you” conversation often over the last 3 years. Without fail, the other person starts their answer with “Weeeeellllll…. I’m BUT I and but I really don’t .”

    In order for labels to work, there has to be a coherent, relatively agreed-upon set of standard practices or beliefs. Where is the checklist for me to find where I fit? As a friend of mine says of the republican party “There’s a very clear list of things you either agree with or don’t. You don’t have to check ALL the boxes, but you have to check a certain number or else you aren’t really part of that group”.

    So what’s the dividing line? If I wrap tefillin and daven shakrit every morning, separate meat and milk meals (but not dishes), keep Shabbat but must drive to shul because there’s nothing close and I can’t move (thanks to the housing market in my area), where do I fall?

    On top of that, what if my current practices don’t even match my beliefs or abilities. What if I believe that wrapping tefillin each morning is important, but I can’t get there yet? What if I don’t send my kids to day school, but I believe in it strongly never the less? Assuming I’m not a hypocrite, and that I have good (if somewhat personal) reasons for my actions not to match my (current) deeds, into which community do I fit?

    The answer – my answer – is that I fit into the community where I feel at home. And I hope that this community will accept me both for where I am now and where I have the potential to be in the future, Jewishly.

    So in my experience labels, by themselves, usually confuse more than they clarify. They end up being a lazy shorthand that doesn’t do the job in any case, and leads to misunderstandings.

    To your question of how to interact without labels, I think you actually hit on the answer itself. If you are interviewing a school, you DO ask how they observe kashrut, what siddur they use, what their minhagim are, which Rabbinic opinions they hold to. It’s really not that far from a secular school where “modified Montessori” can mean anything under the sun, and if it matters to you, you ask for details and examples.

    Outside of school, you engage the person in questions when they are relevant. If you are asked over for a meal, then questions of kashrut are on the table. I’m sure even within the same label-group, there are still variations that mean you’ve got to ask. So the label hasn’t saved any time.

    Sorry if I’ve come off sounding stridently post-denominational. I think that the various movements and groupings offer an insider some sense of the spectrum of likely observances.

    After all, if someone says they are Modern Orthodox, you probably won’t be invited over on Saturday afternoon to watch the big game on TV. But then again, I know this one guy who….

  • Sergey Kadinsky January 27, 2010, 6:54 PM

    In my view, there’s a difference between modern Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy. The former is within a large tent, and the latter is in a tent of its own.

  • lizardqueen11 February 4, 2010, 5:58 PM

    My hashgafa:

    Boxes are for presents, couches, and paper clips.

    Labels are for envelopes, folders, and CD collections.

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